Kevin Drum

Troopergate Update

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:57 PM EDT

TROOPERGATE UPDATE....Steve has the latest on Troopergate. Bloomberg has the latest on the McCain camp's attempt to shut down the investigation.

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Healthcare, McCain Style

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:29 PM EDT

HEALTHCARE, McCAIN STYLE....Joe Klein wants to get out of the gutter and talk about the issues:

Today's issue: health insurance. John McCain wants to tax your employer-provided health care benefits. He wants to replace those benefits with an insufficient tax credit — $2500 for individuals and $5000 for families (the average cost per family for health insurance is $12000).

....It is amazing to me that Obama campaign has let things go this far without pointing out that McCain — who opposes the energy bill because it would increase taxes on oil companies — is actually proposing a tax increase on health care benefits for American workers. But that is precisely what the Senator from Arizona is doing.

Let's unpack this. If you get health insurance through your employer, as most Americans do, you don't pay taxes on it. Under McCain's plan you would. So if the insurance premium for your family is $14,000 (the best estimate available for 2009), you'll pay federal income tax, state income tax, and payroll tax on that amount, and your employer will pay the employer share of the payroll tax on it. For an average family, that comes to about $4,900.

But McCain's plan provides you with a $5,000 tax credit, so you're ahead of the game. Everything is OK.

Except there's some fine print hidden where McCain hopes no one will see it: his tax credit increases each year only by the normal inflation rate. Your premiums are going to increase way faster — probably around 6-8% per year. That means your taxes are going to go up 6-8% per year too. The chart on the right, courtesy of CAP, shows the gory details: the tax credit doesn't keep up with the increase in tax payments. In other words, your taxes go up.

If you're in a somewhat higher tax bracket than the median, the news is even worse because your marginal federal tax rate is higher. If you live in a high-tax state like California, the news is even worse because your marginal state tax rate is higher. If you have a big family, the news is even worse because your premium will be more than $14,000 and the taxes you pay on it will therefore be higher. If your employer decides to ditch group healthcare entirely because there's no longer any tax advantage to it, then you're really screwed. And if that happens and you happen to have a chronic illness that no private insurer will touch — well, screwed hardly begins to describe it.

So that's McCain's healthcare plan: make it more expensive, make it riskier, and for some people, make it nonexistent. There's more to say about this, and you can get all the details in this CAP report written a couple of months ago. This stuff is hardly a secret.

At War in Pakistan

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 1:06 PM EDT

AT WAR IN PAKISTAN....This has been a subject of discussion so long that it's hardly even news anymore, but apparently the Bush administration has officially decided to endorse ongoing ground operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan:

President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior American officials.

...."The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable," said a senior American official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the missions. "We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued."

....The Central Intelligence Agency has for several years fired missiles at militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the new orders for the military's Special Operations forces relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.

Earlier in the year John McCain criticized Barack Obama for suggesting that he supported these kinds of operations, so purely for point-scoring reasons it would be nice to ask him whether he approves of Bush doing it instead. (First, though, McCain would have to come out of hiding long enough for a reporter ask him. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon since, with good reason, he's afraid of what else they might ask him about at the time.)

But what should we think about this on a non-point-scoring basis? At the risk of being thought a huge wuss, I have to confess to extremely mixed feelings. The situation in Pakistan has surely been tactically intolerable for some time, but this is the hardly the first time we've faced a situation like this. Vietnam analogies may be out of fashion, but it's worth remembering that this is exactly how we got mired down in Laos and Cambodia too: Viet Cong troops were using those countries as bases during the Vietnam War, and tactically this was every bit as intolerable as the Pakistan situation is today. But U.S. raids on those bases turned into U.S. bombing missions, and U.S. bombing missions eventually turned into full scale war. And we all know how that turned out.

In Pakistan, we've now gone from trying to work with the Pakistani government to occasional Predator attacks and now to periodic ground assaults. How likely is it that we can keep things from escalating further? What happens the first time the Taliban wins a firefight and takes some prisoners? What happens when civilian casualties rise to a level where the Pakistani government, under pressure domestically, can no longer pretend not to notice the raids? What happens when a raid goes bad, reinforcements are called in, and before long we have a couple of companies on the ground in some godforsaken corner of the tribal areas?

Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of liberal hand wringing that hawkish conservatives would normally pounce on. I suppose, however, that for now the pouncing has to be kept fairly low key since their own hawkish conservative presidential candidate seems to have the same qualms that I do. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that McCain's qualms were little more than a chance to take a shot at Barack Obama back when that seemed like a good idea, and would almost certainly disappear instantly once he took office. What then?

Knowledge != Power

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 12:01 PM EDT

KNOWLEDGE != POWER....Robert Kagan says it's OK — maybe even better! — for national politicians to lack experience or knowledge of foreign policy. Matt Yglesias thinks he's expressing his honest opinion:

Kagan, like most neoconservatives, thinks that in-depth knowledge of foreign countries and the politics and culture of foreign societies isn't helpful in thinking about foreign policy questions. Similarly, they believe that in-depth knowledge of theoretical and empirical work in the field of international relations isn't helpful. Indeed, they think that this kind of in-depth knowledge is actually harmful. They prefer the judgment of people who have little knowledge of the outside world but do possess a degree of gut-level nationalism.

Sure. Conservatives never trusted either Nixon or Bush 41 on foreign policy, even though both of them were knowledgable and sophisticated students of foreign affairs. They thought that knowledge slowed them down and made them wimps, always worrying about what world opinion might think. Conversely, they loved Reagan and Bush 43, both of whom had a couple of basic instincts about foreign affairs and not much else.

So John McCain? He's great! And Sarah Palin? Even greater! You, elitist that you are, may think that knowledge is power, but that's decidedly not the position of most modern Republicans.

The "Enough" Club

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 12:30 AM EDT

THE "ENOUGH" CLUB....Michael Kinsley is a liberal, but he's about as moderate and contrarian a liberal as you're likely to find. After a lie or five too many from the McCain campaign, however, he's finally had enough:

Maybe when this is over, one way or another, McCain will swear off corrupt lying the way he has sworn off corrupt money.

But it shouldn't be necessary to wait for one of McCain's conveniently delayed conversions to righteousness. In a democracy, obvious lies and obvious liars should be self-defeating. Why aren't they?

One reason is that the media have trouble calling a lie a lie, or asserting that one side is lying more than the other — even when that is objectively the case. They lean over backwards to give liars the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt.

....But that shouldn't let John McCain off the hook. He says he'd rather lose the election than lose the war. But it seems he'd rather lose that honor he's always going on about than lose the election.

So how many people have joined the "Enough" club? It only counts if they sort of liked McCain in the first place, so folks like Krugman and Harold Meyerson don't count. Off the top of my head I count eight and a half: Kinsley. Friedman. Mallaby. Joe Klein. Dionne. Marcus. Halperin. Herbert. Brooks seems like he might be getting there. Who else?

Lipstick-Gate

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 11:03 PM EDT

LIPSTICK-GATE....As the entire world knows, yesterday Barack Obama made the following comment about John McCain's claim to be an agent of change: "You can put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. You can wrap up an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change. It's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough."

Now, I've been aware of this remark, along with the idiotic Republican attempts to pretend that Obama was calling Sarah Palin a pig, since the words were first uttered. But only vaguely. The whole thing was so stupid that I just didn't bother clicking on the various links to see what everyone was saying.

Just now, however, I happened to surf over to The Corner for the first time in a day and it was....instructive. The very first mention of lipstick-gate was a brief link at 6:53 pm. This was followed by a couple of straight reax posts and then this from Yuval Levin:

Does anybody really think Obama meant to call Sarah Palin a pig? Come on. Can this really be worth anyone's time?

Of course not! That's just dumb! This was then followed by an avalanche of 31 separate posts on the subject in less than 24 hours. Turns out it was worth NR's time after all. And make no mistake: after a couple of hours of momentary confusion about whether they could get away with it, they decided that Obama had indeed meant to call Sarah Palin a pig. By early this morning everyone was obediently on board, the chum was in the water, and the moral dudgeon was so thick you could stir it with a stick. In fact, their only real argument was over how Palin should handle things: attack back or play it cool? (For the most part, they decided cool was the way to go.)

