Kevin Drum - November 2012

Obamacare's Incredible High-Wire History

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 3:48 PM EST

Now that the election is over, it's safe to say that Obamacare has survived. And that officially gives it the distinction of having the diciest history of any major law in American history. It passed the Senate by zero votes in 2009. It survived constitutional challenge thanks to a single last-minute switch from Chief Justice John Roberts in 2012. And it weathered the Republican threat of repeal five months later when President Obama won reelection by a narrow 51-49 percent margin.

If any of those things had changed by even a hair, Obamacare would be dead. Surely no big law in history has come that close to extinction that many times, has it? It's a real survivor, Obamacare is.

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Why Isn't There a Republican Version of the DLC?

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 2:01 PM EST

There are a small number of prominent moderate Republican apostates around. David Frum. Andrew Sullivan. Ross Douthat on certain subjects. But given the obvious need for the party to rein in its crazies, why isn't there an apostate organization that fills the same centrist niche the DLC filled for Democrats in the 80s? The perfect person to explain this would be Ed Kilgore, who was policy director for the DLC back in the day, and apparently someone at the New Republic read my mind and assigned him to write a column about this. It's an insightful look at what motivated the creation of the DLC and why something similar isn't likely to happen on the right. Ed lists five reasons, and I was especially intrigued by #2:

Alienated elected officials. The DLC’s real “base” was among congressional, state and local elected officials—not just in the South, but in every competitive state and region—who feared the national party (and the interest and constituency groups that were thought to control it) were in the process of dragging them towards defeat. The dominant Republican office-holders today at every level are products of two GOP landslides—1994 and 2010—that were accompanied by an aggressive, ideologically conservative message. On that basis, there's no reason to think that any Republican revolt against the “presidential party” will be “centrist” in any tangible way.

The whole piece is worth a read. The Republican Party desperately needs an active, creative DLC of its own, but if Ed is right, it simply doesn't have the internal incentives to support one. For the foreseeable future, it will remain Michele Bachmann's party, not Mitt Romney's.

Climate Change Didn't Cause Hurricane Sandy, But it Sure Made it Worse

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 1:26 PM EST

There are a bunch of technical reasons why climate change made Hurricane Sandy worse than it would have been, but Chris Mooney reports today that there's also a very simple reason: global warming has raised sea levels by about eight inches over the past century, and this means that when Sandy swept ashore it had eight extra inches of water to throw at us.

It turns out, eight inches matters a lot. First of all, using Climate Central's Surging Seas tool, [meteorologist Scott] Mandia estimated that 6,000 more people were impacted for each additional inch of sea level rise....Moreover, there is also reason to think that the second inch, so to speak, is worse than the first one. That's because of basic physics. Water flowing atop a surface—say, a New York City street—has its energy sapped by the friction of dragging along that street. However, if the water level is higher, it'll flow faster, because the water higher above the surface experiences less friction. "If you had an inch of water running down the street, you'd see all kinds of turbulence in it, which is basically energy being lost," Strauss explains. "But if the water were a foot above it, you'd see more sheet-like movement, which is a more powerful motion."

Speed matters a great deal in the context of a storm surge, because the surge is only temporary and will recede. So how far it penetrates before doing so is partly a function of its speed.

And there are still more reasons to think that increasing the size of a storm surge by eight inches really matters. Consider the US Army Corps of Engineers' "depth-damage" functions, which the Corps uses to study how much flood damage grows with an increasing water level. The upshot here, says Mandia, is that "the damage is exponential, it's not linear."Or in other words, as the water level increases, the level of damage tends to rise much more steeply than the mere level of water itself.

So that's that. No shilly shallying. No caveats. "There is 100 percent certainty that sea level rise made this worse," says sea level expert Ben Strauss. "Period."

And by the way, this is also why climate change is so much worse for a place like Bangladesh than it is for us: they have an enormous amount of very low-lying territory. They can adapt to a small, slow rise in sea level during normal times, but they can't adapt to the fact that monsoons become exponentially worse when sea level is higher. That extra eight inches turns into millions of tons of extra water, all delivered within a few hours to a place with nowhere near the infrastructure to handle it. So when you think about sea level rise, don't think about the shoreline advancing a bit and forcing people to move slightly farther inland. Think instead of storms and the extra millions of tons of water it delivers. That's climate change, and that's about as concrete as it gets.

Politically, Unions Are Between a Rock and a Hard Place

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 12:42 PM EST

Kathleen Geier points out that, as usual, labor played a big role in Tuesday's Democratic victory:

Labor's political power extends far beyond the 12% of American workers who are members of labor unions. Unions provide the ground troops that are essential for get-out-the-vote campaigns; this election cycle, they were particularly crucial in battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are union states. In particular, this year, unions played an even more active role in GOTV efforts than in the past, because as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, for the first time, unions were able to call and canvass not just union households, but nonunion homes as well.

The big question is, in return for all that massive support, what can labor expect the Democrats to deliver?

The answer is: not an awful lot, really. So why do unions continue to pour so much effort into Democratic campaigns?

