Kevin Drum - 2013menu-mediakit-secondary

Are Republicans Getting Ready to Shoot Themselves in the Foot?

| Tue May 21, 2013 1:34 PM EDT

Greg Sargent has been arguing for a while that Republicans run the risk of turning off voters if they go overboard on scandalmania. A new Washington Post poll bolsters his argument:

The Post poll finds a majority believes the Obama administration is trying to “cover up” facts about the IRS scandal and that a plurality thinks it is trying to cover up Benghazi facts. These numbers are at odds with yesterday’s CNN poll, which found more Americans think Obama is being truthful. But that aside, in spite of these negative findings about the scandals, the Post poll also finds that Obama’s approval rating is holding steady, at 51 percent, and the economy may be the reason why: Majorities believe the economy is beginning to recover and are optimistic about where the economy will go in the next year.

I'll play devil's advocate here. First, I think 1998 was probably unique: The nature of the scandal was clear to everyone and a majority of Americans simply didn't think it was very serious. The nature of our current set of contretemps isn't yet clear, and the Post poll makes it plain that most Americans do take them seriously. As we learn more, there's every chance that the public could view them as even more serious. In fact, they probably will. After all, a big pile of scandals in the sixth year of a presidency usually spells trouble. 1998 is the sole exception, and I wouldn't hang too much on it.

Second, there's overreach and then there's overreach. In 1998, Republicans didn't just go a little overboard, they actually impeached Bill Clinton. As long as Republicans steer clear of impeachment this time around, they should be OK. 

Third, I'd like to see the crosstabs for the Post poll. How partisan are the results? Where do independents stand? If this is already a pure partisan battle, it won't go anywhere. But if Democrats are wavering, or if independents are mostly agreeing with Republicans, that could spell trouble.

Finally, approval ratings have a certain amount of inertia. It's possible that there just hasn't been time yet for all of this stuff to affect Obama's approval rating. It may well start to suffer in the coming months, even if the economy does keep improving.

Do I actually believe all this? Sort of. But Republicans still have several problems. First, they're having a hard time tying anything serious to President Obama, and I don't expect that to change. Second, even if they avoid going down the impeachment rabbit hole, they show all the signs of a party just itching to shoot itself in the foot. The bogus email leaks are a case in point: you lose the press when you pull stunts like that. Finally, this is all happening too early. Maybe Republicans can keep up the outrage for a few months, but a year and a half? I really have a hard time seeing that.

Right now, Republicans are benefiting from a press corps that's offended by the AP subpoenas and Jay Carney's evasions over the Benghazi talking points. But their pique won't last forever. In the end, Sargent is probably right: these "scandals" are going to fade, and Republicans are going to get more and more desperate to keep them in the spotlight. That's pretty likely to lead them down a road to disaster.

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Congress Can Make Apple Pay Any Taxes It Wants To

| Tue May 21, 2013 11:17 AM EDT

Sen. Rand Paul, obviously trying to follow up on the roaring success of his "Stand With Rand" filibuster, decided to go all #slatepitchy yesterday during hearings that revealed the stupendous extent of Apple's tax avoidance strategies:

I am offended by the tone and tenor of this hearing. I am offended by a $4 trillion government bullying, berating and badgering one of America's greatest success stories.

....I am offended by the spectacle of dragging in here executives from an American company that is not doing anything illegal. If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress.

I frankly think the Committee should apologize to Apple. I frankly think Congress should be on trial here for creating a bizarre and byzantine tax code that runs into the tens of thousands of pages, for creating a tax code that simply doesn't compete with the rest of the world.

I'm amused that a congressional investigation becomes "bullying, berating and badgering" when the topic happens to be taxes, but I'll allow Paul his histrionics. Because, roughly speaking, he's right. Congress sets the rules, and if they want to make sure Apple pays its taxes, all they have to do is write laws that require it.

That said, Paul's outrage is more than a little hard to take here since it's people like him that have been so successful at preventing Congress from writing a decent corporate tax code in the first place. His only concern is slashing taxes, not rationalizing them, and if someone introduced a bill to make Apple pay its fair share into the voracious federal maw, Paul would undoubtedly be grandstanding yet again with another filibuster. He doesn't really deserve to be taken very seriously on this subject.

