Kevin Drum - April 2013

Assessing President Obama's Wimpitude

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 6:53 PM EDT

Here is the opening anecdote of a New York Times story devoted to demonstrating that President Obama is a wimp:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence....But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska.

....The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers.

Wow! Obama really is a wuss. LBJ never would have put up with that kind of behavior. He would have reared right up on his haunches and — hold on a second. What's that? There's more to this story? OK, Olivier Knox, you have the floor:

The real reason for [Jewell's] visit—and the reason Obama agreed to give the road project a second look despite fierce opposition from environmentalists (and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)—was a deal last month between the administration and Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski had vowed to block Jewell's confirmation by any means necessary unless the Interior Department reconsidered. The administration, eager to see the former REI executive confirmed, relented....Murkowski voted for Jewell's confirmation on April 10. She got what she wanted; the administration got what it wanted. If there was arm-twisting, the administration appears to have been the twistee. But the road's not built yet, Jewell is Interior secretary, and reports of the death of Obama's ability to work with Congress appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

So the reason that Jewell is still planning to visit Alaska is because of a promise Obama made to Murkowski, not Begich. She kept her end of the deal, so Obama is keeping his. That's it.

This was Exhibit A in the case against Obama's willingness to work his steely will on Congress. In fact, in the Times story, it was the only exhibit. And it was completely bogus. Next, please.

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Apple Announces Mediocre Results

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 4:17 PM EDT

Apple has just announced increased revenues for its fiscal second quarter ($43.6 billion vs. $39.2 billion last year) but considerably lower earnings ($9.5 billion vs. $11.6 billion last year). More dramatically, their gross margins have plummeted from 47.4 percent to 37.5 percent. Channel inventory of iPads was up by over a million units. Mac sales declined 2 percent.

And the future looks to be even worse. Apple is forecasting that revenues will be flat or slightly down next quarter and gross margins will continue to decline a bit to 36-37 percent. CEO Tim Cook calls this "frustrating." To assuage shareholders, Cook announced that Apple would increase its share repurchase program to $60 billion and would raise its dividend by 15 percent. All told, its total "capital return program" has been doubled to $100 billion by 2015.

Bottom line: Apple is a bit adrift; competition is squeezing margins; and they have no good ideas about what to do with their cash hoard. Cook, in a rather pro forma tone of voice, insisted that Apple has lots of great ideas coming soon, but it's hard to know what those might be. Apple TV? Anything else?

FBI: Tsarnaevs Acted Alone

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 3:42 PM EDT

Here's the latest on the Tsarnaev brothers:

Accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told FBI investigators that he and his brother were operating alone and did not receive assistance from outside terrorist groups, officials said Tuesday.

....Investigators separately have tentatively concluded that his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who died early Friday morning after a shootout with police, did not meet with Islamist militants during his six-month visit to Russia last year, according a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.

Experts say the brothers increasingly appear to have been self-radicalized “lone wolf” operators who worked independently, using bomb recipes gathered from websites.

I'm not really sure what this means, and obviously Dzhokhar might be lying. But apparently the current state-of-the-art thinking among interrogators is that the Tsarnaevs were motivated by "extremist Islamic beliefs"—specifically by "the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"—but acted on their own.

There sure is something odd about that six-month trip to Russia, though. The story we've been told is that the Russians warned the FBI back in 2010 that Tamerlan might be connected with Islamic radicals. The FBI checks it out and finds nothing. Then Tamerlan goes to Russia in 2012. So what happened then? Did the Russians track him while he was there? If so, did they pass anything further along to the FBI? If not, why not? They're the ones who were supposedly convinced that Tamerlan was up to no good. So what happened?

Chart of the Day: Twitter Crashes the Stock Market

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 2:01 PM EDT

Here's what happened at 1:09 pm today when the Associated Press's Twitter feed was hacked and reported: "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is Injured." Matt Yglesias sees a moneymaking opportunity.

Here's What Lindsey Graham Really Thinks About How We Should Handle Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

Sen. Lindsey Graham thinks the Boston bombing suspect should be held as an enemy combatant. Dave Weigel isn't convinced:

The 2001 authorization of force made official a war between the United States and terrorist organizations/state sponsors who could be tied to the 9/11 attacks. Yaser Esam Hamdi was an American citizen caught on the battlefield of Afghanistan, by the Northern Alliance. How do you stretch that case far enough to cover Tsarnaev?

Well, here's Graham last night on Greta Van Susteren's show making the case:

GRAHAM: I don't want to hold him for more than 30 days, but within 30 days he can petition a judge and say, hey, I'm not an enemy combatant....To hold him as an enemy combatant they'd have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you're tied to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or affiliated groups. Chechnyan Islamic groups are affiliated with al-Qaeda under our laws.

