Kevin Drum - August 2012

How an Outsider Got a Shot in Connecticut's 5th District

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 10:19 AM PDT

This is a little outside of my usual wheelhouse, but a friend of mine who worked for Elizabeth Esty's dark horse congressional campaign in Connecticut's 5th district emailed last night with some personal observations about the race. I thought it made for interesting reading, so here it is. Enjoy.


The Democratic primary became a three-person race that resembled a Carl Hiaasen novel transplanted from Miami to New England. The Democratic Party-endorsed candidate and frontrunner, CT House speaker Chris Donovan, started to lose staff members to arrest by the FBI. The FBI alleged illegal campaign contributions from "roll-your-own" cigarette vendors. Really. The dark-horse candidate Dan Roberti advertised himself as a 31-year-old fresh-faced newcomer to politics, despite being the son of a prosperous Beltway lobbyist, and flooded local TV with ads funded by a super-PAC. Elizabeth Esty was accused of receiving campaign contributions from the utility companies her husband regulates. Her campaign countered that she had no contributions from the companies themselves, but might have gotten small-donor support from their employees. Esty did get a cash infusion from Emily's List — which was characterized as a Super-PAC by her opponents. For me, the telling financial detail was that the Estys took out a $500K loan on their house for backup campaign funds. Even for a two-professional household, that is a lot of skin to put into the game.

I only spent a few afternoons as a campaign foot soldier, but it was instructive. Out in the neighborhoods, most people are not home, so you leave a flyer. Even if the voter is home, he or she often doesn't want to talk with you — an attitude that I totally understand. The people who want to talk, however, express a sort of desperation with the mess that U.S. political governance has become. Many of these people have lost their jobs, or have close friends who lost their jobs, and they can't see a way out of the stagnation. It's pretty clear that the Romney/Ryan economic plan won't persuade these people, but the Obama campaign needs to express a countervailing vision to give these folks a reason to vote in November.

I spoke with Daniel Esty at his wife's election-night party and he echoed many of my observations about the 5th-District neighborhoods. Connecticut probably has more hedge-fund managers per-capita than any other US state, but it also has a significant manufacturing sector. Because manufacturing is ailing, there is a white working-class-male demographic that feels abandoned by the political system, abundant in the central-CT cities of Waterbury, New Britain, and others.

Esty remarked that these cities are distressed and economically poor, but my impression was not as pessimistic, based on the streets that I walked. I walked far fewer streets than the candidate's husband, of course, but there is a tendency among suburban professionals to judge as economic failure anything less than a substantial raised-ranch manse on a wide leafy street, with the grocery store a three-mile-drive away. What I remember from New Britain were old neighborhoods with small post-WWII houses which the residents had worked hard to make nice. No signs of crime or unrest.

Elizabeth Esty won the nomination last night. For a person of my vintage, the 1970s movie The Candidate is the touchstone for moments like Elizabeth Esty's election-night party. By 10 pm both competing candidates had conceded and the new congressional nominee came into the room in an electric-blue ensemble to give her speech. At such times one understands why political candidates amplify their plumage — she needs to stand out in a crowd of supporters. She paused, as though pondering putting her family through another three months of cold-pizza campaigning. But Romney/Ryan has given all Democratic candidates some automatic applause lines as footholds for their electoral climb. Esty finished her victory speech with decisive declarations that she would protect a women's right to choose (she's not supported by Emily's List for nothing), protect Medicare, and protect Social Security.

UPDATE: A reader who lives in New Britain writes in to say that the city actually contains only a few neighborhoods like the one described above:

Much of the rest of the city is appallingly unsafe, with frequent violent crime. The truly lovely park, right beside the college, is also home to prostitution rings and vial-based drug dealing. (The weed dealer is one of our neighbors, in one of those those old neighborhoods.) The school district is crumbling, both from the weight of poverty and from middle-class flight. Our son is in the public schools, but most of the kids who would be his peers are in magnet schools in other towns or are in private schools or are home-schooled. The kids we see in the sports leagues often come from situations that would turn Paul Ryan into a socialist.

