Kevin Drum - May 2013

Are Republicans Playing Jedi Mind Tricks on Immigration Reform?

| Fri May 3, 2013 1:48 PM EDT

Greg Sargent explores the immigration debate on the right, and explains why Marco Rubio and others are making the arguments they're making:

They are subtly making the case to their base that a defeat for immigration reform is actually a hidden victory for Obama....The idea is that if we don’t pass the Gang of Eight plan, Obama wins. This case is being made on several levels. On the one hand, this notion of leaving the issue “entirely in the hands of Obama” is a partly a suggestion that the President just may use his executive powers to solve the undocumented immigrant problem himself if we don’t pass the Senate plan — just as he did with the DREAMers.

....There’s a key nuance here. As I understand the thinking, GOP base voters are turned off by the political argument that we must reform immigration because if we don’t, Obama will be able to screw Republicans over politically with Latinos....That’s why the argument can’t be openly stated as: If we embrace reform, Obama loses. It has to be carefully calibrated in the manner Rubio has adopted: Not doing anything opens the door for a far greater victory for Obama later. He will be able to do for the undocumented what he did for the DREAMers — while not securing the border — a twofer for Obama.

Obama is playing his part in this dance, too. He and the White House frequently take care to say — not in these exact words, but this is the message — that while he supports the Senate compromise, it’s far from the liberal dream legislation he’d like.

Interesting. Basically, Sargent is suggesting that Republican base voters respond more strongly to the suggestion of a crafty Obama victory if they do nothing than they do to the possibility of an Obama loss if they do something. Partly that's because they've been trained to think of Obama as a cunning grifter constantly putting one over on them, and partly because they're not really convinced that passing immigration reform will help Republicans.

I'm not sure if I buy this or not. But I might!

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A Different Kind of War Requires a Different Kind of POW Camp Too

| Fri May 3, 2013 12:46 PM EDT

ThinkProgress passes along the following exchange on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer. The subject is whether and why we need the Guantanamo prison:

TOOBIN: This country fought Adolf Hitler. And I don’t really believe that Osama bin Laden and his group are worse or more dangerous than Adolf Hitler. And we managed to defeat Adolf Hitler by following the rule of law.

FLEISCHER: They followed the law of war. They wore uniforms and they fought us on battlefields. These people are fundamentally, totally by design different. And they need to be treated in a different extrajudicial system.

Ed Kilgore has a bit to say about just how law-abiding the Nazis actually were (ahem), but I want to give Fleischer his due and assume that he intended to say something a bit more insightful than he actually did in the heat of real-time debate. Putting aside the war ethics of the Third Reich, Fleischer is right about a few things:

  • We are mostly fighting against non-state actors.
  • There are no geographical boundaries to this war.
  • There is no way to eventually declare victory, and no way for anyone to formally surrender.

The problem is that this undermines Fleischer's point, I think, rather than supporting it. Guantanamo is fundamentally a prisoner-of-war camp, but it's unlike any POW camp in history because we haven't put in place any boundaries on it. It's simply a life sentence for many of the prisoners, even if the evidence is thin or nonexistent that they ever fought against us in the first place.

So yes: we're fighting a different kind of war. That means we need to rethink how we handle POWs too. So far, we haven't really faced up to that.

No, the Oregon Medicaid Study Did Not Show "No Effect"

| Fri May 3, 2013 11:10 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen links to a couple of writers today who say the recent study of the Oregon Medicaid experiment was bad news for Medicaid fans because it showed that Medicaid coverage had no effect on most of the medical conditions that were studied. His summary:

Do read the rest of those posts for a more complete picture of the results, but many commentators are overlooking these rather simple upshots.

It's disappointing to keep reading this stuff, because it's flatly not true. There are three main takeaways from the study:

  1. There were positive results on some measures (depression, financial security, rates of diagnosis).
  2. There were also positive results on all of the other measures studied (blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol).
  3. But the size of the study was too small to determine if the positive results in #2 were real. This says nothing at all about Medicaid. It just says that, unfortunately, the experiment was too small to be definitive.

