Kevin Drum

Sphere of Influence

| Mon Feb. 16, 2009 1:05 PM EST
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE....In the LA Times, Megan Stack reports that Russia is playing both parts in a good-cop-bad-cop routine directed at the United States:

In recent days, Russian officials have rushed forward to offer logistical help to NATO troops in Afghanistan — at the same time dipping into a dwindling budget to offer impoverished Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in an apparent payoff for ejecting a U.S. military base crucial to the war against the Taliban.

In fact, Russia is tugged between two strong, conflicting impulses. It distrusts U.S. motives, especially when it comes to America's penetration of former Soviet states. But Moscow's sense of invulnerability appears shaken by falling oil prices and the precarious economy. Many analysts believe the Kremlin is looking for an opening to make nice with the West. Nearby Afghanistan, where instability also spells danger for Russia, presents a handy opening.

And so Russian officials offer help with one hand, lash out with the other.

....The message from Moscow these days appears to be that the United States should not expect to cut deals with the Kremlin-backed governments of Central Asia. If Obama wants something from the region, he'll have to ask Moscow.

The key question seems to be: how scared is Putin of Islamic extremism near Russia's border?  And how badly do we want Russian help?  Stay tuned.

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Treasury Bubble Watch

| Mon Feb. 16, 2009 12:36 PM EST
TREASURY BUBBLE WATCH....Is the appetite for treasury bonds with minuscule yields finally waning?  The Wall Street Journal reports:

Time and again the U.S. Treasurys market has escaped the correction many believe is inevitable for a market that is so buoyant, it could be mistaken for a bubble. This week, it may not be so fortunate.

Prices of government bonds started to fall Friday, ahead of the vote by the House of Representatives that approved the $789.5 billion stimulus package. This decline could be the beginning of the capitulation the market has been bracing for since the administration of President Barack Obama took over, with promises of a recession-era boom in government spending.

Personally, I wouldn't read too much into this.  But it's something worth keeping an eye on.  The treasury bubble is going to pop eventually.

What Obama Did

| Sun Feb. 15, 2009 4:07 PM EST
WHAT OBAMA DID....Our obsessive modern media environment — talk radio, 24/7 cable news, constant blog chatter, etc. — turns every molehill into Mt. Everest.  Every bill is a cliffhanger.  Every amendment is a fight for the future of the party.  Every procedural vote is a referendum on the president and his entire program.

Except, you know, it's not.  The fantastic amount of sturm und drang from all sides to the contrary, here's what happened with the stimulus bill.  (1) Obama recommended a $775 billion package.  (2) The House futzed around with it a bit.  (3) The Senate futzed around a little more.  (4) The final confererence report ended up within a few percent of what Obama asked for in the first place: Slightly less spending, but more front-loaded; about the same amount of tax cuts; and the addition of a tweak to the AMT, which would have happened anyway later in the year.  Some of the net changes were good (more rail, more energy spending) and some were bad (housing subsidies, state aid cuts), but in the grand scheme of things this is pretty small potatoes.  Mark Kleiman notes that now that the sound and fury have died away, the media has finally figured out what happened:

Espo's [AP] story carries no hint of the earlier widely-repeated nonsense about how the failure of Republicans to vote for the bill even after it had been somewhat tailored to meet their original objections constitutes a defeat for Obama's post-partisan ambitions. It seems far more likely to constitute an act of collective political self-immolation. The stimulus bill and Obama are both quite popular, and the Republicans just the opposite. The public doesn't seem to have had nearly as much trouble as, for example, the editorial page of the Washington Post in figuring out which side is extending the hand of friendship and which side is biting it.

I would have thought that, by now, smart observers of the political scene would have developed some hesitancy about claiming that the Obama machine has blundered. Apparently not yet. But Ron Brownstein puts his finger on what seems to me the key fact about Obama as a politician: "flexible about tactics and unwavering in his goals."

And, I would add, patient. Obama is a low-discount-rate player in a very high-discount-rate town. And he understands what the pundits don't: this is a repeat-play game. His summary of the stimulus bill: "not 100 percent of what we would want ... but a very good start on moving things forward."