We don't like it when people from the snooty towns in CT look down at us without having lived here, because there are some nice areas in New Britain — but it is a city with terrible, terrible problems, with a massive number of distressed citizens. When Stanley and other manufacturers shut down the factories, the city started to collapse, and not much has helped it. No campaign visits the vast majority of the city, because the residents don't vote, and it's not safe to send people out.

Obviously I didn't intend to spark a discussion of the relative merits of New Britain, and I promise not to drag this out. But I figured I should at least air this dissenting view.

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Chart of the Day: Still No Inflation!

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 9:23 AM PDT

Dylan Matthews points out today that despite the predictions of the doomsayers, inflation continues to be nearly nonexistent. According to the BLS, the headline CPI figure stood at zero in July, and core inflation (which excludes food and energy) was at 0.1%.

As it turns out, that zero number is a statistical artifact. The real number is 0.045%, which rounds down to zero. But if you multiply by 12 to get the annualized figure, it's still a very, very modest 0.5%. The chart below shows monthly inflation for 2012, annualized for both headline CPI and core inflation.

So why is the Fed still so concerned about inflation, when it's so well controlled and unemployment is still so high? It is a mystery.

Quote of the Day: Paul Ryan May Be Conservative, But He's No Tea Party Knuckle-Dragger

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 8:18 AM PDT

From House Speaker John Boehner, explaining why Paul Ryan defied the tea party and voted for TARP in 2008:

He's got a very conservative voting record, but he's not a knuckle-dragger, all right?

That is an admirably clear explanation. Do you ever suspect that in private, Republican leaders talk about the tea party the same way Democrats do in private? I do.

Mitt Romney Still Unprepared for Questions About Paul Ryan's Medicare Plan

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 8:34 PM PDT

Here's the latest from Romneyland:

Since the announcement of Ryan as Romney's vice-presidential pick, the Republican challenger has faced persistent questioning over where he stands. The Romney team has been left vulnerable, in part because it has been sending out mixed messages.

Romney, in a rare press conference on Monday night in Florida, repeatedly refused to say whether he backed Ryan's Medicare reform plan. Some of advisers have gone on television to say publicly that he wholly and enthusiastically endorsed Ryan's budget proposals and would, if president, have signed it. Others have sought to distance him from it, saying Romney was running on his own plan.

Seriously? Romney picked Paul Ryan as his VP on August 1st, and two weeks later his team still wasn't prepared for a barrage of questions about whether their guy supports Ryan's budget roadmap and his Medicare plan? Even though that's the single most important policy initiative he's associated with?

Who the hell is running this operation? This is a clown show of epic proportions.

The Media's Love Affair With Paul Ryan Might be Fading

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 3:14 PM PDT

It's been about six hours since my last Paul Ryan post, so I guess I'm allowed to do another one now without turning my blog into Paul Ryan Central. I've been emailing with a friend about something that might be surprising if it's true: the unexpectedly blunt tone of the press coverage of the Ryan announcement. In the past, the press has been pretty friendly toward Ryan, thanks to the Beltway's obsession with "adult" conversations about budget deficits. And yet, it's not clear that this is how the media has been covering Ryan for the past few days:

Note that the reporting is not framing Ryan's budget as debt reduction, but entitlement cuts, which seems new. And this coverage zeitgeist, in turn, seems to at least be leading some writers to match the Ryan mythologies that the press has bought (e.g., bipartisan, work-across-the-aisle-guy, etc.) to his voting record and actual accomplishments. See, most surprisingly to me, Dickerson going in-depth on this.

Maybe it's just a flash of negativity before the love-fest of the convention, but it struck me as notable given that I did not expect this since the press really hasn't taken this approach with Ryan before in any meaningful way.

That is interesting! Assuming it's true, of course, something I'm not entirely sure of. It sounds plausible, but I haven't been following the press coverage diligently enough to agree with total confidence. As one data point, however, take a look at the three screen shots on the right from the CBS Evening News on Saturday, courtesy of Uggabugga. Those are pretty straightforward.

