Kevin Drum - October 2012

The Case Against the Case Against Obama

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 5:57 PM EDT

Jon Chait practically reads my mind today:

I decided to support Barack Obama pretty early in the Democratic primary, around spring of 2007. But unlike so many of his supporters, I never experienced a kind of emotional response to his candidacy. I never felt his election would change everything about American politics or government, that it would lead us out of the darkness. Nothing Obama did or said ever made me well up with tears.

Possibly for that same reason, I have never felt even a bit of the crushing sense of disappointment that at various times has enveloped so many Obama voters. I supported Obama because I judged him to have a keen analytical mind, grasping both the possibilities and the limits of activist government, and possessed of excellent communicative talents. I thought he would nudge government policy in an incrementally better direction. I consider his presidency an overwhelming success.

It took me longer than Jon to decide between Obama and Hillary Clinton, but otherwise this mirrors my reaction precisely. In a way, though, all it shows is that both Jon and I missed something in 2008. I simply never took seriously any of Obama's high-flown rhetoric—Hope and change, Yes we can! You are the solution, etc.—dismissing it as nothing more than typical campaign windiness. From the first day, I saw Obama as a sober, cautious, analytic, mainstream Democrat: a little to the left of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but fundamentally right smack in the middle of American liberalism. He'd get a bunch of good stuff done, but on other stuff he'd either never support a progressive position in the first place (Afghanistan, cramdown, etc.) or else he'd support it but fail to get his program through Congress (Guantanamo, cap-and-trade).

Apparently, though, a lot of lefties really did buy the hype. Or so it seems. To this day, however, I wonder just how many of the people who are disappointed in Obama are liberals who took the campaign oratory seriously vs. moderates who are simply worn down by the long economic downturn and hesitant to give Obama another four years. Somebody ought to do a poll....

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Chris Christie Probably Really Doesn't Give a Damn About Presidential Politics Right Now

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 3:06 PM EDT

Why has Chris Christie suddenly embraced President Obama as a long-lost brother in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy? This joins many other great questions of the universe. Who is John Galt? Who promoted Peress? Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? What did he know and when did he know it? What is the meaning of life?1 But today Dan Amira takes a crack at it anyway:

Some might conclude that Christie is looking out for his own political future (again?), either as a Republican governor running for reelection in a blue state or as a straight-talking Republican presidential candidate hoping to win the support of independents. Or it may be that Christie, as he told Fox & Friends this morning, just doesn't "give a damn about presidential politics" right now. But Romney surely still does, and he probably wouldn't mind if Christie toned it down a bit.

I find this oddly fascinating. I sort of give Christie the benefit of the doubt here. Partly this is because he does seem to be a genuinely emotional guy and may simply be reacting to the moment. But the other reason is that I find it hard to believe that Christie truly thinks he has a chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2016 regardless of what he does. We've been through this all before, but he's (a) kinda sorta pro-choice, (b) thinks climate change is real, (c) is in favor of gun control, and (d) when someone asked him about tea-partyish concerns over Sharia law he famously said, "It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies." I know people can convince themselves of all sorts of things, but you'd really have to be living in la-la land to think the Republican Party is going to nominate anyone like that sometime soon.

But regardless of whether I'm right or wrong, Christie's comments have been over-the-top enough that I doubt they're solely a product of being overcome by emotion. Christie, I'd guess, has pretty much given up on the prospect of Romney winning next week. I wonder if he knows something the rest of us don't?

1In case you're actually interested: (1) a pissed-off genius inventor, (2) bureaucratic inertia, (3) it depends, (4) probably quite a bit and rather a long time ago, and (5) 42.

America's Recovery Looks Pretty Good If You Compare It to Everyone Else's Recovery

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 12:49 PM EDT

If you want to evaluate Barack Obama from a progressive point of view, you have to ask, "compared to what?" Or, as Matt Yglesias puts it today, "compared to whom?" He concludes that if you compare Obama to actual Democratic presidents of the past half century, he comes out looking pretty good.

