Kevin Drum

Scott Walker's Abortion Flimflam Explained! (Maybe.)

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

I had almost given up on anyone helping me understand what Scott Walker meant when he explained why he opposed abortion exceptions not just for rape and incest, but also to save the life of the mother. "There are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother," Walker said during Thursday's debate. "That's been consistently proven."

But then a reader came to my rescue, and it turns out that Jonathan Allen had it right in the first place. It really does derive from the Catholic doctrine of intent in medical care. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association provides the nickel explanation:

The reality [] is that an abortion is never necessary to save the life of the mother. This is, quite simply, a choice that a mother and her doctor never have to make, and Ms. Kelly has contributed to the already widespread ignorance on this subject.

The nearest circumstance would be what are called ectopic pregnancies, the anomaly in which the fertilized egg attaches to the Fallopian tube and never implants in the womb of the mother. Removal of the Fallopian tube is necessary to preserve the mother’s life and thus is a procedure that indirectly — not directly — causes the death of an unborn child. This technically is not even an abortion, because the procedure is done for the purpose of removing the Fallopian tube, not killing the baby.

As Lauren Enriquez writes, “The abortion procedure is not — ever — necessary to save the life of a mother...[A] true abortion — in which the direct intention is to end the life of a human being — is not a treatment for any type of maternal health risk.

Now this explanation I understand. The key step in this tap dance is to declare that some procedures that terminate a pregnancy aren't "true" abortions. Even if you know ahead of time that a procedure will abort the fetus, it's not really an abortion as long as abortion isn't your intent.

In other words, I just didn't have my cynicism meter turned up high enough. When Walker said there are always "alternatives" that can protect the life of the mother, he was only talking about true abortions. He wasn't talking about medical procedures that kill the fetus only as a side effect. Those aren't true abortions, so they're not part of the class of procedures for which there are alternatives.

Yeesh. If this is really the explanation, it takes political misdirection to a new level. All that's left now is to explain what Walker meant by "This has been consistently proven." That makes it sound very science-y, but this has nothing to do with science. It has to do with the meaning of the word "abortion." Walker has chosen a specific term-of-art definition that's quite different from how most people understand the word. This allows him to say something that seems to mean one thing but actually means another.

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Donald Trump, the Tea Party, and Political Correctness Have All Collided in 2015

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 1:02 PM EDT

Aside from conservatism (duh), Alan Abramowitz says the strongest predictor of support for the Tea Party is racial hostility. Paul Krugman says he thinks Donald Trump supporters are basically just tea partiers. Put these together and you get this:

So maybe Trump’s base is angry, fairly affluent white racists — sort of like The Donald himself, only not as rich? And maybe they’re not being hoodwinked?

Now, you might ask why angry racists are busting out of the channels the GOP constructed to direct their rage. But there, surely, we have to take account of two things: the real changes in America, which is becoming more socially and culturally diverse, plus the Fox News effect, which has created an angry white guy feedback loop.

Maybe. Here's a data point in favor of Krugman's thesis: the rapturous response Trump gets whenever he says he has no time for political correctness. It was one of the biggest applause lines he got in Thursday's debate. And while there are legitimate complaints to be had about some of the more extreme versions of language policing, for most people their real issue with it is that it forbids them from delivering casual slurs—that everyone knows are true—about blacks or women or Muslims or gays or whatever. They've been doing it all their lives, and they think it's ridiculous that they have to watch themselves in public lest someone think they're racists. Trump appeals to that sentiment.

I should add that this is entirely consistent with the notion that Trump's strength comes fundamentally from his appeal to the conservative culture of grievance and resentment. After all, what are tea partiers so resentful of? Wall Street banks? Maybe, but they sure don't seem to favor any serious action to rein them in. Corrupt politicians? Could be, but they keep electing them to Congress even if they grumble about it. Middle-class wage stagnation? Probably, but it can't be too big a deal since they consistently vote for politicians who are dedicated to doing nothing about it.

At a gut level, the answer is that they think "normal" American culture is under attack. Straight, white, Christian men used to run this country and did a pretty good job of it. But now every minority group in the country wants a piece of the pie, and they all blame "white supremacy culture" or "rape culture" or "heteronormative culture" for their problems. And what's worse, no one is even allowed to tell the truth about what this really means. Mexicans come pouring across the border but you get in trouble for just plainly saying what everyone knows: most of them are criminals and should be sent back. Muslims blow up the World Trade Center, but woe betide anyone who makes the common sense observation that we should keep a close eye on mosques because most of them are terrorist breeding grounds. Blacks commit violent crimes at higher levels than whites, but we all have to pretend this is only because whites have been keeping them down for so long. And if you make a harmless joke about some woman having a great body? It's a compliment! But the feminazis will be all over you like bees in a hive.