Still, it's true that, in theory, Congress can address this anytime it wants. They set the rules, and they don't really have much standing to complain when companies exploit those rules to pay as little in taxes as possible. After all, what do you expect them to do?

The Fight For Our Precious Bodily Fluids

| Tue May 21, 2013 10:17 AM EDT

With Oregon in the healthcare news so much lately, it's only fitting that Portland is holding a vote today on water fluoridation. Sarah Kliff reports:

The fluoride vote will happen Tuesday and the most recent polls have the anti-fluoride camp up 50 percent to 43 percent. If Portland voters reject fluoridated water, it will follow in the path of many cities before it. Forty-four cities around the world — largely in the United States, Australia and Canada — have passed anti-fluoridation policies this year, according to the Fluoride Action Network.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for fluoridation opponents. Not because I think fluoridation is harmful or ineffective. The evidence is overwhelming that it's neither, and Portland would be nuts to vote against it. And not because I have any sympathy for the John Birch Society loons who think fluoridation is some kind of global conspiracy theory.

No, it's just because I have a bit of sympathy for the slippery slope argument. This argument is simple: The goal of a water agency should be to provide clean water, period. So chlorine is fine because that's part of the core mission of making sure water is clean. But once you decide you can add other stuff because it provides some kind of societal benefit, where does it stop? If you can add fluoride, why not statins? Or anything else that a majority of the population thinks is a good idea?

Now, that said, I've never had more than a bit of sympathy for slippery slope arguments of any kind. The key question is whether or not we're actually likely to fall down the slope. We're human beings with intelligence and agency, after all, not rocks on a hillside. I believe, for example, that human beings are naturally cruel to outsiders, especially during war, so we need the strongest possible taboos against torture and ill treatment of prisoners. Even the smallest crack is likely to open the floodgates of rage and revenge. But fluoridation isn't like that. Are people really likely to start filling up their municipal water supplies with anything that sounds good once they've taken the fatal first step with fluoride? I don't think so, and history suggests I'm right not to worry too much about that. So fluoridation is fine.

Still, I sort of get the fear. And for those of you who think the fear is just some right-wing rube thing, take a look at the map on the right. The areas of the country with the highest fluoridation rates? The South and the Midwest. The areas with the lowest rates? The Northeast and the Pacific Coast.

GOP: Obama Is Responsible for "A Culture of Intimidation"

| Mon May 20, 2013 11:02 PM EDT

Apparently this is the latest Republican thing. They can't show that Obama has been actually involved in the IRS scandal—or in any of the other squabbles currently roiling Washington DC, for that matter—so now they've gotten together and agreed on a new party line: Obama is responsible for all of this stuff anyway because he's relentlessly stoked a "culture of intimidation" against his adversaries. "The president demonizes his opponents," Mitch McConnell said with a straight face on Sunday, and this is at the root of all our problems.

Paul Mirengoff correctly suggests that this sounds whiny—"the kind of thing I'd expect from Democrats." But he agrees with the basic premise that Obama demonizes his opponents, and points us to an NRO piece by Eliana Johnson that provides the proof. I was curious, so I clicked the link. Just what has Obama done to strike fear into Republicans' hearts?

Well, only three things apparently. First, he dissed Fox News and then tried to exclude them from the network pool. Second, at an explicitly partisan DNC fundraiser following the Citizens United decision, he castigated "groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates all across the country." AFP, of course, is supported by the Koch brothers. And apparently Obama has also said some uncomplimentary things about Rush Limbaugh. This is the full bill of particulars.

I'll give them the Fox thing. Trying to keep Fox out of the press pool was bush league nonsense. But really. Kicking back at the rancid bile that spews out of Rush Limbaugh's mouth on a daily basis? Telling a bunch of rich Democratic donors that they're up against lots of rich Republican donors, so please open your wallets? This is a culture of intimidation?

Conservatives, of course, have fostered a culture not of intimidation, but of rank hatred so insane you can practically see the spittle flecks every time they talk about Obama. And yet, when Obama returns fire, even with his trademark restraint, it's time to bring out the smelling salts. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

When is 2 About the Same as 70 Million?

| Mon May 20, 2013 8:31 PM EDT

A "twin prime" is a pair of prime numbers that differ by two. For example, 11 and 13, or 857 and 859. The "twin prime conjecture" states that there are an infinite number of twin primes. To this day, nobody has ever been able to prove this. It's one of the great open conjectures of number theory.

