Kevin Drum - September 2012

After Four Months of Excitement, the Presidential Race is Back to Where It Was In May

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 7:58 AM PDT

Here's the latest version of Sam Wang's meta-analysis of how the presidential campaign is going. I'm putting it up for one reason: to show just how little outside events seem to matter. After a couple of months that featured a series of gaffes that hurt Romney, a VP choice that seemed to help him, the Todd Akin affair, a poorly-received GOP convention, and a well-received Democratic convention — after all that, Sam's estimate right now is that Obama will receive 319 electoral votes to Romney's 219. This is virtually the same as it was in May and June. The needle has barely moved at all.

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Would Firing More Teachers Improve School Performance?

| Thu Sep. 13, 2012 7:20 AM PDT

Nicholas Kristof thinks the Chicago teachers union is wrong to fight so hard against more stringent teacher evaluations, but he also offers this important observation:

In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states. The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.

Not all school districts are unionized, and the balance of the evidence suggests very little difference in student performance between unionized and nonunionized districts. You're still welcome to approve or disapprove of teachers unions on other grounds, of course, just as you're welcome to think that we should use the results of standardized tests as a basis for evaluating teachers and firing the bad ones. (This is Kristof's view.) It's a fraught subject with evidence that points in both directions, and personally, I'm more skeptical than Kristof. My own read of the evidence is that the value of standardized tests as a way of evaluating teacher performance has enough problems that we should approach it very slowly and methodically. For now, it should probably be no more than a small portion of any evaluation method.

But even if you're more gung-ho on standardized tests than I am, you should know that the evidence doesn't really back up the claim that union-coddled burnout cases are a big contributor to poor student outcomes. They can fire teachers in Georgia a lot more easily than they can in Illinois, but that hasn't improved their schools any. The stubborn fact is that Georgia kids don't score any better on national standardized tests than Illinois kids do. 

Obama Smear Was a Team Effort, Says Romney Team

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 6:35 PM PDT

I sort of hate to keep obsessing over Mitt Romney's ham-handed smear of President Obama following last night's embassy attacks, but this New York Times story really does advance the narrative. Up until now, I figured there was a pretty simple explanation for the Romney campaign's cockup: they were rushing to get something out and just fell back on a known script (Obama as apologizer-in-chief) without really vetting their statement. But no. It turns out the whole thing was carefully orchestrated:

The resulting statement took shape while Mr. Romney and a reduced staff contingent flew from Reno, Nev., to Jacksonville, Fla., from about 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and the statement went out about an hour after he landed and signed off on it. Aides said it was drafted by committee — a team effort by one group of advisers specializing in policy, the communications team and the strategy shop.

....Mr. Romney’s criticism fed into his larger theme of painting Mr. Obama as apologizing for the United States, and his team stuck by it. “While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” said one senior strategist, who asked not to be named, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”

This was no late-night, one-person screwup that Romney then felt he had to stand behind. It was a carefully calculated statement drafted by Romney's entire team and then signed off on by Romney himself. Even with his whole staff beavering away on this, apparently not a single person pointed out that (a) they didn't have their facts straight, (b) it might be appropriate to wait a little while before scoring cheap political points, and (c) accusing the president of the United States of "sympathizing" with embassy attackers was beyond the pale.

Alternatively, someone did point this stuff out and got voted down. I'm not sure which is worse.

UPDATE: In case you're wondering, this is the same story that Josh Marshall writes about here. A very different version was up on the Times website earlier, and that's the version that originally prompted this post. The version that's up now (and quoted above) was so thoroughly altered from the original that initially I didn't even realize they were different revisions of the same story. I'm not sure what the explanation for this is.

I'd reproduce the original Times piece below the fold, but I'm pretty sure that would be a copyright violation. Sorry.

Mitt Romney Is a Guy Who Doesn't Know When to Quit

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 12:01 PM PDT

I'm glad to see that even plenty of Republicans are apparently nauseated by Mitt Romney's late-night smear of President Obama in response to yesterday's attacks in Libya and Egypt. From Ben Smith:

"They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up," said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an "utter disaster" and a "Lehman moment" — a parallel to the moment when John McCain, amid the 2008 financial crisis, failed to come across as a steady leader.

…"It's bad," said a former aide to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "Just on a factual level that the [embassy] statement was not a response [to the attacks] but preceding, or one could make the case precipitating. And just calling it a 'disgrace' doesn't really cut it. Not ready for prime time."

A third Republican, a former Bush State Department official, told BuzzFeed, "It wasn't presidential of Romney to go political immediately—a tragedy of this magnitude should be something the nation collectively grieves before politics enters the conversation."

But I think Andrew Sprung hit on what was really so distasteful about the whole episode: its knee-jerk quality.

