Kevin Drum - September 2012

Dick Cheney Sets New World Record for Being an Asshole

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 4:44 PM EDT

Really, you almost have to admire the sheer balls this takes:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney took a shot at President Barack Obama late Monday night after it was reported that the president has attended fewer than half of his daily intelligence briefings.

"If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden," Cheney told The Daily Caller in an email through a spokeswoman.

This came on the same day that Kurt Eichenwald told us what he'd learned after seeing a series of daily briefings from the months prior to 9/11. Presumably Dick Cheney saw them all too:

By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration [i.e., Cheney's clique of neocon nitwits -ed.] considered the warning to be just bluster....In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name....On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.”....On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews.

....On July 24, Mr. Bush was notified that the attack was still being readied, but that it had been postponed, perhaps by a few months. But the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.

August 6, of course, was the infamous daily brief titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." — the one that prompted George Bush to tell his briefer, "All right. You've covered your ass."

Honest to God, Dick Cheney really is the world's biggest asshole, isn't he? And for the record, it turns out that sometimes Obama reads the daily brief and sometimes he attends briefing sessions. Either way, though, he certainly seems to pay more attention to them than either George Bush or Dick Cheney ever did.

Via Wonkette.

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America Roaring Back Under President Obama!

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 2:37 PM EDT

Good news, everyone! Average household income is way up under President Obama! I even have a PowerPoint slide to prove it:

Isn't that great news? And where else but right here on this blog are you really seeing these statistics?

Many thanks to Fox News for the inspiration. I sure find them inspiring, anyway.

If Obama Wins, You Can Thank the Economy, Not Blame It

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 12:23 PM EDT

Election guru Charlie Cook says that if President Obama wins in November, "it will be despite the economy." That's the conventional wisdom, all right, but the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ezra Klein explains:

Some months ago, I worked with political scientists Seth Hill, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck to build a model that used data from every presidential election since 1948 to forecast the outcome of this presidential election. But when the model was done, I thought it was broken: It was forecasting an Obama win even under scenarios of very weak economic growth.

....After a lot of frantic e-mails, my political scientist friends finally convinced me that that’s the point of a model: It forces you to check your expectations at the door. And my expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data, which suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction.

Matt Yglesias picks up the baton with a series of charts showing that, in fact, the economy isn't in especially dire shape. I've compressed this all into one chart, and as Matt says, the difference is like night and day. In the year before the 2008 election, employment was dropping like a stone. Sure enough, the incumbent party lost. In the year before the 2010 election, employment was at rock bottom and going nowhere. Sure enough, the incumbent party lost. But in the year before the 2012 election, employment numbers have been on a steady upward trajectory. That suggests a modest win for the incumbent party.

Obviously, Obama's chances are hurt by the fact that unemployment remains high, wages are stagnant, and we still haven't made up all the job losses from the recession. But politically speaking, the economy isn't in terrible shape. It's in OK-but-not-great shape. And that means the incumbent probably has a small advantage. If Obama wins by a couple of percentage points in November, he will have performed almost exactly as well as you'd expect given the state of the economy.

A Quick Peek at How Chicago Students are Performing

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 11:15 AM EDT

Joe Nocera comments today on the teacher strike in Chicago:

There really isn’t much evidence that introducing choice and competition — an important rationale for charter schools — has forced the big-city public schools to improve. Until somebody figures out how to create reforms that work for all, and not just the lucky few, American public education will continue to suffer....Students in other countries now regularly outperform American students. We are truly in the midst of an education crisis — one that won’t be solved until we completely rethink the way we offer public education.

Is it true that big-city schools have failed to improve? There's plenty of evidence that American students in general are doing better today than they did 30 years ago — you can see my brief overview of the raw NAEP data here — but as it happens, there's also evidence specific to big-city schools. It's called the Trial Urban District Assessment and it hasn't been running as long as the main NAEP. However, it's been running for about a decade and has now collected enough data to show us some trends. Here's the data for Chicago in reading and math:

As you can see, test scores both in Chicago and in urban schools generally have risen over the past ten years. Scores for fourth graders have increased even more dramatically. More here.

As for whether we're falling behind the rest of the world, I don't know. The data is frustratingly mixed on this subject, and long-term data barely exists. My best take, however, is that nothing much has changed. The United States has always performed above average (compared to other industrialized countries) but only by a little bit, and that still seems to be true. I don't think there's been much upward or downward movement over the past few decades.

As usual, I don't have any special comment to make about this. Maybe this improvement is a statistical mirage. Maybe it's real but we should be doing even better. But whatever you think, it should be based on the best data we have. And this is it.

For more on the Chicago teacher strike itself, check out Dana Liebelson's explainer here. It will answer most of your basic questions.

