Kevin Drum

It Took a While, But Democrats Are Finally Revolting Against Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 6:26 PM EST

Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to town next month to speak before a joint session of Congress, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest says that Joe Biden's calendar is, um, filling up or something:

Biden has to date missed only one speech by a foreign leader at a joint session of Congress, Earnest said. The vice president really likes his ceremonial duties, he added, but might be busy on March 3, when Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver his warning to Congress about U.S. negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The Obama administration considers the talks an important diplomatic opening that could lead to the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu believes Iran has no intention of holding to any deal and U.S. diplomats are being naive.

This is all part of a growing Democratic "revolt" against Netanyahu's speech:

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein rushed to meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday trying to calm a furor created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress next month and quell a Democratic revolt that has dozens threatening a boycott.

It didn’t work.

If anything, Democrats finished the day more frustrated....If Dermer really wants to fix the problems created by the speech, goes the consensus among Democrats in Washington, he’ll need to do more than apologize: he and Netanyahu have to cancel or reschedule the speech.

....Seven Jewish Democratic members of Congress who met Wednesday in Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) office...lit into Dermer. The invitation, they said, was making them choose between Netanyahu and Obama, making support for Israel into a partisan issue that they never wanted it to be, and forcing them to consider a boycott of the speech. One member, according to someone in the room, went so far as to tell Dermer it was hard to believe him when he said he didn’t realize the partisan mess he was making by going around Obama to get Boehner to make the invitation.

This has been a surprisingly slow-burning fuse. Obviously this mess puts a lot of Democrats in a tough position, but I still would have figured that they'd make their displeasure known sooner rather than later. And yet, for the week or so after Netanyahu announced his speech, we barely heard a peep of protest—even privately. But apparently Democratic anger was growing the whole time, and now Netanyahu has a full-grown public insurgency on his hands.

It's been obvious for years—obvious to me, anyway—that Netanyahu has decided to tie his future to the Republican Party. Of course Dermer knew the speech would create a partisan mess. That was more a feature than a bug. But now it looks like Netanyahu has finally gone a step too far. After years of putting up with Netanyahu's partisan antics, Democrats are finally getting tired of them. This episode is unlikely to end well for Israel.

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LA Is Adopting Bodycams For Its Police Force. But Who Gets to See the Footage?

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 12:36 PM EST

Los Angeles is gearing up to equip its entire police force with body cameras, but Chief Charlie Beck says he doesn't plan to routinely release bodycam footage to the public. "I don't think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube," he said yesterday. Plus this:

The chief said he felt there was a "moral prohibition" as well.

"People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don't think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public," he said. "Families call us when they're in crisis. Victims call us when they've had horrific things done to them by evil people. And to make those things public revictimizes them, doesn't serve justice. And I don't think it's the right thing to do."

This may be self-serving on Beck's part, but the truth is that he has a point. And the ACLU agrees:

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated support for the cameras but is demanding strong policies to protect civilian privacy. The organization wrote to the Police Commission, recommending it make public video of high-profile incidents, such as police shootings, "if not while an investigation is pending, then as soon as it is concluded."

I'm still struggling with the right answer to this, and I think it's going to be a while before we figure out the right balance. In the meantime, as I continue to noodle over what rules should govern release of bodycam footage, I'll toss out a few thoughts:

  • The police department itself should not be allowed to decide what footage to make public.
  • In fact, the police department probably shouldn't even be involved in these decisions.
  • However, civilians caught in police videos should have some say. If they don't want footage of their encounter made public, that should be given some weight.
  • But how much weight? In the case of, say, a routine domestic dispute, I'd give it a lot of weight. But in a matter of serious public interest—especially those involving allegations of police misconduct—civilian desires for privacy will have to take a back seat.
  • There should be different guidelines for footage taken in public places vs. footage from people's homes.
  • We also need rules that govern generic research requests. It's in the public interest, for example, to know whether traffic stops of white drivers seem more motivated by probable cause than stops of black drivers. A review of bodycam footage could provide valuable evidence on that score. But what are the regulations governing this?