You do not have to be expert in anything to assess the merit of Romney's reaction—or his fitness for the presidency. You need only be a social mammal of the human species.

In response to everything Obama [does] or says—or, for that matter, anything his primary opponents did or said—Romney's reaction is so knee-jerk condemnatory, so extravagantly worded, so predictably self-serving that the instinctive response for most listeners or readers not themselves besotted with hatred for the target has got to be, "this guy is faking it." His condemnations have the rote extravagance of a Soviet communique.

What we have here is a meme that was born in the fever swamps of the conservative blogosphere—Obama apologized to attackers!—and which the Romney campaign could barely restrain itself from mimicking even while the entire episode was still unfolding. They didn't care whether it was true (it wasn't), they didn't care if it was appropriate, and they didn't care what effect on actual events it might have. They just jumped at a chance to pretend that Obama had disgraced the country yet again. In Romneyland, everything Obama does is automatically a disgrace, no matter how you have to mangle his words to get there.

But this time they've seriously misjudged things. This was not the time or place for an insta-reaction that was so plainly political, so obviously twisted, so transparently opportunistic, and so obnoxiously over the top. But they just don't know any other way of running a campaign. This is who they are.

iPhone Now Playing Catch-Up

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 10:39 AM PDT

So the new iPhone 5 has been announced, and the big news is that it has a larger screen than the old iPhone and will support 4G LTE.

In other words, Apple is now chasing other smartphone vendors, who have had large screens and LTE for over a year. Surely this does not bode well for Apple's post-Jobs future?

UPDATE: Mostly via Twitter, many people have informed me that Apple has been playing feature catch-up for a long time with the iPhone. So this is nothing all that new. The iPhone's success isn't really predicated on specific features, but on the quality of its UI/ecosystem/usability as a whole.

Point taken. I still think today's announcement might be a bit of a warning sign for the long-term growth of the iPhone brand, but maybe not.

Thanks to Obamacare, the Ranks of the Uninsured Fell This Year

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 9:12 AM PDT

Jon Cohn explains today that although most of Obamacare doesn't take effect until 2014, parts of it are already working:

For the first time in three years, the proportion of Americans with health insurance rose, from 83.7 percent in 2010 to 84.3 percent in 2011.

And what explains the shift? The breakdown by age offers some clues. Relative to last year, the percentage of young adults with health insurance rose by 2.2 percent. That was the largest increase of any group. And it was the second year in a row that coverage among young adults increased....As you probably know, the Affordable Care Act allows young adults to enroll on their parents' health insurance plans if they have no access to coverage on their own. That provision surely doesn't account for all of the young adults getting coverage. But it almost certainly explains a lot of it.

Good job, Obamacare! I'll note in passing that this particular provision of Obamacare is quite popular with the public, so naturally it's one of the provisions that Mitt Romney says he'd keep. He just won't explain how. But I'll give him a hint: the free market declined to allow young adults to enroll on their parents' policies for 80 years before the passage of Obamacare. If Romney really likes this idea, it's going to take something more than the free market to keep it around.

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Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions?

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 8:21 AM PDT

Chicago Teacher Union members rally near Marshall High School in Chicago on Wednesday. Read our explainer on what's happening with the Chicago teacher strike.

Doug Henwood on the Chicago teacher strike:

A lot of otherwise liberal people really hate teachers’ unions. I’ve been wondering why they’re so singled out for contempt. It struck me last night that perhaps the thinking is that it’s ok for autoworkers or janitors to unionize because they’re pretty much interchangeable from an educated upper-middle-class perspective. Teachers, though, are supposed to be "professionals," and any kind of solidarity among them offends an individualistic, meritocratic sensibility that believes in (often "objective") measures of evaluation.

I really, really doubt this. It's true that teachers themselves were sometimes reluctant to unionize in the early days for exactly this reason: they didn't think of themselves as the kind of blue-collar workers who manned a picket line and chanted slogans at their bosses. But I don't think anyone else gives this a moment's thought. Matt Yglesias responds to Henwood:

The most salient difference, completely absent from his armchair psychologizing, is surely that public school teachers work for the government. If AT&T workers get a better deal for themselves, that may well mean a worse deal for people who bought AT&T stock in past years but I'm not going to cry on their behalf. By contrast, if Chicago public school teachers get a better deal for themselves that may well mean a worse deal for Chicago taxpayers.

Indeed, what baffles me about these discussions is the tendency of labor's alleged friends to simply refuse to look this reality in the face and instead insist that any hostility to specific union asks must secretly reflect the skeptic's hostility to the existence of the union or its members.

