Kevin Drum - October 2012

Apparently Mitt Romney Needs to Lie to Americans About His Foreign Policy

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 8:53 AM PDT

Dan Drezner recommends Danielle Pletka's foreign policy advice to Mitt Romney in the New York Times this weekend. So let's take a look, shall we? Having "met him on a few occasions," Pletka believes there really is more substance to Romney than his usual campaign nonsense about never apologizing for America. Here's what he needs to do:

Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16. He needs to understand that even though Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia is more rhetorical flourish than actual policy, it responds to a crying need.

....Mr. Romney must make clear that he has a strategic view of American power that is different from the Obama administration’s narrow and tactical approach. He must tell Americans that he won’t overlook terrorist threats, as the Obama administration did in Benghazi; that he won’t fight to oust a dictator in Libya and ignore the pleas of another revolution in Syria; that he won’t simply denounce Iran’s nuclear program while tacitly legitimizing the country’s theocratic regime and ignoring its opponents; and that he won’t hand out billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness to Egypt’s new leaders when the principles of religious and political freedom are being trampled in the streets of Cairo.

Stop me if I'm wrong, but as near as I can tell Pletka says in one breath that Romney needs to make it clear that he's not just a mindless hawk who's eager to go to war with Syria and Iran, and in the next breath says that he needs to make it clear that he is eager to go to war with Syria and Iran. As Dan would say, am I missing something here?

More generally, I'm really, really tired of the whole "advice to Mitt Romney" column genre. They're all basically identical: telling him he needs to do things that he has very plainly, very consciously decided he can't do if he wants to win the election. He can't beat the tar out of Obama in every stump speech because his focus groups show that independents don't like it. He can't provide details of his tax plan because all those deductions he wants to get rid of are popular with independents. He can't get more specific on foreign policy because his base demands hawkishness but independents really don't want to hear that. He can't speak honestly to the American people about entitlement reform because independents don't want to hear that their Medicare benefits are going to be cut. Etc.

Bottom line: all that stuff that columnists think would resonate like the ringing of the Liberty Bell? It won't, and Romney knows it. He knows perfectly well that the actual details of conservative policy aren't very popular at the moment, so he's fudging things. It's his only chance to win. Conservative columnists ought to be smart enough to know that.

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Groupthink and the Great Debate

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 7:50 AM PDT

Dave Weigel chats up some Democrats in New Mexico:

ALBUQUERQUE — After spending a weekend talking to voters in a close state that's no longer really "swinging," the first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying "huh, well, I wanted it to be better." After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history.

Roger that. As near as I can tell, here's how things went. People who were polled during the debate thought it was about even. People polled after the debate thought Romney won. People polled a little later, after the media feeding frenzy, thought Romney crushed Obama in an epic rout. Robert Wright chalks it up to weirdly high expectations for Obama, who's never been more than a fair debater in the first place:

Rather than a tie being inflated into a Romney win, a clear Romney win — one that shouldn't have shocked anyone — was inflated into Hiroshima-level devastation. And so devastation is what happened — though, as with Hiroshima, much of the damage seems to have been done not by the blast itself, but by the after effects.

I promise not to keep droning on about this, but I remain puzzled. Even after rewatching parts of the debate and listening to several days of apocalyptic doomsaying from liberals and conservatives alike, my take remains about the same as it did on Wednesday: Romney chalked up a modest victory. That's about it.

Quote of the Day: Software Patents and the End of Innovation

| Sun Oct. 7, 2012 9:35 PM PDT

From Nancy Heinen, Apple general counsel until 2006:

When patent lawyers become rock stars, it’s a bad sign for where an industry is heading.

Yes it is. And from the same article, here's your factoid of the day:

Last year, for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on patent lawsuits and unusually big-dollar patent purchases exceeded spending on research and development of new products, according to public filings.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Why We Need Mandatory Snitch Policies

| Sun Oct. 7, 2012 10:54 AM PDT

Lowry Heussler asks:

Have you ever heard the term “disruptive physician”?

