Kevin Drum - October 2012

Obama: GOP Will Eventually See the Light on Immigration Reform

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 6:47 PM PDT

On Monday, the Obama campaign agreed to an interview request from the Des Moines Register on the condition that it be off the record. How do we know this? Because shortly after the interview concluded the Register's editor wrote a long blog post complaining about it. He's getting a lot of praise for this, but at the risk of being a little #slatepitch-y, I wonder if he deserves this praise? If he had refused Obama's conditions, he'd then have every right to complain publicly. But once he agrees, doesn't "off the record" sort of imply that you not immediately start bitching about it as soon as the interview is over? I'd certainly be reluctant to talk to someone off the record if I thought it would just make me a target of abuse as soon as the conversation was over.

But I haven't really thought this through. Maybe some big-time journalism ethicist ought to weigh in on this. In any case, shortly after the Register's gripe-fest was posted, the Obama campaign agreed to lift its restriction and allow the Register to post a transcript of the interview. One question they asked was about how Obama could get anything done given the "partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington and Congress," and that's a pretty good question. Obama's answer was basically about the fiscal cliff focusing everyone's attention, but then he moved onto another subject:

The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I've cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.

So....what does the hive mind think about this? It all makes perfect sense to me, but that, if anything, is a pretty good reason it won't happen. This is the tea-party-ized GOP we're talking about, after all, and good sense is not exactly its hallmark.

On the other hand, if Romney loses and the tea party appears to be responsible for yet another Senate debacle, who knows? Maybe their grip on the party really will be loosened. The folks who actually run the Republican Party will put up with losing only just so much, and Obama is certainly right that they have every incentive to stop pissing off the Latino community. I just wonder who will win in a showdown between the true believers and the real bosses.

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Yet More Non-Scandal Over Benghazi

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 12:12 PM PDT

As usual, I'm trying to figure out just where the scandal over Benghazi is supposed to lie. Last night, CBS News breathlessly released three emails sent to the State Department on the day of the attacks. Two of them were reports that the compound in Benghazi was under assault. Here's the third:

And this proves....what? Both Obama and Hillary Clinton talked from the start about the attacks being the work of extremist elements. Susan Rice and Jay Carney later suggested that there had been protests outside the consulate and that a YouTube video had played a role in instigating the attack, but that's because this is what the CIA was telling them at the time. What's more, to this day there's still evidence that the video played a role. (An opportunistic one, probably, but a role nonetheless.) As for the charge that Obama was trying to downplay al-Qaeda involvement, that's not because he was trying to hold onto his reputation as the guy who killed bin Laden. It's because Ansar al-Sharia was a homegrown group with virtually no connection to al-Qaeda central. There really was no al-Qaeda involvement.

This is crazy. Where does this stuff keep coming from? Based on the evidence we know today, the worst you can say about the White House is that they didn't do a very good job of coordinating the messages being delivered to the public by all the various agencies. Beyond that, it took about a week for everyone to get on the same page because that's how long it took before the intelligence community had a good handle on what actually happened. There's just no scandal here.

Mitt Romney, America's Pragmatist

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 10:34 AM PDT

Paul Waldman asks:

In the entire history of the United States of America, from George Washington's election in 1789 on down, has there been a single candidate as unmoored from ideological principle or belief as Mitt Romney?

Beats me. I'm not enough of a historian to know. But it's worth noting that this isn't necessarily a knock on Romney. Liberals have been banging away on Multiple Choice Mitt for a long time, but the fact is that lots of voters probably aren't bothered by this. They like the idea of a president who's pragmatic and non-ideological, willing to change his mind to fit changing circumstances instead of fitting everything into a liberal or conservative straitjacket.

I'm not saying this is what Romney actually is. I'm just saying that describing him as "unmoored" might not be nearly the insult we think it is.

It Sure Doesn't Look to Me Like We're Winning in Afghanistan

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 10:14 AM PDT

Stewart Upton pens a remarkably unpersuasive argument in Foreign Policy today that things are actually going pretty well in Afghanistan:

We're Winning in Afghanistan: Why hasn't the media noticed?

....We are reaching the point in which the misperception being created by the media is undermining our ability to achieve their own definition of success in Afghanistan: denying al Qaeda a safe haven via a strengthened Afghan security force that is capable of taking over lead responsibility in the future.

Have insider attacks and sensational Taliban attacks taken place? Yes, and we are accountable for that. But there is something to the comments made by senior officials that the sensational attacks are reflective of a desperate insurgency. If you were a Taliban commander losing an insurgency for the past couple of years since the surge, wouldn't you feel the need to conduct sensational attacks to give the perception your narrative is winning out and to reassure your followers?