This is what a lot of them resent. It's even understandable: everyone is uncomfortable being told that something they're used to doing is now considered insulting. Certainly Donald Trump understands it. When he says America no longer has the luxury of worrying about political correctness, his supporters couldn't agree more.

China Finally Adopts Market-Based Value for its Currency, But We May Not Like the Results

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 11:03 AM EDT

For years the United States has been complaining that China artificially undervalues its currency, which makes their exports cheaper and gives them a trade advantage over American firms. In response, China has gradually let the renminbi rise. By 2015, it had roughly reached fair market value—though not all American politicians agreed about that.

But then the Chinese economy started going sour. Exports were down. The stock market crashed. Growth slowed. What to do? Answer: devalue the renminbi. But instead of doing it by fiat, pretend that you're merely responding to market forces:

Every morning, Beijing sets a target for the trading of its currency against the U.S. dollar, then allows investors to buy and sell the currency for 2 percent more or less. Tuesday's change relaxes the government's control over setting that rate. The midpoint will now be set at the market's closing rate for the previous day.

....Now, market forces could pressure the currency to depreciate rather than appreciate, making Chinese products comparatively cheaper....In China, the depreciation will be a boon for exporters and heavy industry, but bad news for companies that depend on imported goods. Shares of Chinese airlines plummeted on Tuesday, as analysts predicted that the higher cost of oil in U.S. dollars would weigh on their earnings.

It's convenient to have a market-based policy as long as that produces a devaluation of the currency. But will Chinese authorities stick to this policy even when it means the renminbi will appreciate? Good question.

So what does it all mean? Here are a few obvious thoughts:

  • This is yet another vote of no confidence in the Chinese economy. When you put together everything that Chinese authorities have done over the past six months, I'd say they're close to full-scale panic.
  • Investors are likely to push the renminbi even lower, and this is going to make life harder on anyone in China with dollar-denominated debt. This includes lots of local governments who have been financing the housing boom, which means this devaluation could hasten the housing bust everyone has been waiting for.
  • This will be a political issue in the US, but a tricky one. China is manipulating its currency to its own advantage—boo! hiss!—but has also adopted a policy that allows the renminbi's value to be dictated by market forces—which is what we've been demanding all along. It will be interesting to see how all the Republican presidential candidates decide to respond to this.

Generally speaking, I think this should be taken as bad news. The world economy remains fragile, and if the Chinese economy is falling into recession—as the Chinese themselves seem to believe—it will affect all of us. And not in a good way. Stay tuned.

I Still Don't Know What Scott Walker Was Talking About on Abortion

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 1:05 AM EDT

During Thursday's debate, Scott Walker took the most extreme position of any candidate on abortion. Not only does he oppose exceptions for rape and incest, he even opposes an exception to save the life of the mother. "I've said many a time that that unborn child can be protected," he said, "and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That's been consistently proven."

Huh? What was that supposed to mean? I was stumped then, and I'm stumped now. So I was happy to see Jonathan Allen's subhead promising to explain it:

What Scott Walker was talking about when he said there are alternatives to abortion when the woman's life is in danger

Great! So what was Walker talking about?

He essentially subscribes to the "double effect" doctrine, a well-established line of argument that governs how Catholic leaders think about the definition of abortion — and the desire to preserve the life of the mother and the viability of the fetus.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services," makes a distinction between procedures designed to terminate a pregnancy to preserve the life of the woman and those for which the termination of the pregnancy is an unintended consequence of treating the woman....That is, the bishops believe intent matters.

Well, I'm still stumped. This Catholic doctrine governs what's allowed and what isn't, but it doesn't say anything about there always being a way to protect the life of both the fetus and the mother.

So I'll open this up to the floor. Does anyone know what Walker was referring to? What are the "many alternatives" that he claims are available to protect the life of an endangered mother? And who has supposedly consistently proven this? If you know, enlighten us in comments.