Why no, I haven't. Please go on:

The term “disruptive” means doing things that would get you fired on the spot if you were a less exalted person than an M.D....When analysts began looking closely at negative patient outcomes, we were all astonished to learn that disruptive physicians were firmly linked to morbidity and mortality. Put in simplest terms, if Dr. Frankenstein has a habit of verbally abusing the ICU nurse who calls him in the middle of the night about a patient who is not doing well, sooner or later that nurse’s subconscious causes her to start taking a more rosy view of the patient’s symptoms. Dr. Frankenstein arrives fresh and rested in the morning, but the patient lost too much ground over the night, and oops! there you have it, a negative patient outcome, also called “death.”

So here’s how the problem was addressed. Malpractice insurance underwriters and accrediting bodies require hospitals to have disruptive physician policies that clearly define the prohibited behavior, and to train all staff – right down to the parking-lot attendants – every year about what the policy says. What makes it work is the mandatory-snitch rule. If said parking lot attendant happens to witness a physician in violation of the policy, the incident must be reported or the attendant’s job is on the line.

It sounds ridiculous: threaten to fire the victims of an abusive bastard if they are too intimidated to stand up for themselves? But on closer inspection it functions exactly as a good policy should....

Heussler suggests that hundreds of people might be unfairly behind bars in Massachusetts because of faked drug tests that would have been prevented with a mandatory snitch rule. If, like me, you've never heard of this before, the whole thing is worth a read.

2012 Election Pool Is Now Open!

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 10:10 AM PDT

There's exactly one month left until the November election, and that means it's time for predictions. As usual in a presidential cycle, there are three categories this year:

  • Winner and total electoral votes for president.
  • Composition of the House. Current composition is 190 D, 240 R (5 vacancies).
  • Composition of the Senate. Current composition is 53 D/I, 47 R.

This year, instead of giving my own projections, I decided to provide an official line as forecast by Sam Wang, this blog's semi-official election forecaster (and winner of the 2008 election pool). Here it is:

The links take you to Sam's posts, which include error bars and other details. Can you do better than Sam? His presidential forecast sure seems optimistic to me. I'm thinking Obama wins something in the neighborhood of 300-310 electoral votes. In any case, put your guess in comments. The winner gets a one-year subscription to Mother Jones and the adulation of your peers.

The BLS Employment Figures May Have Been Unfairly Hurting Obama, Not Helping Him

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 10:03 AM PDT

So I open up my LA Times this morning, and the front page of the business section greets me with this headline:

Steep drop in jobless rate has some Obama foes crying foul

And I thought: This is amazing. One tweet from Jack Welch sets off a wingnut firestorm that actually makes the front page of the Times. The power of these guys to set the news agenda is pretty spectacular.

But there may be an unappreciated irony at work here. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) didn't cook the unemployment books, there's no question that the headline number, which is derived from a telephone survey of households, can be fairly noisy from month to month. There was a big spike upward in September's employment figure, and that could be real or it could be a statistical outlier.

Or there might be a third option: In a little-noticed part of yesterday's report, BLS announced that it had systematically undercounted jobs by 386,000 from April 2011 through March 2012. So maybe it's continued to undercount jobs since then, as Karl Smith suggests here. If so, then not only is the September number accurate, it's making up for an undercount over the past six months. That's the shaded portion under the red line in the chart below, which is a simple trend line that runs through the revised March 2012 figure and extends it through September. It suggests that the September employment number is right where you'd expect it to be if the economy were continuing a steady but modest recovery — which seems like a reasonable bet.

So here's the irony: If BLS really has been undercounting, it means that the jobs picture has looked overly gloomy during the first half of the year, which is exactly when it hurt President Obama the worst. What this means is that the wingnuts might be more than merely wrong. They might have things 180 degrees backward. It's quite possible that far from being unfairly favorable toward Obama, the BLS numbers have been unfairly hurting him. September's spike corrected that, but probably too late to do him very much good.