Obama Posts Humongous Gain in Swing States

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 12:38 AM EDT

ABC News has a new poll out, and for the most part it's about what you'd expect. Obama has gained some ground since the Democratic convention and now leads Mitt Romney by a few points among registered voters and by one point among likely voters. But there's also this rather astonishing result:

Additionally, there’s been a shift in preferences in the eight tossup states identified by the ABC News Political Unit: Registered voters in these states now favor Obama over Romney by 54-40 percent, vs. 42-48 percent in these same states before the party conventions.

That's a shift of 12 points in a couple of weeks. WTF? Why did battleground state voters respond to the conventions so much more strongly than everyone else? That's a gigantic swing. Was there something else going on at the same time that could explain this? Did advertising strategies change? Did Hurricane Isaac boost Obama for some reason?

There's gotta be something. Even if the GOP convention was a dud and the Democratic convention was a barnburner, there's no way enough people were watching in the first place to account for a change of this size. So what happened?

I Am Delighted We Have an Introvert in the White House

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 11:46 PM EDT

President Obama sits alone on the patio outside the Oval Office, following a meeting with his senior advisors.

I don't quite know why this Kelly Candaele interview with John Heilemann is suddenly making the rounds today, but it is. Here's the bit about Obama the introvert:

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something—not to mention the Presidency—in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don't like people. And two, they don't like politics.

KC: Obama doesn't like people?

JH: I don't think he doesn't like people. I know he doesn't like people. He's not an extrovert; he's an introvert. I've known the guy since 1988. He's not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He's not a backslapper and he's not an arm-twister. He's a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities. He's incredibly intelligent, but he's not a guy who's ever had a Bill Clinton-like network around him. He's not the guy up late at night working the speed dial calling mayors, calling governors, calling CEOs. People say about Obama that it's a mistake that he hasn't reached out more to Republicans on Capitol Hill. I say that may be a mistake, but he also hasn't reached out to Democrats on Capitol Hill. If you walk around [the convention] and button-hole any Democratic Senator you find on the street and ask them how many times they have received a call [from the President] to talk about politics, to talk about legislative strategy, I guarantee you won't find a lot of people who have gotten one phone call in the last two and a half years. And many of them have never been called.

You know what? I don't really like people either. This probably explains why I like Obama.

What's more, I think this is a perfectly fine trait in a president. I get that schmoozing is part of the job, and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn't pay sufficient attention to them. That's probably why most of them get along so well with the Wall Street crowd: They're birds of a feather.

But honestly, I've seen very little evidence that schmoozing really helps presidents get more accomplished. All those extroverted politicians will tell you differently, of course, but they're just talking their book. They like schmoozing—better known to most of us as BSing or goofing off—so they spend lots of time making up stories about how important it is. But you should take this for what it is: the special pleading of a bunch of permanent adolescents trying to convince us that drinking and gabbing are essential parts of running the country.

I've read enough about Obama's personal style to believe that he should probably have a wider range of advisers and should spend a little more time on traditional political sucking up. Generally speaking, though, I'm delighted that we have a president who's fundamentally more interested in actual work than he is in yakking on the phone with whichever senators need to be stroked that day. After all, introverted or not, Obama has somehow gotten a lot more accomplished than either Bush or Clinton ever did.

In fact, I think we should have a national introverts day. Unfortunately, none of us will ever do the schmoozing required to get one.

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Paul Ryan and the Amazing Disappearing Function 920

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 6:31 PM EDT

I've mentioned before that Paul Ryan's budget plan includes enormous unspecified spending cuts to domestic programs, but I've never actually looked at his budget document to find out where all the cuts are hidden. Thomas Edsall, on the other hand, has more tolerance for pain than ordinary humans like you and me, so he dived into the fine print looking for the answer to one simple question: where's the slush bucket where Ryan hides all the cuts he doesn't want to fess up to in public?

Answer: Function 920. Over the next decade, this magic asterisk line item contains about $100 billion per year in spending cuts that are completely unspecified. So if you claim that Ryan's budget would cut FEMA or veterans benefits or whatever, you can never prove it because the line items for those things don't include any cuts. No matter what you say about his budget, he can say he's not cutting it. He just dumps all the cuts into Function 920 and refuses to say what programs they'll end up affecting.

We already knew all this, of course, but Edsall advances our understanding of the smoke and mirrors behind the Ryan budget by pinpointing the exact location of the slush fund for us. His whole piece is worth a read.

It Sure Looks Like Obama is Getting a Convention Bounce

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 1:39 PM EDT

I was planning to be a good boy and avoid all discussion of convention bounces until at least the middle of the week, but I've decided to cave in. Is this irresponsible? Sure. But what good is a blog if you can't be irresponsible once in a while?

