Kevin Drum

Yet Another Day in Republican Scumbaggery

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 1:00 AM EDT

Today President Obama asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help deal with the surge of minors crossing the border. You may color me unsurprised over the Republican response:

The proposal was quickly met with broad skepticism among Republican lawmakers, who were doubtful that the package would be approved quickly — if at all....GOP leaders, who have called on Obama to take stronger action, said they were reluctant to give the administration a “blank check” without ­more-detailed plans to ensure that the money would help stem the crisis at the border.

The president “is asking to use billions of taxpayer dollars without accountability or a plan in place to actually stop the border crisis,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Asked if he thought lawmakers would approve the proposal, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, “No, given the mood here in Washington, I don’t have confidence it will happen.”

Well, of course it won't happen. The crisis along the border is tailor made for Republicans. It makes their base hopping mad, it juices their campaign fundraising, and anytime the government is unable to address a problem it makes Obama look bad. Why on earth would Republicans want to do anything to change any of this?

As long as Obama is president, chaos is good for Republicans. After all, most voters don't really know who's at fault when things go wrong, they just know there's a crisis and Obama doesn't seem to be doing anything about it. Exploiting that may be cynical and revolting, but hey, politics ain't beanbag. And in case you haven't heard, there's an election coming up.

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Finally, Someone With the Guts to Call for Obama's Impeachment

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 2:34 PM EDT

I see that Sarah Palin is apparently starved for attention again. Here's her latest:

President Obama’s rewarding of lawlessness, including his own, is the foundational problem here. It’s not going to get better, and in fact irreparable harm can be done in this lame-duck term as he continues to make up his own laws as he goes along, and, mark my words, will next meddle in the U.S. Court System with appointments that will forever change the basic interpretation of our Constitution’s role in protecting our rights.

It’s time to impeach; and on behalf of American workers and legal immigrants of all backgrounds, we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment.

The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.

Quite right. Minors are swarming our borders because American exceptionalism is at risk thanks to Obama's failure to help the Ukrainians which means our enemies no longer fear us and the dollar is being debased. Or was it because he failed to arm the Syrian rebels? I forget. Something to do with Putin, though. And the Fed. Plus, um, recess appointments and one-year extensions to TyrannyCare mandates. And Benghazi.

Whatever. Impeach Obama! I sure hope every Republican in the country is asked to weigh in on this.

Will the Washington Post Destroy "Incidental" NSA Intercepts When It's Done With Them?

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 12:27 PM EDT

A couple of days ago the Washington Post published an article based on a cache of thousands of surveillance intercepts that it got from Edward Snowden. That produced the suggestion—not widespread, I think, but still out there—that the Post was now violating privacy just like the NSA has been. Glenn Greenwald thought this was pretty dumb, but Julian Sanchez wasn't so sure:

Doesn't seem TOTALLY frivolous. I hope you & WaPo are destroying copies of intimate communications once reporting's done.

This is actually....a good point. The charge against the NSA isn't just that it ends up surveilling thousands of innocent people who are merely innocent bystanders in court-approved investigations. Even critics concede that this is inevitable to some extent. The problem is that once the NSA has collected all these "incidental" intercepts, they keep them forever in their databases and make them available to other law enforcement agencies for whatever use they want to make of them. At the very least, privacy advocates would like these incidental collections to be destroyed after they've served their immediate purpose.

So will the Post do this? Once they've finished their immediate reporting on this, will they destroy these intercepts? Or will they keep them around for the same reason the NSA does: because, hey, they have them, and you never know if they might come in handy some day?

There's always been a tension inherent in Edward Snowden's exposure of the NSA's surveillance programs: Who gets to decide? You may think, as I do, that the government has repeatedly shown itself to be an unreliable judge of how much the public should know about its mass surveillance programs. But who should it be instead? Snowden? Glenn Greenwald? The Washington Post? Who elected them to make these decisions? Why should we trust their judgment?

It's not a question with a satisfying answer. Sometimes you just have to muddle along and, in this case, hope that the whistleblowers end up producing a net benefit to the public discourse. But this time we don't have to muddle. This is a very specific question, and we should all be interested in the answer. Do Greenwald and the Post plan to destroy these private communications once they're done with them? Or will they hold on to them forever, just like the NSA?

