Kevin Drum - December 2012

Obama Needs to Nominate a Secretary of Defense. Now.

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 1:25 PM EST

From Robert Wright, on the neocon opposition to Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense:

Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he's too busy dealing with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn't stand by Hagel he'll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously.

Personally, I'm agnostic on Hagel, just as I was agnostic about Susan Rice for secretary of state. But I'm also disgusted with the sniveling nature of the opposition to Hagel, just as I was to the smears against Rice. This makes me a Hagel fan despite myself.

If it were up to me, I'd choose a Democrat to lead the Defense Department. Obama has already had a Republican in that position, and I think it's important for him to show that he believes there are plenty of well-qualified Democrats who can run DoD. But that's hardly the most important thing in the world. What's more important, at this point, is making up his mind and demonstrating that he won't cave in every time the nutball right throws a tantrum.

Susan Rice was sui generis. Republicans were obviously on the warpath after their Benghazi freakout failed to deliver them the presidency, and Rice ended up being their scalp. I didn't really blame Obama for testing the waters for a while to figure out just how serious the Republican opposition was. But he can't do this twice. He either needs to nominate Hagel or nominate someone else, and he needs to do it now. He can't leave two major nominees twisting in the wind like this and expect anyone to take him seriously in the future. It's time to show some spine.

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Barack Obama's Problem: Fanatic Republicans and Mushball Democrats

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 12:45 PM EST

A lot of people—including me—have argued that President Obama would be better off letting the country sail over the fiscal cliff, at least for a little while. After all, right now tax rates are at low Bush-era levels, so the argument is all about whose taxes will go up. But after January 1, tax rates automatically go up to Clinton-era levels, so the argument suddenly becomes about whose taxes will go down. That's much more fertile ground for an Obama-friendly compromise.

That's the theory, anyway. Today, though, after watching Sen. Kent Conrad (D–ND) publicly cave in on taxes on national TV with virtually no prompting at all, Ezra Klein suggests that Obama's leverage on January 1 might not be as strong as we think:

There are good theoretical arguments that the fiscal cliff's tax hikes gives Democrats the bulk of the leverage, but the White House has watched Senate Democrats fold on taxes again and again and again. They worry that if we go over the fiscal cliff, skittish Senate Democrats will quickly fold before some House-passed plan that raises taxes on income over $750,000, does nothing on stimulus, and sets up a debt-ceiling fight for early next year. The White House thinks it'll be very difficult for them to veto anything Senate Democrats agree to, and so they would prefer to strike the deal themselves rather than getting into a situation where vulnerable Senate Democrats could strike a deal on their behalf.

It turns out that Conrad told Chris Wallace, after literally seconds of badgering, that his ideal compromise would split the difference between Obama's latest proposal and John Boehner's latest proposal. This would produce a plan with more spending cuts than tax hikes, even though Boehner has already publicly agreed to a 1:1 split. If Conrad is willing to give Boehner more than he asked for without any pressure at all, what are the odds that he and his fellow centrists in the Senate would be willing to hold out for more than a few minutes during a real negotiation with the anti-tax zealots in the Republican Party?

Plenty of people have questioned Obama's negotiating skills over the years, and not without cause. But when you're dealing with fanatics in the other party and mushballs in your own, it makes things pretty tough. That's the reality Obama has to deal with.

Dick Armey Leads Armed Coup of Tea Party Group, Gets Bought Off With $8 Million

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 12:08 PM EST

You may have heard about the internal problems at FreedomWorks, one of the country's biggest tea party groups. Long story short, CEO Matt Kibbe (you've probably seen his porkchop sideburns on TV) had a falling out with Dick Armey (one of Newt Gingrich's hatchet men during the Republican Revolution of 1994) over issues that Armey called "matters of principle." Armey eventually received an $8 million golden parachute and is no longer with the organization. But it turns out that Armey's departure was a wee bit more melodramatic than we thought. The Washington Post reports:

The day after Labor Day, just as campaign season was entering its final frenzy, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based tea party organization, went into free fall. Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

....Until this year, the partnership between Kibbe and Armey worked well....The partnership came to a crashing end when Armey marched into FreedomWorks’s office Sept. 4 with his wife, Susan, executive assistant Jean Campbell and the unidentified man with the gun at his waist — who promptly escorted Kibbe and Brandon out of the building.