As it happens, plenty of Chicagoans, liberal and otherwise, do support the teacher strike. But a lot of others don't, and I suspect that general antipathy toward teachers unions isn't hard to explain. First, teachers are viewed as pretty well paid. In the past, teachers were trying to catch up to what similar private sector workers earned, but they've mostly accomplished that. Total comp for urban teachers these days is pretty good.

Second, they work 180 days a year. Third, they get pretty good benefits. Fourth, teacher unions are viewed as dead-end opponents of any kind of accountability or reform.

Now, you can argue about all these things. Teachers still aren't paid as much as a typical college grad. They're paid less than they are in most other countries. Their benefits aren't any better than those for most white-collar workers (it's police and fire fighters who generally get the primo benefit packages). And "reform" can be just a thinly disguised attack on teachers themselves.

Nonetheless, this perception, I suspect, is pretty widespread. Add to that the fact that teacher salaries do indeed come out of taxpayers' wallets—taxpayers whose incomes haven't risen in a decade—and that teacher strikes hurt people's children, and is it any wonder that teachers unions aren't always especially beloved? I agree with Matt: you don't really need a lot of armchair psychologizing to figure this out.

There's Nothing Left That the Romney Campaign Respects

| Wed Sep. 12, 2012 7:44 AM PDT

First Read responds to the Romney campaign's contemptible rush to gain political advantage from the attacks on U.S. embassy personnel in Egypt and Libya last night:

Yesterday we noted that Mitt Romney, down in the polls after the convention, was throwing the kitchen sink at President Obama. Little did we know the kitchen sink would include — on the anniversary of 9/11 — one of the most over-the-top and (it turns out) incorrect attacks of the general-election campaign....This morning, we learned that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and others died in one of the attacks.

Bottom line: This was news-cycle campaigning by the Romney campaign gone awry. Why didn’t the Romney campaign wait until it had all the facts? On his overseas trip in the summer, Romney was so careful not to criticize Obama while on foreign soil. But how much time do you give an administration to work through a diplomatic and international crisis before trying to score immediate political points? You’d expect the Sarah Palins of the world to quickly pounce on something like this, and she predictably did. But a presidential nominee running for the highest office in the land? After the facts have come out, last night’s Romney statement only feeds the narrative that his campaign is desperate.

The Romney campaign was so eager to issue its statement of outrage that they initially scheduled it for release at 12:01 am. Why? So that no one could claim they were trying to score political points on 9/11. But eventually their giddiness got the better of them and they let it go late Tuesday night.

These guys just don't know when to quit. I don't think there's anything left that they won't say or do if they think it might give them a 1% pop in the polls. They really don't respect anything at all anymore.

Romney Campaign Attacks Obama Over Mythical Apology to Embassy Attackers

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 10:21 PM PDT

From Mitt Romney tonight:

I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

What actually happened:

Before the protesters attacked the compound, the U.S. mission in Cairo [] said in a statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The embassy statement was not a response to the attacks because it was issued several hours before the attacks even occurred. The Washington Post helpfully passes along the actual first response to the attacks from the Obama administration:

“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. “As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.”

....She added that although the United States “deplores” any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

As always, classy behavior from Romney HQ.

Why Obama is Avoiding a Meeting With Benjamin Netanyahu

| Tue Sep. 11, 2012 3:56 PM PDT

Here's the latest from Reuters:

The White House has rejected a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet President Barack Obama in the United States this month, an Israeli official said on Tuesday, after a row erupted between the allies over Iran's nuclear programme.

An Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu's aides had asked for a meeting when he visits the United Nations this month, and "the White House has got back to us and said it appears a meeting is not possible. It said that the president's schedule will not permit that".

Andrew Sprung takes this as evidence that "Obama has learned when not to negotiate, and how to back adversaries into a corner when he has public (or world) opinion on his side." Maybe so. Certainly I don't believe for a second that Obama couldn't have rearranged his schedule to meet with Netanyahu if he'd wanted to.

But I think the main reason for Obama's reticence is hidden in plain sight: the source for this story is an "Israeli official." In other words, it comes from Netanyahu himself (via an aide), trying once again to create an incident at Obama's expense. Basically, Obama understands quite keenly that a meeting with Netanyahu is a no-win situation. Netanyahu almost certainly won't get everything he wants, and Obama can't trust him not to immediately begin leaking the most damaging possible version of the meeting to his pals in Congress. For all practical purposes, he knows perfectly well that he has to treat Netanyahu as an arm of the Republican Party whose main goal is to prevent his reelection.

Given that, it's much better to simply pretend that scheduling conflicts make a meeting impossible. Netanyahu can complain, but unless he's willing to flatly call the president a liar, he can't make anything stick. It's just a scheduling conflict. Bill Kristol will write an aggrieved op-ed about it in the Weekly Standard, but that's about as far as it will go.