Kevin Drum

More Pointless Bluster on Foreign Policy, Please

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

Via Politico, Here's the latest on American attitudes toward foreign policy:

Asked whether the U.S should do more to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, just 17 percent answered in the affirmative....More than three-quarters of likely voters say they support plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016....Forty-four percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war....Likely voters prefer less involvement in Syria’s civil war over more involvement, 42 percent to 15 percent.

Based on this, can you figure out which party is more trusted on foreign policy? You guessed it: Republicans, by a margin of 39-32 percent.

Bottom line (for about the thousandth time): Americans prefer the actual foreign policy of Democrats, but they prefer the rhetorical foreign policy of Republicans. They want lots of bluster and chest thumping, but without much in the way of serious action. In other words, pretty much what Reagan did.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 18 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

In an awesome display of athleticism, Domino hopped into the laundry hamper this week. I was shocked. I didn't think she could do it. But I guess when you're motivated by the sweet, sweet prospect of snoozing among the delicate aromas of worn human clothing, you can accomplish anything. As for what she's looking at in this picture, I have no idea. Probably something in the cat dimension.

Iran's Oil Exports Have Fallen By Half Since Sanctions Were Imposed

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 2:09 PM EDT

If you're curious about the impact of economic sanctions on Iran, OPEC's newly-released 2014 statistical bulletin provides a pretty concrete look. As the tables below show, in just the past two years Iran's oil exports have fallen by nearly half and the rial has lost a third of its value. If you want to know why Iran is negotiating over its nuclear program, that's the story in a nutshell.

The whole report is here. Plenty of interesting little tidbits there for inquiring minds.

Blueberries, Gold, Inflation, and Professor Krugman

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 12:18 PM EDT

So Paul Krugman writes a column about all the folks who have been hysterically predicting runaway inflation for the past few years, and what does he get? This:

I know it's just a coincidence. The other 500 comments are quite likely perfectly sane. Nonetheless, this is what we're up against.

POSTSCRIPT: In case you're curious, food prices have actually risen 11 percent over the past five years. In other words, about 2.2 percent per year.

No More Saturday Shipments for Netflix

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 11:45 AM EDT

From the LA Times:

Netflix Inc. has quietly stopped shipping DVDs from its distribution centers on Saturdays, a cost-cutting move that signals the company is easing out of the DVD subscription service and keeping its focus on online streaming. The change comes as Netflix is shedding hundreds of thousands of its DVD customers every quarter, yet gaining as many for its online streaming business continues to grow.

And so it begins. A few years from now, I assume Netflix will be out of the physical disc business entirely, which means it will be impossible to watch anything more than a few years old. We'll still have Redbox for recent releases as well as streaming services that offer whatever they happen to offer. But if you wake up one morning and decide you want to watch The Naked City? Well, you're probably out of luck.

I suppose that eventually every studio's back catalogs will be universally available via one streaming service or another. Unfortunately, "eventually" seems to be a helluva long time in Hollywood. What will we do in the meantime?

Ted Cruz Is Playing a Long Game on Immigration

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 11:06 AM EDT

Ted Cruz threw a bomb into the immigration crisis yesterday by demanding that any emergency bill to address the tide of minors surging across the border had to include a provision repealing President Obama's so-called mini-DREAM executive action. Formally known as DACA, it directs prosecutors not to spend any time trying to deport individuals who arrived in the US as children.

This is inconvenient for Republicans because DACA is pretty popular and they'd probably prefer to ignore it. So why did Cruz do this? Greg Sargent thinks there's a long game at stake:

I strongly suspect much GOP rhetoric over the crisis is designed to achieve maximum constraint on Obama’s sense of what’s politically possible on unilaterally easing deportations. Case in point: Ted Cruz’s declaration that any GOP response to the crisis must defund Obama’s deferred-deportation program. Cruz has a history of revealing underlying political calculations with unvarnished clarity. He justified the government shutdown to stop Obamacare by arguing that once the law kicked in, people would like it and it would never be repealed.

Something similar may be happening on deportations. As Frank Sharry argues, Obama action on deportations could “permanently cement the reputation of the Democrats as for immigrants and for the changing American electorate and Republicans as against it.” It’s unclear how ambitious Obama will be. But given Cruz’s fevered view of #ObummerTyranny, he probably expects Obama to go big, and he may agree so doing would lock in Latinos for Dems. Hence the move to preclude it.

....However, there’s a risk for Republicans. If they punt on their current response, it could persuade Obama he can position himself as the only problem solver in the room on immigration, giving him more space to act unilaterally. Of course, to reap these benefits, Obama will have to be seen as managing the current crisis effectively. And he has not accomplished this — politically or substantively.

