Kevin Drum

Conservatives and Unions

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 7:18 PM PST

CONSERVATIVES AND UNIONS....Tim Fernholz shakes his head over the current conservative obsession with supposed liberal efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, and then asks a question:

The problem, of course, is that most folks on the left could care less about the Fairness Doctrine and don't see bringing it back as necessary or important, as The Los Angeles Times chronicles. But, obviously, a good number of conservatives are worked up about this fake issue. Which is weird, but also got me to thinking: Are liberals worked up about a similarly fake conservative project?

Sure. A few years ago there was a boomlet in liberals claiming that Bush was going to reinstate the draft. It was always a ridiculous notion, but it had a certain amount of currency in the blogosphere for a while. I think I even succumbed to it once myself during the 2004 campaign season.

But what else? Fernholz decided to ask some conservatives, and James Poulos gave this answer:

I suppose I have a less controversial and a more controversial answer for you. The less controversial answer is that [it] doesn't seem right to me to claim that conservatives are out to destroy the unions....The more controversial answer is that I don't think "overturning Roe vs. Wade" really accurately describes "a conservative project" anymore.

I'd say this is exactly backward. Overturning Roe v. Wade is obviously still a conservative project, but I'd at least give a hearing to the argument that there are plenty of conservatives who (a) don't really care about Roe and (b) believe that overturning it is a hopeless cause. Sure, they're all willing to keep it in the GOP platform and support pro-life judges (as long as they're also pro-business judges), but you can certainly make the case that a serious obsession with Roe is a minority position even within the conservative movement.

So even though I'd still disagree with Poulos on this point, I'd call it the less controversial claim. Union busting, conversely, strikes me as being so deeply embedded in conservative DNA that it's virtually impossible to imagine an American conservative movement that didn't have anti-unionism as one of its core planks. In the last 30 years conservatives have made virtually no only modest inroads on their pro-life agenda, but they've made steady progress on the anti-union front ever since the end of World War II — via legislation, executive orders, new agency rules, NLRB appointments, and judicial nominations at both the state and federal level. This is no coincidence. The prospect of unionization rouses panic among Main Street conservatives more than any other single issue — more than taxes, more than deregulation — and whether James Dobson likes it or not, the GOP is a business party first and a social conservative party second.

Overturning Roe is certainly a conservative priority, but it's only been on the list for about 30 years. Fighting labor has been on the list for more like 130 years. If it's not central to the conservative identity in America, I don't know what is.

UPDATE: Edited slightly. As JR points out in comments, in conservative regions of the country pro-life forces have won a fair number of battles at the state and local level.

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Hillary at State

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 5:06 PM PST

HILLARY AT STATE....The latest on the Hillary front:

Hillary Clinton plans to accept the job of secretary of state offered by Barack Obama, who is reaching out to former rivals to build a broad coalition administration, the Guardian has learned.

....Clinton, who still harbours hopes of a future presidential run, had to weigh up whether she would be better placed by staying in the Senate, which offers a platform for life, or making the more uncertain career move to the secretary of state job.

I don't know what sources the Guardian bases this on, but there are no weasel words in that first sentence. If this really turns out to be true, color me gobsmacked.

Iranian Arms Update

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 12:36 PM PST

IRANIAN ARMS UPDATE....Gareth Porter reports on the findings of Task Force Troy, which was set up earlier this year to look for evidence of Iranian-made weapons in Iraq:

According to the data compiled by the task force, and made available to an academic research project last July, only 70 weapons believed to have been manufactured in Iran had been found in post-invasion weapons caches between mid-February and the second week in April. And those weapons represented only 17 percent of the weapons found in caches that had any Iranian weapons in them during that period.

....The caches that included Iranian weapons [] represented just 2 percent of all caches found. That means Iranian-made weapons were a fraction of one percent of the total weapons found in Shi'a militia caches during that period.

To be exact, Iranian weapons accounted for 0.36% of all weapons found during the six-week period examined by the task force. What's more, the task force also looked at large caches of supposedly Iranian weapons uncovered in Basra and Karbala during April and May and concluded that they weren't Iranian after all. Cernig provides more:

Left out of the list of Iranian-made weaponry were 350 armour-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) found in Iraqi weapons caches. Despite the lurid claims of US officials, the task group couldn't ascribe an Iranian origin to a single one. Which along with press reports about finding EFP manufactories inside Iraq explains why, since mid-Summer, we've heard nothing about Iranian-made EFPs whereas before official reports and statements were full of them.

....Iranian equipment is less reliable and more expensive than Eastern Block materiel that flooded the region after the 2003 invasion — something which a certain imprisoned international arms dealer, ex-CIA and ex-US military contractor and supplier to despots and terrorists, Viktor Bout, may well know a fair bit about. It's a buyer's market and the Iranians are seeing market forces exclude their produce, with the exception of simple artillery rockets. They're more expensive than the Pakistani arms bazaar's copies coming down the old Silk Road routes and far less effective than easily available and comparitively-priced black market US weapons too.