The fundamental question underlying all of this, of course, is: Who decides? Not the police themselves. Maybe judges? An independent agency? But if it's an agency, how do you prevent it from becoming captured by the police department? These are really knotty issues, and I wouldn't be surprised if several of them end up in front of the Supreme Court over the next few years.

At yesterday's meeting, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said "This is not for YouTube. This is not for TMZ. This is for maintaining the city's safety." Maybe so. But what it's for doesn't matter. Once this stuff is public, it will end up on TMZ and YouTube whether anyone likes it or not.

Obama Suckered Republicans Into an Immigration Trap—And They Charged Right In

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Ed Kilgore notes that Latino approval of the Republican Party—already low in 2013—plummeted even further in 2014 when they spent all year pandering to their base and blocking any chance at some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. And it's gotten even worse since then:

The marginally improved performance of the GOP among Latinos in the 2014 midterms probably tempted some to think disgruntlement with Obama would trump estrangement from the elephant party. But since then, of course, the president's executive action on immigration provided fresh impetus to "deport 'em all" messaging, and the jockeying for position during the Invisible Primary for 2016 is not going to help.

I don't have any big point to make here. I just wanted to highlight the passage above. In the same way that, say, Osama bin Laden wanted two things on 9/11—to attack the US and to provoke an insane counterreaction—President Obama wanted to accomplish two things with his immigration actions. Obviously he thought it was the right thing to do. Beyond that, though, he wanted to gain Latino support for Democrats and provoke an insane counterreaction from Republicans. He succeeded brilliantly on both counts. Republicans fell swiftly into his trap, and they show all signs of falling even further as primary season heats up. By the time 2016 rolls around, even a moderate guy like Jeb Bush is going to be so tainted by Republican craziness on immigration that he'll get virtually no support from the Latino community.

It didn't have to be this way. Republicans could have responded in a more measured way that would have blunted Obama's actions. Instead they let themselves get suckered. Obama must be laughing his ass off right about now.

California Moves to Ban All Vaccination Exemptions

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 11:13 AM EST

Here's the latest vaccination news from the Golden State:

Gov. Jerry Brown, who preserved religious exemptions to state vaccination requirements in 2012, on Wednesday appeared open to legislation that would eliminate all but medical waivers.

The governor's new flexibility highlighted a growing momentum toward limiting vaccination exemptions partly blamed for the state's worst outbreak of measles since 2000 and flare-ups of whooping cough and other preventable illnesses.

....Earlier, five lawmakers had said they would introduce legislation that would abolish all religious and other personal-beliefs exemptions for parents who do not want their children vaccinated before starting school.

I grew up in a Christian Science family, and that makes me slightly conflicted on this subject. Partly this is because it left me with some residual sympathy for genuine religious objections, and partly it's because the number of exemptions for genuine religious reasons is actually pretty small—less than 3,000 per year in California, according to the Times story.

But in the end, there's just too big a can of worms when you try to distinguish "genuine" religious objections from personal objections that might be based on some kind of spiritual belief. If this were purely a personal choice, I'd go ahead and let parents decide. But it's not. It's a public health issue, and our top priority should be protecting public health. This requires vaccination rates above 95 percent both statewide and in every local area. As the map on the right shows, we're not getting that these days.

There's no state in the nation that's more sympathetic to religious freedom than Mississippi. If it can ban exemptions for religious reasons, so can all the rest of us. The anti-vaxxers used to be an oddball nuisance, but in recent years they've turned deadly—and that means it's past time to start taking them seriously. No more exemptions for deadly communicable diseases.

Is Obama Getting Closer to War With Russia?

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 7:13 PM EST

Here's the latest on Ukraine:

Ashton B. Carter, President Obama’s choice to become his fourth secretary of defense, said Wednesday that he was “very much inclined” to provide arms to Ukraine to fend off Russian-backed rebels, something the White House so far has resisted.

“We need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing....“I am inclined in the direction of providing them with arms, including . . . lethal arms,” he said.

