Kevin Drum - November 2013

Fun and Games in Sacramento

| Wed Nov. 6, 2013 11:36 AM EST

Former California chief justice Ronald George released an oral history of his time on the bench today, and a couple of his recollections about dealing with the state legislature are worth sharing:

"I remember dealing with one state senator who found it impossible ... not to bring up his own divorce proceedings and how he thought he'd gotten a raw deal at the hands of his wife and her attorneys and didn't feel the court system dealt with him fairly," George said, not naming the elected official.

....One legislator refused to support a revenue bond for court construction because his wife had received what he viewed as an excessive fine for making a rolling stop, George recalled. The bond depended on raising fines.

There you have it. Your state legislature at work.1

1OK, it's actually my state legislature at work. But I'll bet yours isn't much different.

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Ron Paul Basically Called for Armed Revolution This Week

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 3:15 PM EST

Way back in 2012, when he was running for president, Ron Paul seemed to some people like a breath of fresh air. Sure, maybe he was a bit of a crank, but at least he didn't sanitize his beliefs in order to avoid offending people. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.

But, um, maybe not. At least, not based on this look into Paul's libertarian id, delivered last night at a campaign rally in Virginia for Ken Cuccinelli:

"Jefferson obviously was a clear leader on the principle of nullification," the former Texas congressman said of the third president. "I’ve been working on the assumption that nullification is going to come. It’s going to be a de facto nullification. It’s ugly, but pretty soon things are going to get so bad that we’re just going to ignore the feds and live our own lives in our own states."

....He tore into the Constitution’s 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1913, it’s the one that allows for the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote. "That undermined the principle importance of the states," said Paul.

He criticized the 16th Amendment, which allowed the federal income tax. After the crowd chanted "End the Fed," Paul decried the printing of more money by the Federal Reserve. "We need someone to stand up to the authoritarians," he said. "They’re dictators."

....He stressed that the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms" was not for hunting, but to allow rebellion against tyrannical governments. "The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits," he said. "Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally."

Huh. I don't remember him being willing to deliver harangues quite like this during last year's debates. I guess he was holding back after all, just another mealy-mouthed politician unwilling to buck the polls and tell the people the raw truth.

This comes via Ed Kilgore, who asks, "Can you imagine a statewide Democratic candidate anywhere, much less in a 'purple state,' associating himself or herself so conspicuously with such ravings? No, you can't." This is what I was talking about yesterday: liberals don't have the equivalent of a tea party because there just aren't very many liberals who hold views this extreme—and the ones who do are pretty marginalized. In the Republican Party, however, this kind of thing barely even lifts any eyebrows.

And the most remarkable part of all this is that the rest of us—centrists, liberals, non-insane Republicans, the press, etc.—are expected to shrug off this kind of thing as nothing more than a sort of boys-will-be-boys stemwinder, not to be taken seriously. Remarkable indeed.

Quote of the Day: "Drunken Stupor" Joins Pantheon of Great Political Excuses

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 2:07 PM EST

From Toronto mayor Rob Ford, finally admitting that he's smoked crack cocaine:

Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.

Well, OK then! That explains everything. "Drunken stupor" will surely now join "wide stance" and "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal" in the pantheon of memorable excuses for bad behavior among politicians.

Here Are Some of the People Being Helped by Obamacare

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 12:44 PM EST

Since I was just griping about the media not spending any time reporting about the people that Obamacare helps, I should offer some props to Abby Goodnough of the New York Times, who headed down to Kentucky to talk to some of the navigators who are responsible for assisting people who want to sign up for Obamacare. Here's one story:

Samantha Davis, the clinic employee who helped [David] Elson apply, explained that based on his income of about $22,000 last year, he was not eligible for Medicaid but had qualified for a federal subsidy of $252 a month toward premium costs for a private plan. “It’s a pretty big one,” she said, reassuringly.

Through the exchange, Mr. Elson, 60, who has advanced diabetes and kidney disease, was offered a choice of 24 health plans, with premiums ranging from $92 to $501 a month after the subsidy. But if he felt elation or relief, he was too preoccupied to show it.

Bleeding at the back of his eyes, caused by a complication of diabetes, had blurred his vision. He had run out of insulin the previous week and had not refilled his prescriptions, which cost almost $500 a month, because a recent tax bill had depleted his bank account. He had an appointment with an eye specialist that afternoon, and the possibility of more debt was hanging heavily over him....“I’m hoping once I have insurance that I can sit down and figure out a budget and see if I have to bankrupt,” he said.

Plenty of people are being helped by Obamacare, and that number will grow dramatically as navigators reach more people; the website improves; and people start to make up their minds and sign up for a plan. For some people, it will mean the difference between getting treatment and going without. For others it will mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. And for still others it will be the first time they've ever had any health coverage at all.

Those are stories worth telling too.