2016 and the Fable of the Surge

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 5:15 PM EDT

Over at the Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes about the "fallacy of the surge"—the notion that the surge in Iraq won the war, and things have since fallen apart only because President Obama withdrew American troops and left the field wide open for the taking. Thanks to Obama's gutlessness, goes the story, "Iraq collapsed, ISIS rose, and the Middle East fell apart." Beinart continues:

For today’s GOP leaders, this story line has squelched the doubts about the Iraq invasion that a decade ago threatened to transform conservative foreign policy. The legend of the surge has become this era’s equivalent of the legend that America was winning in Vietnam until, in the words of Richard Nixon’s former defense secretary Melvin Laird, “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975.” In the late 1970s, the legend of the congressional cutoff—and it was a legend; Congress reduced but never cut off South Vietnam’s aid—spurred the hawkish revival that helped elect Ronald Reagan. As we approach 2016, the legend of the surge is playing a similar role. Which is why it’s so important to understand that the legend is wrong.

I've written about this before on many occasions, so here's the nutshell version. It's not that the surge itself was a failure. Gen. David Petraeus did an admirable job of taking advantage of events on the ground, and his strategy really did reduce the violence of the civil war that had broken out. The problem is that all the surge did—all it could do—was give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a bit of breathing space to fashion a permanent peace in the form of a political settlement with the Sunni community. He never did that, nor did we ever really put the screws on him to do it. Without that, a relapse into violence was inevitable:

The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, began persecuting the Sunnis—thus laying the groundwork for their embrace of ISIS—long before American troops departed the country. As early as 2007, writes Emma Sky, who advised both Petraeus and his successor, General Ray Odierno, “the U.S. military was frustrated by what they viewed as the schemes of Maliki and his inner circle to actively sabotage our efforts to draw Sunnis out of the insurgency.”

....The tragedy of post-surge Iraq has its roots in America’s failure to make the Iraqi government more inclusive—a failure that began under Bush and deepened under Obama. In 2010, Sunnis, who had largely boycotted Iraq’s 2005 elections, helped give a mixed Shia-Sunni bloc called Iraqiya two more seats in parliament than Maliki’s party won. But the Obama administration helped Maliki retain power. And Obama publicly praised him for “ensuring a strong, prosperous, inclusive, and democratic Iraq” even after he tried to arrest his vice president and other prominent Sunni leaders.

If Republicans want to blame Obama for this, fine. But Bush did the same, so they'd have to accept some of the blame themselves. If we did indeed "lose" Iraq, it was because we never took political reconciliation seriously enough, not because we had too few troops in the country.

But this won't do. As with the Vietnam myth, the fable of the surge is mostly a political construct. Nobody who understands the actual Iraq timeline takes it seriously, but it's a handy way of attacking Obama, and it plays well with low-information voters who figure that it's just plain common sense that war is about military force and nothing else. As an added bonus, it plays right into the Republican theme that our military has been hollowed out by Obama and needs a Reaganesque rebuilding.

And the fact that it's not true? Even moderate Republicans aren't speaking up to say so. You do know there's a presidential campaign going on, don't you?

Yes, Of Course Donald Trump Is Fueled by the Politics of Resentment

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 2:53 PM EDT

Josh Marshall:

Far be it from me to beat up on insular, east coast elites. But the insular, cross-partisan east coast media elite hasn't grasped how the politics of resentment are fueling Donald Trump's campaign or why gang ups from Fox News just don't matter.

I don't want to beat up on Josh, but seriously: is there anyone who doesn't already get this? Maybe I'm just reading the wrong people, but among the folks I read this is the conventional wisdom by miles. Trump is basically a more experienced and media-savvy version of Sarah Palin. His appeal is anchored in simple answers, an insistence that politicians are all corrupt idiots, a disdain for political correctness, and an affirmation that ordinary folks are getting screwed.

But this doesn't mean that gang-ups from Fox News don't matter. It all depends on how personal the attacks get. If Trump starts to lose the support of the prime-time blowhards with a personal following—Bill, Greta, Sean, etc.—then it becomes a question of who the tea partiers trust more: Donald Trump or Bill O'Reilly? Donald Trump or Sean Hannity? This is a battle Trump can lose, and that's why it's in his best interest to cool it on the Fox News front. But it can also do damage to the personal following of the Fox prime-time crew, so it's in their best interest to cool it too. In other words, let's call a truce:

And there you have it. The support of Fox News really does matter, and Trump knows it. Likewise, support of Trump matters, and Roger Ailes knows it. Why? Because they're just different versions of the same thing: media impresarios that feed on the conservative culture of resentment and grievance. Of course they matter to each other.