....By nearly all accounts, including from those loyal to him, Armey handled his attempted coup badly. Armey says he was stepping in because of ethical breaches by Kibbe and Brandon, accusing them of improperly using FreedomWorks staff resources to produce a book — ironically, named “Hostile Takeover” — for which Kibbe claimed sole credit and was collecting royalties. The use of internal resources for Kibbe’s benefit could jeopardize the group’s nonprofit tax status; the group denies ay impropriety.

I guess we know one thing for sure: Dick Armey believes in the right to keep and bear arms. You never know when you might need to lead an armed coup against your employer, after all.

Merry Christmas!

| Tue Dec. 25, 2012 10:06 AM EST

And now for our traditional Christmas ornament greeting. Someday Domino will get an ornament of her own, but that day is not today. Until then, Merry Christmas to all.

Christmas Eve Cat Blogging - 24 December 2012

| Mon Dec. 24, 2012 1:52 PM EST

The blogosphere is surprisingly active today. And it's mostly pissing me off. My fingers keep itching to write nasty posts about the NRA, the fiscal cliff, Grover Norquist, the University of Rhode Island, and a host of other topics. But it's Christmas Eve. It's time to relax and purge the will to nastiness. That goes even for Wayne LaPierre, John Boehner, Grover Norquist, and David Dooley.

So instead, here's some bonus catblogging to soothe our collective souls and kindle the holiday spirit. As it happens, it's gray and rainy at the moment here in Southern California, but it was lovely and sunny on Friday and that's how holidays should be enjoyed. None of this white Christmas nonsense for us. So today, you get a Southern California Christmas Eve. Tomorrow you'll get our traditional Christmas ornament. Enjoy.

Will Republicans Deal on Guns?

| Sun Dec. 23, 2012 1:09 PM EST

Quick question on guns. I'm all in favor of Congress taking some action to regulate guns, and lots of people seem to think that things are different this time. Newtown was so uniquely horrific that something has to happen. But what's the scenario for getting anything through the House? There's no way a majority of House Republicans will vote for gun control of any kind, so action is only possible if John Boehner decides to allow legislation to reach the floor with only minority Republican support.

Is there any chance of this happening? If not, is there any other option? Is a discharge petition feasible? Is there anything House Republicans want badly enough they'd be willing to trade it for tougher gun laws? How does this play out?

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If You Want to Regulate Guns, Talk About Guns. Period.

| Sat Dec. 22, 2012 1:27 PM EST

Twitter conversation of the day:

@jackshafer: If you're spending your precious 140 on calling Wayne LaPierre nuts, he's winning.

@joshscacco: Agreed. NRA wasn't pushing a policy proposal as much as a narrative change from gun control. Misdirection at its best.

Keep this firmly in mind. LaPierre's only goal yesterday was to hijack the media narrative. He wants us talking about Natural Born Killers. He wants us talking about Grand Theft Auto. He wants us talking about mental health services. Hell, he's perfectly happy if we spend our time talking about how crazy his proposal is and how unhinged he is personally. Not only does it keep us from talking about gun regulation, but it's good for the NRA's fundraising efforts in the bargain.

I know that lots of well-meaning people think that movies and videogames really are problematic, and that access to mental health in America is a scandal. And that might well be true. But every minute you spend talking about this stuff is a minute spent doing exactly what the NRA wants you to do. If you want to have any chance at all of passing gun legislation, that's what you should be talking about. Guns. End of story. The other stuff can wait.

How to Deal With Sneaky American Editors

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 10:01 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan links today to a short piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about the process of Americanizing a book that "explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network." He was frustrated by the extent of the copy editing, and after negotiating some changes he wondered what was really going on:

Looking at this re-edit one realizes that the notion of Americanizing a text actually opens the way for a copy editor to impose personal preferences, perhaps imagining that something that sounds odd to his ear is un-American rather than simply my way of writing or his way of reading. Does anybody in the end really know with absolute certainty, all the differences between American and English usages? Aren’t there a wide range of usages in both these countries? How can I know, when I see a particular edit, if it is an Americanism I have to accept, or a matter of individual taste I can take issue with?

