Kevin Drum

The New York Times Needs to do a Better Job of Explaining Its Epic Hillary Clinton Screw-Up

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 10:27 AM EDT

As you probably know, the New York Times screwed up epically last week by publishing a story claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system. In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them. When the dust settled, it appeared that the whole thing was little more than a squabble between State and CIA over whether certain emails that State is releasing to the public should or shouldn't be classified. In other words, just your garden-variety bureaucratic dispute. Hardly worth a blurb on A17, let alone a screaming headline on the front page.

The Clinton campaign has now officially asked the Times to account for how it could have bollixed this story so badly. Here are the most interesting paragraphs:

Times' editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times' report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times' tip. Moreover, notwithstanding the official's inaccurate characterization of the referral as criminal in nature, this official does not appear to have told the Times that Mrs. Clinton was the target of that referral, as the paper falsely reported in its original story.

This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report. It clearly was not either of the referring officials — that is, the Inspectors General of either the State Department or intelligence agencies — since the Times' sources apparently lacked firsthand knowledge of the referral documents. It also seems unlikely the source could have been anyone affiliated with those offices, as it defies logic that anyone so closely involved could have so severely garbled the description of the referral.

Yes indeedy. Who was the person who first tipped off the Times reporters? And does that source still deserve anonymity? Clinton's letter seems to be pretty clearly implying that it might have been Trey Gowdy or someone on his staff, who are currently running the Benghazi investigation that's recently morphed into a Hillary Clinton witch hunt. Apparently they knew about this DOJ referral a day before the Times story ran, so maybe they're the ones who passed along the garbled version.

The Clinton campaign can't say that, of course, since they have no proof. Neither do I. But it sure seems to be the plain implication of their response. Pretty clearly, someone who didn't have direct access to the referral—but knew of its existence—was the original source, and it's a pretty good guess that this source was someone unfriendly to Clinton. In other words, someone whose word shouldn't have been accepted without the most stringent due diligence.

But when you get oppo research, it's a pretty good bet that others are getting it too. So you have to publish quickly if you want to be first. But that's not all: you also have to be pretty willing to accept dirt on Hillary Clinton at face value and you have to care more about being first than being right. The authors of the story, Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, really ought to address these issues in public at a press conference. After all, the press loves press conferences, right?

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Why Has Maine Turned Into Crackpot Central?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 9:48 AM EDT

Yesterday, Steve Benen got me up to date on the latest lunacy from Maine Gov. Paul LePage. A few weeks ago, LePage decided to ignore a bunch of bills he didn't like, figuring he would "pocket veto" them by simply withholding his signature. Unfortunately, he didn't understand how the Maine constitution works, which means that all the bills became law. So now he says he just won't enforce any of them. Uh huh.

Next, a private school hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, a man LePage especially loathes, so he told the school to either fire Eves or else they'd lose their state money. Unless Maine law is truly extraordinary, this is so blatantly illegal that only someone completely out of control would even try it. Unsurprisingly, Eves is suing LePage, and this is LePage's defense:

The Tea Party governor hasn’t actually denied the allegations, and neither have LePage’s allies. The Maine Republican did argue this morning, however, that when he threatened the school it was comparable to LePage intervening in a domestic-violence dispute.

“It’s just like one time when I stepped in … when a man was beating his wife,” the governor said. “Should have I stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

Um, what? This is Sarah-Palin quality gibberish. And it's hardly the first sign that LePage isn't playing with a full deck. (You can find much, much more like this with any old Google search.) So here's what I don't get. It's one thing to elect the guy once. But how did he manage to get reelected last year? It's not because it was a 3-way race. He won 48 percent of the vote and probably would have won even without a third-party spoiler. But by then his lunacy should have been obvious to all. Are Maine residents really that attracted to kooks? Did the Democratic candidate threaten to outlaw lobster rolls? Or what? What the hell is going on up in Maine?