Obama has obviously had a few stumbles during his first month in office, but aside from losing Tom Daschle none of it was serious.  (The Commerce Department?  Please.  Sure, it's a little embarrassing to lose two candidates in a row, but in the end, nobody cares a whit.)  On the plus side, his team is in place, he's passed both a healthcare bill and an anti-discrimination bill, and he's now got the single largest stimulus bill in the history of the country sitting on his desk waiting for his signature.  And he still has 205 weeks left to go in his first term.  Were you really expecting very much more from the first three?

GOP Lemming Watch

| Sun Feb. 15, 2009 2:54 PM EST
GOP LEMMING WATCH....You think DC Republicans are nuts?  Come to California for the real thing.  We're in a $41 billion hole, and after weeks of grinding negotiations Gov. Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders finally agreed on a package that contained $15 billion in spending cuts, $15 billion in temporary tax increases, and $11 billion in new borrowing.  So what happened?

Nothing.  The package needs a grand total of three (3) GOP votes in the state Senate, and it turns out there are only two.  All the others are still dead set on allowing California to run off a cliff rather than vote for any tax increases whatsoever no matter what the circumstances.  (Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark: The package, if passed would be remembered as "the Valentine's massacre on California taxpayers.")  In the Assembly, my representative, Chuck DeVore, tried to lead a revolt against the sellout Republican leadership, failed, and then promptly resigned his position as minority whip.  (Brian Leubitz at Calitics: "In the Byzantine world of Yacht Party politics this of course is good news for his chances of winning the party's nomination to get pummeled by Barbara Boxer in 2010.")  The Assembly then went into lockdown overnight.  (John Myers via Twitter: "A lockdown really is a lockdown. Assembly sergeants are at all exits of the chambers.")  The Senate pulled an all-nighter too, but by dawn the third GOP vote was still nowhere to be found.  Senate Dems even slashed some spending for children's healthcare, a project always near and dear to moderate Republicans, but it wasn't enough to get Sen. Dave Cox on board.  So they're still a vote shy.

Anyway, no big point to make here except that Republicans in California are certifiably insane.  Unfortunately, they're also pretty much invulnerable.  Over the past decade their ranks have dwindled to about a third of the legislature, but thanks to the cozy gerrymandering deals of the recent past they represent districts that are far more likely to punish them for compromise than for constructive engagement.  And since California requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, they can stamp their feet, hold their breath, give rousing speeches to their neanderthal constituencies, and run the state off a cliff just for giggles.  Aren't you glad you don't live here?

Geithner's Plan

| Sun Feb. 15, 2009 1:43 PM EST
GEITHNER'S PLAN....Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was pummeled last week for offering up a vague and unsatisfactory plan for dealing with the U.S. banking crisis.  But he had better luck with his fellow economic mandarins at yesterday's G7 meeting:

Going into the meeting, Canadian Finance Minister James M. Flaherty called the U.S. financial rescue "less than clear," echoing comments made by financial chiefs in France and Germany. Afterward, many of the officials appeared reassured, saying that Geithner provided clear answers to their questions.

Several officials said Geithner was particularly helpful in explaining how the various elements of the administration's initiatives tie together as well as how he plans to combine public funds with private resources to get more bang out of every rescue dollar the governments spends.

That's great! So how about if he provides the American public with the same clear answers he offered to foreign central bankers? Apparently that's not going to happen:

Withholding critical details was a conscious choice by Geithner and his team, the official said in an interview. They wanted to avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration, which announced proposals before fully debating them and then quickly abandoned them when it realized they would not work.

Geithner and his staff also wanted to coordinate their proposals with lawmakers, the private sector and their counterparts overseas. This need for coordination is more than just rhetoric, officials said. If the United States develops a method to examine the books of banks and evaluate the real worth of their assets, it would likely affect financial firms around the world.

So let me get this straight.  The story we're asked to believe is that Geithner deliberately mumbled his way through Tuesday's press conference, but then, four days later, working from "a few pages of notes that he had quickly scribbled in a small notebook," provided a brilliant explanation of his plan that satisfied the most sophisticated economic audience on the planet?  What's wrong with this picture?