Prospect theory gives us the same answer as common sense: for most people, fear of loss is a more powerful motivation than anticipation of gain. And that's obviously what keeps unions working for Dems: they might not get very much out of it, but they know that they'll lose a helluva lot under Republicans.

This is a lousy deal for unions. Every election they put a ton of work in, knowing that they won't really get much more than dribs and drabs if Democrats win. But they're rightfully scared to death of what Republicans will do to them if they get into office. Democrats are well aware of this, which means they know they don't need to offer anything more than dribs and drabs. So they don't.

I keep thinking there ought to be a way for Republicans to leverage this. I'm not sure what it is, but even if they did nothing more than declare a truce of sorts, fear of loss might disappear as a motivating factor for unions. And with that, Democrats might lose a big chunk of support. But I suppose it'll never happen. Hatred of labor is just bred too deeply into their DNA.

In the Crunch, Citizens United Turned Out to Be a Big Fizzle

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 11:44 AM EST

Dave Weigel makes a good point this morning at the same time that he answers a question of mine. The subject is the apparently poor use of money by Republican super-PACs:

Here's the problem: Some of the big money went to organizing. I hung out multiple times with volunteers for American Majority, Americans for Prosperity, and FreedomWorks, all of which got sizable donations in order to turn out votes. Tea Partiers signed up, taking literature from home to home, trying to repeat the magic of 2010. It did not work. It wasn't just that the ads were lame, it was that the organizing was monumentally less effective than OFA's four-year campaign.

I've been wondering just how much of that Super-PAC money went to organizing, rather than simply saturating the airwaves with the 10,000th anti-Obama ad. Now I have at least an idea: it was a fair amount. It wasn't all ads.

Here's what's interesting about that: I think Super-PACs can be reasonably effective with independent ads. I don't know how effective they were in this election cycle, but if they weren't, they can learn from their mistakes and get better. What's more, the conventional wisdom here is true: Super-PACs can sometimes be more effective than campaigns because they have the freedom to run nasty ads that a campaign might not officially want to be associated with.

But organizing is different. Done properly, it's simply far more efficient for organizing to be centralized. You can target more precisely, you can make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and you can make sure that people get called with the right message and don't get barraged by multiple organizers. Unless I'm missing something important, Super-PACs will simply never be as good at organizing a national campaign as a highly-disciplined central organization.

And that's pretty important. I suspect that one of the lessons of 2012 is that we've roughly hit saturation on presidential advertising. There are only so many hours of TV broadcasting in the day, and only so many repetitions of a message that are effective. Citizens United might have unleashed a flood of Super-PAC money, but there might no longer be anywhere for it to go because the ground game really is as important as everyone says, and the best ground game comes from either the campaign itself or the party apparatus. If that's true, it may turn out that Citizens United isn't the end of Western civilization after all, but for reasons none of us realized two years ago.

Quote of the Day: America's Billionaires are Pissed Off at Karl Rove

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 2:30 AM EST

Via Atrios, this is pretty funny:

"The billionaire donors I hear are livid," one Republican operative told The Huffington Post. "There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do ... I don't know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing."....Rove was forced to defend his group's expenditures live on Fox News on Tuesday night, and will hold a briefing with top donors on Thursday, according to Politico.

If conservative billionaires are looking for something else to be mad about, I'd recommend the Romney campaign's apparent habit of paying about 50 percent more for TV spots than the Obama campaign. That helped line the pockets of the consultants who both recommended the buys and got the commissions for placing the spots, but it didn't do much to win the election.

In the end, it turned out that one side ran its campaign like a business, while the other side ran its like a local PTA. Ironically, it was the ex-community organizer who did the former and the ex-CEO of Bain Capital who did the latter.

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We Should Probably All Calm Down a Bit

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 1:44 AM EST

I am going to be a killjoy tonight. I have two things to say:

  • Liberals, you should rein in the triumphalism. Obama won a narrow 51-49 percent victory and the composition of Congress changed only slightly. This was not a historic vindication of liberalism, and it doesn't mean that we can suddenly decide that demography will sweep us to victory for the next couple of decades. The plain truth is that although an increasing number of voters are turned off by what Republicans represent, that doesn't mean they've become lefty converts. A lot of them are still pretty nervous about a big part of our agenda, and we have a lot of work ahead to get them more solidly on our side. Also: No matter how much you hate to hear it, long-term deficit reduction and entitlement reform really are pretty important. Just because conservatives abuse the point doesn't mean there isn't something to it.
     
  • Conservatives, you should rein in the apocalytpic despair. Increasing top marginal rates to 39.6 percent is not a harbinger of torches and pitchforks in the streets, it's a limited corrective to decades of skyrocketing incomes at the high end. Obamacare is not a sign of incipient tyranny, it's a modest attempt to provide broad access to healthcare that's based on a Republican plan and operates largely through the private sector. Universal access to contraceptives doesn't represent the end of religious liberty, it represents a fairly narrow disagreement over the responsibilities of organizations that occupy a gray area between secular and religious. Fifty million people on food stamps doesn't mean the final triumph of takers over makers, it means that we're still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. (Outside of healthcare, spending on low-income programs is actually pretty low.) America is still America, and it's still the best place in the world to be if you're an entrepreneur. More generally: You really do need to update your attitudes on a raft of social issues, but honestly, if you can manage to do something about your crackpot wing and your blood oath to Grover Norquist, you'd be in reasonably good shape.