In addition, the study says nothing at all about some more fundamental questions. Is Medicaid well run? Does it deliver better performance per dollar than some other programs? Are there useful ways it could be reformed? Even if the results from #2 turn out to be real and significant, are they worth the cost? For that matter, is healthcare in general worth the price we pay in America? Those are all great questions that we should spend a lot of time investigating, but this particular study simply says nothing one way or the other about any of them. Strictly in terms of how effective Medicaid is, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll have it right when they tell us how much this study should change our thinking: "Not that much."

Speaking for myself, I'd also repeat—over and over and over until at least one person responds to this—that the study looked only at a few easily measurable chronic conditions. These are important, but they're not the bulk of what medical care is about. Most of it is about routine preventive care and acute problems: broken bones, infections, flu shots, immunizations, etc. etc. I'm genuinely puzzled by the fact that virtually no one seems to acknowledge this.

But please, please, please: don't say the Medicaid study "showed no effects." It ain't true. It showed positive effects, but it was too small and underpowered to tell us for sure if these positive effects were real. That's it.

It's the GOP's World, We Just Live In It

| Fri May 3, 2013 10:45 AM EDT

Ron Brownstein writes about the problems faced by our two major parties:

For Republicans, the key question was whether a congressional caucus rooted in the nation’s most conservative areas could court the broader coalition the party needs to regain the presidency. For President Obama and his fellow Democrats, the issue was whether they could deliver better economic results—or at least formulate an agenda for growth that persuasively contrasted with the GOP’s. Nearly six months after the election, neither side can claim much progress.

His answer to both questions is, basically no. But what he doesn't say is that both of these questions are firmly in the control of just one of the parties. As near as I can tell, the strategy the GOP's brain trust came up with after the November election was twofold. First, try to expand its coalition by reining in its tea party excesses and tamping down a bit on its anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-immigrant wing. Second, if that didn't work—and it was always a long shot—keep the economy in lousy shape so that at least Democrats couldn't take advantage of their paralysis.

So far, it seems to be working. Strategy A, as expected, is on life support. But Strategy B is coming to the rescue. By ending the payroll tax holiday in January and seeing their sequester handiwork take effect in March, Republicans have kept the economy barely dog paddling along.

Inexplicably, they've gotten plenty of help in this project from Democrats, who agreed to the sequester hostage-taking in the first place and never fought very hard in December to keep the payroll tax holiday around for another year or two. But who knows? Maybe Brownstein is wrong. Obama seems to be betting that the American public is more interested in seeing Democrats get tough on the budget deficit than they are in seeing the economy recover. I doubt that, but I suppose anything is possible.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in April

| Fri May 3, 2013 9:54 AM EDT

The American economy added 165,000 new jobs last month, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 75,000. That's OK, but not great. However, the BLS also revised its job growth estimates for the past two months fairly sharply upward. February's figures are now positively giddy looking.

Overall, the headline unemployment number dropped to 7.5 percent. The number of long-term unemployed declined even more dramatically, and the labor force participation ratio was flat.

Basically, it was all fairly decent news, both in the top line numbers and in the details. If the fiscal cliff deal and the sequester have had a negative impact on the economy, it's not really showing up in the job numbers yet. So far, 2013 is shaping up as a rerun of 2012, which means that although we still aren't recovering at the rate we ought to be, at least we're treading water fairly briskly.

Yes, There Sure Are a Lot of Vacancies in the Executive Branch

| Fri May 3, 2013 12:28 AM EDT

Whose fault is it that there are so many vacancies in the executive branch? The New York Times investigates:

The White House faults an increasingly partisan confirmation process in the Senate and what officials say are over-the-top demands for information about every corner of a nominee’s life. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew received 444 questions from senators before his confirmation, more than the seven previous Treasury nominees combined, according to data compiled by the White House. Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, got 1,000 questions from the Senate, White House officials said.

....But members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct time-consuming background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation. People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama’s White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal.

Frankly, I'm surprised there's anyone left in the entire country who's willing to go through the modern vetting process just to be an assistant deputy secretary of something or other. The whole process has gotten way, way out of hand.

But what's the answer? Certainly part of the answer is to cut way back on the number of these appointments that require Senate approval. Another part of the answer is some kind of truce about what counts as disqualifying in a nominee. Beyond that, I'm not sure. But the article is worth reading, since this has long been a sore spot for a lot of liberals.