I'll confess that I usually don't give politicians credit for thinking much beyond the ends of their noses. Even gaming things out one move ahead is beyond most of them. But Cruz is a smart guy, and going after DACA is probably a twofer for him: it's politically useful in the short term, marking him as the most aggressive conservative in the Senate; and it might constrain Obama in the future.

But as Sargent says, this cuts both ways. If Obama decides that Republicans, once again, are simply unwilling to deal in any way, then he's left with very little reason to moderate his actions. Compromise only makes enemies among Hispanic voters, after all, and it's worth it only if Republicans will give him something in return. If they won't, he might as well take the boldest action he can to help his party, and then dare Republicans to do something about it. That may well be how this plays out.

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Vladimir Putin's Games Finally Blew Up In His Face Today

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 12:11 AM EDT

Josh Marshall practically reads my mind with this post:

Were it not for the hundreds killed, it would also be comical the ridiculous series of events Vladimir Putin's reckless behavior led up to this morning. For months Putin has been playing with fire, making trouble and having it work mainly to his advantage....But the whole thing blew up in his face today in a way, and with repercussions I don't think — even with all wall to wall coverage — we can quite grasp.

Find extremists and hot-heads of the lowest common denominator variety, seed them with weaponry only a few militaries in the world possess — and, well, just see what happens. What could go wrong?

Read the whole thing. It's almost precisely what I've been thinking all day long. I'd only add one thing: It was sickening listening to Putin's bleating prevarications and denials after the plane was shot down. Really, truly revolting. If anything could expose him, once and for all, as the petty schoolyard bully that he is, this was it.

Housing Weakness Yet Another Indicator of a Sluggish Recovery

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 3:01 PM EDT

Housing is the biggest single sector of the consumer economy, and pent-up demand for housing is usually the primary engine that pulls a country out of recession. But as Neil Irwin reports, we're just not seeing much of a rebound in housing:

Another disappointing reading on the housing market was released Thursday morning. The number of housing units that builders started work on fell 9.3 percent in June, to an 893,000 annual rate. The number of housing permits issued by local governments, a forward-looking measure that government statisticians consider less prone to measurement error, fell 4.2 percent. Forecasters had expected both numbers to rise.

....What makes the June results curious — and particularly disappointing — is that some of the excuses heard for weak housing numbers don’t hold water any more. The unusually bad winter weather that slowed construction in January and February is now long past....And mortgage rates spiked in the second half of 2013, perhaps leading builders to exercise a greater note of caution as they weighed new projects. But rates have fallen more or less steadily through the first half of 2014.

Now, as you can see from the chart, there's a lot of volatility in housing starts. So don't take the June decline too seriously. Nonetheless, after starting to rise in 2011, starts have been nearly flat for two years now. If housing is going to save the economy, it's sure taking its sweet time. More than likely, though, it's just not going to happen. It sure looks like we have many years of a weak, sluggish recovery ahead of us.

Commercial Jet Goes Down Over Ukraine

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

From CNN:

A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agency Interfax reported Thursday. The jet is a Boeing 777, according to Interfax.

The plane reportedly went down near the border between Russia and Ukraine.

Oh crap. Ukrainian officials are apparently claiming that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.

The Republican Foreign Policy Split Is Mostly a Myth

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

Honest question here. I've been wondering about this for a while, but it crystallized last night after reading this Ross Douthat post about conservative foreign policy. My question is: Is there really a big foreign policy split in the Republican Party?

I hear about this a lot. Liberals love to write about it, for obvious reasons, but it's not just liberals. Conservatives talk about it too. But where's the evidence for the split? The answer is: Rand Paul. It almost always revolves around Rand Paul vs. Someone. Rick Perry. John McCain. Bill Kristol. Whatever. And since Rand Paul is a rising star with a Sarah Palinesque intuition for political theater, he's gotten a lot of attention for his contention that Republicans should adopt a less interventionist foreign policy.

The problem is that there's little reason to believe that Paul has had any more influence on mainstream Republican thought than his father did. The conservative coalition has always included both paleocons and libertarians who are skeptical of activist foreign policy, but their numbers have always been too small to carry any weight—and I don't see much evidence that this has changed. It's true that recent poll numbers suggest a declining appetite for foreign wars, but among conservatives those numbers are very, very soft. They change at even the slightest hint of aggression from Al Qaeda or Hamas or Vladimir Putin.

More to the point, I've seen no evidence of change within the mainstream of the party. Aside from Paul, who are the non-interventionists? Where exactly is the fight? I don't mean to suggest that everyone in the Republican Party is a full-blown unreconstructed neocon. There's a continuum of opinion, just as there's always been. But as near as I can tell they're nearly all about as generally hawkish as they've ever been—and just as eager as ever to tar Democrats as a gang of feckless appeasers and UN lovers.

So: Is this intra-party fight real? Once you remove the Rand Paul PR machine from the equation, is there anything left? Or is it mostly an invention of bored Beltway reporters trying to drum up some conflict?