I agree, but more interestingly, he also makes a similar argument for how well Obama did steering the United States out of the Great Recession:

A better comparison class might be to ask "how's Obama doing compared to other leaders steering their country through the Great Crash of 2007-2008"?

Here I think he looks pretty good but not great. The United States is doing better than Japan or the eurozone or the United Kingdom. On the other hand, we've done worse than Israel or Sweden or Australia or Canada. You can say maybe that small countries just have it easier, and maybe that's right but I think it's hard to test. Certainly Japan and the UK don't seem to have it much easier than the US in virtue of being smaller. The comparative approach leads you, I think, to what's more or less the intuitive conclusion that under Obama the American economy has done okay considering the circumstances but not nearly as well as it might have done. And so since swing voters mostly vote retrospectively based on macroeconomic performance, you wind up with a close election.

No big argument here, though I'd actually be a little more charitable towards America on this score. Japan and the UK are pretty big countries, so if anything, I think their difficulties suggest that things really do get harder as you get bigger. In some ways a global behemoth like the United States has maneuvering room that, say, Switzerland doesn't, but in other ways it's hemmed in in ways that Switzerland isn't.

Given that, the truth is that the United States looks pretty good despite all the half measures from Obama and the endless obstructionism from Republicans. Russia has done better than us thanks to its booming resource sector, but aside from them I'd say we've probably done better than nearly all the other big economic zones in the world, including China, Europe, Japan, the UK, and India. There are lots of reasons for this that aren't related to fiscal and monetary policy, but you still have the raw fact that, when you ask "compared to what?" America's economic recovery looks surprisingly good.

Are Obama's Good Polling Numbers Hurting Him?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 12:05 PM EDT

A couple of days ago, after I posted a bunch of poll models showing Obama with a fairly sizeable electoral college lead, a friend wrote to me:

Rs vote no matter what, rain, shine, or submerged subways. And the aggregators are putting the fear of God into them, firing them up even more. In contrast, lots of lefties see the odds and plan to do something else on election day.

As much as I'm not surprised to see the recent attacks on Silver, et al., I welcome them. There needs to be a lot less confidence in those numbers, regardless of how strong they are.

Dems look for reasons not to vote and Silver and others — or "reality" — serves that up. Some superstitious fear now would be a good thing. I think Palin scared the bejeezus out of the left in '08, but they lack that oddball character on the right these days.

This is a fairly common sentiment. And it makes sense. It's entirely reasonable to think that projecting an air of confidence might make your supporters overconfident and decrease turnout on Election Day. Better to keep them running scared.

But there's an odd thing about this: professional politicians apparently don't believe it. At all. Oh sure, they'll keep sending out the scary emails all the way through November 6. "Folks, there are a bunch of races that are simply too close to call," screams the latest plea in my inbox from Dick Durbin. "Contribute $7 now, before time runs out." (Really? $7?) Publicly, though, presidential campaigns pretty much never do this. In fact, they usually go to absurd lengths to demonstrate that their campaign is a juggernaut that will sail to victory. They apparently believe—and so do I—that people are energized by being associated with a winner. Confidence in victory boosts turnout, it doesn't suppress it.

Question: is this true, or is it just old-school conventional wisdom with no real basis in reality? I wonder if there's any actual research that's on point here?

Niall Ferguson's Slow Road to Oblivion

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 11:41 AM EDT

Dan Drezner tips me off today to an essay by the soon-to-be irrelevant Niall Ferguson in the soon-to-be defunct Newsweek. In it, Ferguson decides to go public with his fever dreams of what an Obama White House might do to swing the election over the next couple of days:

If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs.

....[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"Could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012?" Dan asks. I'd put it a little differently: I suspect that future generations will use Ferguson as the archetypal example of a perfectly decent scholar inexplicably deciding to pursue a career as an egregious hack. Personally, I'd rather be a decent scholar, but I don't really have that option any longer, so here I am. Ferguson's case is more mysterious. Why would anyone knowingly trade what he used to be for what he's so rapidly morphing himself into?