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Keeping Up With the Latest Benghazi Conspiracy Theories

| Thu May 2, 2013 11:45 PM EDT

Have you been keeping up with the latest on Benghazi! Yeah, me neither. But I guess it's time to correct that. It turns out there are two new developments that the wingers are pretty sure will finally blow the lid off the whole thing.

First up is a dramatically anonymous "military special ops member" who told Fox News that there was a team based in Croatia that could have been scrambled to Benghazi in time to do....something:

“I know for a fact that C-110, the EUCOM CIF, was doing a training exercise in ... not in the region of North Africa, but in Europe,” the operator told Fox News' Adam Housley. “And they had the ability to act and to respond.”

....“We had the ability to load out, get on birds and fly there, at a minimum stage,” the operator told Fox News. “C-110 had the ability to be there, in my opinion, in a matter of about four hours...four to six hours.” Being so close, C-110s would have been able to respond had there been a second attack, the source added.

And why are we only hearing about this now? Because everyone who knew about it was afraid to come forward, natch. You know how ruthless Obama can be. Today, though, Billy Birdzell, a former special ops team leader, pretty much torched the whole conspiracy theory. He makes three points. First, Obama ordered the C-110 group to launch at 2:39 am. Four hours later the attacks were over, so the team couldn't possibly have gotten there in time to stop anything. Second, even if they'd been launched earlier, it's fantasy to think they could have gotten to the compound within four to six hours. Third, even if, miraculously, they could have gotten there in time, they couldn't have done anything to stop mortar fire, which is what killed the two consulate guards in the annex.

"The person in the interview is a clown," says Birdzell. Click the link for his extremely persuasive full analysis.

So that's one down, but next up are four, count 'em, four anonymous whistleblowers who are said to be "career-level officials at the State Department and the CIA." One of the State Department whistleblowers is represented by Victoria Toensing, a longtime Republican operative whose name you might recall from both the Monica Lewinsky and Valerie Plame affairs. Ed Henry of Fox News asked Obama about all this at his press conference on Tuesday, but apparently even the vast apparatus of the West Wing can't keep up with the latest Republican conspiracy theories on Benghazi. Obama had no idea what he was talking about. In any case, supposedly the four whistleblowers will be testifying in front of Darrell Issa's oversight committee next week:

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has promised bombshells at the hearing, which he says will “expose new facts and details that the Obama administration has tried to suppress.”

....Lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, who say they are trying to represent Benghazi witnesses who want to testify publicly about what they know, on Thursday repeated claims that access to their clients was being inhibited by pressure from unidentified administration officials. Mr. diGenova said on Fox News that the hurdles he faced amounted to a “cover-up” and that the Accountability Review Board failed to interview key witnesses for its report, starting with Mrs. Clinton.

And not only did Obama try to "suppress" this bombshell testimony, but now that he's (apparently) failed, the four officials from State and CIA are in considerable danger thanks to their decision to come forward. Issa has so far declined to provide the names of next week's witnesses because, he claims, he's concerned about "possible retaliation whistleblowers could face at the hands of administration officials."

What's it all about? Beats me, but among other things I gather the witnesses are going to rehash old charges about Hillary Clinton turning down requests for more security at the Benghazi consulate and dropping the ball on the night of the attacks. There's also a bunch of background sniping involved in the whole thing, including Toensing's claim that the State Department refused to give her a security clearance and Issa's pique over the rules under which his committee has been allowed to view documents. Beyond that, who knows? I guess we'll find out next week.

George Washington Himself Could Not Get a Revenue Increase Out of the Modern Republican Party

| Thu May 2, 2013 5:25 PM EDT

Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 3:

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

You know, I don't really enjoy writing endlessly about Barack Obama's essential powerlessness when it comes to dealing with an increasingly fanatic Republican Party. It's just so damn gloomy and special pleadingish. But I keep getting pulled back in. Today, a friend of mine emails with a short summary of Ron Fournier's appearance on Morning Joe today:

John Heilemann asked Fournier the same question that everyone asks Fournier, which he dodges: well, what would you have the President do? Fournier then said, "let me turn that question back on you" and went off a tangent, but not without dropping in at the end of the segment that Obama can get revenue increases if he just engages with the Republicans. I yelled at the television and scared my 4 year-old. Did he really say that? Yes, he did.