Anyway, apparently all the tracking polls are suggesting that Obama got a convention bounce, and this morning Sam Wang posted his latest campaign meta-analysis, the first that incorporates post-DNC polls. (I've added the labels in red, so don't blame Sam for that stuff. It's just my interpretation.) It looks to me like Romney did indeed get an anti-bounce from his convention. I put Obama's baseline at 300 EV before the convention and 309 EV after the convention. That's an anti-bounce of -9 EV for Romney. Conversely, Obama has jumped from 309 before the DNC to 320 as of Monday morning. By the end of the week the dust should have cleared and we'll have a better idea of whether this holds up and what the new baseline is. But early returns sure suggest that the RNC was a bust and the DNC was a hit. Either that or the press corps and the electorate are finally waking up to just how comically deceptive and calculatedly nebulous the Romney/Ryan campaign is. I guess it could be either one.

Mitt Romney: A Man for All Reasons

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

Via Reddit, here's an epic comment responding to my post yesterday about Mitt Romney's endlessly evasive positions on guaranteeing health coverage for people with preexisting conditions. Enjoy:

Vote Romney! He'll repeal Obamacare, the whole thing, but he'll keep some parts, like preexisting conditions, but actually he won't, he'll keep it but not in the law.

He likes Roe v Wade, but is pro-life, but he won't pass a law against abortion, but he supports laws against abortion, but not if it's rape, but only if it's not secretly not rape. And he'll nominate pro-life judges, but he won't ask judges if they're pro-life before nominating them.

Also he'll cut taxes on rich people (sorry, "job creators") and raise taxes by eliminating loopholes, but not loopholes on "job creators," but also not loopholes on poor people or the middle class, and not loopholes on corporations (who are people (actually let me clarify, they're not people (except for purposes of campaign contributions))). He's not going to get into details because if he did his opponents would just use them to attack him.

He's in favor of a strong dollar, so he'll stop China from manipulating the currency to maintain a strong dollar, which is causing a big debt, which he'll make smaller by cutting taxes and cutting spending, except on military, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare which he'll spend more on. He's against cutting Medicare, because that's what Obama is doing and he'll repeal Obama cutting Medicare, but he'll cut Medicare (sorry, "entitlement reform"), but not Obama's cutting Medicare different cutting Medicare. And the older generation is running up the deficit at the expense of younger people, which he'll fix by cutting benefits for younger people (it's not cutting Medicare, it's just having Medicare give out less money than before). And he's in favor of the individual mandate, which is why he'll repeal it once in office. And he didn't want to bail out GM, because he secretly did want to bail out GM. But three things he'll NEVER DO are "apologize for America," let cancer patients smoke weed, and release his tax returns.

Vote Romney!

Trying to Figure Out Bob Woodward

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 12:00 PM EDT

A friend of mine, who reads First Read so I don't have to, passes along the following item about Bob Woodward's new book on the debt ceiling debacle last year:

What’s particularly striking about the new Bob Woodward book is that, unlike his past works, he’s making an argument rather than trying to recreate and report on a past event and letting others draw the conclusions. Woodward’s argument here: Obama didn’t lead in the debt-ceiling debate. Woodward told ABC, per Political Wire: "President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will," Woodward said. "On this, President Obama did not." He added, "Now, some people are going to say he was fighting a brick wall, the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in Congress. Others will say it's the president's job to figure out how to tear down that brick wall. In this case, he did not." Does the Woodward book on such an ugly inside the Beltway fight have legs in the swing states in these final days? We’ll see.

This prompts the following question: what's up with Bob Woodward, anyway? Woodward is more conservative than me, but I don't really get the sense that he's especially in the tank for either Romney or Obama. He was certainly plenty critical of George Bush. So how can he say stuff like this? How can he seriously entertain the idea that anything could have persuaded Republicans to deal with taxes as well as spending?

I have no idea, really, but my theory is that he's just stuck in the past. He's never really internalized the Gingrich revolution and what it's done to the GOP over the past couple of decades. This is peculiar in the extreme since Woodward, more than almost anyone, has been reporting on this stuff in agonizing detail the entire time. If anyone should know what's going on here, it's him.

And yet, he seems to still be living in some nostalgic past where Tip and Ronnie sat down to hash things out over a beer or two and always ended up saving the world. I'm not quite sure what else it could be.

You can criticize Obama for his performance in the debt ceiling fight. You can pick out specific offers and counteroffers and withdrawn offers and say that Obama misplayed things. That's fine. But at the end of the day, there's really no question about two things. First, Obama was willing to make some fairly substantial spending cuts, including cuts to entitlement spending, that would have enraged his base. Second, John Boehner was completely and absolutely unable to get his caucus to agree to so much as a dime in tax increases. Like Woodward, I'd like to think that there was some way for Obama to tear down that brick wall. But is there any evidence that such a way existed? Any evidence at all?