Oh, and smart people on both sides of the aisle should start thinking seriously about how to handle a future in which smart machines do more and more work and humans do less and less. I'm dead serious about this.

That is all. For now. You may now start tearing me apart in comments.

Republicans Got Seriously Smoked in the Senate

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 10:07 PM EST

I know plenty of people have already said this, but the Senate is an even more impressive story for Democrats than President Obama's reelection last night. Just a few short months ago it was conventional wisdom that Democrats would be lucky if they only lost three seats, and might very well lose enough to turn control over to Republicans. Instead, they gained two seats.

In 2004, I remember being dismayed by Democratic performance in the tossup races. Out of five close Senate races, Republicans won four of them. This year was the exact opposite. Democrats won every single close contest but one (Heller in Nevada), and in the end most of the races didn't even turn out to be all that close. Heidi Heitkamp won by one point; Tester by four; Kaine by five; Baldwin by six; Donnelly by six; Warren by seven; and McCaskill by 16 (!). That's just a helluva performance.

Republicans could have at least retained their current numbers if they'd had the good sense to reject tea party nutballs in Missouri and Indiana, but even if they had they still would have underperformed expectations substantially. Obama's victory wasn't a surprise to anyone living outside the Fox News bubble, but the results of the Senate races constituted a pretty serious, pretty pointed rejection of Republican ideology in red states and blue states alike.

John Boehner's Desperate Bluff on Taxes

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 8:27 PM EST

House Speaker John Boehner lost no time getting in the first shot Wednesday on taxes and the fiscal cliff, telling reporters that in order to forge a bipartisan agreement Republicans are "willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions":

While Boehner suggested that Republicans would still oppose Obama’s plan to take “a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates,” he said the party is open to “increased revenue . . . as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all.”

It was not immediately clear whether Boehner meant that Republicans would acquiesce only to fresh revenues generated through economic growth rather than actual tax increases.

Really? That wasn't immediately clear? I'd say Boehner was being crystal clear: he won't accept higher tax rates on the rich, and he won't even close loopholes unless they're accompanied by lower tax rates on the rich. In other words, his offer is: nothing. After all, it's not as if there's anyone who opposes the prospect of getting more revenue as a byproduct of a growing economy.

I think the right way to interpret this is as pro-forma, job-saving bluster. Boehner knows full well that his caucus will eat him alive, with Eric Cantor leading the charge, if he wavers on taxes, so he's adopting the same hardline position as he did last year but trying to pretend that it's some kind of kinder, gentler proposal. It's not. This is precisely the position that Republicans offered during the debt ceiling showdown and precisely the position they've stuck to ever since. There's not even a hint of a difference.

But it's still bluster and Boehner knows it. On January 1st, the Bush tax cuts expire. They're gone. At that point, Boehner & Co. can agree to a deal that lowers taxes for everyone on all income under $250,000, or they can hold out for a deal that lowers taxes for everyone and lowers taxes on income over $250,000 back to Bush-era levels. However, if they refuse to make a deal, then no one gets a tax cut, and they'll be crucified by public opinion for protecting the rich. As Dave Weigel says, voters have made that clear:

Barack Obama ran on one consistent tax promise, in both 2008 and 2012. Vote for him, and you'd see middle-class tax rates stay the same while the rate on income over $250,000 increased to 39.6 percent. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans whaled on Obama for that message. If you flipped on TV in a swing state, you heard all about Obama's "trillion-dollar tax increase." Last month, in a comment that Republicans derided for its gaffitude, Joe Biden repeated the claim about tax hikes and leaned into the mic, drawing out his promise: "Yes. We. Will." For months, Republican strategists told me that they'd beat Democrats on the tax issue just like they beat 'em in 2010.

They didn't beat Obama. Twice, in four years, a majority of voters have picked Obama for president, knowing full well that he'll raise upper-income tax rates.

And that's not all: poll after poll shows big majorities in favor of higher rates on the rich. Opposing a broad, bipartisan tax cut because it's not friendly enough to the rich is a losing hand and Boehner knows it. He just can't admit it yet, so instead he hauled out the same tired talking points from a year ago and did his best to dress them up a little differently. Nice try.

Beware of Beguiling Explanations for Obama's Victory

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 3:52 PM EST

One more quick thing: before everyone starts getting too enthralled with demographic time bombs and other in-the-weeds explanations for why Obama won last night, just remember this: most of the political science models, based on little more than a few economic fundamentals, predicted a modest Obama victory six months ago. Maybe Hispanics mattered, and maybe Benghazi and Sandy and 47% and the first debate and Jeeps in China all mattered too. But if they did, they sure seem to have conveniently canceled each other out and left us exactly where we thought we'd be back in the dog days of summer. Some coincidence, huh?