I imagine that part of this has been driven by Democratic attacks on Ryan, and part has been driven by the media's preference for covering conflict, especially during presidential campaigns. And right now, the conflict is more over entitlement cuts than it is over deficit reduction. Still, it's an interesting observation. It's possible that the longtime media crush on Ryan has faded a bit over the past year as Ryan has become such an explicitly partisan warrior. We'll see.

UPDATE: Another reader, one who ingests a fair bit of cable news, agrees with reader #1:

I can totally confirm your correspondent's impression of this, and I've been pleasantly surprised by it. Covering conflict, yes, but also the realization that this is no longer just some whacko proposal that's never going to go anywhere but is the de facto budget outline for the major party challenger to the president who might actually win if things go badly for Obama.

Interesting, no?

Just How Awful is Nano-Plagiarism?

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 2:19 PM PDT

I'm with Atrios on this. Plagiarism "scandals" have a tendency to get out of hand awfully quickly. Here's the latest charge against Fareed Zakaria:

Zakaria’s 2008 book, “The Post-American World,” contains a quote from former Intel Corp. chief executive Andy Grove about the nation’s economic power....Grove’s comment was published three years earlier in “Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Power to the East,” by former Commerce Department official Clyde V. Prestowitz.

....Zakaria, in an interview Monday, defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book...."I should not be judged by a standard that's not applied to everyone else," he added. "People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta. The charge is totally bogus."

Prestowitz was unmoved. “I think there should be an apology,” he said Monday. “I don’t want to unfairly level accusations [because] those of us who are writers know a lot of things can happen. But I feel I have a justifiable complaint. It kind of has been bugging me for a while.”

Give me a break. Prestowitz doesn't have a copyright on the quote just because it came from an interview of his. Once it's out there, it's out there. Nobody credits every quote they ever use. Nobody.

There's a more general point to make too, one that I've been hesitant to make because it will inevitably sound like I'm defending plagiarism. But here goes anyway. Plagiarism, to me, is the wholesale borrowing of another person's words. Today's plagiarism scandals, by contrast, usually revolve around a handful of paragraphs from another source that have been lightly rewritten instead of completely rewritten. That may not be defensible, but frankly, it strikes me as more like a parking infraction than assault and battery. Ditto for "self plagiarism."

I'll repeat that I'm not defending plagiarism here. But on the list of dreadful things that popular writers do, I'm honestly not sure that nano-scale plagiarism makes it into the top 100. Maybe it's time to get a grip here.

NOTE: I'm talking only about popular writers here. Different standards justifiably apply within academic circles.

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Chart of the Day: The Blogosphere Has Too Many Damn Charts

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 12:22 PM PDT

Reihan Salam on how to persuade people:

If you want to change people’s minds, graphs and charts might be more effective than words alone. I sense that the word is out about this phenomenon, and that it is being used and abused. But that is another matter entirely.

I don't know if Reihan is using "abused" in the sense of used too much, or in the sense of people lying with statistics. If it's the latter, I can't say that I've noticed charts being used any more deceptively than before. But if it's the former, I'm sadly in agreement. I love presenting information in a graphical format, but this is now so omnipresent in the wonkosphere that even I tend to switch off when I see a headline that says something like "Everything you need to know about [xxx] in two charts." Charts can illuminate, but they rarely explain everything, and posts with headlines like that seldom deliver the goods.

It's possible, of course, that my real beef is with the headlines, not the charts. If the same post simply said something like "Drought now covering 23 states," and there was a nice map showing which states were suffering from drought, I'd probably think nothing of it. The map is a good tool for making the information more easily accessible. Still, it doesn't explain everything. In fact, it's not even the reason for the post. It's just a visual aid for something else. We should all remember that more often.

Congress Really, Truly Doesn't Care About the Middle Class

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 10:32 AM PDT

Martin Gilens has done some very interesting work on the way that politicians respond to public opinion, and his key result is that Congress doesn't really care much about the poor (no surprise) and cares only modestly about the middle class (a bit of a surprise). What they care about are the upper middle class and the rich.

Today he puts up a chart that gives this result a bit more nuance. The blue bars represent middle-income voters, and during election years they have a moderate amount of influence. Not as much as the well-off, but when an election is imminent politicians pay at least some attention to the preferences of the middle class (and, to a smaller extent, the poor).