"Rate Shock" is a Middle-Class Problem, So It Gets Lots of Attention

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 11:56 AM EST

The media has entered a feeding frenzy of coverage about people who are facing "rate shock" from Obamacare. It's a real story, even if a lot of the reporting has been sloppy and credulous, but the level of media attention has nonetheless been pretty stunning. Jon Chait says this is partly because the press has a natural attraction to bad news over good. But that's not all:

There’s also an economic bias at work. Victims of rate shock are middle-class, and their travails, in general, tend to attract far more lavish coverage than the problems of the poor. (Did you know that on November 1, millions of Americans suffered painful cuts to nutritional assistance? Not a single Sunday-morning talk-show mentioned it.)

Yep. It's the same reason that air traffic controllers got funded so quickly during the sequester while food aid didn't. In addition, I can only assume that writing about the people who are benefiting from Obamacare would strike DC reporters as a little too much like shilling for the Obama administration. Can't have that, can we?

In addition to the obvious agenda-setting power of Fox and Drudge, I suspect there's also one other factor at work here: a news drought. Just as the debt ceiling crisis helped Obama in early October by sucking up all the media oxygen and taking attention away from the disastrous rollout of the website, Obama has been hurt by a news cycle that's been unusually slow lately. There's just not much to talk about aside from Obamacare. I suspect that the White House must be wishing for a huge hurricane or something right about now to provide the cable nets with something else to obsess over.

ENDA Set to Pass Senate and Then Die in House

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 7:49 PM EST

ENDA, a bill that would bar employer discrimination against gays and transsexuals, got 61 votes in the Senate this afternoon. That's enough to overcome a filibuster, so presumably it will pass sometime in the next few days. This is great news, but it's not clear to me why it matters in any substantive kind of way:

Because of opposition in the Republican-controlled House, passage there seems unlikely. Speaker John A. Boehner reiterated his objections to the bill on Monday, releasing a statement that said he believed it would invite too many lawsuits.

Elsewhere in the House on Monday, however, there was an encouraging development for supporters of gay rights. Representative Michael H. Michaud, Democrat of Maine, said that he is gay, becoming the seventh member of Congress to be openly gay, lesbian or bisexual.

As encouraging developments go, that's unfortunately kind of lame. It's certainly not going to do anything to change the minds of the tea partiers who are dead set against this legislation.

So....am I missing something? Or is this pretty much just a symbolic victory?

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Shiny New Obama Meme Starting to Take Shape

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 4:11 PM EST

Given the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website, it was only a matter of time until it became the poster boy for President Obama's poor management style:

A year after his reelection triumph, President Obama is facing an awkward question from friends and foes alike: Why can't he run the government as well as he ran his campaign?

What with the IRS targeting of tea party groups; the poor security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya; the eavesdropping on close allies; and the botched rollout of the landmark healthcare law, Obama increasingly seems to be battling top-level management failures as much as policy or political problems.

On each of these controversies, Obama has claimed ignorance before the fact and outrage afterward, leaving even some Democrats to see him as asleep at the wheel.

Oh please. The IRS didn't target tea party groups, and eavesdropping on close allies wasn't a result of poor management. It was a deliberate policy choice. Benghazi does indeed seem to have exposed some weak management practices, but let's be honest: they were the kinds of things that are routinely found in every audit ever done of a government agency.

In any case, you're really stretching things if the best you can do is find one example from over a year ago to help make your case. The plain truth is that Obama's management style is about as good as any other president's. Obamacare obviously shows him at his worst, but it doesn't demonstrate some kind of cosmic management deficiency.

As for Obama's campaign prowess, that's easily explained. First, compared to rolling out Obamacare, a presidential campaign is a small, uncomplicated operation—and it's one that can be run dictatorially without regard for federal purchasing and bidding rules. Second, who says it was it all that great? As near as I can tell, it was run perfectly well, but it's not as if it was a model of campaign efficiency. It was just an ordinary well-run campaign. The fact that Obama won—thanks mostly to improving economic fundamentals and a poor opponent—doesn't really change that.

Why the Left Sucks at Trolling

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 1:39 PM EST

Ben Terris writes today about "Why the Left Sucks at Trolling." His case study is Alan Grayson, the firebrand lefty who recently compared the tea party to the KKK, earning himself plenty of tut tutting from liberals:

For this type of behavior, it's easy to label Grayson as the left's equivalent of a tea party congressman. (Remember, Paul Broun comparing President Obama to Hitler?) But the problem for Grayson is, without a cadre of equally recalcitrant colleagues, he has the bark, but not the bite of his Republican counterparts.

...."We don't have a pathway to progressive fantasyland," Rep. Keith Ellison, the chairman of the progressive caucus, conceded. "We're probably not going to get arrested on the Capitol lawn in favor of single payer in the next three weeks."

Why is it, in the words of congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, that the "more radical wing of the Republican Party holds the center of gravity and the radical wing of the Democratic Party is just an appendage and not a significant force"?