VAN SUSTEREN: So is it enough that he visited Chechnya for six months for you to conclude that there's a threshold met that he's part of a group?

GRAHAM: I think so. If I were president of the United States who makes this decision, I would say, this is clearly a mass terrorist attack. [Runs down evidence against the older Tsarnaev brother] ....All that would allow me as president to say that I want to find out more in the national security legal system, not the criminal justice legal system.

In a statement a few days ago, Graham and a few other senators made the same point he made last night: "any future trial" would be held in a civilian court, but Tsarnaev should be questioned by intelligence analysts in the meantime: "The questioning of an enemy combatant for national security purposes has no limit on time or scope. In a case like this it could take weeks to prepare the questions that are needed to be asked and months before intelligence gathering is completed."

The emphasis here is a little different than it was on Van Susteren's show, where she repeatedly mentioned the 30-day limit on questioning. So would Tsarnaev be held for 30 days or would he be held indefinitely? Technically the former, but Graham sure seems to think that indefinitely is a lot more likely, and he's OK with that.

It's all moot now, since President Obama has made the decision to keep Tsarnaev in the criminal justice system. As for Graham, he might not want to try Tsarnaev in front of a military commission, but I get the pretty strong impression that he'd be just fine with tossing Tsarnaev in a brig somewhere and keeping him there forever without any trial at all. Adam Serwer has more here.

Quote of the Day: What Do White House Tours and Furloughed Air Traffic Controllers Have in Common?

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 11:58 AM EDT

From White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, explaining why only certain sequestration cuts seem to get the attention of Republican members of Congress:

What do [White House] tours and flight delays have in common? They affect members directly.

Well, that's true enough. But I imagine that's not really why they've highlighted these things. They've highlighted them because they affect middle-class constituents and therefore have a lot of political traction. Most of the other domestic sequestration cuts affect the poor and the working class, and Republicans just don't care very much about them. The poor and the working class don't vote much for Republicans, after all.

The most amusing part of all this, I think, are the endless laments that if Obama really wanted to, he could find something else to cut. Republicans can get away with saying this because the federal budget is pretty big, so it seems reasonable that there just has to be someplace to make cuts that wouldn't cause any pain. Waste and fraud, right? Cut the fat, not the bone. And yet, every time someone actually dives into the numbers, it turns out there really isn't much choice after all. All that money really is being spent on stuff that matters. "Consulting" sure sounds like something the FAA ought to be able to cut, but only until you find out that the consulting in question is for outsourced telecommunication and weather radar assistance. Can't cut that!

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Marco Rubio's Tough Sell on Immigration

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 11:11 AM EDT

By all accounts, Marco Rubio seems to be entirely sincere in his desire to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. I had some doubts about that initially, wondering if his support was mostly for show. I thought it was pretty plausible that he'd go along for a while to cement his reputation as a reasonable guy, but then find some convenient excuse to abandon the proceedings, accusing Democrats of refusing to get serious about border security or guest workers or something.

That might still happen. So far, though, Rubio sure looks like a guy committed to getting a bill passed. Unfortunately for him, as National Review's Robert Costa reports, the base isn't buying it. Last week Rubio made the rounds of an anti-immigration convention to chat up conservative radio talkers:

For an hour, the freshman Republican went from table to table, speaking passionately about the bill’s merits. As I shadowed Rubio, it was striking to see how much he is personally admired by the colorful conservative pundits who broadcast on local AM stations, and by the bigger syndicated names like Limbaugh. They still believe, without a doubt, that he’s a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and they love that he’s already a national force.

But when it comes to immigration, they aren’t buying it.

The whole scene plays out uncomfortably. Rubio is the young salesman everyone invites inside for a cup of coffee, but sends off with only a smile and a handshake.

This is going to be a very tough sell. A big part of the problem is going to be headlines like this from Politico yesterday: "Immigration reform could be bonanza for Democrats." Their analysis is crude, and conflicts with more sophisticated studies like this one, but let's face it: working politicians are more likely to be swayed by a simple, crude look at the numbers than by some academic with a regression model. What's more, denying Obama a political victory is every bit as seductive to the right as it's ever been. If immigration reform passes, it's going to pass by the skin of its teeth. Background checks were just a drop in the ocean compared to this.

