Kevin Drum

Hillary Clinton: Master Schemer or Garden Variety Pol?

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Jonathan Allen recycles a familiar refrain today:

There's a term for the way Hillary Clinton has handled policy in the early stages of her campaign: Clintonian. That is, on the issues that most divide the Democratic base from its centrist wing, she refuses to box herself into a position.

....It's true that Clinton has rolled out a string of positions that please constituencies on the left, from support for LGBT rights and voting rights to repudiating the results of her husband's 1994 anti-crime law and vowing to enhance President Obama's executive action on immigration. These are important issues, perhaps more important than the exact level of a wage increase that surely won't be $15 an hour as long as Republicans control either the House or 41 seats in the Senate. But Clinton has been very selective about how she's courted her party's progressive base, speaking as much to identity politics as to actual policy. On some of the more controversial policy questions, she's taking a pass.

I'll concede right up front that Hillary Clinton has been in the national eye for more than 20 years, and maybe that means we should expect more from her. But I gotta ask: Is there now, or has there been in the past, any other candidate who has been so routinely disparaged for not having positions on every single topic seven months before the first primary? Correct me if I'm wrong, but every candidate rolls out positions over time during presidential contests. And they all do it the same way: based on a combination of (a) their own genuine beliefs, (b) interest group pressure, (c) internal polling and focus groups, and (d) weeks or months of research and discussion among their advisors and messaging staff.

Everyone who's serious about running for president does this, and it's been this way for decades. This is simply not something that's unique to either Bill or Hillary Clinton.

So....what's up with the press corps pushing this narrative so assiduously? Are they just so stuck on the tired old "triangulation" metaphor that they can't escape from it? Do they genuinely think Hillary is slower about taking positions than other candidates? Do they think those positions are routinely fuzzier than those from other candidates? Are they stuck in the 90s and convinced that all Clintons are connivers and liars? Or what?

I don't understand this. In terms of campaigning and political positioning, Hillary strikes me as a pretty garden variety candidate. Am I wrong?

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"Streamlining" Government Is a Dubious Campaign Message, Especially For Democrats

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 1:03 PM EDT

A few days ago I criticized a policy analysis from Stan Greenberg that, among other things, recommended that Democrats run on a commitment to streamlining government. But exactly what concrete proposals would that entail? Today, Mark Schmitt takes a crack at answering:

"Streamlining" government does not have to involve only cutting costs, though that might be a part of it. The tax code, for example, is now as complex for low- and middle-income taxpayers as for the wealthy, littered with credits and deductions, some refundable and some not. Streamlining government could include a strong commitment to making the tax code simpler at the low end and shifting resources to fight fraud at the top end. It could include, for example, efforts to create a single, simple portal to government services ranging from health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to small business assistance—similar to the "no wrong door" initiatives in several states.

Above all, it should include a positive vision of reform of the political process, and the role of money, that does more than reimpose limits on the political influence of the very wealthy, but empowers citizens as donors and participants. And, the most difficult challenge of all, there has to be an effort to restore to the public face of government, the legislative process, a sense of compromise and shared commitment to the public good, despite deep disagreements.

Simplifying the tax code for the middle class is fine, I suppose, though nearly half the population already files either 1040 EZ or short forms. But that single portal sounds to me like something that's way, way, way harder than it sounds. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But in order to make a difference, not only does this portal have to be a work of genius, so do all the things it leads to. It doesn't do any good to make it easy to find Obamacare if it's still a pain in the ass to sign up for it. Honestly—and I say this from at least a little experience—this is the kind of thing that sounds good until you have to put together the interagency committee to actually create it.

I don't mean to just pooh pooh other people's ideas. But I think it's telling that Schmitt had only two or three proposals, and most of them are either really hard or probably not that effective.

Look: the US government is really big. There's no way around that. And as every large corporation in the world knows, there's just a limit to how easy you can make things when a bureaucracy gets really big. There's no magic wand. That said, here's what I'd like to see: some detailed polling work that digs below the surface of "streamlining" and asks people just what it is about the government that really burns them up. I suspect (but don't know!) that you'd discover a few things:

  • A lot of complaints—probably the majority—would be about state and local issues. (Business licenses, building inspections, traffic tickets, etc. etc.)
  • A lot of the complaints would be unrelated to government complexity: taxes are too high, guns should be unregulated, abortions should be outlawed, and so forth.
  • When we finally got to the complaints that are (a) about the federal government and (b) truly about the difficulty of getting something done, the griping would be all over the map. The truth is that it's mostly businesses—especially large ones—that engage frequently with federal regulations. Aside from taxes and Medicare/Social Security, most individuals don't very often. But when they do, they're naturally going to believe that their particular circumstance should have been way easier to handle. In some cases they're right. In most cases, they simply don't know how many different circumstances the agency in question has to handle.

I'm not saying nothing can be done. I just have a suspicion that complaints about the "incompetence" or "red tape" of the federal government are mostly smokescreens for other things. Those other things are laws that people just don't like, or fees they just don't want to pay, or stuff they've merely heard from friends or the media.