So when do the rich get their payoff? Answer: during non-election years, when no one is paying attention. In those years, members of Congress respond solely to the preferences of the well-off. What's more, laws passed during non-election years are more durable:

The hopeful side of this observation is that democratic institutions do work, to an extent, to discipline policymakers and bring policy outcomes more in line with the public’s desires. But these periods of heightened responsiveness are the exception, not the rule, and it appears that policies “forced” on decision makers by political circumstances fare less well over time than those adopted under less “coercive” conditions. Although policies adopted during presidential election years are more consistent with public preferences, they are also more likely to lose funding over time than are policies adopted in other years of the quadrennial election cycle.

To summarize: In election years we throw a few sops to the 90%. During non-election years, we cut back the funding for those sops and pass the legislation that the top 10% want passed. Welcome to America.

Quote of the Day: Driverless Cars

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 9:33 AM PDT

From Alex Tabarrok, about the misgivings some people have about letting computers drive our cars:

At first when there is an accident people will ask, “did he have the driverless option on?” But soon they will start to say “if only he had the driverless option on.”

Yep. I agree with everything else he says too. In fact, just as many 20-somethings no longer know how to drive a stick shift, I'll bet that in twenty years a lot of 20-somethings won't know how to manually drive a car at all.

Pro-Lifers Should Stop Being So Skittish About Their Own Beliefs

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 9:11 AM PDT

Paul Ryan is a cosponsor of HR 212, the Sanctity of Human Life Act. After a bit of throat clearing, the text of the act is admirably brief and direct:

(B) the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood; and

(2) the Congress affirms that the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions.

A BuzzFeed reporter wrote a piece suggesting that HR 212 would ban all abortions, but as the text of the law makes it clear, it doesn't quite do that. It gives states the authority to ban all abortions. Ramesh Ponnuru thinks it's therefore unfair to claim that Paul Ryan wants to ban all abortions, even those that are the result of rape or incest:

Ryan may, for all I know, believe that abortion should be illegal with exceptions only to save a mother’s life. But has he really co-sponsored a bill to effect this policy? No.

Why are extreme pro-lifers so skittish about their own beliefs? This is a bill that would give a fertilized egg "all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood." There are (a) no exceptions for eggs fertilized by rapists or by your own father, and (b) Ryan is a cosponsor. Logic chopping aside, this means that Ryan has cosponsored a bill that has the plain intent of "effecting" a policy that allows states to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest.

In fact, if this bill were passed and the Supreme Court upheld it, I'll bet that a rapist could go to court and sue to prevent his victim from getting an abortion. He'd argue that the fetus was legally a human being, and the court has no power to discriminate between one human being and another. He'd probably win, too.

In other abortion news, Stephanie Mencimer reports that the same bill would likely have the effect of making in-vitro fertilization illegal. My Twitter feed is full of outrage that Stephanie would say this, but what else can you conclude about the law? In IVF, multiple embryos are created, and only a few are used. The others are either destroyed or frozen, and everyone knows that the frozen embryos are never going to be revived. HR 212 would almost certainly make IVF illegal, and since Mitt Romney's kids have used IVF it would, as the headline says, make them criminals. Or childless. Is that a brutal way of putting it? Sure. But it's a pretty brutal law. What's wrong with letting people know in stark terms just exactly what it would mean?

If human life begins at fertilization, it means abortion would be illegal even in cases of rape and incest, and it means IVF would be illegal. Those are the consequences. If you hold an extreme pro-life position, you need to own those consequences, even if they're politically unpopular.

UPDATE: Ponnuru responds here. I won't pretend to understand his position, which simply doesn't make any sense to me. The effect of HR 212 seems clear to me, but Ponnuru views it as merely giving states "policymaking authority" over abortion and IVF. That's not at all how I read it. In fact, I think I gave it too soft a reading above.

But for the record, I am not a lawyer.

UPDATE 2: Of course, this all shies away from the original question: why don't we know for sure what Paul Ryan's position on abortion in the case of rape and incest is? Why won't he just tell us?