For a Week, Walter Palmer Is the Worst Human Being Ever in History

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 5:11 PM EDT

Max Fisher argues that the social media jihad against Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion, is wildly out of control:

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

....Maybe you loved Cecil the lion, and believe that Palmer deserves all of this suffering. Maybe you believe that his family and employees also deserve to have their livelihoods threatened. But even if you believe that this particular mob made the correct decision in both identifying the targets and meting out punishments, the way its members reached these decisions — arbitrarily, based on what they thought would feel good to punish — should worry you.

Social media is, famously, decentralized. With a few exceptions, this means that every individual blast at Palmer is just that: one person getting something off their chest. The problem is that there's no governor on a decentralized attack like this, no one leading the charge. That means it can easily spiral into a lynch mob regardless of whether anyone meant it to in the first place.

But mob justice, Fisher says perceptively, "is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance. Sometimes that leads the mob to target people who perhaps legitimately deserve punishment, but typically it does not. And there is no reason to expect it to. That's not what mobs are about." That's right. Too often, mob justice is flatly misdirected, and even when it's not, it's frequently far out of proportion to the offense.

Before the internet, for example, if a university student said something stupid, it would cause a few days of distress among a smallish group of people. Lesson learned. Young people say dumb things all the time. Today, if the student is unlucky, it becomes a social media virus. Within a few days the entire world knows about it and the student is a pariah. This is far out of proportion to the offense. And it's even worse, as Fisher says, when the outrage is misdirected completely, as in the case of Sunil Tripathi's family, which was terrorized for weeks after the Boston bombing by a mob convinced he had been a part of the plot—which supposedly explained why he had gone missing. But it turned out that his absence was actually explained by something else: he had committed suicide.

Maybe Walter Palmer deserves what he's gotten, maybe he doesn't. But I doubt the internet mob actually cares. It's just a spectacle, and when they get bored they'll train their sights on whatever the next shiny object is. Maybe it's somebody or something that deserves the spotlight. Maybe it's not. Who cares, right? I mean, have you seen the asshole in that video?

In the end, I suppose this is yet another plea to tone down the volume on outrage culture, which has lately defined the internet more than either porn or cat videos. It's what I used to jokingly call the "death penalty for parking tickets" problem. Unfortunately, it's not so much of a joke anymore, because it turns out that Andy Warhol was wrong. Everybody doesn't get 15 minutes of fame these days. Instead, each week some randomly chosen schmo gets an onslaught of withering, life-destroying shame—whether they deserve it or not. It's not really an improvement.

Will the Tea Party Shoot Itself in the Foot Yet Again?

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 1:21 PM EDT

Paul Waldman notes today that although Jeb Bush is substantively pretty conservative, his tone on the campaign trail has remained resolutely moderate and affable. Waldman explains how this leads to Bush winning the nomination:

If you’re Bush, your path to victory looks like this: Trump soaks up all the attention for a while, but eventually gets bored (and hasn’t bothered to mount an actual campaign that can deliver votes), and either fades or just packs it in. Meanwhile, the conservative vote is split. Once the voting starts, the failing candidates will begin to fall away one by one. But by the time most of them are gone and their supporters have coalesced around a single candidate like Scott Walker, it’s too late — Jeb has built his lead and is piling up delegates, has all the money in the world, and can vanquish that last opponent on his way to the convention in Cleveland.

In other words, a repeat of 2012, when all the hard-core conservatives split the tea party vote ten ways while Mitt Romney quietly vacuumed up the entire moderate vote. By the time Rick Santorum was the last tea partier standing, it was too late. Romney coasted to victory.

This is the great conundrum of the tea-party wing of the Republican Party. What they should do is coalesce immediately around Scott Walker. He's the most plausible winner among the tea partiers, and if the race was basically between him and Bush from the start, there's a pretty good chance he could win. On the other hand, if he has to fight off a dozen challengers for months on end, it'll just be a rerun of 2012. He'll get a share of the tea party vote, but it won't be nearly enough to fend off Bush, who will have his own share of the tea partiers plus the vast majority of the moderate wing of the GOP, which is disgusted that their party has been taken over by loons. There are still quite a few of those folks around.