Yep. Back in my marketing days I dealt frequently with European distributors, and I learned that whenever they disliked some policy of ours they'd insist that "cultural differences" were at issue. But this was often just an all-purpose excuse that they hoped I couldn't argue with. In reality, our differences were most often just the usual ones between a supplier and a distributor.

But of course, you had to be careful. Sometimes there really were cultural differences at work, and you had to be willing to dig deeply enough to figure which was which. Take this complaint, for example:

In my train book, for example, after a few pages discussing the fate of Italian railways under Nazi occupation, I begin a new paragraph “2,104 railwaymen died in the war” and find this changed to “A total of 2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.” What is the sense of “A total of”? Surely it’s not a requirement of Americanization. What does it add? The idea of my counting up the dead? To my ear the bare number has exactly the brutal eloquence that such statements demand. And how could the reader get his war wrong when we’d just been talking Mussolini and Hitler? When I cut “A total of” I find the sentence reappearing in the proofs thus: “In the Second World War, 2,104 railwaymen died…” One hardly needs to go to a creative writing class to appreciate that this formulation has less rhetorical force than “2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.”

Apparently nobody told Parks why they were doing this. It's simple: if you open a sentence with a number, you're supposed to spell it out. But long numbers are cumbersome to spell out, so normally editors try to recast the sentence instead. This isn't an Americanism at all.

Or is it? It's definitely not house style. I've never worked with an editor anywhere who wouldn't follow this rule. But I've never worked with a non-American editor. So I wonder: Is this really a rule that's common in America but unheard of anywhere else? Would any of my overseas readers care to chime in on this?

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I've always thought this was a dumb rule. Sure, spell out small numbers at the start of a sentence. No problem. But big numbers? Just leave them in. What on earth is supposed to be so off-putting about it?

I once read a sentence that began like this: "Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of...." Dumb! Off-putting! Did the copy editor who did that really think that any readers would be confused by a sentence that started with 1968?

End of the World Cat Blogging - 21 December 2012

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 4:01 PM EST

When Domino heard that the world would be ending today, she hopped into a shiny new shopping bag to ride out the storm. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to put my camera into video mode when she did it. It turned out that hopping in was pretty easy, but hopping out was a wee bit trickier. You'd all be charmed and amused if I could show you her multiple attempts to get out, but instead you'll just have to take my word for it. After several futile tries—and some nasty meowing at those scaremongering Mayans—she finally managed to scrunch the bag enough to regain her freedom.

On another note, are you still looking for some last-minute gift ideas? How about a gift subscription to Mother Jones? It's only $9.95 for six issues, our lowest price anywhere. Or perhaps you could send a small donation our way if you need an end-of-the-year tax deduction. Here are the links for both. It only takes a minute or two, and we accept both credit cards and PayPal.

Let Us Now Bury Our Heads in the Sand

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 3:18 PM EST

In 1995, when Congress's Office of Technology Assessment insisted on preparing reports that were occasionally inconvenient for Republicans, Newt Gingrich knew what to do: he eliminated the office. In 2005, when an annual government report showed an increase in global terrorism, George Bush knew what to do: he stopped publishing the report. When the Congressional Research Service released a study earlier this year concluding that tax cuts had no impact on economic growth, the GOP caucus knew what to do: they insisted that CRS withdraw the study. For similar reasons, Republicans routinely attack the CBO, the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and, most famously, the BLS when it reported a drop in the unemployment rate just before this year's election.

But hey—at least the federal government can still study gun violence. Right? In JAMA today, Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara set us straight:

The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center....the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out....Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC's website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.

When other agencies funded high-quality research, similar action was taken. In 2009, Branas et al published the results of a case-control study that examined whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of firearm assault. In contrast to earlier research, this particular study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Two years later, Congress extended the restrictive language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.

These are not the only efforts to keep important health information from the public and patients. For example, in 1997, Cummings et al used state-level data from Washington to study the association between purchase of a handgun and the subsequent risk of homicide or suicide. Similar studies could not be conducted today because Washington State's firearm registration files are no longer accessible.

The conservative war on reality continues apace. If you don't like what's happening in the real world, simply defund anyone who tries to report on it. Mission accomplished!

Via Austin Frakt.