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, there's a difference here. On the one hand, we have the government, with its vast law-enforcement powers, holding onto massive and growing amounts of incidental surveillance. On the other we have a private actor with a small sample of this surveillance. We should legitimately be more concerned with possible abuses of power by the government, both generally, and in this case, very specifically. But that's a starting point, not the end of the conversation. Sanchez is still asking a good question.

Quote of the Day: Bizarro John Boehner Joins Twitter

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 11:42 AM EDT

Steve Benen points me to the latest foray into social networking from Speaker John Boehner:

Democrats like to say they want to fix #ObamaCare, but where’s their plan? They don’t have one.

It's not worth belaboring the fact that this is epically dumb. What I'm curious about is what Boehner thinks this will accomplish. Who is it supposed to appeal to? To the tea party true believers, it's too weak to be effective. They want red meat. To liberals it's just laughable. To folks in the middle it's incomprehensible. To the media—which knows perfectly well that Dems have plenty of ideas and Republicans are hopelessly fractured over health care—it's idiotic.

So who's the audience for this?

Defining Stalinoid Down

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

Last night I was paging through the New Republic and, for some reason, ended up torturing myself by reading Leon Wieselter's latest exercise in pretension and self-regard. It was fairly ordinary, as these things go, but included this aside about supporters of the Iraq War:

(The other day Rachel Maddow, who has never been significantly wrong about anything, published this Stalinoid sentence in The Washington Post: “Whether they are humbled by their own mistakes or not, it is our civic responsibility to ensure that a history of misstatements and misjudgments has consequences for a person’s credibility in our national discourse.”)

Stalinoid? Seriously? For a very mild suggestion that people with a history of being wrong should be thought less credible in the future? That sounds more like a bare minimum of common sense than a cultural pogrom aimed at neocons and liberal hawks.

I've suggested in the past that we should all calm down a bit over analogies to Hitler and Nazis in popular discourse, so I'm hardly one to complain about using Stalin in the same way. But this is still a pretty reprehensible slur. Wieselter needs to find a better outlet for his frustration over being wrong about the Iraq War.

Yet Another Chuckleheaded Covert Op in the US-Cuba Relationship

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 12:24 AM EDT

Remember that story a couple of years ago about Sen. Robert Menendez supposedly cavorting with teenage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic? Well....

According to a former U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of government intelligence, the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.

....The intelligence information indicated that operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence helped create a fake tipster using the name “Pete Williams,” according to the former official. The tipster told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.

....The allegations against Menendez erupted in public in November 2012, when the Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, quoted two Dominican women claiming Menendez had paid them for sex....Last year, three Dominican women who had initially claimed to reporters that they had been paid to have sex with Menendez recanted their story.

Is there any other pair of countries in the world responsible for launching more stupid covert ops against each other than Cuba and the United States? Apparently the brains of intelligence operatives in both Havana and Washington DC turn to tapioca at the mere mention of the other country. It's just astounding.

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Murder Is Down 63% in San Francisco. Lead Probably Isn't the Reason.

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 7:21 PM EDT

Every time a city reports a big drop in crime, someone sends me a link to a story about it. San Francisco is the latest:

During the first half of the year, the city saw 14 killings — a 36 percent drop from the 22 recorded at the midpoint last year and a 63 percent decrease from the 38 in 2012.

...."The best guess one can make is that they're associated with a national trend of lowered homicide rates over the last 20 years," said Robert Weisberg, a law professor who co-directs the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. "They have settled a bit, but they have gone down in some places."

Weisberg said one big factor in the national drop in killings is "just smarter policing, which requires more police and smarter police, and that includes the use of technology, the targeting of hot spots and CompStat-style policing and gang intervention."