I guess this is where a smoke-filled room would come in handy. This is a classic collective action problem, but without party bosses who can step in and take charge, there's really no answer to it. The tea-party candidates keep thinking that they can run and win because there are so many tea partiers among the Republican primary electorate. Unfortunately, there are too many of them who think so. The end result is that they tear each other to shreds and end up with John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. And then they whine and complain about how "the party" has betrayed the conservative cause yet again.

This isn't inevitable, of course. It's possible that Walker or one of the other mean-boy candidates will break out and become the de facto tea party standard bearer. It's just not as likely as it should be. It's a shame the tea partiers can't get their act together, isn't it?

ISIS Is Losing the War, But That Doesn't Mean We're Winning It

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

Zack Beauchamp says that ISIS is losing the war. His evidence is the map on the right. ISIS may have taken over Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, but overall they've lost about 9 percent of the territory they controlled at the beginning of the year:

This points to one of ISIS's most fundamental problems: It has too many enemies....ISIS's fighters might be skilled, but they can't fight everyone at once.

True enough. What may be more interesting, though, is who they lost that territory to. Here are the numbers for territorial gains:

  • +11% — Syrian rebels
  • +10% — Kurdish forces
  • +4.5% — Iraqi government

In other words, Iraqi forces were responsible for less than a fifth of the total gains from ISIS. Add to that their humiliating loss in Ramadi, about an hour's drive from Baghdad, and there's still not much evidence that the Iraqi government has a clue about how to fight ISIS. It remains unclear how and when that will change.

Today's Trivia Quiz

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 11:18 AM EDT

Quick trivia question: When was the last time one of the two major parties nominated a candidate for president who was neither a politician nor a former general?

The prize for the winner is that they get to relax about the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.

UPDATE: Such smart commenters! The answer is Wendell Wilkie, 75 years ago. He lost, of course.

So who was the last person to win the presidency with no previous political or military experience? Answer: no one. The closest call is probably Herbert Hoover, whose only political experience before 1928 was eight years as the appointed Secretary of Commerce. And look what happened to him.

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Chart of the Day: The Economy Continues to Plod Along

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 10:51 AM EDT

GDP was up in the second quarter, but our economy is still not exactly a house afire. Preliminary results indicate an increase of 2.3 percent:

The BEA explains where last quarter's growth came from:

The acceleration in real GDP growth in the second quarter reflected an upturn in exports, an acceleration in PCE, a deceleration in imports, and an upturn in state and local government spending that were partly offset by downturns in private inventory investment, in nonresidential fixed investment, and in federal government spending and a deceleration in residential fixed investment....Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.9 percent in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.8 percent in the first.

Really, the chart tells the whole story. As you can see, 2.3 percent growth is about....average since the recession ended. Not great, not horrible. Every time we manage to get into third gear for a little while, we hit a bump and end up back in second. It's now been eight years since the economy imploded, and we're still just muddling along. It's not clear what it will take to improve things.

Opposition to Iran Nuclear Deal Just Keeps Getting Weirder and Weirder

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 5:25 PM EDT

The congressional hearings into the Iran nuclear deal continue apace. Steve Benen points us today to this lovely exchange between Sen. Lindsey Graham and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter:

Graham: Does the Supreme Leader's religious views compel him over time to destroy Israel and attack America?

Carter: I don't know. I don't know the man. I only —

Graham: Well let me tell you, I do. I know the man. I know what he wants. And if you don't know that, this is not a good deal.

Graham: Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?

Carter: No. The United States.

Graham: We. Win.

So there you have it: (a) the Ayatollah unquestionably wants to destroy Israel and attack America, and (b) there is no doubt America would win this war. This sounds like mighty poor strategic thinking on the Ayatollah's part to me, since presumably he knows as much as Lindsey Graham about the relative military strength of Iran and the United States. But I guess his pesky religious views compel him to commit national suicide anyway.