Needless to say, it's unlikely Carter would say this publicly without at least some level of blessing from the White House. This is pretty plainly a signal from President Obama that he's thinking about changing his policy toward Ukraine.

I'm noting this without comment because, frankly, I'm not sure how I feel about it. But I will say at least one thing: this is harder than it sounds. "Arming our allies" always sounds like a nice middle ground for armchair generals in Congress—nestled safely in between economic sanctions (weak!) and boots on the ground (war with Russia!)—but weapons are useless without a trained army to use them. And right now Ukraine barely has an army worth the name.

Generally speaking, providing arms is a very long-term strategy. We have to get the arms over to Ukraine. We have to train the Ukrainians to use them effectively. The Ukrainian army needs to up its game. This takes at least a year, and probably a good deal more. In the meantime, the risk is that Russia will react to the flow of arms by deciding that it needs to stop pussyfooting around and just send in its own troops before it's too late.

Unfortunately, Ukraine has been an inept kleptocracy for over a decade, and that makes them a lousy ally. We can provide them with arms pretty easily, but training them to use those arms effectively is a whole different story. We learned that in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, and if we go down this road we might just learn it all over again in Ukraine.

Book Bleg

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 2:40 PM EST

OK, this is a bit of an odd request. But here it is. I need something to read, and since my alertness level is a little on the weak side these days, I need something easy on the brain cells. The ideal choice would be, say, a 10-part fiction series that's basically beach reading. In other words, something that's pretty light but will last me a long time. It doesn't have to be quite Harry Potter level, but that's the sort of thing to be thinking of.

Nonfiction that's not too dense is fine as well. Any suggestions?

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Will Republicans Shut Down the Department of Homeland Security?

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 1:39 PM EST

Paul Waldman notes today that Republicans have made a hash out of their first month in control of Congress, and I'd say he's right about that. They keep getting distracted by events—executive actions from President Obama, vaccination pratfalls, infighting over symbolic votes, etc.—and that's prevented them from doing much to advance their real agenda. Here's one example:

Republicans tried to pass a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security and repeal President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Senate Democrats filibustered it, and in its current form it’s dead, meaning we’re headed for another shutdown mini-crisis. Spoiler alert: Republicans will lose, caving in and funding the department.

Hmmm. Although I agree with Waldman in general, Brian Beutler makes an interesting argument that he might be wrong in this particular case. Maybe Republicans won't cave on the Homeland Security funding bill:

There’s something unique and confounding about the very premise of using DHS funding as a bargaining chip, and it scrambles the customary pattern....Unlike other GOP threats, this one isn’t an unsupportably dangerous, but canny bluff. To many casual spectators, threatening not to increase the debt limit sounded meaningless, or perhaps even like a good idea, when in fact the consequences of a collision with the debt limit would have been catastrophic. Threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security, by contrast, sounds incredibly reckless, but has little weight behind it. As a national security bureaucracy, nearly all of DHS’ functions and employees are exempt from the shutdown protocols that delay Social Security checks and require national parks to close.

It’s the easiest threat in the world for Democrats to demagogue but one that Republicans can make without courting genuine devastation, and many of them are thus catching on to the possibility that the political damage wouldn’t stick. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the Senate Homeland Security committee is prepared to see the fight through past the deadline, precisely because “only 13.6 percent of DHS employees were furloughed” in the last shutdown. “[T]he national security aspects, the aspects of the department that keeps America safe, are continuing to function no matter what happens in this very dysfunctional place.”

I don't know what to think of this, but it's an interesting argument. Republicans may end up deciding that they can go ahead and shut down DHS without suffering any real damage. After all, the stuff people care about—the Security part of the Department of Homeland Security—would continue running regardless. So the public either wouldn't care much, or might even side with Republicans. It all depends on what functions are lost during a shutdown and how much opposition Republicans can gin up against Obama's immigration actions.