Democrats Call Republican Bluff on Budget

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 10:19 AM EDT

It's hard to resist a little hypocrisy-mongering occasionally, especially when it's a high-profile subject. Republicans, as you may or may not know, have been fuming for years that Democrats refused to pass a budget via "regular order," instead making deals in back rooms that allowed them to avoid public scrutiny of their priorities. This year Republicans finally insisted on regular order, and Democrats have taken them up on it. But as Ezra Klein explains, a funny thing happened next:

House Republicans, it seemed, weren't that eager to move to regular order after all. There's been no evident interest in the next move, which is appointing conferees to begin reconciling the two budgets....In fact, Republicans see a disadvantage in a formal public process. "If you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there's no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs that show up on the House floor," Boehner told reporters.

Senate Democrats don't find this a very convincing excuse: They note that they had to vote on dozens of Republican amendments — many of which were designed to embarrass them.

House Republicans instead want a private agreement — a "framework" — that would direct the conference committee as they attempt to reconcile the budgets....And Senate Democrats aren't having it. After years of Republicans complaining about secret deals and hammering Senate Democrats for betraying regular order, they're calling the GOP's bluff. That's why Reid intends to move towards conference this morning. Either Republicans will agree, and regular order will proceed — which will likely mean no deal, and which will then give House Democrats a chance to throw their bombs — or Senate Republicans will filibuster, and that will be the end of the regular order talking point.

Isn't Washington grand? I can't say that I personally care much about regular order for the budget, but tea party types and radio blowhards have been griping about this forever. So now they've got it. And guess what? It turns out they don't like it so much after all.

Tax-Free Internet Sales Poised to Become a Thing of the Past

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 5:29 PM EDT

I've written once or twice before about Amazon's scorched-earth policy against being forced to collect state sales taxes, and also about its eventual cave-in to California legislators who demanded that they collect sales taxes whether they wanted to or not. At the time, Amazon's excuse for fighting over this was its supposed belief in fair play: they took the position that Congress should pass a federal law that sets a single nationwide standard, either exempting everyone from internet sales taxes or requiring everyone to pay. I was unimpressed:

It would actually be nice to have a federal law on this issue. But I sure don't see how we can get one. States would go ballistic if a federal law upheld the general exemption of internet retailers from collecting sales taxes, and there doesn't seem to be any path through the Senate for such a bill. On the other hand, the anti-tax jihadists would burst a vein if Congress passed a law that effectively increased taxes by putting e-tailers on a level playing field with brick-and-mortar stores, and the House is controlled by the anti-tax brigade. So there's deadlock.

But maybe it's not so impossible after all. In the 1992 Supreme Court decision that prohibited states from forcing companies to collect state sales taxes unless they had a physical presence there, the Court specifically said that its prohibition was based solely on Commerce Clause issues. Thus, "Congress is now free to decide whether, when, and to what extent the States may burden interstate mail-order concerns with a duty to collect use taxes." For the next two decades, Congress declined to take up this offer, but during that time internet sales grew exponentially and states grew ever more jittery about the amount of tax revenue they were losing. What's more, Amazon grew big enough that they were having a harder time avoiding state sales taxes, as their 2011 California cave-in demonstrated. Suddenly, instead of opposing a federal law, Amazon supported one. If they had to collect sales taxes, they were better off if everyone else had to collect them as well.

A bill to authorize this has been quietly wending its way through the Senate for the past year or so, and Brad Plumer informs me today that it might be up for a vote as soon as this afternoon. Needless to say, Grover Norquist is opposed, and this has made it hard to get Republican votes. On the other hand, the bill is cosponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi, the fourth most conservative senator in the country and a guy with a 90 percent rating from Norquist's own lobbying group, Americans for Tax Reform. That's brought quite a few Republicans into the fold.

Long story short, it turns out that the Senate is indeed poised to pass something useful. How about that? Not quite this afternoon, though: cloture was invoked this afternoon and passed, which means passage of the bill is assured too, but not until it comes up for debate later in the week. Next stop: the House of Representatives, where we'll find out if Norquist's grip is tighter than it is in the Senate.

Quote of the Day: Doing Nothing is George Bush's Strong Suit

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

From Dan Drezner, listing reasons why George Bush's legacy may improve over time:

First, he's been a great ex-president. For such a polarizing political figure, it's remarkable how successfully Bush has receded into private life.

Can't argue with that! There's not much question that doing nothing puts Bush in his best light.

(Reason #2: The Republican Party has gone so crazy that Bush looks almost good by comparison. I'd buy that one too if Bush himself weren't substantially responsible for this shift.)

(Reason #3: Bush responded halfway decently to the 2008 financial collapse. I guess so, though as near as I can tell, Bush himself played almost no role in this. He was clueless about what to do and just let his economic team run the show.)

Drezner admits that this is all pretty thin beer. His final conclusion:

At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era.

Am I missing anything?

Nope. He's still the Frat Boy President and always will be.