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Where it Counts, There's No Enthusiasm Gap

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 8:03 AM PDT

Enthusiasm gap? What enthusiasm gap?

President Obama's campaign and Democratic allies raised a record $181 million in September, his campaign manager said today....The Obama campaign manager said the average donation was $53, with 98% of the contributions at $250 or less.

In the end, I wonder if the Republican focus on Super PACs will end up hurting them? Team Blue might be raising a bit less money overall than Team Red, but the Obama campaign is raising more than the Romney campaign. If you're Karl Rove, I suppose you might argue that Super PACs have more freedom to launch nasty (but effective) attack ads than the campaigns themselves, so it's a good thing that a big chunk of conservative money is going to Crossroads GPS and their ilk. If you're Jim Messina, you'll probably argue that, in the end, it's better to have most of your money under central control, where you can use it precisely the way you need to.

I have no idea which is the better argument. Either way, though, Obama certainly doesn't seem to be having any big problem raising money from the folks who supported him in 2008. I continue to think that Mitt Romney lost a real chance to eat into that support when he decided last spring that he had to continue placating the tea partiers instead of immediately moving to the center.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 October 2012

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 12:04 PM PDT

In 1912 Marcel Duchamp painted "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2." A century later, I have created a new classic for a new era, "Domino Heading for the Supper Dish No. 2,153." This is a bit of poetic license, though, since she was actually heading toward Marian, who was luring her into the living room with a shopping bag for her to crawl into. But I like my title better, and anyway, there's no telling if Duchamp's nude was really descending a staircase either, is there?

In other news, a team of Japanese researchers have proven that lolcats are good for the economy. The Daily Mail, your go-to site for cute animal journalism, reports that "Through three separate experiments a team of scientists found that people showed higher levels of concentration being shown pictures of puppies or kittens." Tell that to your boss the next time he gives you a hard time about checking out Friday Catblogging in the middle of the workday.

Mitt Romney's Social Security Plan

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 11:35 AM PDT

This is nothing new, but a reader points out that Mitt Romney has explicitly endorsed raising the eligibility age for both Social Security and Medicare:

When it comes to Social Security, we will slowly raise the retirement age....We will gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age by one month each year.

The Social Security retirement age is already increasing by statute and will reach 67 in a few years. Apparently Romney wants it to go up to 69 or 70. The actual number he has in mind is unclear (surprise, surprise) but given that he plans to balance Social Security's books solely by raising the retirement age and slowing the growth of benefits for "those with higher incomes," I'd put my money on 70. Slowing benefit growth on high earners just doesn't do enough to let you get away with anything less.

So there you have it. If you're in your 30s or 40s, Mitt Romney thinks you should work until you're 70. That might be OK for bloggers and politicians, but I'm not sure how all the dockworkers and haircutters and grocery clerks are going to feel about that. Especially when you consider that life expectancy for these folks has gone up a paltry 1.3 years in the past three decades. It's the well-off who are living longer, not the lower half of the middle class.

The Liberal Conspiracy Is Now Officially Everywhere

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 10:18 AM PDT

As I was browsing my RSS earlier today I came across a short blurb about former GE chairman Jack Welch. Apparently Neutron Jack has become a truther. Not a 9/11 truther or Kenyan birth truther: he's become, fittingly enough for a guy who got famous for his layoffs, an unemployment truther. "Unbelievable jobs numbers," he tweeted this morning. "These Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers."

I shook my head, figuring Welch had just gone senile or something, and plowed forward. Little did I know that Welch had apparently inspired a movement. Conservatives all over the place smell a rat. Benjy Sarlin has the details here. The wingers have gone from complaining about the liberal media to complaining about liberal Hollywood to complaining about liberal pollsters and now, finally, to complaining about liberal technocrats in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The conspiracy is everywhere.

This is really sad. When do they finally get the intervention they so desperately need?