And that's a bit of a wild card. So far, Obama's immigration plan has polled pretty well, but that could change once it becomes a political hot potato and people really start paying attention to the demagoguery from the Republican side. We might find out that support for the immigration plan is wide but very, very shallow.

Of course, even a fight over DHS would be a distraction for Republicans, something they really weren't planning on spending time on. So if it weren't for the fact that compromise is considered basically treasonous in the tea party era, I'd say that some kind of modest compromise might be possible here. And who knows? It might still be. Despite all the sound and fury, the hard truth is that none of this is really all that big a deal.

But it might become one, even if Republican leaders would prefer otherwise. That's the downside of giving tea partiers control of their agenda, isn't it?

There Are New Hints Today of a Nuclear Deal With Iran

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 1:08 PM EST

AP reports that there are hints of progress in talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The US and its allies have been insisting that Iran substantially reduce the number of centrifuges it operates, which so far Iran has refused to do. This leaves Iran in a position where it could enrich enough uranium to make a bomb in less than a year. But now a new proposal is on the table:

According to the diplomats, the proposal could leave running most of the nearly 10,000 centrifuges Iran is operating but reconfigure them to reduce the amount of enriched uranium they produce.

One of the diplomats said the deal could include other limitations to ensure that Tehran's program is kept in check. For one, Iran would be allowed to store only a specific amount of uranium gas, which is fed into centrifuges for enrichment. The amount of gas would depend on the number of centrifuges it keeps.

Second, Iran would commit to shipping out most of the enriched uranium it produces, leaving it without enough to make a bomb. Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons and says its program is for peaceful uses such as nuclear power and medical technology.

Is this for real? Even Iranian president Hassan Rouhani says "we have narrowed the gaps." That's promising, but in the end there's just no way to tell yet what this means. Reconfiguring centrifuges is clearly not as permanent a solution as destroying centrifuges, since they can always be reconfigured back to their original state. But then again, nothing is a permanent solution. If Iran agrees to a deal, and later decides to renege on it, then it's going to renege. It will build more centrifuges or reconfigure existing ones, and the difference is fairly small. As with all deals everywhere, it fundamentally depends on both sides abiding by it. That's just the reality of international agreements.

Politically, though, a deal like this might put Republicans in a tough position. Let's suppose the best: Iran's nuclear capability is substantially reduced; there are strict controls on both uranium feedstock and the amount of enriched uranium that remains in Iran; and a suitably stringent monitoring mechanism is put in place. In return, sanctions are gradually lifted.

How would Republicans react? Their initial response would almost certainly be to oppose the deal. And who knows? That might be their final response too. But the 2016 presidential campaign throws a monkey wrench into things. On the one hand, flat-out opposition would play well with the tea party base. Can't look weak, after all. On the other hand, flat-out opposition puts Republican candidates in a tough spot, especially during the general election. What's their alternative, after all? You can count on Iran to make it crystal clear that this is the only deal on the table—and if it's not accepted, they'll accelerate their nuclear program. So if Republicans oppose it, they need to endorse either tougher sanctions or else military action. The former doesn't have much oomph, and the latter would scare the hell out of mainstream voters.

Obviously things aren't as simple as this. There are ways to tap dance around all this. Still, if the deal looks reasonable to voters, it could become a dangerous campaign issue for Republican candidates. Stay tuned.

FCC Chairman Finally Gets Fully Behind Net Neutrality

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 12:32 PM EST

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is now officially on board supporting the strongest possible version of net neutrality. Here's his first-person statement:

Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness through a determination of “commercial reasonableness” under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.

That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.

Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.

Title II is the law that currently regulates telephone networks as common carriers. Applying this to broadband internet gives the FCC extremely strong powers to guarantee free and equal internet access to everyone, just as they currently do for telcos.

The argument against doing this is that Title II has a lot of baggage designed specifically for telcos—baggage that makes sense for telephones but not for internet connections. Wheeler recognizes this, and says that he plans to "modernize" Title II. Under his proposal, for example, "there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling."