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Republicans May Be Shooting Themselves in the Foot Over Abortion

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

Here's an interesting recent poll question:

There's not much need to tell you I just made this up. If it were real, this bill would get 0 percent support. Everyone who saw it would be immediately appalled at the idea that someone could be casually murdered if they were born as a result of rape or incest.

But if you ask this same question about abortion, this is roughly what you get. Very strong majorities, even among Republicans, support an exception to an abortion ban for rape and incest. Among other things, this is why I don't believe most people who claim to believe that abortion is murder. If you support a rape or incest exception, it's pretty obvious you don't really think of abortion as murder.

So where am I going with this? Right here, with Paul Waldman's observation that the Republican Party's move to the extreme right on abortion is getting much more public than in the past:

One moment in the debate that may have struck some as odd occurred when Marco Rubio got a question about him supporting exceptions for rape and incest victims to abortion bans, and he insisted that he supports no such thing. Mike Huckabee declared that “I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.” Scott Walker went even further, stating his opposition to exceptions to save the life of the pregnant woman (“I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother”).

In the past, most Republicans have fudged this issue. The more honest among them admit that it's mostly for political reasons: in their hearts they don't support any exceptions to an abortion ban, but they realize the broader public does. So the lesser evil is to do what's necessary to move public opinion, which is the only way to eventually get to a full-blown ban on abortion.

But that fudging is apparently getting less tenable these days, and it's forcing Republican candidates to take public positions that they know are very unpopular. If this starts to spread, it could be bad news for the incrementalists, who correctly believe that such an extreme position is likely to lose them a lot of support. I wonder what would happen in the next debate if one of the moderators asked one of those show-your-hands questions to the entire field about whether they support a rape or incest exception to an abortion ban? We know where Rubio and Walker are. But what about the rest of them?

Is Opposition to Obamacare Finally Dying Down?

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 12:44 PM EDT

I missed this when it first got published the day after the Republican debate, but Sarah Kliff says out loud something that was only percolating in the back of my head at the time:

Ten Republican presidential hopefuls took to the debate stage last night to prove their conservative bona fides. They swore they'd unravel President Barack Obama's legacy. But there was one place they barely went: repealing Obamacare.

....Last night, candidates mentioned Obamacare exactly six times during the course of a two-hour debate. Only one candidate, Scott Walker, uttered the Republican rallying cry: "Repeal Obamacare." The near-complete absence of Obama's health overhaul is remarkable.

The rhetorical shift shows a fundamental change in the calculus of Obamacare: It's one thing to talk about dismantling a theoretical law. It's another to take away insurance that tens of millions of Americans now receive. And that's exactly where Republicans are in 2016. So while Obamacare barely made it onto the stage, it might just be the biggest winner of the night.

Kliff goes on to make the case in more detail that repealing Obamacare is fundamentally less attractive than it was four years ago. Back then, it was an abstraction. Today it's a real live program with millions of enrollees.

Is this really why Obamacare got so little attention in the debate? Maybe. Or maybe Fox News just didn't bother giving the candidates much of a chance. After all, if you're looking for conflict, what's the point of asking about something that every candidate on the stage agrees about? It's worth noting that the only question specifically about Obamacare went to Donald Trump, and asked him why he had flip-flopped on single-payer health care. And the only question on Medicaid went to John Kasich, one of the few Republican governors to accept Obamacare funding to expand Medicaid coverage. In both cases there was some potential disagreement between the candidates. So Thursday's debate might not be much of a bellwether about waning interest in Obamacare among Republicans.

Still, I suspect Kliff is onto something. I agree that an actual program with actual enrollees—and one that's operating pretty successfully—is a trickier target than one that's slated for the future. For one thing, you can predict anything you want about a program that hasn't started up yet, but it's harder to keep up the meme that Obamacare will destroy the economy when it's pretty plainly not destroying the economy. For another, even a Republican candidate is going to feel a lot of pushback from constituents who are now using the program and want to know what's going to happen if it goes away and they can't get insured anymore.

And there's another tidbit of evidence on this front. A couple of weeks ago CNN released a poll that asked voters what their most important issue was. Among Republicans, only 14 percent said health care. They're far more concerned about the economy and the nexus of terrorism and foreign policy. Democrats, conversely, ranked health care very highly. This suggests that Democrats are now more committed to keeping Obamacare than Republicans are to getting rid of it.

