Kevin Drum

Is Vladimir Putin Ready to Make a Deal?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 11:53 AM EST

In his yearly press conference, Vladimir Putin appeared to be trying to cool down the rhetoric over Ukraine:

Mr. Putin recognized the efforts of President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine in ending the conflict in the southeast of that country, but he suggested that others in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, may be trying to prolong the conflict....“We hear a lot of militant statements; I believe President Poroshenko is seeking a settlement, but there is a need for practical action,” Mr. Putin added. “There is a need to observe the Minsk agreements” calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of forces.

Russia has toned down its talk on the Ukraine crisis in the past month, and some of its most incendiary language, like “junta” and “Novorossiya,” a blanket term used for the separatist territories, is no longer used on state-run television news. Mr. Putin also notably omitted those terms, which he had used in other public appearances, on Thursday.

So does this mean Putin is adopting a more conciliatory attitude toward the West? You be the judge:

In general, he blamed “external factors, first and foremost” for creating Russia’s situation — accusing the West of intentionally trying to weaken Russia. “No matter what we do they are always against us,” Putin said, one of a series of observations directed at how he said the West has been treating Russia.

Putin attributed Western sanctions that have targeted Russia’s defense, oil and gas and banking sectors for about “25 percent” of Russia’s current difficulties.

But Putin stood firm over the actions that brought on the Western backlash, including Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula after pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine began an uprising earlier this year....“Taking Texas from Mexico is fair, but whatever we are doing is not fair?” he said, in comments seemingly directed at the United States.

Putin also suggested that the West was demanding too many concessions from Russia, including further nuclear disarmament. Likening Russia to a bear — a longtime symbol of the country — he chided the West for insisting the Russian bear “just eat honey instead of hunting animals.”

“They are trying to chain the bear. And when they manage to chain the bear, they will take out his fangs and claws,” Putin said. “This is how nuclear deterrence is working at the moment.”

For what it's worth, I'd say Putin is probably right about sanctions being responsible for around 25 percent of Russia's economic problems. As for his guess that those problems will last two years before Russia returns to growth? That might not be far off either, though I suspect growth will be pretty slow for longer than that.

It's hard to render a real judgment about Putin's intentions without being fluent in Russian and watching the press conference in real time, but based on press reports I'd say Putin's anti-Western comments were milder than they could have been. My guess is that events in Ukraine really haven't worked out the way he hoped, and he'd be willing to go ahead and disengage if he could do so without admitting that he's conceding anything. The anti-Western bluster is just part of that. (Though it's also partly genuine: Putin really does believe, with some justification, that the West wants to hem in Russia.)

Oddly, then, I'd take all this as a mildly positive sign. The rhetoric seemed fairly pro forma; Putin obviously knows that sanctions are hurting him; and there were no serious provocations over Ukraine. I'll bet there's a deal to be made with Putin as long as it's done quietly.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Rape Is Way Down Over the Past Two Decades — But So Is All Violent Crime

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 10:51 AM EST

Keith Humphreys passes along some positive news about rape:

Twenty years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey was redesigned to do a better job detecting sexual assault....In the space of one generation, the raw number of rapes has dropped by 45% and the population-adjusted rate of rape has dropped 55%.

I started my career working with and advocating for rape victims, and no one needs to convince me that the only acceptable goal for society is to have no rapes at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have experienced an astonishingly positive change that should lead us to (1) Figure out how it was achieved so that we can build on it (personally, I credit the feminist movement, but there may be other variables) and (2) Never give up hope that we can push back dramatically against even the most horrific social problems.

I have to call foul on this. The starting point for this statistic is 1992, the absolute peak of the violent crime wave in America that started during the 60s and continued rising for a generation. Since that peak, all violent crime as measured by the NCVS has declined by well over half. The decline in rape is simply part of this overall trend, not a bright spot in an otherwise grim crime picture.

In fact, it's just the opposite: the decline in the reported rape rate has lagged the overall drop in reported violent crime. It's plausible that the feminist movement has something to do with this, since it's encouraged more women to report rapes and pushed the criminal justice system into taking rape more seriously. But the raw decline in rape itself? That's almost certainly due not to feminism, but to the same factors that have been responsible for the stunning decline in all violent crime over the past two decades. My hypothesis about this is pretty well known, so I won't repeat it here. But whatever it is, it's something pretty broad-based.