This isn't to say that streamlining government is a bad idea. It's not. It's a good idea! But I want details backed up by actual research, and even then, I suspect there's less we can do than we think. As a platform for a campaign, I'm even more skeptical. Maybe a proposal to streamline some specific program that lots of people use and lots of people hate would work. But "streamlining government" as a generic pitch? I doubt it—especially for Democrats. It would be like Republicans wanting to "streamline" taxes for the rich. Would you believe them?

Europeans Reject War; Would Prefer US Just Do the Job For Them

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

Hmmm. Compare and contrast these two results from a recent Pew poll in Europe:

So, for example, only 38 percent of Germans would bother defending a fellow NATO ally if it were attacked by Russia, but 68 percent think the US would do the job. Is this cause and effect? Or something else?

In any case, Europe's view of the US as a global cop who will save them if worse comes to worst seems to still be strong. As always, NATO seems to be something of a one-way street for most Europeans.

Obama Announces Bold New Decade-Old Strategy in Iraq

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

Here's our bold, new, never-before-tried strategy for beating ISIS:

In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province, Iraq, and to send up to 450 more American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi.

....To assemble a force to retake Ramadi, the number of Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar who are trained and equipped is expected to increase to as many as 10,000 from about 5,500.

More than 3,000 new Iraqi soldiers are to be recruited to fill the ranks of the Seventh Iraqi Army division in Anbar and the Eighth Iraqi Army division, which is in Habbaniyah, where the Iraqi military operations center for the province is also based.

Roger that. More American "trainers." More Iraqi fighters, who will turn out to be great this time. Honest. Oh, and a brand new target: Ramadi instead of Mosul.

Should work like a dream. I can't think of anything that could go wrong this time.

Is King v. Burwell Already a Done Deal?

| Tue Jun. 9, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

I'm curious about something. I've read what now seems like a thousand blog posts about whether Republicans are going to offer a plausible legislative fix if the Supreme Court kills Obamacare subsidies in states that use the federal exchange. (Answer: no.) I've read another thousand about what the effect will be if the Supreme Court kills Obamacare subsidies. And another thousand about other topics related to King v. Burwell.

But all these posts and news articles seem to be written less and less in the conditional tense. It's as if everyone has already given up on the possibility that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and simply hand down a ruling based on the plain intent of the law, keeping Obamacare subsidies in place.

So how about that? Have we all given up? Maybe I'm being far less cynical than I should be, but I'm still assuming King v. Burwell will go against the plaintiffs.

Am I alone in this? What are the Vegas odds these days on how the ruling is going to go?

Louisiana Republicans Now Wish They'd Never Heard of Grover Norquist

| Tue Jun. 9, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

It's hardly surprising when Democrats criticize Grover Norquist, the godfather of the anti-tax movement. But following like sheep behind Norquist's demands to lower taxes always and everywhere has gotten states in so much trouble that even some Republicans are now begging him to be a little less obstinate. Sadly for Louisiana, Norquist is having none of it:

A group of self-described "conservative" Republican state representatives took their complaints to Norquist himself, asking him to give them some wiggle room on raising taxes and to shoot down some Jindal-backed legislation that they say would set a "dangerous precedent" in how government could mask revenue hikes.

....Sunday’s letter — signed by Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux (R) and 10 other state Republican representatives — asked Norquist to take into account the previous tax cuts Louisiana has passed in recent years and the effect they will have in the future when assessing whether the state is in compliance with the no tax pledge....Furthermore it asked Norquist to weigh in on the so-called SAVE proposal, which they said would allow governments in the future to raise billions of dollars in revenue in the guise of a revenue-neutral budget.

....However, Norquist refused to take the bait. While declining to come out for or against the tax credit proposal, he said it qualified as an offset and asked the lawmakers, "If you don’t like the SAVE Act, why not find other offsetting tax cuts that are more to your liking? "Norquist also scoffed at the Republicans' plea that their past tax cuts be taken into account, writing "[u]nder that logic, President Obama could argue he didn’t raise taxes."

In other words, go pound sand. But then, what did they expect? Norquist has one and only one thing going for him—thou shalt never raise taxes, no how, no way—and Bobby Jindal is still delusional enough to think he's running for president. So no taxes are going to be raised in the Pelican State. And if that causes massive pain and dislocation? Well, that's just tough, isn't it?

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Here Are America's Top 50 Health Care Thugs

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 5:36 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of how poor people get screwed in the United States, the Washington Post revisits an old favorite today: the way hospitals gouge the uninsured. Here's their summary of a new study that looks at the 50 biggest gougers, which charge uninsured patients more than ten times the actual cost of care:

All but one of the these facilities is owned by for-profit entities, and by far the largest number of hospitals — 20 — are in Florida. For the most part, researchers said, the hospitals with the highest markups are not in pricey neighborhoods or big cities, where the market might explain the higher prices.

....Community Health Systems operates 25 of the hospitals on the list; Hospital Corp. of America operates another 14. “They are price-gouging because they can,” said Gerard Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, co-author of the study in Health Affairs. “They are marking up the prices because no one is telling them they can’t.”