There's no question that Iran has substantial interests, both political and military, in Iraq, and has been assisting various armed groups there over the past few years (some of them allied with Maliki and the U.S. government). But evidence is evidence, and the evidence that they've been providing anything more than token amounts of weaponry to Iraqi fighters is very thin indeed. It's time to move on to some other bugaboo.

Stimulus Dreams

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 11:17 AM PST

STIMULUS DREAMS....Clay Risen recommends a piece in New York magazine about the virtues of using a trillion-dollar infrastructure program as economic stimulus. It's by architecture critic Justin Davidson, and it argues that a building plan would do more than just stimulate the economy:

A new New Deal, equipped with an Obama-era version of the Works Progress Administration, could put millions back to work, modernize the country, nudge the economy towards recovery, and produce a barrage of working monuments. It would be a stimulus package that keeps on stimulating long into the future.

This late-model WPA would take advantage of a moment when great architecture, buoyed by a long construction boom and debilitated by the bubble's pop, is looking for a purpose. The international corps of architectural auteurs, who have spent a decade or two dreaming up fantastical museums and ever more luxurious condos, could be challenged to build in American cities — particularly ours — on the grandest possible scale. They should be given the chance to tackle society's most massive, crucial, and abiding projects: viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges.

I have my doubts about this. In the first half of the 20th century, huge engineering projects were viewed as symbols of economic power and national greatness. Each skyscraper was taller than the one before, each bridge longer, each highway more miraculous. But here in the industrialized West anyway, that's just not true anymore. We've done too much of it, and it's become too routine. Individual pieces of architecture still have the power to inspire, but building programs qua building programs just don't kindle the same passions they used to.

This is especially true given the nature of the stuff we'd be building (or repairing): "viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges." There would probably be a few chances to build beautiful new bridges — Davidson mentions the new Tappan Zee bridge as an example — but they're going to be few and far between. For the most part, we've already built all the big bridges we need, and the vast bulk of any federal building program will instead be on inherently prosaic projects. Even on the bridge front, most of the projects will be straightforward roads, like the infamous I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, not gossamer creations spanning rivers and mountain gorges.

Which is too bad. I love beautiful bridges, and if we do allocate money for infrastructure, I hope we allow it to be used to create works of art when and where it's possible. For the most part, though, we don't need grand new projects so much as we need to repair old ones — and the new ones we do need are going to be things like windmill farms, electricals grids, and rail systems. It'll stimulate the economy, and be an excellent investment in the future, but it's asking too much to think it will be much more than that.

Movement Drivel

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 10:36 AM PST

MOVEMENT DRIVEL....After listening to George Will this weekend, Brad DeLong is confused:

I have never been able to make any sense at all of the right-wing claim that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by creating a "crisis of confidence" that crippled private investment as American businessmen feared and hated "that Communist Roosevelt." The crisis of confidence was created by the stock market crash, the deflation, and the bank failures of 1929-1933. Private investment recovered in a very healthy fashion as Roosevelt's New Deal policies took effect.

There's a good reason Brad has never been able to make sense of this claim: it was never made in good faith in the first place. Movement conservatives don't like the New Deal, so they did what they always do when confronted with something they don't like: they went searching for some content-free but semi-plausible argument against it that they could use to con the rubes. Then, once they found something glib enough to pass muster, they repeated it often enough that it took on the patina of conventional wisdom. Conventional enough even for the likes of George Will.

For the first time in a while, though, liberals have the luxury of mostly ignoring this nonsense. In this case — George Will spouting economic drivel on ABC's This Week — Paul Krugman batted down the nonsense in the course of a few seconds and the conversation moved on. End of story. Very refreshing.

So today's moral is: make an argument in good faith, and it will (or should, anyway) be engaged. Spew movement nonsense and you will be quickly corrected and then ignored. It's a good system.

The Military-Conservative Complex

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 10:17 AM PST

THE MILITARY-CONSERVATIVE COMPLEX....Via TPM, Bernard Finel writes about military-civilian relations:

In the mid-1990s, congressional Republicans, concerned that the Clinton administration was allowing the Department of Defense to run on inertia, mandated the Pentagon produce a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)....The roots of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dicey relations with the uniformed military stemmed from his refusal to accept a fait accompli in the form of a [2000-01] QDR largely drafted without his input. The consequences of the rift were severe.

This has since changed, of course. The QDR review is now conducted not in the last year of a presidency, but in the first. The next QDR will be conducted in 2009, and released in early 2010. It will be an Obama-influenced product from start to finish.

Or will it? Finel says that the uniformed services have already tried to hijack the process by teaming up with conservatives to make sensible defense spending a political impossibility:

Earlier this year, briefing slides showing $60 billion to $80 billion per year in new expenditures started making the rounds inside the Beltway, supported by a public campaign by conservative think tanks and politicians to establish a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.

The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.

....There are so many things wrong with this emerging process that it is hard to address the issue concisely. Promoting overspending on defense in order to forestall popular social spending is undemocratic — it creates a false tension between national security and other public policy goals.

