Kevin Drum - August 2012

We Are All Playing Our Assigned Roles Properly

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 6:46 PM EDT

Mark Halperin today:

There has been barely a squawk from any significant and/or loud Democratic voice over Harry Reid’s tax accusations or the new Obama super PAC ad. And yet when Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul makes some stray, random remark about health care, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Erick Erickson go code red in their criticism of Romney and his campaign.

As a snapshot of a key metric — control over their extended teams and keeping people in line — Chicago seems to have a big advantage on this one.

I think Halperin misses the boat here. On both sides, the base will flip out if they feel their candidate is being too meek or too moderate. Likewise, they'll cheer (sometimes publicly, sometimes privately) if their candidate bludgeons the other guy harder or throws out some policy red meat.

Obama bludgeoned the other guy harder, so lefties cheered in private and mostly left him alone in public. Romney seemingly moved a bit toward the center, so righties flipped out. These are two entirely different things, and both sides reacted according to script. It says nothing one way or the other about how well the campaigns are keeping their supporters in line.

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TV Has Been Improved So Much It Now Sucks

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 5:05 PM EDT

My TV does motion smoothing? Really? Apparently, yes, it does. I had no idea.

Actually, as it turns out after I checked, my TV doesn't. It's too old, I guess. On the other hand, it is set by default to "Vivid" mode, another hellish abomination that I'm supposed to turn off. "Cinema" mode is preferred by the cognoscenti. You learn something new every day.

Anyway, the linked column is from Scott Tobias, and he recommends this post from Stu Maschwitz if you really want to understand what's going on with your shiny new high-def TV. It was pretty interesting! Personally, though, I'd be happy if I could just get my TV to consistently use the correct aspect ratio all the time — or, in a pinch, at least have enough manual settings that I could always choose one that works. But it doesn't seem to. It's too old, I guess.

Mitt Romney Sure Does Lie a Lot, Doesn't He?

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 1:44 PM EDT

Paul Waldman has done a lot of academic research on political ads. In fact, he says, he has personally watched "every single presidential general election campaign ad ever aired since the first ones in 1952." So what does he think of Mitt Romney's new ad that claims President Obama has a plan for "dropping work requirements" for welfare? "Under Obama's plan," says the narrator, "you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

I've seen ads that were more inflammatory than this one, and ads that were in various ways more reprehensible than this one (not many, but some). But I cannot recall a single presidential campaign ad in the history of American politics that lied more blatantly than this one.

…Usually candidates deceive voters by taking something their opponent says out of context, or giving a tendentious reading to facts, or distorting the effects of policies. But in this case, Romney and his people looked at a policy of the Obama administration to allow states to pursue alternative means of placing welfare recipients in jobs, and said, "Well, how about if we just say that they're eliminating all work requirements and just sending people checks?" I have no idea if someone in the room said, "We could say that, but it's not even remotely true," and then someone else said, "Who gives a crap?", or if nobody ever suggested in the first place that this might be problematic. But either way, they decided that they don't even have to pretend to be telling the truth anymore.

This is what's so striking about Romney's campaign. As Paul says, it's common to twist and distort and cherry pick. But Romney has flatly claimed that Obama said something that, in fact, a John McCain aide said. He's snipped out sentences from an Obama speech and spliced the two halves back together so nobody could tell what he did. Then he did it again to another Obama speech. And he unequivocally said that Obama plans to drop work requirements for welfare even though he's done nothing of the sort.

This really is a post-truth campaign. It's different. It's one thing to be nasty. All campaigns are nasty. It's one thing to twist and distort and mock. Every campaign does that too. Even the attacks on Al Gore in 2000, as vicious as they were, were mostly media inventions. The Republican campaigns had the distortions handed to them on a platter.

But this is different. This is a presidential candidate just baldly making stuff up on the assumption that nobody will ever know. After all, they figure, who the hell reads Glenn Kessler aside from a bunch of Beltway nerds? And I guess they're right.

But if it works, I wonder what 2016 will look like?

Unemployment Claims Continue to be Stubbornly High

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 12:04 PM EDT

Steve Benen put up his weekly chart of initial unemployment claims today, and I thought it might be useful to put up a slightly different version of the chart. This one is a 4-week moving average, so it removes a bit of noise from the figures, and it starts in January, so it shows us only how the economy has been doing this year.

Unemployment claims have dropped dramatically since the peak of the recession in 2009, but as you can see, they haven't really budged much since the beginning of the year. They're bouncing up and down around a mean of 370,000 or so, and don't show much sign of getting down into the neighborhood of 320,000, where we'd like them to be. This is hardly surprising news or anything, but it's yet another sign that we should be doing a lot more to shift the economy into a higher gear.