Public Service Announcement re: Election Day

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 10:49 AM EDT

We don't know who will win Tuesday's election. That is all. 

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A Case Study of Republicans vs. Democrats on FEMA

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 5:35 PM EDT

Mitt Romney apparently still thinks that downsizing and privatizing the functions of FEMA is a good idea. After all, everyone knows that federal bureaucracies are cesspools of incompetence.

Except....it turns out that they're only cesspools of incompetence during certain eras. See if you can spot the trend here:

George H.W. Bush: Appoints Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire's Department of Transportation, as head of FEMA. Stickney is a hapless choice and the agency is rapidly driven into the ditch: "Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency."

Bill Clinton: Appoints James Lee Witt, former head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services, as head of FEMA. The agency is reborn as a professional operation: "As amazing as it sounds, Witt was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management....On Witt's recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations."

George W. Bush: Appoints Joe Allbaugh, his 2000 campaign manager, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh explains that his role is to downsize FEMA and privatize its functions: "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters." Once again, the agency goes downhill: "[Allbaugh] showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt....Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We are being forced to fend for ourselves."

Allbaugh quits after only two years and George W. Bush downgrades FEMA from a cabinet-level agency and appoints Allbaugh's deputy, Michael Brown, former Commissioner of Judges and Stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, as FEMA's head. A former employer, Stephen Jones, is gobsmacked when he hears about it: "Brown was pleasant enough, if a bit opportunistic, Jones said, but he did not put enough time and energy into his job. 'He would have been better suited to be a small city or county lawyer,' he said."

Barack Obama: Appoints Craig Fugate, Florida's state emergency management director, as head of FEMA. Fugate immediately revives FEMA, receiving widespread praise for the agency's handling of the devastating tornadoes that ripped across seven Southern states last year: "Under Fugate's leadership, an unimaginable natural disaster literally has paved the way for a textbook lesson in FEMA crisis management....Once the laughingstock of the federal bureaucracy after the bumbling, dithering tenure of director Michael Brown, FEMA under Fugate prepares for the worst and hopes for the best rather than the other way around."

The lesson here is simple. At a deep ideological level, Republicans believe that federal bureaucracies are inherently inept, so when Republicans occupy the White House they have no interest in making the federal bureaucracy work. And it doesn't. Democrats, by contrast, take government services seriously and appoint people whose job is to make sure the federal bureaucracy does work. And it does.

More on this subject from Jon Cohn here and Ed Kilgore here.

Romney Doubles Down on Deceitful Jeep Ad in Ohio

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 2:00 PM EDT

Earlier this morning I said I was skeptical that being called a liar by a bunch of Ohio newspapers outweighed the benefits of running deceitful ads aimed at scaring Ohio autoworkers about their jobs getting shipped to China. Obviously the Romney campaign agrees with me, because they're now gleefully expanding their ad buy:

A Dem source familiar with ad buy info tells me that the Romney campaign has now put a version of the spot on the radio in Toledo, Ohio — the site of a Jeep plant. The buy is roughly $100,000, the source says.

The move seems to confirm that the Romney campaign is making the Jeep-to-China falsehood central to its final push to turn things around in the state. The Romney campaign has explicitly said in the past that it will not let fact checking constrain its messaging, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it appears to be expanding an ad campaign based on a claim that has been widely pilloried by fact checkers.

In 2004, Ohio was ground zero for the Swift Boat smear campaign. In 2008 Ohio was ground zero for all things related to Joe the Plumber. In 2012 it's already been ground zero for Mitt Romney's fraudulent welfare ad and is now ground zero for a flatly dishonest ad about Jeep assembly being moved to China. At some point, you'd think that Ohio voters would get tired of Republicans treating them like chumps. Maybe this is the year.

