Kevin Drum - December 2013

Chart of the Day: Republicans Rule Sunday Morning

| Tue Dec. 31, 2013 7:50 PM EST

Steve Benen has once again tallied up all the guests on the five major Sunday morning chat shows, and as usual, Republicans rule the roost. The chart below shows everyone with 10 or more appearances, and 77 percent of them are Republicans:

This really is a bit of a mystery. It's easy to go on about how the Beltway media is obsessed with Republicans no matter who's in charge, yada yada yada, but that's not really a satisfying explanation. Nor is it because one side happens to have more charismatic leaders than the other: it's true that neither Harry Reid nor Nancy Pelosi are on this list, but neither are John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. So what explains it? Are Republicans more aggressive than Democrats about getting themselves booked? Are Democrats more boring than Republicans? Do Republicans get better ratings? Is theatrical intransigence just fundamentally better TV?

Seriously, what's the deal? "Reporters love Republicans" just doesn't cut it. So what's up?

UPDATE: Inquiring minds want to know more. There are more Republicans with 10 or more appearances, but that doesn't tell us anything about total numbers. How many total Republicans and total Democrats made Sunday appearances in 2013? I asked Steve Benen for the raw numbers, and he kindly obliged.

Answer: 413 Republicans and 311 Democrats, counting all independents as Democrats. For the record, this counts only politicians: officeholders, former officeholders, candidates and potential candidates, etc. Strategists, pundits, and flacks for interest groups aren't included. This is Democrats vs. Republicans, not liberals vs. conservatives.

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A Year Later, We Finally Have a Pretty Good Idea What Happened in Benghazi

| Mon Dec. 30, 2013 9:57 PM EST

We will never know definitively what happened in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012. There were too many people involved, too many motivations for the attack, too many conflicting stories after the attack, and too little indisputable evidence about the exact course of events. Add to that the usual fog-of-war issues and you simply have to accept that we'll never know with absolute certainty everything that happened.

That said, after more than a year of investigation we know a lot. And while I was out of town, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times produced a state-of-the-art summary of where the best evidence leads us. The whole piece is well worth reading, but I'd highlight a couple of things.

First, Kirkpatrick concludes that the attack was primarily the work of Mr. Abu Khattala, who headed up a local militia that was allied with Ansar al-Sharia, another local militia:

The C.I.A. kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to Al Qaeda. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden....“We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”

....The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack....But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.

....Three weeks after the attack, on Oct. 3, 2012, leaders of the group’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sent a letter to a lieutenant about efforts to crack the new territory....The letter, left behind when the group’s leaders fled French troops in Mali, was later obtained and released by The Associated Press. It tallied up the “spectacular” acts of terrorism the group had accomplished around the region, but it made no mention of Benghazi or any other attacks in Libya.

It's important to understand exactly what Kirkpatrick is saying: not just that Al Qaeda had essentially nothing to do with the attack in Benghazi, but that our preoccupation with al-Qaeda actively crippled our understanding of what was happening in Libya. And the same thing happened after the attack. Based on the thinnest imaginable pretexts, conservatives have continued to insist that Al Qaeda was responsible, and that's crippled our ability to understand what really happened that night.

Beyond that, I think Blake Hounshell makes the most salient point: it's all but impossible to pinpoint exactly what "Al Qaeda" is these days anyway. In reality, there's a continuum of groups, starting with purely local militants on one end and Al Qaeda central on the other. In between are groups "allied" with Al Qaeda; groups with "ties" to Al Qaeda; groups with members who once worked with Al Qaeda; and groups that have no real connection to Al Qaeda but have similar goals. Trying to figure out which of these groups are "really" Al Qaeda and which aren't is a mug's game.

The second point I'd highlight is the role of the infamous "Innocence of Muslims" video. Here is Kirkpatrick:

On Sept. 8, a popular Islamist preacher lit the fuse by screening a clip of the video on the ultraconservative Egyptian satellite channel El Nas....Islamists in Benghazi were watching....By Sept. 9, a popular eastern Libyan Facebook page had denounced the film.

On the morning of Sept. 11, even some secular political activists were posting calls online for a protest that Friday, three days away....Around dusk, the Pan-Arab satellite networks began broadcasting footage of protesters breaching the walls of the American Embassy in Cairo, pulling down the American flag and running up the black banner of militant Islam. Young men around Benghazi began calling one another with the news, several said, and many learned of the video for the first time.

....There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers. A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him. Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.

If Kirkpatrick sounds slightly exasperated in this passage, it's because he reported all this more than a year ago. And he wasn't the only one. For some reason, though, it's been almost universally shoved down the memory hole. It's conventional wisdom these days that the video played no role.

But that's almost certainly not the case. The best evidence suggests that Benghazi was an opportunistic attack: There were lots of militant groups in Benghazi itching for action and looking around for a suitable provocation. Plenty of things might have done the job, and in the end, "Innocence of Muslims" turned out to be one of them.