In the space of two paragraphs, Upton hauls out two of the hoariest old tropes of the Afghanistan apologists: (1) media pessimism is undermining us, and (2) all those Taliban attacks are just a sign of desperation. Then there's this:

The results of the surge — specifically, the growth of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) in both size and capabilities — has made it possible for the coalition to transition to what we call a Security Force Assistance mode of operations....Should Afghans see confidence and esprit de corps in the ANSF, we could see something similar to the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq.

That confidence is starting to build....This past week all of the casualties for our area of operations were members of the ANSF. Don't underestimate ANSF's bravery or their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country because they are doing it every single day. They are not afraid of the Taliban, and they move quickly to the sound of the gun.

I don't know how things are really going in Afghanistan. Hell, maybe Upton is right. And the truth is that I'm willing to let them stick to their current 2014 timetable. It's probably the best chance we have of a non-catastrophic endgame. Nonetheless, Upton's happy talk rings pretty hollow when ISAF's own figures show that Taliban attacks remain at far higher levels than they were in 2008 and 2009, before the surge started. I don't see a lot of reason for optimism in the chart below.

Chart of the Day: Cherry Picking in the Medicare Market

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 9:18 AM PDT

Supporters of plans to voucherize Medicare often point to Medicare Advantage as a model. MA providers bid for Medicare contracts and are typically paid a set amount for each beneficiary they sign up. In theory, because MA providers compete against each other (and against traditional Medicare), they have an incentive to provide services more efficiently, offering seniors greater benefits and better care per dollar spent.

That's debatable, but Austin Frakt points us to a new study that makes it an even more dubious claim. The chart on the right is the key evidence, and it requires a bit of explanation. For each year since 1999, it shows the average cost of patients who switch in and out of Medicare Advantage. In 1999, for example, Medicare patients who switched in to MA plans had average costs (in the previous six months) that were 80% of the average. Patients who switched out of MA plans had average costs (in the subsequent six months) that were 40% higher than average.

This same dynamic has held year after year. What it means is that, somehow, MA plans find ways to attract patients with low costs and dump patients with high costs. In other words, to the extent they provide better services for lower costs, they do it by cherry picking the healthiest patients and leaving the sickest patients for traditional Medicare.

If we switch to a fully voucherized Medicare system, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would like, this would almost certainly become worse. Private plans, it turns out, aren't really any more efficient than traditional Medicare, and would probably end up competing on the basis of ever more brutal ways of making their plans attractive to the healthy and unbearable to the sick. This does not strike me as a very appealing model.

Richard Mourdock Gets in Trouble for His Extremely Conventional Religious Beliefs

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 8:07 AM PDT

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a darling of the tea party who's now running for the Senate, is in hot water:

Defending his stance that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape, Mourdock explained that pregnancy resulting from nonconsensual sex is the will of God. “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Mourdock is getting beat up pretty bad for this, and I think that's just fine. At the same time, can't we all acknowledge that this is just conventional Christian theology? Theodicy is the study of why an omnipotent God permits the existence of evil, and while the term is of fairly recent vintage, Christians and Jews have struggled with the question itself pretty much since the time they decided God was omnipotent. See Job, Book of, for more. Or, if you want to check out something that was more likely to influence Mourdock directly, take a look at the recent mega-bestseller The Shack, which engages with almost precisely the question that Mourdock has struggled with.

What I find occasionally odd is that so many conventional bits of theology like this are so controversial if someone actually mentions them in public. God permits evil. My faith is the only true one. People of other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. Etc. There's a lot of stuff like this which is either explicit or implied in sects of all kinds, and at an abstract level we all know it. Somehow, though, when someone actually says it, it's like they farted in church. Weird.

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How Strong Is the American Navy?

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 8:55 PM PDT

Mitt Romney says the American Navy is smaller than it was in 1916. In a naive ship-counting sense, where big ships and small ships all carry the same weight, that might be true. But what really matters is relative strength: how powerful is the U.S. Navy compared to all the rest of the navies of the world? Over at the Monkey Cage, Brian Crisher and Mark Souva summarize a dataset they created earlier this year that estimates the naval power of various countries from 1865 through 2011. The chart on the right is taken from their data.

So how are we doing? In 1916, America controlled about 11 percent of the world's naval power. In 2010, we controlled about 50 percent. We may have fewer ships than we did during World War I, but we carry a way bigger stick than we did back then. Measured in the only way that makes sense, American naval strength today is greater than it's ever been in history.