I just don't get it. What does it take to convince the Dowds and Milbanks and Fourniers of the world? How can any of them still believe that Republicans will ever agree to real revenue increases? George Washington himself could rise from the grave and the House Republican caucus wouldn't agree to pass a revenue increase for him. What then? Would Dowd and Milbank and Fournier sigh theatrically and mourn the fact that Washington just isn't the leader he used to be?

Republicans aren't going to let Obama raise revenues. They aren't going to let Obama pass a gun bill—even a watered-down one. They aren't going to let Obama close Guantánamo. They aren't going to let Obama fill the vacancies on the DC Circuit Court. They aren't going to help Obama implement Obamacare. They aren't going to let Obama address climate change. Period.

They've made this crystal clear to anyone who asks. They are true believers and there's nothing Obama, or Fournier, or anyone else can offer them that would break through their glinty-eyed zealotry. There are no deals to be made, no leverage that can be used, and no schmoozing that will change their minds. This isn't an Obama problem, it's a Republican Party problem. Why is such a simple and unambiguous fact so hard to acknowledge?

But just to keep things on an even keel around here, go read Jon Chait's "What Obama Can Actually Do About Congress." I endorse all of it. So you see, I agree that there are things Obama could do better, just as there are issues (like Guantánamo detainees) where Obama himself bears some of the blame for our current gridlock.

Now, none of Chait's suggestions would actually make more than a hair's breadth of difference. But Obama should do them anyway. After all, you never know, do you?

Want to Get Married? Buy a Cable Modem.

| Thu May 2, 2013 2:11 PM EDT

Via Brenda Cronin, here's a fascinating study suggesting that faster adoption of broadband internet leads to higher marriage rates. The author, Andriana Bellou of the University of Montreal, presents the basic regression chart on the right, and then runs through a variety of tests to find out whether this is really a causal relationship. After all, maybe tech-friendly places have always produced higher marriage rates. Or maybe sociable people like the internet and also like getting married. Or it could be that causality runs in the other direction: maybe people who are more likely to get married are also more likely to move to tech-friendly places. Etc.

Bellou takes a variety of strategies to test causality. For example, it turns out that broadband penetration in 2000-05 doesn't predict marriage rates in the pre-internet era (1990-95). This suggests that her results aren't due to something special about the geographic areas that eventually adopted broadband at high rates.

Long story short, her conclusion is that this association is probably causal. Other things equal, better access to the internet really does produce a greater number of marriages. eHarmony really does work.

In a way, this isn't too surprising, but there's obviously a lot of noise in the data. I'll be interested to see if her result holds up once the rest of the world starts banging away on it.

"How Not To Die"

| Thu May 2, 2013 1:30 PM EDT

From Dr. Angelo Volandes, on the way physicians routinely treat patients near the end of life:

Physicians are good people. They want to do the right things. And yet all of us, behind closed doors, in the cafeteria, say, "Do you believe what we did to that patient? Do you believe what we put that patient through?" Every single physician has stories. Not one. Lots of stories.

Volandes is making a series of stark videos that he hopes might change that:

The first film he made featured a patient with advanced dementia. It showed her inability to converse, move about, or feed herself. When Volandes finished the film, he ran a randomized clinical trial with a group of nine other doctors. All of their patients listened to a verbal description of advanced dementia, and some of them also watched the video. All were then asked whether they preferred life-prolonging care (which does everything possible to keep patients alive), limited care (an intermediate option), or comfort care (which aims to maximize comfort and relieve pain).

The results were striking: patients who had seen the video were significantly more likely to choose comfort care than those who hadn’t seen it (86 percent versus 64 percent).

Volandes published that study in 2009, following it a year later with an even more striking trial, this one showing a video to patients dying of cancer. Of those who saw it, more than 90 percent chose comfort care—versus 22 percent of those who received only verbal descriptions. The implications, to Volandes, were clear: “Videos communicate better than just a stand-alone conversation. And when people get good communication and understand what’s involved, many, if not most, tend not to want a lot of the aggressive stuff that they’re getting.”

Jonathan Rauch has the rest of the story here. It's worth a read.