Is It Time to Start Adapting to Climate Change?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 1:00 PM EDT

Andy Sabl has kinda sorta given up on the prospect of collective action to head off climate change:

A few minutes ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press conference (no video or transcript yet, but I’ll be happy to provide it later if I can find it) again gave a version of the line I’ve been hearing from him since last night: “We have a new reality, in terms of weather patterns, but we have an old infrastructure....I don’t think anyone can sit back any more and say, ‘well, I’m shocked by that weather pattern.’”

....The governor has said he’ll keep pushing this. I hope he does. Against my inclination, I’m starting to side with Matt [Kahn] on this: given how far climate change has already gone, and how many interests stand against quick action, we can’t assume a climate future that resembles the past. But the reward to acknowledging climate reality will be (where local politicians aren’t climate deniers, and only there) urban areas that are far better designed to accommodate the new reality than they have been up to now.

If you were teaching a graduate seminar in public policy and challenged your students to come up with the most difficult possible problem to solve, they'd come up with something very much like climate change. It's slow-acting. It's essentially invisible. It's expensive to address. It has a huge number of very rich special interests arrayed against doing anything about it. It requires international action that pits rich countries against poor ones. And it has a lot of momentum: you have to take action now, before its effects are serious, because today's greenhouse gases will cause climate change tomorrow no matter what we do in thirty years.

I have to confess that I find myself feeling the same way Andy does more and more often these days. It's really hard to envision any way that we're going to seriously cut back on greenhouse gas emissions until the effects of climate change become obvious, and by then it will be too late. I recognize how defeatist this is, and perhaps the proliferation of extreme weather events like Sandy will help turn the tide. But it hasn't so far, and given the unlikelihood of large-scale global action on climate change, adaptation seems more appealing all the time. For the same reason, so does continued research into geoengineering as a last-resort backup plan.

I'd like someone to persuade me I'm wrong, though.

Supreme Court Might Deliver a Tiny Victory for Common Sense

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 11:53 AM EDT

The FISA surveillance act had its day in court yesterday, but the subject was solely whether the act would ever have a real day in court. Adam Serwer explains:

Here's what the civil libertarians and human rights activists are upset about: The FISA Amendments Act authorized the warrantless surveillance aimed at targets abroad, including correspondence where one of the points of contact is within the United States. That means the government could spy on American citizens without a warrant or probable cause. Surveillance in cases targeting suspected foreign agents previously had to be approved by a special court. The FISA Amendments Act allowed the government broad latitude to spy without ever needing to ask a judge's permission, even if that means picking up Americans' emails and phone calls.

The arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday weren't about whether this kind of surveillance violates Americans' constitutional rights. Instead, the justices are deciding whether or not the lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists involved in the case can sue at all. To move forward with their case, the plaintiffs need to prove they have what lawyers call "standing"—they have to prove that the law will affect them. That's hard because who the government spies on is by definition a secret.

David Savage tells us how things went:

Supreme Court justices were surprisingly skeptical Monday about arguments by a top Justice Department lawyer who in a hearing sought to squelch an anti-wiretapping lawsuit brought by lawyers, journalists and activists.

....[Elena] Kagan said lawyers who represent foreign clients accused of terrorism-related offenses cannot speak to them on the phone. They said they had to fly overseas to speak to them in person. That suggests these plaintiffs have suffered some harm because of the prospect of their calls being overheard, she said....Kennedy said he too found it hard to believe that the NSA is not engaged in broad monitoring of international calls.

"The government has obtained this extraordinarily wide-reaching power," he said. "It is hard for me to think the government isn't using all of the powers at its command under the law."

This is obviously a tiny victory, but it's a victory nonetheless. The government has been playing this card for over a decade, claiming that literally no one has standing to sue over its secret surveillance programs because no one can prove they've been surveilled. It's an absurd Catch-22, and the court is right to be skeptical of it. One way or another, there should always be somebody who has standing to challenge a law in court. Even if the Supreme Court eventually rules that FISA and its amendments are all constitutional, it would be nice to at least get a ruling that no law is entirely unassailable merely due to technicalities of standing.