Recently, however, an unknown mathematician proved a theorem that, according to the experts, is almost the same thing. It turns out that there are an infinite number of prime pairs that differ by some number N. And what is N? We still don't know, but Yitang Zhang of the University of New Hampshire has demonstrated that it's less than 70 million.

This is why I love number theory. I mean, what's a difference of 69,999,998 between friends? Also this:

Without communicating with the field’s experts, Zhang started thinking about the problem. After three years, however, he had made no progress. “I was so tired,” he said. To take a break, Zhang visited a friend in Colorado last summer. There, on July 3, during a half-hour lull in his friend’s backyard before leaving for a concert, the solution suddenly came to him. “I immediately realized that it would work,” he said.

Isn't that just perfect?

GOP Congressman: Calls for Impeachment "Will Likely Increase"

| Mon May 20, 2013 2:18 PM EDT

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R–Utah) talks to National Review about the I-word:

Behind the scenes, he says, House Republicans are frustrated by the White House’s evasiveness, and the calls for impeachment will likely increase. Chaffetz acknowledges that House speaker John Boehner is wary of moving too swiftly against the president....“Now, the speaker has more patience than I do,” Chaffetz says. “He has told me to be patient, that the truth will eventually surface. But I’m not a patient person, and if this administration makes us do this the hard way, that’s what we’ll do.”

....“This is an administration embroiled in a scandal that they created,” he says. “It’s a cover-up. I’m not saying impeachment is the end game, but it’s a possibility, especially if they keep doing little to help us learn more.”

See? All those calls from Republican elders to settle down and not get too crazy are working! According to Chaffetz, impeachment isn't a sure thing, it's only a possibility. That's totally non-crazy. All that's left now is to find some actual presidential wrongdoing. But I'm sure that's just a technicality.

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An Inside Look at How DOJ Goes After Reporters, Not Just Leakers

| Mon May 20, 2013 1:01 PM EDT

The Washington Post writes today about the extraordinary treatment of a reporter in a recent leak investigation. But this one isn't about the AP or an al-Qaeda mole. It's about North Korea:

When the Justice Department began investigating possible leaks of classified information about North Korea in 2009, investigators did more than obtain telephone records of a working journalist suspected of receiving the secret material.

They used security badge access records to track the reporter’s comings and goings from the State Department, according to a newly obtained court affidavit. They traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report. They obtained a search warrant for the reporter’s personal e-mails.

....Court documents in the Kim case reveal how deeply investigators explored the private communications of a working journalist — and raise the question of how often journalists have been investigated as closely as Rosen was in 2010. The case also raises new concerns among critics of government secrecy about the possible stifling effect of these investigations on a critical element of press freedom: the exchange of information between reporters and their sources.

Even more extraordinary, the Justice Department appeared to consider prosecution of not just the leaker in this case, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, but also the reporter, James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News. The charge? Acting as "either as an aider, abettor, and/or co-conspirator of Mr. Kim." In other words, trying to get access to confidential government information, something that reporters do every single day. The key section of the warrant is below.

In the end, Rosen was never charged with anything, but it sure sounds as if DOJ might have thought about it. Read the entire Post piece for more.

Peggy Noonan's Broken Soul

| Mon May 20, 2013 11:29 AM EDT

I've read a slew of blog posts over the past few days suggesting that Peggy Noonan has finally and comprehensively gone crazy. The evidence is her latest column, which starts with "We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate" and goes downhill from there. But I don't get it. This isn't Noonan's worst column ever. It's not even her worst column in the month of May. That would be last week's column, in which she accused President Obama of refusing to send rescue teams to Benghazi because he thought it might hurt his reelection chances. I'm not making that up, and I'm not exaggerating. Here's what she wrote:

The Obama White House sees every event as a political event. Really, every event, even an attack on a consulate and the killing of an ambassador. Because of that, it could not tolerate the idea that the armed assault on the Benghazi consulate was a premeditated act of Islamist terrorism. That would carry a whole world of unhappy political implications, and demand certain actions.