The informal alliance between the services and conservative think tanks threatens to further politicize the military. The abuse of national security arguments to win political arguments is both morally suspect and threatens the security of the nation by delinking strategic assessment from public policy.

This is nothing new. The Pentagon has been highly politicized pretty much forever, and has worked hand-in-glove with hawkish conservatives for its entire existence. The fact that the service chiefs want more money and are laying the groundwork to get it is entirely unsurprising.

Which is why Obama's most important cabinet appointment probably won't be either State or Treasury, but Defense, where his personal experience is at its lowest. It's also what makes the possibility of Robert Gates staying on so interesting. In his favor: he has the background and conservative cred to fight off the kind of power play Finel writes about. On the other hand, the QDR he produces would set Pentagon priorities for four years. Does Obama really want a Bush holdover wielding that kind of influence?

I'm not sure myself. But here's an interesting observation: there's been loads of scuttlebutt about who Obama's picks for State and Treasury will be, but very little about his pick for Defense. There's been lots of talk about whether Gates will or won't stay, but not so much about who's in line for the job if he leaves in January. Why is that?

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Quote of the Day - 11.17.08

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 9:08 AM PST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From the Mormon church, reacting to protests against their campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California:

"People of faith have been intimidated for simply exercising their democratic rights. These are not actions that are worthy of the democratic ideals of our nation. The end of a free and fair election should not be the beginning of a hostile response in America."

I'm afraid the church elders have it exactly backward here. Churches have every right to involve themselves in political issues, but if they do then they're going to be treated as political actors. Protests, boycotts, op-eds, blog posts, and marches are exactly the democratic ideals of our nation, and being on the receiving end of them is what happens to anyone who enters the political fray. It's a little late for them to pretend they didn't know this.

Obama Speaks

| Sun Nov. 16, 2008 11:11 PM PST

OBAMA SPEAKS....There's been a lot of speculation over the past few days about Barack Obama's position on issues like torture and Guantanamo, most of it based on nothing more than a couple of early appointments mixed with content-free rumors of other appointments. Tonight on 60 Minutes, though, we got more than speculation. We got the man himself making his position clear:

Kroft: There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders. One of them is to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by U.S. troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?

Mr. Obama: Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm gonna make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.

Good.

Mortgage Rescue Wonkery

| Sun Nov. 16, 2008 11:29 AM PST

MORTGAGE RESCUE WONKERY....One of the problems surrounding any plan to rescue homeowners with troubled mortgages is that most mortgages are bundled up into securities that have multiple noteholders and are governed by reams of carefully written contractual requirements. So even if the mortgage servicer wants to rewrite mortgages to prevent defaults, they probably can't. The terms of the contract don't allow it, and getting the agreement of every single noteholder is nearly impossible.

So what's the solution? The federal government doesn't have the authority to unilaterally abrogate private contracts, but via Matt Yglesias, CAPAF's Michael Barr explains a way to get in via the back door:

Servicers managing pools of loans for investors are generally barred by contract from selling the underlying mortgage loans, but the trust agreements also provide that servicers must amend the agreements if doing so would be helpful or necessary to stay in compliance with tax rules under the Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduit, or REMIC, statute, which provide important benefits for these securitization trusts and their investors. We propose to modify the REMIC rules to ensure that servicers have the authority and incentive to sell the mortgages to Treasury.

Legislation would provide that REMIC benefits would be denied going forward if the securitization's contract provisions have the effect of barring servicers from selling or restructuring loans under Treasury's programs. Servicers would have a legal obligation to their investors to modify the agreements to stay in compliance. Servicers could then sell loans to Treasury for restructuring. Participation in the Treasury program would remain voluntary, but the key legal impediments to participation would be removed.

There's more to it, including some indemnification and accounting details, but this appears to be the main change that would allow a broad-based mortgage rescue plan to go forward. Comment is invited from anyone with the background to offer an informed opinion on whether Barr's plan would work.

And as long as we're on the subject, here's an interesting tidbit from Barr's testimony:

Under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, an estimated 400,000 at-risk mortgages could be restructured on affordable terms with credit enhancement from the Federal Housing Administration under the "Hope for Homeowners" program....This "Hope for Homeowners" program began insuring loans in the fall of 2008, but as of mid-October had only processed 42 loans.

We sure seem to move faster when it comes to bailing out Wall Street and the auto companies than we do when it comes to helping out distressed homeowners, don't we?

Talk Radio

| Sun Nov. 16, 2008 10:48 AM PST

TALK RADIO....Via Digby, here is Dan Shelley, former news director and assistant program director at Milwaukee's WTMJ, telling us about his career working with his station's right-wing talkers:

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician — either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a "RINO" (a "Republican In Name Only," who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy.

....Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They're not called talking points, but that's what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie [Sykes] would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim.

On the groupthink/talking points front, Digby suggests that "there are some disconcerting parallels between the right wing talk radio hosts and bloggers." Do you agree?

UPDATE: Edited slightly based on feedback from Digby in comments.