I know what you're wondering: is it lead, Kevin? What about this "smarter policing" stuff? Here are a few things that should help you think about this stuff:

  • The long-term trend in San Francisco is pretty familiar, and pretty similar to other mid-size cities. Over the past 20 years, a big part of San Francisco's drop in violent crime is probably due to the phaseout of leaded gasoline between 1975 and 1995.
  • However, lead isn't responsible for short-term changes. It has nothing to do with the 63 percent drop in homicides since 2012.
  • Generally speaking, you have to be careful with homicide numbers. Overall violent crime statistics are based on a large number of incidents, so they're fairly reliable. But even big cities don't have that many murders, which means the numbers can bounce around a lot from year to year just by random chance.
  • A drop in crime can create a virtuous circle, because it allows police to spend more time on the crime that remains. So lead might well have acted as a sort of tailwind here, producing a drop in violent crime that allowed systems like CompStat to be more effective, thus producing further drops even after the impact of lead has flattened out.

The phaseout of leaded gasoline did its job in San Francisco, but at this point any further drops will most likely have to come from other sources. More effective policing strategies are certainly one of the things that can make a difference.

In Defense of Optics

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 5:57 PM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation this afternoon between Jamison Foser and me:

Foser: Dumbest words in politics: “Optics,” “Gaffe,” “Hypocrisy.” (That latter one is a real thing, but misused to the point of meaninglessness.)

Drum: But “optics” is just short for “how this will look to others.” Nothing really wrong with that.

Foser: “Optics” = “I cannot articulate a substantive problem with this, so I’ll just suggest others won’t like it.” It’s a house of cards.

Drum: But don't politicians routinely consider the optics of their actions? I mean really, genuinely, think about it. It's a real thing.

Foser: Not sure why that means anyone should care, or how that validates 99% of use of word by reporters/operatives/pundits....And I’ve really, genuinely thought about it for a couple decades.

Drum: What word would you suggest instead? The concept itself is pretty ordinary.

Foser: I don’t think we need a word for “people might not like the Congressman’s cheesesteak order.” I think we need to shut up about it.

Drum: Hmmm. It's a slow day. Maybe I'll blog about this since I think my disagreement is more than 140 characters long.

Foser: Then here’s another angle: To the extent “optics” claims are about “analyzing” rather than sneakily influencing reactions, I find that pointless as well. “Here’s what I think people will think” is generally dull & unimportant.

Here's the thing: like most anything, there are good uses of the word optics and dumb uses of the word optics. To the extent that it becomes an excuse for fatuous preoccupations with Al Gore's earth tones or Hillary Clinton's speaking fees, then yes, it's dumb. The world would be a better place if campaign beat reporters spent a lot less time on this kind of soul-crushing imbecility.

But that's not the only use of the word. As I mentioned in my first tweet—though see the note below for more about this—it's also used as a shortcut for a specifically political meaning of "how something will look to other people." And if you object to that, then you're just railing against human nature. Unless you're clinically autistic, obsessing with how our actions will appear to others is fundamental to the human condition. Ditto for obsessing with other people's appearances.

That's especially true for anyone in the sales and marketing business, where appearances are literally what the job is all about. And who's more in the sales and marketing business than a politician? Sure, they have actual products—universal pre-K, cutting tax rates, whatever—but most people don't buy their products based on a Brookings white paper outlining the pros and cons. They buy it based on how it fits into their worldview, and that in turn owes more to how it's sold than to what's actually being sold.

So when you try to figure out why, say, Marco Rubio's immigration reform plan crashed and burned, you're missing half the story if you only look at the details of his plan. If you're covering a campaign, you're missing half the story if you don't report about how the campaign is trying to mold public perceptions. If you're writing a history of the Iraq War, you're missing half the story if you don't spend time explaining the marketing campaign behind the whole thing. For better or worse, politicians spend a lot of time thinking about how various audiences—supporters, opponents, undecideds, pundits, members of Congress, the media—will react to their proposals, and they shape their messages accordingly. If you're reporting on politics, you have to include that as part of the story, and optics is as good a word as any to describe it.

That said, we'd be better off if there were fewer dumb appeals to optics. If you're going to talk about optics, it should be based on either (a) ground-level reporting about what someone's political operation is actually doing, or (b) empirical data like poll numbers about how people react to things. If all you're doing is inventing stuff that no one on the planet would have noticed if you hadn't been hard up for column material, then you're responsible for making us collectively stupider and giving optics a bad name. Knock it off.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've defended the word optics against critics before, which suggests that in my mind I really do think it's OK to use it:

When someone says "optics," for example, I know that they're talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you're referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

On the other hand, I don't actually use the word very much myself, which suggests that in my heart I agree with Foser more than I'm letting on.