....All of this is bad enough. Far worse is the implied question that hung over the House hearing, and that cries out for further investigation. That is the idea that if the administration was to play down the nature of the attack it would have to play down the response—that is, if you want something to be a nonstory you have to have a nonresponse. So you don't launch a military rescue operation, you don't scramble jets, and you have a rationalization—they're too far away, they'll never make it in time. This was probably true, but why not take the chance when American lives are at stake?

Noonan basically thinks that Barack Obama sat in the situation room on September 11th last year and was asked repeatedly, Do you want to send in a FAST team? How about the C-110 force in Croatia? Should we scramble F-16s? Can we send in a team from Tripoli? And each time, Obama stroked his chin, stared up at the ceiling, and decided that attempting to save American lives might hurt his reelection chances. So he said no.

There is, literally, not a single politician in the country that I would suspect of doing something like that. Not even the ones I loathe. Not Dick Cheney. Not Richard Nixon. Not Darrell Issa. Not Newt Gingrich. Not anyone. I think you'd have to go all the way up the ladder to Josef Stalin to find that degree of cynicism and callousness.

But that's apparently what Noonan thinks of Obama. This is the work of a broken soul who happens to have a bit of writing skill. But broken nonetheless.

A Brief Reminder: Presidential Distance from DOJ and the IRS is a Good Thing

| Mon May 20, 2013 10:06 AM EDT

Dave Weigel notes that one particular conservative talking point has clearly caught on:

Score one for Republicans: The White House's insistence that Obama learned of every scandal "by reading the news" has become a punchline.

To the extent that this is just political attack-doggery, I don't really care about it. It's what you expect when the opposition party smells chum in the water. But we've been hearing this from mainstream reporters too, and it's a whole lot less defensible there. Chris Matthews, for example, was howling the other day about Obama's ignorance of the AP phone record subpoena, which he thought was indefensible. "You don't think Bobby would have called Jack?" he asked incredulously. And he's right: Bobby would have called Jack. And that would have been wrong, which is why the Justice Department is now kept at a much greater distance from the White House. This is universally considered a good thing, which explains Jay Carney's "Are you serious?" when he was asked about this by reporters a few day ago. Surely we haven't forgotten so soon after Watergate exactly why we prefer for the president to be kept very far away from criminal investigations?

Ditto for the IRS, which for similar reasons is an agency that we've deliberately set up to be independent of the president. We don't want the president to have any influence over the IRS, and we don't want him kept apprised of the details of ongoing inquiries. It would have been a scandal if Obama had known any details about the IG investigation of the IRS's tea party targeting.

By chance, two of our three current "scandals" happen to involve agencies that we really do want to retain their independence from the president. (Benghazi is different, but there's no scandal there in the first place.) As the feeding frenzy moves into high gear, I hope everyone remembers this. Ask all the tough questions you want, but let's not pretend, even jokingly, that Obama should have known more about investigations at DOJ or the IRS. That's exactly the opposite of what we want.

Who is the Most Reviled Person in America?

| Sun May 19, 2013 7:43 PM EDT

Here is the LA Times describing how the tea party targeting scandal at the IRS got its start:

In March 2010, a manager in a Cincinnati determinations unit asked a screener to get a handle on the issue, according to the report from the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration. The agent started pulling applications with political-sounding names, such as "tea party" and "patriots."

And just who is this screener? Here's the New York Times:

For months, the Tea Party cases sat on the desk of a lone specialist, who used “political sounding” criteria — words like “patriots,” “we the people” — as a way to search efficiently through the flood of applications for groups that might not qualify for exemptions, according to the I.R.S. inspector general. 

....It is not yet clear which manager in Cincinnati asked for an initial keyword search of Tea Party applications, Congressional aides said. One of the employees that the House committee is seeking to interview this week, Joseph Herr, had been a manager in charge of the group of specialists in Cincinnati from its inception through August 2010, according to the aides.

So we don't yet know who this poor schmoe is. But we're going to subpoena Joseph Herr and make him tell us! And when that happens, this mysterious lone specialist will officially become the most reviled person in America. I can hardly wait.

BY THE WAY: Both of these pieces are well worth reading. They are among the first in what is quickly becoming a whole new subgenre: the story about how the Cincinnati office of the IRS is completely and totally FUBARed. I expect this to culminate in a 20,000-word piece in the New Yorker.