Happy Valentines Day

| Sat Feb. 14, 2009 9:34 PM EST
HAPPY VALENTINES DAY....Craig Childs defends the refinement and discrimination of pre-Columbian cultures in North America:

A thousand years ago, people in the Southwest had not invented the wheel, had no armies and relied on stone tools, which has marked them as uncivilized. They are imagined as cavemen. But the recent discovery of chocolate in a broken jar from pre-Columbian New Mexico might be enough to change that kind of thinking.

Consider it changed!  If chocolate isn't the mark of a great civilization, what is?

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Which Reagan?

| Sat Feb. 14, 2009 4:29 PM EST
WHICH REAGAN?....Conservatives want Barack Obama to act more like Ronald Reagan.  Fred Kaplan asks, which one?

In his first term, from 1981-85, Reagan escalated East-West tensions, spoke in bellicose rhetoric, and jacked up military spending to 30-year highs. This is the Reagan whom Republican chieftains worship and insist that all subsequent presidents emulate. But in his second term, which coincided with Gorbachev's rise to power, Reagan flipped, making dramatic diplomatic overtures to Moscow and accepting equally dramatic proposals in turn.

Few remember, but many of the Republicans who now tout Reagan's accomplishments pummeled him at the time for "betraying" his followers and their Cold War ideology.

....When Republicans tell Obama to act more like Ronald Reagan, a suitable response might be: "Which one?"

Do I get a vote? How about neither? George Bush has just spent the past eight years pretending to be the first-term Reagan, so we hardly need a repeat of that. And the second-term Reagan was a clueless naif. I could do without that too. How about if we just let Obama be Obama instead?

Rush

| Sat Feb. 14, 2009 4:08 PM EST
RUSH....Speaking of Rush Limbaugh, here's his latest tirade against Barack Obama:

"I want everything he's doing to fail... I want the stimulus package to fail.... I do not want this to succeed."

Charming, no? I don't have a problem with Limbaugh wanting Obama to fail. That's just politics. But publicly rooting for the stimulus to fail and the economy to tank? Is there anyone in the conservative community who thinks that's taking things a wee bit too far? Or are they all OK with this?

Fairness Follies

| Sat Feb. 14, 2009 3:59 PM EST

FAIRNESS FOLLIES....For months conservatives have been nattering obsessively about how Democrats want to put their talk radio stars out of business by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. It's ridiculous. Barack Obama says he's against it, there's no serious legislation pending, and there's no chance at all of any legislation passing. Given all that, then, it's pretty annoying to hear Bill Clinton hand the talking heads some free ammunition on the subject. Here's the Big Dog a couple of days ago:

Well, you either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side, because essentially there's always been a lot of big money to support the right wing talk shows and let face it, you know, Rush Limbaugh is fairly entertaining even when he is saying things that I think are ridiculous....

I don't get it. Is there some kind of subtle three-cushion bank shot stategerizing going on here? Are we just trying to keep conservatives off balance over trivia? Or what? Because unless there's some serious movement afoot to repeal the Fairness Doctrine — and I don't think there is — Dems with big microphones really ought to just shut up about it.

The Opposition Opposes

| Sat Feb. 14, 2009 3:36 PM EST
THE OPPOSITION OPPOSES....Atrios says it's OK for the opposition party to oppose the president en masse:

I don't have a problem with Republicans who, on balance, wanted the bill to pass but still voted against it. I don't really think it's "cowardice" or whatever, they're simply making it clear that they're the opposition party. And that's a good thing! It's only in bizarro Broderville, combined with the annoying supermajority bits of the Senate, that anyone really thinks differently.

Basically, I agree. Both parties have an interest in differentiating themselves, and the best way to do that is to make the majority party responsible for its agenda.

But as Atrios also points out, there's one problem with this: "the annoying supermajority bits of the Senate."  A parliamentary system is fine if you have the machinery of a parliamentary system, in which the majority party has the power to pass its legislative program and then stands or falls based on how well it works out.  But it's not so fine if a party can win the presidency, the House, and the Senate by landslide majorities but still can't pass big parts of its program because it needs 60 votes in the Senate.

If Republicans want to adopt the party discipline features of a parliamentary system, fine.  But they also need to adopt the rest of the system as well.  The filibuster was never intended to become a routine requirement that all legislation needs 60% of the vote in the Senate to pass.  But that's what it's become.  It's time for reform.