Not the only one, though. Like it or not, there's no simple motivation for Benghazi. Likewise, there's no simple account of how well planned the attack was. Most likely, as Kirkpatrick says, it was neither spontaneous nor the result of long planning. It was something in between, probably in the works for a day or so before it started.

At this point, this is what we know. Benghazi was an opportunistic attack. Several groups were involved, all of them essentially local and with nothing but the most tenuous connections to Al Qaeda. These groups had multiple motivations for the attack, and anger over the "Innocence of Muslims" video was one of them. It provided the spark, and within a day or two it had fanned the flames of resentment enough to make an attack feasible. A few hours later, the attack was planned and then carried out.

That's the nickel summary. But do read the whole thing to get the full story. For now, it's about the best, most fair-minded account that we have.

Another 13 Years in Afghanistan?

| Mon Dec. 30, 2013 1:22 PM EST

I probably missed this while I was away, but the LA Times catches me up this morning:

U.S. intelligence agencies warn in a new, classified assessment that insurgents could quickly regain control of key areas of Afghanistan and threaten the capital as soon as 2015 if American troops are fully withdrawn next year, according to two officials familiar with the findings.

The National Intelligence Estimate, which was given recently to the White House, has deeply concerned some U.S. officials. It represents the first time the intelligence community has formally warned that the Afghan government could face significantly more serious attacks in Kabul from a resurgent Taliban within months of a U.S. pullout, the officials said, speaking anonymously to discuss classified material. The assessment also concludes that security conditions probably will worsen regardless of whether the U.S. keeps troops in the country.

By the time we leave next year, we will have been in Afghanistan for 13 years. And yet, the consensus of our intelligence community is that we've had such a minuscule impact that the Taliban could be back in control of the country within a year or two. I think you can draw two basic conclusions from this:

  • Afghanistan is a tough nut, and we just need a few more years there.
  • The U.S military is plainly unable to affect the basic dynamics of Afghan culture, so we might as well leave.

As near as I can tell, Option A rather curiously marks you as a tough-minded person who faces the world with open eyes. Option B, which actually has the vast weight of evidence behind it, marks you as a dreamer and a defeatist. It's as though we already live on Bizarro Earth. I wonder if things are different back on Earth-1?

As 2013 Comes to an End, Obamacare Starting to Look Pretty Healthy

| Mon Dec. 30, 2013 12:25 PM EST

I've been away from the news for a few days, so I'm behind on things. How's Obamacare doing? Is it still a train wreck, an epic blunder, doomed to failure, the worst thing to happen to the American public since Dred Scott? I guess it must be. What can happen in the space of a few days, after all? Oh wait:

What seemed impossible in October suddenly became a lot more plausible in late December. This weekend, new enrollment data showed approximately 2 million Americans signed up for private health insurance plans since the start of open enrollment. Health policy experts now see a space to get to 7 million — although it's by no means a guarantee.

"October and November were essentially lost months," says Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "December is the first month where we're getting an indication of how things are working. It's starting to track with what people, particularly the CBO, projected originally." 

"It was a very impressive December," says Dan Mendelson, president of health research firm Avalere Health. "The fact that they have about 2 million enrolled is not that far off from [the original CBO projection of] 3.3 million."

Huh. How about that? Make a few tweaks here and there, get the marketing machine rolling, fix the website, and Obamacare is close to being back on track. It's never going to be the answer to all our health care woes—or, thanks to the vagaries of politics, even the best we could have done—but it's going to do a lot of good for a lot of people. Here in the real world, that's really the best we can hope for from a big new piece of public policy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 December 2013

| Fri Dec. 27, 2013 2:00 PM EST

Here it is, our final quilt of the year. The design is a "blooming nine patch." (The nine-patchy nature of the quilt might not be obvious at a distance. Click here for a close-up. If you look carefully, you'll see that every other square is 3x3 nine-patch.) It's machine pieced and machine quilted, and it's the only quilt Marian has designed specifically to coordinate with our house. (It matches the drapes.) And since this is our final quilt, it's fitting to spotlight the person responsible for this year's quiltfest. In this year's final catblogging picture, Marian is doing her best to get Domino to cooperate with the camera, and as you can see, she succeeded admirably.

And now for one more year-end pitch. The most important part of Mother Jones isn't this blog, it's the serious investigative reporting we do. As the PEN Award judges put it, we've become an "internationally recognized powerhouse...influencing everything from the gun-control debate to presidential campaigns."

But it takes money to do this, so we're holding a fundraiser right now for our investigative reporting fund. If you value our independent voice, please contribute a few dollars. We'll make sure your gift will immediately go to support Mother Jones' reporting. Here are the links:

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Thanks!

Public Service Announcement

| Thu Dec. 26, 2013 10:00 AM EST

I'll be off for the rest of the year, returning after New Year's. During the next week I might pop in with an occasional post, or I might not. Who knows? Friday catblogging, however, will appear as usual on Friday.

In the meantime, enjoy what's left of 2013, and let's all hope that 2014 is a whole lot better.