Meet the Snake Oil Salesman of the Voter Fraud Wars

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 5:00 PM PDT

In my piece a few months ago about the Republican push for voter ID laws ("The Dog That Voted"), I hung my narrative largely around Thor Hearne, the little-known Republican lawyer who founded the American Center for Voting Rights in 2005 and spent the next two years barnstorming the country with grim tales of voter fraud and stolen elections. Then, having tilled the field, he disappeared, leaving others to finish up the task of passing voter ID laws all over the country.

But if Hearne was the policy entrepreneur who got it all started, Hans von Spakovsky is the ubiquitous snake oil salesman who's become the most persistent foot soldier in the voter fraud wars. In the New Yorker this week, Jane Mayer profiles the man who has become the most famous and brazen purveyor of voter fraud whoppers in the country. Here she is on the issue of people casting ballots under a false name:

Von Spakovsky offered me the names of two experts who, he said, would confirm that voter-impersonation fraud posed a significant peril: Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, at American University, and Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. Pastor, von Spakovsky noted, had spoken to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about being a victim of election fraud: voting in Georgia, he discovered that someone else had already voted under his name.

When I reached Pastor, he clarified what had happened to him. “I think they just mistakenly checked my name when my son voted—it was just a mistake.” He added, “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.” Pastor believes that, compared with other democracies, America is “somewhere near the bottom in election administration,” and thinks that voter I.D.s make sense—but only if they are free and easily available to all, which, he points out, is not what Republican legislatures have proposed. Sabato, who supports the use of voter I.D.s under the same basic conditions, says of the voter-impersonation question, “One fraudulent vote is one too many, but my sense is that it’s relatively rare today.”

This is typical von Spakovsky. He routinely throws out incendiary charges, apparently hoping that either no one will check up on them or that no one will care once they eventually hear the real story. Rick Hasen wrote about his encounters with von Spakovsky in some detail in The Voting Wars, and he talked to Mayer for her piece:

Hasen, who calls von Spakovsky a leading member of “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad,” told me that he respects many other conservative advocates in his area of expertise, but dismisses scholars who allege widespread voter-impersonation fraud. “I see them as foot soldiers in the Republican army,” he says. “It’s just a way to excite the base. They are hucksters. They’re providing fake scholarly support. They’re not playing fairly with the facts. And I think they know it.”

To repeat a point I've made before: there's only one kind of fraud that voter ID laws can stop: impersonation fraud, where someone tries to vote under a false name. Even in theory, ID laws can't stop ballot box stuffing or registration fraud or machine tampering or any other kind of vote fraud. They can only stop impersonation fraud.

And impersonation fraud just doesn't exist. No politician would be insane enough to try it on a broad enough scale to throw an election, and virtually no individuals are insane enough to risk a felony just for the sake of casting a single vote:

Hasen says that, while researching “The Voting Wars,” he “tried to find a single case” since 1980 when “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.” He couldn’t find one. News21, an investigative-journalism group, has reported that voter impersonation at the polls is a “virtually non-existent” problem. After conducting an exhaustive analysis of election-crime prosecutions since 2000, it identified only seven convictions for impersonation fraud. None of those cases involved conspiracy.

Photo ID laws are a scam. Republicans loudly deny that their real purpose is to suppress the vote among blacks, students, and the poor — all of whom have lower than average rates of possessing photo ID — but what other motivation is left? They have no impact on voter fraud and everyone knows it.

Quote of the Day: Leave George Bush Alone!

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 11:24 AM PDT

From Jennifer Rubin, in a column insisting that Barack Obama has too apologized for America:

Liberals don't even see that Obama’s excoriating his predecessor is apologizing for this nation, but of course it is. George W. Bush wasn't acting as a private citizen, and whatever he actions he took were done in the name of the United States.

This pretty much mocks itself, doesn't it? In any case, Jimmy Carter will certainly be glad to hear that conservatives plan to stop criticizing all the actions he took in the name of the United States. Better late than never, I guess.

Programming Note: Obama Is Expanding His Lead on Romney

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 9:24 AM PDT

Just a quick update. The press mostly seems to be stuck in its post-first-debate groove of insisting that Mitt Romney has all the momentum and is closing fast on President Obama. And maybe so. But that's not what our best forecasters think. Models from both Sam Wang and Nate Silver show the same thing: Romney surged after the first debate, but by October 12 that started to turn around. Since then, the momentum has mostly been Obama's. Just sayin'.