Russia Has Already Blown Up the Global Economy Once. Will It Do It Again?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 12:47 AM EST

Just in case you're thinking that Russia's economic problems are little more than a fitting karmic payback for Vladimir Putin, you might want to think twice. When the global economy is fragile, sometimes even small events can send the whole system into cardiac arrest, and that affects everyone, not just Putin and his cronies. So in case you've forgotten, here's a brief refresher on the events of August 1998:

  1. Russia devalues its currency and defaults on its sovereign debt.
  2. Markets that are already jittery thanks to the East Asian financial crisis go into full-blown frenzy mode.
  3. Money pours out of low-quality emerging market investments and into high-quality US, Japanese, and European bonds.
  4. As a result, yield spreads between low-quality and high-quality bonds widen sharply.
  5. Long Term Capital Management, which had made large bets on spreads narrowing as the East Asian crisis receded, is blindsided, suffering huge losses.
  6. As LTCM gets close to insolvency, Bear Stearns stops clearing their trades. Death is imminent.
  7. Because LTCM is so highly leveraged, its debts exceed $100 billion and its collapse thus threatens every bank on Wall Street. Amid growing panic over a systemic meltdown, the Fed finally steps in and arranges a bailout package. Crisis over—for now.

This is not going to happen again. The world is not the same now as it was in 1998. It's just meant as an example of how an otherwise limited financial crisis can have a global impact. The fact that it begins with a Russian currency crisis is merely a felicitous coincidence.

But also a bit of an unnerving coincidence. More than likely, Russia's problems will be contained to Russia. But they might not be, so we should all be careful what we wish for.

Obama's Had a Helluva Good Month Since the Midterms

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 3:37 PM EST

So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say. Let us count the things he's done since the November 4th midterm elections:

  • November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.
  • November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.
  • November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.
  • November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.
  • December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin's imploding economy.
  • December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.
  • December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target. Am I missing anything beyond that? Maybe. It's been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn't it?

All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there's a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they're going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama's actions. They can't, of course, but they have to show that they're trying. So there's a good chance that they'll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama's provocations instead of working on their own agenda.

Was that part of the plan? Beats me. But it seems to be working pretty well so far.

The Person Who Cares Most About Barack Obama's Approval Rating is Hillary Clinton

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:41 PM EST

Peter Beinart thinks President Obama is due for a comeback. Paul Waldman agrees:

I think Beinart is probably right, and the economy is the main reason; it swamps every other consideration in evaluating the president. We could have some major shock that upends the momentum it has been gaining, but if things proceed for the next two years on the trajectory they're on, the Obama presidency will be one of the best for job creation in recent history. But it's also important to understand that an Obama revival, should it happen, is going to look different than that of other presidents.

In this case, "look different" means that even in the best case Obama will end his presidency with approval ratings in the mid-50s, but no higher. The country is just too polarized to produce anything better. Conservatives of nearly all stripes are going to disapprove of Obama come hell or high water, and that puts a ceiling on how high his approval rating can go. Ditto for any other president these days.

But it's true that the economy seems to be doing pretty well these days, and it's usually the economy that drives approval ratings. That's good news for Obama, but it's far better news for Hillary Clinton. For Obama, leaving office with a strong economy is nice for his legacy, but that's about it. For Hillary, it almost certainly means the difference between winning and losing the presidency. If the economy is sluggish or worse in 2016, there's simply no way she overcomes voter fatigue toward Democratic rule. But if the economy is ticking along strongly, she just might.

So that's that. The person who cares most about Obama's approval rating isn't Barack Obama. It's Hillary Clinton. It's the tailwind she needs if she wants to become the first woman to occupy the Oval Office.

Battered Ruble Stabilizes -- For Now

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:49 AM EST

I promise not to post this chart every day, but since I've put it up for the past two days when the ruble was crashing, I figure I should let everyone know when the crash has halted. For a few hours, anyway, thanks to some dubious measures from Russian banking authorities:

The currency was trading 8% stronger against the dollar at 62.1 on the Moscow exchange, while Russia’s RTS Index was up 17%, after the central bank eased regulations on the banking system in a bid to provide some relief on capital adequacy for banks and convince Russians to keep their money in rubles.

Measures including allowing banks not to take provisions against souring loans and weakening assets they hold, and allowing lenders to use last quarter’s exchange rate when settling some foreign-exchange transactions.

I'm not sure that loosening banking regulations is a great response to a currency crisis, but I guess you never know. In any case, it seems to have stabilized things for the time being. In the longer term, storm clouds are still brewing. Stay tuned.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Surprise! Obama Plans to Normalize Relations With Cuba.

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 11:31 AM EST

A couple of weeks ago, National Review's Jay Nordlinger suggested that maybe President Obama's next executive action would be normalization of relations with Cuba. That struck me as something out of left field, since I'd heard not even a hint of a peep of a rumor that anything along these lines was in the works. But congratulations Jay! You were right:

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis who hosted a final culminating meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.

....The United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.

Oddly enough, I don't see any reaction yet from Nordlinger, or indeed, from anyone over at National Review. Perhaps the intercession of Pope Francis is giving them pause?

In any case, this is good news. I don't personally care an awful lot about Cuba or our relations with them, but half a century of pointless enmity really ought to be enough. Fidel Castro may not have been an admirable guy, but Fulgencio Batista was no great shakes either, and it's long past time to stop pining away for the days when he was in power. So let it go, folks. We don't have to approve of everything Cuba does in order to act like adults and conduct normal relations on both sides. We manage to do it with Russia and Venezuela and Pakistan, after all.