And that, my friends, is how it's done in the big leagues. It's the noise machine at work.

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Lies Etc.

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 6:39 PM EDT

LIES ETC....Good for Mark Halperin for calling John McCain on the relentless BS his campaign is spewing. Still, as long as they continue to call this stuff "amazing and outrageous" and "demonstrably false," instead of using the blunt Anglo-Saxon term we'd normally use in a case like this, it's not going to get through. If the press knows he's lying, they should say so.

McCain's Style

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 6:09 PM EDT

McCAIN'S STYLE....John Judis on John McCain's increasingly slimy campaign style:

McCain himself has clearly demonstrated that he'll do anything to win. In 2000, he ran an honorable campaign. Leave aside what he advocated — he tried to win on the merits. This year, he has been willing to distort and lie about his opponents. It really started with the way he dealt with Mitt Romney's positions on the Iraq war.

Indeed it did, and it's something worth keeping in mind. Steve Schmidt has obviously been responsible for some of the recent change in tone of the McCain campaign, but it didn't start with him. It started with McCain himself, who, in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, cheerfully and repeatedly smeared Mitt Romney as a guy who wanted to surrender to the terrorists in Iraq. It was a plainly bogus charge, but it was one that McCain peddled without compunction for an entire week — and it was one of the things that put a final nail in Romney's coffin.

McCain's revolting campaign style isn't something he had to be talked into by a cabal of ruthless advisors. He genuinely likes this stuff.

Educational Nationalism

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 2:59 PM EDT

EDUCATIONAL NATIONALISM....Kevin Carey quotes Barack Obama on education:

If we want to keep building the cars of the future here in America, we can't afford to see the number of PhDs in engineering climbing in China, South Korea, and Japan even as it's dropped here in America.

Carey isn't happy with the way Obama phrases this:

I'd like to see this and similar sentiments phrased so it's clear that more PhDs in China, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere is a good thing that will help America in the long run. The world has many vexing problems and the more smart, well-educated people to solve them, the better. An expanded well-educated class in China and elsewhere will create new markets for the kind of high-value goods and services that America produces, and they'll make newer, better products that we'd like to buy. Perhaps most importantly, they'll improve the lives of people in those countries, which we should all care about.

This comes via Matt Yglesias, who finds this tic even more annoying than Carey does. But I wonder if we're all being a little too high-minded here?

Paul Glastris told me something interesting the other day. He said he had recently read every convention acceptance speech of the past few decades, and that successful candidates invariably framed a significant chunk of their message in nationalistic terms. Sometimes it was military nationalism, sometimes it was economic nationalism, but one way or another successful candidates always framed their message as us vs. them to at least some degree.

Obviously you can argue that this situation is unfortunate — and perhaps it is — but if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes. And Obama's formulation is certainly as benign a form of economic nationalism as you're likely to find. If that's what he needs to say in order to get Americans interested in serious improvements to our educational system, it's a pretty small price to pay.

Russia's Military

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 2:03 PM EDT

RUSSIA'S MILITARY....Eric Alterman's buddy, LTC Bob Bateman, suggests that Russia's upcoming "training mission" with Venezuela's navy shouldn't worry us too much:

Today the Russian Navy is a shell of its previous self. Someday that may change, but for now it seems they have only one small aircraft carrier (which would not even have that title in the US Navy, because it is too small), two "Battlecruisers," three Cruisers, 26 Destroyers, and 16 Frigates. It is unknown how many of these can do more than float while securely tied up at a pier....Of their once-vaunted (and frankly, feared) undersea capability there is also little left but a skeleton. At the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union could field some 170 submarines, many, if not most of them, nuclear powered. Today there are but fifty still in the inventory, and of that only 26 were operational as of 2006 according to open source reporting in Russia.

On the other hand, Russian airpower, which also fell on very hard times after 1991, has started to revive. But it's still a shell of its Cold War self too, which is yet another reason not to panic too strongly over recent events in Georgia. Putin's bluster aside, Russia's military capabilities these days are distinctly limited.