I might be reading this wrong, and I wouldn't want to draw any firm conclusions from a campaign that still has many months to run. Still, my sense is that Obamacare just isn't getting as much attention from Republicans as it used to. Sure, they all want to repeal it, but their talking points are starting to sound very pro forma. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush mentioned it during the debate, for example, but only as part of a laundry list of stuff they'd do to improve the economy.

We'll see. It will certainly get more attention during the general election, when it becomes a serious point of contention. But my guess is that it just doesn't have the juice it used to. It's working OK. The economy hasn't collapsed. The budget hasn't exploded. It's helping actual people. And although they'll never admit it publicly, most Republicans candidates know that repealing it takes more than the stroke of a pen. It's a lot harder than they make it sound.

Hillary Clinton Threads the Needle on College Tuition Plan

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton plans to offer a major proposal to deal with skyrocketing student debt:

With Americans shouldering $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and about eight million of them in default, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will propose major new spending by the federal government that would help undergraduates pay tuition at public colleges without needing loans.

....Under the plan, which was outlined by Clinton advisers on Sunday, about $175 billion in grants would go to states that guarantee that students would not have to take out loans to cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. In return for the money, states would have to end budget cuts to increase spending over time on higher education, while also working to slow the growth of tuition, though the plan does not require states to cap it.

....Her plan does not go as far as some liberal advocacy groups would like, because she still expects families to make a “realistic” contribution to cover some tuition costs — through savings or loans — while students would contribute based on wages from 10 hours of work per week. In contrast Mr. O’Malley proposed “an aggressive goal — to give every student and their family the opportunity to go to college debt-free,” said Lis Smith, his deputy campaign manager.

Hillary is Hillary, so I'm sure when this is announced it will be accompanied by a detailed policy paper that makes a very good case for how it can work. My initial reaction is that it sounds kind of complicated, and I wonder if this kind of incentive can really keep states from finding ways to spend less and less on higher education. Will tuition costs go down only to be replaced by ever-increasing "fees"?

At the same time, this is pretty carefully crafted to appeal to multiple constituencies. It will appeal to middle-class voters by guaranteeing that tuition costs at state universities will be kept to a reasonable level. But it will also appeal to low-income voters with little chance of sending their kids to college. They probably wonder why taxpayers should subsidize a free education for mostly middle-income kids who are going to use that education to make more money after they graduate. Clinton has threaded this needle by insisting that families still have to contribute and students should work at least part-time.

I doubt this will become a major campaign issue. However, it will cost $350 billion over ten years, and Democrats have to be careful about how many programs like this they propose. Once you put a price tag on them, Republicans can start adding up the damages and asking where the money will come from. In this case, Clinton says it will come from effectively raising taxes on the rich, but that can only go so far. If she has very many more of these programs to announce, eventually middle-class families will have to shoulder some of the bill. That's catnip for Republicans.

Cruz, Fiorina Are Big Winners In First Post-Debate Poll

| Sun Aug. 9, 2015 6:38 PM EDT

A new NBC poll has gotten a lot of attention today for suggesting that Donald Trump won the Republican debate on Thursday. And maybe he did! But I'd take the results with a grain of salt. Here's why:

  • As the chart on the right shows, Trump's support didn't increase. It stayed where it was. The big gainers were Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson.
  • It was an overnight poll. So it might reflect what viewers thought of the debate itself, but it doesn't take account of the weekend fallout over Trump's post-debate treatment of Megyn Kelly. Nor does it take into account the media treatment of Trump over the past few days. This may or may not make a difference, but I'd wait a few days to see how things play out.
  • It's an internet poll, not a telephone poll. The methodology is fairly sound, but it's nonetheless another reason to treat the results with caution.

I'm not foolish enough to predict what's going to happen to Trump's poll numbers over the next week. I feel safe saying that Trump will implode eventually, and that he'll implode over something like this weekend's lunacy. But whether it will happen over this weekend's version of this weekend's lunacy—well, who knows? The base of the Republican Party is pretty inscrutable to a mushy mainstream liberal like me. I'm really not sure what will and won't set them off these days.

As for the rest of the results, I'm stumped over Ted Cruz's gain. He didn't seem to especially stand out on Thursday. Conversely, Fiorina is easy to understand, and Carson's bump might just be due to increased name recognition. Bush and Walker dropped a little more than I would have guessed, but 3 percent still isn't much. We'll see if all these results hold up over the next week.