This is a huge win for net neutrality advocates. Nonetheless, it would be a bigger win if it spurred Republicans to take seriously a compromise bill that regulates broadband legislatively. Title II may be a big stick, but it's not necessarily a permanent one. Aside from the fact that it's open to court challenges, it could also be eliminated by a future FCC just as easily as it gets created by today's FCC. If a Republican becomes president in 2016 and appoints a majority Republican FCC, Wheeler's proposal could get tossed out with a simple vote of the five commissioners.

Either way, though, this is a welcome move. Either we get a modernized Title II, or else Wheeler's proposal lights a fire under Sen. John Thune that produces a compromise solution from Congress. So far Democrats haven't been especially open to working with Thune, but I hope they change their minds. Maybe negotiations would go nowhere. If so, nothing is lost and Title II becomes the law of the land. But there's always the chance that with Title II as a backstop, negotiations could produce something genuinely useful. As with all compromises, net neutrality advocates would almost certainly lose some things they value. Republicans wouldn't get everything they want either. But both sides—as well as the broadband industry itself—would gain permanence, and that's worth something.

Here's the Big Problem With Liberals' "Middle Class" Agenda

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 12:38 AM EST

President Obama recently advanced two proposals designed to help the middle class—part of a middle-class agenda that's recently become something of a liberal rallying cry for the 2016 election. The first proposal was a mortgage plan available to anyone who bought a home. The second was a college tuition plan that would have helped middle-income workers with money saved by eliminating 529 college savings plans.

The mortgage plan has met with considerable enthusiasm. The tuition plan, by contrast, flamed out within days and has already been withdrawn. Mechele Dickerson comments:

While both of these proposals ostensibly targeted the middle class, the mortgage plan was lauded because its financial relief applies to all homeowners, regardless of how much they earned. The 529 proposal, by contrast, was doomed because of a fatal flaw: it actually tried to provide relief for just the middle class, carving it out by income.

The success of one and not the other was actually quite predictable. The mortgage proposal, though modest, was welcomed because it was designed to make it easier and cheaper for families to buy homes. Republicans, Democrats, Americans and the financial entities that benefit all agree that any plan that increases homeownership rates is good, even if most of the benefits go to higher-income households and barely reach the middle class.

....The same is true with 529 plans....Fewer than 3 percent of families save for college using 529 plans, according to Federal Reserve data....Since it’s the richest who have the largest accounts, most of the benefits of the tax break go to them. While the average account has about $20,000 in it, the accounts of the top 5 percent average more than $106,000.

This highlights one of the fundamental problems of liberal attempts to help the middle class. In theory, universal programs like Obama's mortgage plan are designed to help the middle class, and this is what makes them both popular and politically palatable. In practice, though, the bulk of their benefits usually go to the well off, and this is what really makes them politically palatable. That's why the tuition program met an instant death. It really did help the middle class—and only the middle class—and this meant it lacked the all-important political support of the well off. In fact, since the well off would be losing a benefit to pay for it, it attracted their instant opposition. And that was that.

As Dickerson says, the problem here is that the American definition of "middle class" is so broad. We basically have the poor on one end and the 1 percent on the other, and everyone in between considers themselves middle class. So if you say your program helps the middle class, it needs to help virtually everyone—including lots of people who make an awful lot of money. It's a good bet that virtually all of those folks with $106,000 in their 529 accounts think of themselves as middle class even if they earn well more than six-figure incomes.

Needless to say, this makes "middle class" programs really expensive. In practice, they have to be effectively universal, and since benefits often scale with income (as with tax deductions and savings plans), including the top 5 percent of the income ladder in these programs balloons their price tag by a whole lot more than 5 percent.

There are answers to this. You can offer tax credits rather than tax deductions. You can cap savings programs. But if you do very much of this, you effectively eliminate benefits for the well off and you lose their support. And as plenty of research has shown, it's the well off who really have political clout. This means you have to buy them off if you want to do something for the middle class, and that makes "middle class programs" a lot pricier than you'd think. It's something that any liberal agenda to help the middle class is going to have to figure out.