Ornstein thinks that for Republicans, it's about feeling the underdog as a minority party in Washington. It doesn't help that tea party-linked lawmakers also appear to live in a right-wing echo chamber.

You know, I read this kind of psychoanalyzing all the time. Hell, sometimes I do it myself. But there's a simpler answer: there are more extreme conservatives than extreme liberals, and the extreme wingers really and truly believe that Democrats are destroying America. There just aren't that many lefties who believe the same thing about Republicans. The truth is that the American left is basically pretty moderate. If you want an explanation for why liberals don't have the same apocalyptic approach to politics as tea party conservatives, that's why. It's simple.

Now, I'll grant that it's worthwhile to ask why so many conservatives believe deep in their guts that Democrats are destroying America. Ornstein may have a point when he mentions their underdog status, but the Republican Party has had an extremist wing for a very long time, and it's always been convinced that liberals are undermining the American way. The belief itself isn't really anything new. What's changed is that the extremist wing essentially controls the Republican Party these days, and that really is new. However, the dynamic that led to this began with the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, which marked the first time in decades that Republicans weren't the minority party in Washington. So I'm not sure their underdog status is really the explanation.

However, the rise of the apocalyptic, Gingrichian attitude toward politics does coincide with the early days of the rise of right-wing media. Also with the rise of the South as the driving force in GOP politics. That's probably where the answer lies. Liberals just don't have anything like that.

Americans Will Not Be Amused by Chris Christie's Bullying If He Runs for President

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 12:41 PM EST

Over the weekend, a picture of New Jersy Gov. Chris Christie dressing down a teacher who asked him about school budgets went semi-viral. I was a little surprised, because I thought Christie had stopped doing this kind of thing as his national ambitions became more obvious. Apparently not. But Dave Weigel, who snapped the pics, provides a tidbit of interesting background:

Mary Pat Christie smiled through the entire talk-off. Why? Because a local NBC News camera was facing at her, capturing the scene. Two days later, I don't see any trace of the video online. Is that a statement on how ordinary the confrontation was? Possibly. I think it's also a reflection of the frontrunner coverage boosting Christie as the race ends, as the polls showing him winning (with up to 37 percent of voters not even knowing who is opponent is) are taken as prima facie evidence that he's running a faultless campaign. The day after this little contretemps, one of north Jersey's major papers ran an analysis of how the governor's tone had moderated so much recently.

Back in early 2012, when the chatter about Christie's presidential chops first started, I remember thinking that I just didn't believe it. Obviously Christie has some ideological baggage, but that wasn't my big reason for skepticism. It was his famous bullying of ordinary citizens. Sure, it went over great in New Jersey, and even among the national media it seemed like a bit of fresh air: a politician willing to say what he really meant even if it wasn't entirely PC.

But governor of New Jersey is one thing. President of the United States is another. If this had been 2016 and Christie had pulled Saturday's stunt during a primary run, that NBC footage would be blanketing cable news on a 24/7 loop. If he did it a second time, his presidential aspirations would be over. Something that seems sort of cute when it's just Jersey—and when it's something you vaguely hear about third hand—would sink you if you were running for president. I guarantee you that the American public will very quickly become repelled at the sight of a Jersey loudmouth bullying ordinary citizens who have the temerity to disagree with him.

So the question is, can Christie control himself? Or will he lose his temper one too many times during a grueling, sleepless primary campaign? Since "one too many times" is quite possibly "once," my money says he doesn't stand much of a chance.

Obamacare Will Be a Boon For Millions of People

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 11:39 AM EST

Starting in 2014, some people who have individual health insurance policies will have to pay more for a new policy that meets Obamacare's tighter standards. However, there are also some people who are simply being fed a line by their insurance company, which wants to sell them a more expensive policy and doesn't feel like telling them that better options might be available. Dylan Scott reports on the experience of a woman in Washington who got a letter from LifeWise telling her that they planned to automatically enroll her in a new plan that cost $300 per month more than her existing plan:

Under the new LifeWise plan, Donna would have to pay more than $1,000 a month, a nearly $300 per month increase and a huge hit for a family with an income around $40,000. It was bare-bones coverage by ACA standards, with a $6,350 deductible.

....Fast forward a month, and Donna was able to log onto Washington's marketplace and shop for insurance. And what did she find? Options. A LifeWise plan with the same deductible they offered her outside the exchange was a little cheaper. Plans with a lower deductible had the same or lower premiums as the LifeWise plan. What she ended up buying was a plan through Community Health Plan of Washington with a $250 deductible.

And crucially, she also discovered she would qualify for a federal tax subsidy that would knock her monthly premium to $80. Her daughter could enroll in Medicaid, at no cost to the family.

So here's the bottom line: If Donna had taken the default option that LifeWise offered outside of the marketplace, she would have paid nearly $1,000 more per month for a worse plan than she was able to obtain on the marketplace.

Higher premiums for some individual policy holders is a legitimate story. But so is this one, and I'll bet it's a hundred times more common.