Mitt Romney is the Only Conservative Left Who Likes Romneycare

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 11:28 AM EDT

The conservative blathering class went bananas yesterday when Mitt Romney's press secretary pushed back against an ad implying that Romney was responsible for the death of a woman whose husband was laid off from a company that went bankrupt under Bain Capital. Nobody minded the pushback. What they minded was Andrea Saul's suggestion that everything would have been OK if this had happened in Massachusetts, which passed Romneycare six years ago. Noam Scheiber comments:

As we await the Romney campaign’s decision about Saul’s fate, it’s worth reflecting on one under-reported aspect of this latest conservative blow-up: Saul was saying precisely what her superiors in the Romney campaign believe, not least of them Mitt Romney.

I spent a lot of time talking to Romney campaign officials while reporting my recent profile of Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist. The unmistakable impression I got from them is that, to this day, Romney remains extremely proud of having passed health care reform in Massachusetts.

....Unfortunately for Saul and Romney, the whole episode confirms the main conclusion of my piece, which is that the campaign has massively underestimated the fever on the right from the very beginning, and that this underestimation continues to complicate their lives in all sorts of ways.

Yeah, that's a bitch, isn't it? But Romney long ago decided that pandering to the fever swamp was his ticket to Pennsylvania Avenue, so it's a little late to abandon them now. He has grabbed the wolf by the ear and can neither hold him nor safely let him go.

Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch: I Was Wrong About the Olympics

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 10:46 AM EDT

Given my earlier whining about the whiners who don't like NBC's tape-delayed coverage of the Olympics, Matt Bruenig tweets that I should be interested in a new Gallup poll on this subject. And I am! But maybe not for the reason he thinks. Here are the results:

First of all: why do people who aren't watching the Olympics at all even give a damn? And second: why wouldn't you want everything broadcast both live and on tape delay? Granted these aren't big numbers, but why do about a quarter of Americans actively prefer that they be broadcast only one way or the other?

Beats me. However, there's more to this, which should interest anyone eager to see me proven wrong about something. I chastised NBC's critics for being a bunch of overeducated elitists who can afford to watch TV during the day. "Try an 8-to-5 factory job that gets you home at 6 and done with dinner by 7," I said. "Then tell me if you still think it's ridiculous that the Olympics are tape delayed."

Well, Gallup did just that. And it turns out that among college grads, only 9% want events televised live. Among high school grads, 22% want live coverage. You see the same split among high and low-income viewers. Needless to say, it's possible that this is an artifact of high unemployment (and underemployment) among high school grads during the recession. It's also possible that college grads are just smarter, and realized there was no downside to wanting both. Either way, though, my theory is in tatters. I hereby apologize to all my fellow overprivileged couch potatoes.

UPDATE: Hold on a second. NBC Olympics honcho Dick Ebersol says I'm not so wrong after all:

As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol offers another example: In Beijing, in one of the more remarkable negotiations in sports television, he convinced the IOC to schedule the swimming finals for the morning. This was a Herculean achievement, and with the time difference it put live swimming on smack in the middle of prime time in the U.S. And, of course, this wasn’t just any swimming competition, this was Michael Phelps going for eight gold medals, and it included one of the closest finishes in Olympic history and one of the greatest relay comebacks.

These London Olympics — with the swimming all on tape delay — beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.

“It amazes me that we are still talking about this,” Ebersol says. “If someone wants to watch the Olympics live, they can do that online. That’s a very small percentage of people. We’ve done study after study where we ask people when they want to watch the Olympics. They say ‘after dinner.’ Every study, I’ve never seen it less than 80 percent, and it’s usually a lot higher than that.

So there you have it.

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The Great HFC-23 Scam

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 8:44 PM EDT

A few years ago, Congress passed a tax credit for companies that agree to mix some kind of alternative fuel into their fossil fuels. In theory, this reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is good for the environment. But the paper industry found a loophole: they already use an alternative fuel called black liquor in their plants, so they mixed in some fossil fuels in order to qualify for the tax credit. That's not what Congress had in mind, but hey — a mixture is a mixture. The result was a boom in papermaking because the tax credit was so lucrative.

Today, the New York Times tells us about an international version of this. The UN has a program that provides carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gases, with especially dangerous gases earning more credits. Coolant manufacturers spied an opportunity:

They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas. That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

That incentive has driven plants in the developing world not only to increase production of the coolant gas but also to keep it high....Since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means, critics say, that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage.

As it happens, this has been a known problem for about five years (see here and here for more). So why hasn't anything been done about it yet? Blackmail, basically:

The manufacturers have grown accustomed to an income stream that in some years accounted for half their profits. The windfall has enhanced their power and influence....And each plant expects to be paid. Some Chinese producers have said that if the payments were to end, they would vent gas skyward. Such releases are illegal in most developed countries, but still permissible in China and India.