John Boehner May Plan to Sue Obama Over Immigration

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 1:44 PM EDT

Fine. Washington is consumed with trivia. So let's talk trivia. A couple of weeks ago, when John Boehner announced he would sue President Obama over his refusal to "faithfully execute the laws of our country," he listed several issues of particular concern:

On matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education, President Obama has repeatedly run an end-around on the American people and their elected legislators, straining the boundaries of the solemn oath he took on Inauguration Day. 

At the time, I wrote that I was surprised Boehner didn't include immigration in this list, since this is one of the tea party's biggest hot buttons. Was this just an oversight, or was it deliberate? Well, on Sunday, Boehner wrote an op-ed for CNN that said this:

The President's habit of ignoring the law as written hurts our economy and jobs even more. Washington taxes and regulations always make it harder for private sector employers to meet payrolls, invest in new initiatives and create jobs — but how can those employers plan, invest and grow when the laws are changing on the President's whim at any moment?

I don't take the House legal action against the President lightly. We've passed legislation to address this problem (twice), but Senate Democrats, characteristically, have ignored it.

Wait a second. Which problem? What is Boehner talking about here? Brian Beutler, who apparently reads tea leaves better than I do, suspected Boehner may have been signaling an interest in immigration, so he called Boehner's office to ask about that:

Boehner didn't name the two bills in the article. But his staff confirms that they are the ENFORCE the Law Act and the Faithful Execution of the Law Act, both of which were drafted with an eye toward reversing DACA. The former would expedite House and Senate lawsuits against the executive branch for failing to enforce the law. The latter would compel government officials to justify instances of non-enforcement.

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive, which Obama signed in 2012. It instructs immigration officials to stop trying to deport children who arrived in the United States at an early age and are still undocumented.

This is potentially interesting. If you'd asked me, I would have said that Boehner's best bet for the first couple of lawsuits would be Obama's unilateral extension of both the employer mandate and the individual mandate in Obamacare. Politically it's a winner because it's Obamacare, and the tea party hates Obamacare. Legally, it's a winner because Boehner has a pretty good case that Obama overstepped his authority.

But if Beutler is right, he may instead be targeting DACA, the so-called mini-DREAM Act. This is peculiar. True, the tea party hates it, so it has that going for it. However, it was a very popular action with the rest of the country. It was also, needless to say, very popular with Hispanics, a demographic group that Republicans covet. And legally, this puts Boehner on tricky ground too. Presidents have pretty broad authority to decide federal law-enforcement and prosecutorial priorities, so Obama will be able to make a pretty good case for himself. It's not a slam-dunk case, and it's certainly possible he could lose. But he sure seems to be on more solid ground than with the Obamacare mandate delays.

We'll see. ENFORCE and FELA both cover more ground than just DACA, so we're still in the dark about what exactly Boehner plans to sue Obama over. Mini-DREAM sure seems like a loser to me, though. Do Republicans really want to put a final nail in the coffin of their efforts to expand their reach in the Hispanic community? This would do it.

Will TSA Soon Have Bins Full of Dead Smartphones?

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:56 AM EDT

Security screening at airports for certain flights to the United States is about to get even more annoying:

As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers. During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.

Two comments. First: this is new? I remember being asked to turn on laptops and such before business flights in 2002-03. In fact, I distinctly remember one flight where some poor guy was running around in a panic asking everyone if they had a charger for an IBM Thinkpad because TSA wanted him to power it up. I happened to be using a Thinkpad in those days and came to his rescue. But I haven't traveled on business for a long time, so maybe TSA gave up on this years ago.

Second: lots of us have had the experience of having to toss out a bottle of liquid or a pocket knife at a TSA checkpoint. But a cell phone? That's a whole different animal. If TSA starts forcing people to toss their $500 smartphones into a bin, never to be seen again, there's going to be some serious public outrage. Is that really going to start happening?