In any case, that's that. The next step is lifting the trade embargo, but I suppose it's unlikely that a Republican Congress is going to act on that any time soon. Too bad. There's no longer any reason for it, and I'll bet the majority of cigar smokers are Republicans. They want their Havanas, so lifting the embargo would, in a sense, be nothing more than a routine bit of base maintenance. Perhaps if Republicans think of it as just another political payoff for their strongest supporters, they can be talked into it.

Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 10:37 AM EST

Conventional pundit wisdom suggests that Wall Street may have overreached last week. Yes, they successfully managed to repeal the swaps pushout provision in Dodd-Frank, but in so doing they unleashed Elizabeth Warren and brought far more attention to their shenanigans than they bargained for. They may have won a battle, but with the public now suitably outraged and alert for further mischief, they're unlikely to keep future efforts to weaken financial reform behind the scenes, where they might have a chance to pass with nobody the wiser.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all just political theater and Wall Street lobbyists know better than to take it seriously. Ed Kilgore points to this article in The Hill today:

Banks and financial institutions are planning an aggressive push to dismantle parts of the Wall Street reform law when Republicans take control of Congress in January.

Fresh off a victory in the government funding debate that liberals decried as a giveaway to Wall Street, advocates for the financial sector aim to pursue additional changes to Dodd-Frank that they say would lighten burdens created by the 2010 law. Among the top items on the wish list: easing new requirements on mortgages, loosening restrictions on financial derivatives and overhauling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau....Another fight on the horizon is the push for “regulatory relief,” as financial institutions and Republicans seek to require agencies to pursue more cost-benefit analysis when writing rules.

....In the face of loud opposition, financial lobbyists say they have a compelling case for revisiting the law. While the economy is improving, they argue the new rules have made it exceedingly difficult to obtain loans, including mortgages.

Will Democrats in the Senate manage to stick together and filibuster these efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank? Or will enough centrists peel off to allow a few of them to pass? I'd like to think that Elizabeth Warren has made unity more likely, but then again, I have an uneasy feeling that Wall Street lobbyists might have a better read on things than she does. Dodd-Frank has already been weakened substantially in the rulemaking process, and this could easily represent a further death by a thousand cuts. After all, as the Wall Street flacks say, the economy is improving. And who needs a bunch of fussy rules when the economy is good?

Republicans Cave In, Begin Traditional Holiday Backbiting, and Head For Home

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:09 AM EST

Earlier today, Harry Reid pushed through Senate confirmations of Tony Blinken to be deputy secretary of State and Sarah Saldaña to head up Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At that point, Republicans, finally tired of staying in session and convinced that Reid wasn't bluffing about continuing to hold confirmation votes, caved in:

Dozens of nominees were confirmed unanimously or by voice vote as the clock ticked on, building on Democrats’ progress pushing through several bitterly contested nominations during the last days of their majority. After fighting Democrats tooth and nail for more than a year on lifetime judicial appointments, Republicans waved the white flag on fighting Reid’s attempts to confirm a dozen judicial nominations and allowed eleven of them to go through without dissent.

Wait. Dozens of nominees? How many dozen?

Democrats controlling the Senate also secured agreements from Republicans to confirm at least six dozen of President Obama’s nominees to serve as federal judges, agency bosses and on myriad government boards, a last-minute coup for the White House since most of the picks faced tougher odds next year once Republicans take full control of Capitol Hill.

And of course everyone knows who to thank for all this:

Most of the day was consumed with nominations, none more irritating to many Republicans than the ones who received a vote because of an impulsive move by one of their colleagues. And with the book now closed on the 113th Congress, they could go down as the Cruz Confirmations — the batch of the president’s nominees who were confirmed by the Senate only after Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, forced his colleagues to stay in session for 10 hours on a bleak December Saturday.

“No, we would not have had all of these 24 confirmations, and I think most people know that,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, referring to the two dozen nominees that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, forced votes once Mr. Cruz made his move.

Merry Christmas!

On Torture, Dick Cheney Isn't the Problem. We Are.

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 6:50 PM EST

Rich Lowry is a satisfied man:

After a week of condemnations of the CIA interrogation program, and talk everywhere of how it violated our values and weakened our standing in the world, the verdict of public opinion is in: People support it....In the case of Cheney v. Feinstein, Cheney wins—at least with the public.

This is the most discouraging part of the whole torture debate. It's one thing to learn that Dick Cheney is every bit the vicious wretch we all thought he was. But time after time since 9/11, polls have shown that the American public is basically on his side. As a nation, we simply don't believe that a comprehensive program of state-sanctioned torture is wrong. On the contrary: we think it's just fine as long as it's done to other people. If we're a Christian nation, as we're so often reminded, we're still an Old Testament one.