Nice atmosphere you got there, pal. Be a shame if anything happened to it. If you want to know why global warming is going to be so hard to address effectively, this is the answer in a nutshell.  James Inhofe is a pussycat compared to these guys.

Mitt Romney Suddenly Decides to Support Universal Healthcare

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 5:19 PM EDT

The latest attack ad from the Priorities USA Action, the biggest Obama-linked Super PAC, is basically a 60-second sequel to "King of Bain," the mini-documentary that Newt Gringrich unloaded against Romney during the Republican primaries. In a nutshell, Bain bought a company called GST Steel, loaded it up with debt, then declared bankruptcy and laid off all its workers. One of those workers was Joe Soptic, who lost his health insurance when he was laid off. A couple of years later his wife got laid off from her job, and then a few years after that she was diagnosed with cancer and died. "I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he's done to anyone," Soptic says at the end of the ad as a blighted industrial landscape rolls by. "And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned."

That's pretty rough, and the Romney campaign could have attacked back in a number of ways. But oddly enough, they chose this line:

A Mitt Romney spokesperson offered an unusual counterattack Wednesday to an ad in which a laid-off steelworker blames the presumptive GOP nominee for his family losing health care: If that family had lived in Massachusetts, it would have been covered by the former governor's universal health care law.

"To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care," Andrea Saul, Romney's campaign press secretary, said during an appearance on Fox News.

Say what? Their response is, basically, that shit happens, but Soptic and his wife would have been OK if only Missouri had offered universal healthcare to its residents? This from a guy who's all but renounced the universal healthcare he introduced in Massachusetts because the tea party hates it? I feel like I've suddenly been transported into some alternate universe where Mitt Romney thinks every state should offer subsidized healthcare to everyone. I'd sure like to hear more about this.

POSTSCRIPT: On a related note, I continue to be surprised that Romney doesn't seem to have a very effective answer to these kinds of attacks. After all, they've been used against him in every campaign he's ever been in. It's odd. Maybe there's just no good response.

Tea Party Shoots Itself in Foot Again

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 1:57 PM EDT

Missouri senator Claire McCaskill has long seemed like a goner: Missouri is getting redder all the time and even McCaskill's brand of centrist liberalism is just too far to the left for her to win reelection. But last night brought her some good news: the winner of the Republican primary was the wingnuttiest of the three wingnuts in the race. Steve Benen summarizes:

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) was running third in the three-way primary up until fairly recently, but McCaskill started running ads intended to boost the right-wing congressman with the GOP base in advance of his Senate primary. As the dust settled last night, the scheme worked surprisingly well: Akin won a surprise victory, winning by six points over his next closest challenger.

....What is it, exactly, about Akin that makes him so unappealing to the voting mainstream? The congressman believes the very existence of the federal student-loan program is a "stage-three cancer of socialism." He's also eager to eliminate the minimum wage, believes liberalism is based on "a hatred of God," believes the Bible should be a "blueprint" for American government; and wants to impeach President Obama because, in his mind, the president is "a complete menace to our civilization."

Akin also has a highly attackable voting record, which Greg Sargent documents here.

In the last election cycle, the tea party nearly kept the GOP from winning control of the Senate by nominating unelectable ideologues like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, and Christine O'Donnell. They might be doing the same thing this year. Every seat is likely to count, and McCaskill was probably a sure loser against anyone relatively normal. But she has a chance to beat Akin. Three cheers for the tea party!

UPDATE: Andy Kroll has a great review of the Missouri Senate race today and the role that tidal waves of secret money are playing in it. "Dark Money's Top Target," it turns out, is Claire McCaskill.

How Not to Lose Every Shred of Online Data You Own

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 12:49 PM EDT

Mat Honan describes how hackers managed to destroy his entire online life:

Apple tech support gave the hackers access to my iCloud account. Amazon tech support gave them the ability to see a piece of information — a partial credit card number — that Apple used to release information. In short, the very four digits that Amazon considers unimportant enough to display in the clear on the web are precisely the same ones that Apple considers secure enough to perform identity verification. The disconnect exposes flaws in data management policies endemic to the entire technology industry, and points to a looming nightmare as we enter the era of cloud computing and connected devices.

There's much, much more to the story, and it contains all sorts of valuable lessons for both users and corporate storehouses. At a minimum, follow James Fallows' advice: (a) use Google's 2-step verification system, (b) use different passwords for all your accounts, and (c) always keep your cloud-based data backed up locally (or, possibly, on a second, separate cloud).

Personally, I've chosen not to use Gmail and not to use the cloud extensively, partly because of security concerns. (Other reasons too, though.) But I religiously follow (b). It's a pain, but if you owned an apartment building you wouldn't use the same key for every apartment, would you?