....Most hospital patients covered by private or government insurance don’t pay full price because insurers and programs like Medicare negotiate lower rates for their patients. But the millions of Americans who don’t have insurance don’t have anyone to negotiate on their behalf. They are most likely to be charged the full hospital price. As a result, uninsured patients, who are often the most vulnerable, face skyrocketing medical bills that can lead to personal bankruptcy, damaged credit scores or avoidance of needed medical care.

It's hard to find the words to describe how loathsome this is. It's a structure deliberately designed to bleed the maximum possible amount from the people who are least able to afford it and least able to fight back. We normally associate this kind of thing with Charles Dickens novels, or with thugs in leather jackets who have a habit of breaking kneecaps. But these thugs all wear suits and ties.

I'm not really sure how they sleep at night, but I guess they find a way.

How Big Is the Penalty For Not Paying a 34-Cent Bill?

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

Before we went up to City of Hope, Marian prepaid a bunch of our monthly bills. That way our service providers would all have a little stash of money to draw from in case we missed a bill.

As a result, we recently got a bill for 4 cents from Verizon. Please don't bother paying this, they said. We'll just pick it up in June's bill. We also got a bill for 34 cents from AT&T. Unlike previous bills, this one didn't include a return payment envelope and the remit portion of the bill didn’t include an address to send the payment. Sounds like they didn't want us to bother paying either, right?

Nope. They may want it to look like they don't want payment, but after finally getting hold of someone at the billing center (Marian is much more tenacious about this stuff than I am), they told us they did indeed want payment. In fact, if we didn't pay this 34-cent bill, we would be assessed a $6.50 late fee.

This is just a tiny slice of life that's either annoying or amusing for someone like me. However, it's also a tiny slice of life that, when you multiply it by a hundred, partly explains how poor people are continually screwed over and have a hard time ever digging out of debt. Nice work, AT&T. You are indeed a symbol of American ingenuity.

I'm Against Easy Voting for All. Some People Just Aren't Competent to Vote Rationally.

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 11:37 AM EDT

Ezra Klein notes today that the argument against making it easier to vote is often very simple: it's not a good idea to make it easy to vote:

If that sounds a bit odd to you, then read Daniel Foster's argument against Clinton's idea, which lays the objection bare: "the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots." And who wants civic idiots choosing our next president?

For a rejoinder, read Slate's Jamelle Bouie, who writes, "You get better at voting the more often you do it. Relatively uninformed voters in one election might become highly informed voters a few cycles later. More participation could make us a more engaged country."

I have a quarrel with both sides in this argument. In a modern democracy, we don't try to decide which voters are highly informed and thus "worthy" of voting. You can vote if you have an IQ of 200 and you can vote if you're a nitwit. The reason is simple: the decisions of the state affect both voters equally. Everybody gets to vote because everybody has a stake in the outcome.

This is not the way it's always been, of course. In early America only white male landowners could vote, because others were thought incapable of properly exercising the franchise. (That was the official excuse, anyway.) But even then, there was also an argument based on engagement with the state. White male landowners were thought to have a real stake in the decisions of the government, and therefore would vote their interests more intelligently.

Both those things have changed over time. Everybody is now acknowledged to be capable of voting in their interests, and everybody is now acknowledged to have a stake in what the government does. That's the argument for making it easy for everyone to vote. It doesn't matter if this means we'll get more voters who don't read National Review or can't name the Speaker of the House. What matters is that all these voters have just as big a stake in what the government does as you or I do. And if they have a stake, we should make it easy for them to vote.

Of course, no one really cares about this. The real argument for making voting easy is that it will increase the number of Democratic-leaning voters. And the real reason for making voting hard is that it will lower the number of Democratic-leaning voters. Everyone knows this. Sadly, all the other high-minded arguments for and against are just kabuki.

As it happens, my own guess is that highly engaged voters probably vote more stupidly than people who live normal lives and don't even know what GDP is, let alone whether it's gone up or down under the current occupant of the White House. (Scientific backup here.) If I had my way, anyone who shows an actual interest in politics—all of us who read and write this blog, for example—would be deemed obviously neurotic and forbidden from voting for dog catcher, let alone president. People like us would get to rant and rave and publish op-eds, but only people who are bored by us would actually get to vote. Any objections?

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

I suppose I could write a post about the Rubio family's many traffic tickets, but I dunno. Seems to me that 23 mph in a school zone is pretty safe driving. Florida sure does have some strict rules about that, I guess.

In any case, it's far more pleasant to round out the week with some catblogging. Here is Hopper blissfully stretched out while her brother grooms her chin. So sweet. At least, it was until Hilbert got tired of licking and decided to clamp his jaws around Hopper's neck. I pushed him away, but this is sadly typical behavior from our own Dr. Hilbert and Mr. Hyde.

At the moment, Hilbert is resting right next to me. He exhausted himself running from window to window to watch our local squirrel hopping along the fence. At one point his tail was flapping so vigorously he was knocking stuff off my desk. But now the squirrel is gone and it's snoozing time.