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Merry Christmas!

| Wed Dec. 25, 2013 8:30 AM EST

And now for our traditional Christmas ornament greeting, in memory of the late, much-loved Inkblot. Merry Christmas, everyone.

How the Media Would Have Covered the Birth of Jesus

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 2:19 PM EST

Dan Amira:

The arrival of the messiah would have been a huge media event at the time had there actually been any media aside from the guy who announced the king's royal proclamations from a balcony. Consequently, we are forced to make educated guesses about how today's media would have covered the story, if it were around back then.

This takes about 20 seconds to read, and is funnier than I expected. Go ahead and click.

Quote of the Day: I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to....Um....

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 1:45 PM EST

From Sarah Palin, five days after defending Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson for his anti-gay statements in a GQ interview:

I haven’t read the article. I don’t know exactly how he said it.

That's a shocker, isn't it? But no matter. For Palin, this is basically affinity marketing. It doesn't really matter what Robertson said, only that he represents the kind of right-thinking real Americans that Palin fancies herself a spokesman for.

And as long as I've now broken my vow not to comment on this idiocy (or Pajama Boy or Justine Sacco), here's something I've been idly wondering about. Since I'm not a real American, I don't watch Duck Dynasty, but I've seen a few episodes here and there while channel surfing. And even from just a few minutes' viewing it was pretty obvious that it was very heavily edited. These guys clearly have a lot of seriously un-PC views, and A&E is pretty careful to make sure that none of them end up on the air. They prefer lovable old coots to a bunch of backwoods culture warriors.

In other words, the lack of anything even remotely political on the show seems pretty plainly artificial. Right? So it surely wasn't a surprise to A&E that Phil Robertson has the views he has. I'll bet they have miles of tape that ended up on the cutting room floor because it was likely to offend someone.

Anyway, I'm curious: Am I off base about this? It was practically the first thing that crossed my mind when I first saw an episode of the show. Is it really as obvious as I think, or did I jump to a conclusion I shouldn't have?

UPDATE: Actually, it sounds like I might have been off base about this. It turns out that the whole Duck Dynasty redneck schtick is much more an invention than I realized, and the show is tightly scripted (not just edited) before the season even begins. That said, it's still a virtual certainty that A&E knew Phil Robertson's views on hot button cultural issues perfectly well. In fact it seems more likely than not that this entire controversy was deliberately engineered by A&E to generate publicity. It certainly wouldn't surprise me, anyway.

Festivus Grievance Airing: I Want More Windows Tablets

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 1:16 PM EST

What do you want for Christmas this year?

What I want is a nice Windows tablet. I already have an iPad and an Android tab, and a Windows device would round out my collection nicely. And although Windows haters are gonna hate, I'd personally find it pretty handy to have a tablet that can do tablet stuff but can also do real computer stuff when I need it to. In fact, even for tablet-type stuff, it would be really nice to have a full-featured web browser instead of the junky cut-down stuff that's designed for mobile phones and then hastily modified for tablet use.

But the tablet manufacturers of the world have disappointed me. After years of promising that their next generation of processors would really and for suresies be great for tablets, Intel has finally delivered. I've played with several tablets using Intel's new Atom 3770 SOC, and they're great. Performance is snappy, web pages load as fast as they do on my desktop, and if the specs are to be believed, its power consumption is miserly enough to produce 9-10 hours of battery life. And by all accounts, Windows 8.1 is finally pretty usable too.

So the technology is finally in good shape. But where are all the tablets? Microsoft screwed up its Surface 2 Pro by opting for Intel's top-of-the-line Haswell processors, which are overkill for anyone but a serious gamer or Photoshop fanatic and make the S2P thick, heavy, and short-lived. The ordinary Surface, which uses an ARM processor, is Windows RT only, which is a joke. By my estimate, the Surface 2 line is just about the most ill-conceived collection of product design decisions since New Coke.

No real surprise there, I suppose. But what about the rest of the tablet world? It turns out there are surprisingly few 3770-based devices. Asus has one, but it's cheap and has crappy resolution. HP's Omni 10 looks fairly decent, but it has limited memory and an uncertain future. The Dell Venue 11 had me drooling a bit when I first read about it (11-inch screen! Full-size USB port!), but they cheaped out just a little too much on the screen, which has only OK resolution. (I'm a bug on pixel density. As far as I'm concerned, the first real tablet in the world was the iPad 3, with its Retina display. I won't use anything with much less resolution than that.) Sharp has a super high-res Mebius device for sale in Japan, but it's not likely to be available in the US anytime soon, if ever.

And that's pretty much it. Here in America, there are a grand total of four devices to choose from. I want more! Santa's elves have badly let me down this year.

POSTSCRIPT: Sophisticated readers will understand that the real point of this post is to prompt hundreds of comments telling me why I'm an idiot for wanting a Windows tablet, since there can be no possible legitimate reason for wanting one. So have at it! This is my Christmas gift to you.