Now, you might be skeptical that Graham knows the Ayatollah as well as he thinks he does, or knows his religious views in any depth either. But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt on that score, his apparent view of things still doesn't make sense. If the Ayatollah is as committed to war as Graham thinks, why would he bother with this deal in the first place? According to conservatives (I'm not sure what the CIA thinks these days), Iran is currently less than a year from being able to build a nuclear bomb. So why not just build a few and start the war? It can't be because the sanctions matter. If war is inevitable thanks to the Ayatollah's religious views, but America is going to win the war by reducing Iran to a glassy plain, who cares about a few more years of sanctions? Most Iranians are going to be dead a few hours after the war starts anyway.

So....it's all still mysterious. Conservatives don't like the deal Obama negotiated. Fine. But we can't go back to the status quo. If we pull out of the deal, economic sanctions will decay pretty quickly and Iran will have lots of additional money and be a year away from building a bomb. The only other alternative is war. Graham is more open about this than most conservatives, but even he realizes he has to be cagey about it. He can't quite come out and just say that we should go to war with Iran before they build a bomb. So instead he tosses in an oddly pointless question about who would win a war between Iran and America. Why? Some kind of dog whistle, I guess. Those with ears to hear understand what it means: Graham wants to see cruise missiles flying. The rest of us are left scratching our chins.

It all just gets weirder and weirder. The deal on the table, imperfect as it might be, doesn't restrict American freedom of action at all. Plus it has a pretty stringent inspection regime and would prevent Iran from building a bomb for at least ten years—probably longer. That's better than what we have now, so why not go ahead and sign the deal and then use the next ten years to figure out what to do next? What's the downside?

I can't really think of one except that it makes a shooting war less likely over the next decade. I call that a feature. I guess Graham and his crowd call it a bug.

Millennials Living In Their Parents' Home Is Finally Starting to Taper Off

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 1:47 PM EDT

Pew has a new report out showing that even five years after the recession ended, more young adults are living with their parents than before the recession. This is despite the fact that unemployment among 20-somethings has dropped dramatically. What's more, this trend is pretty widespread:

The decline in independent living since the recovery began is apparent among both better-educated young adults and their less-educated counterparts....This suggests that trends in young adult living arrangements are not being driven by labor market fortunes, as college-educated young adults have experienced a stronger labor market recovery than less-educated young adults.

Trends in living arrangements also show no significant gender differences during the recovery. However, in 2015, 63% of Millennial men lived independently of family, compared with 72% of Millennial women. But a similar gender difference existed during the Great Recession, and both young men and young women are less likely to live independently today than they were five years ago.

But the news might not be quite as bleak as Pew suggests. Take a look at the arrows in the chart on the right. The upward trend in living at home continued to rise through 2013, but it finally began to drop a couple of years ago. That's not surprising since it's pretty likely that there's a certain amount of hysteresis in this phenomenon; that is, a lag between the economy improving and kids moving into their own places. This might be because wages remained low for several years after the technical end of the recession. It might be because higher debt levels took a while to pay down. It might be that it simply took a few years for recession-induced fear to end. Why move out if you're not sure the economy is really on a long-term roll?

There's not much question that 20-somethings of this generation have it worse than my generation, which in turn had it worse than the previous generation. That means the recession hit them especially hard. But if these trends are right, it looks like optimism about work and income is finally starting to slowly improve. It's not great news, but it's good news.

There's a New Planned Parenthood Video, But There's Just Nothing There

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 11:57 AM EDT

Another day, another video hit job on Planned Parenthood. Apparently the strategy here is to release new videos every three or four days and hope that mere repetition is enough to convince people that something—something—must be wrong here. Over at National Review, Ian Tuttle is disturbed:

At the 10:22 mark of the Center for Medical Progress’s latest video, released today, there is a picture of a hand. By the curve of the thumb and the articulation of the fingers, one can see that it is a right hand. It was formerly the right hand of an 11.6-week-old fetus; it is now part of the various organic odds and ends being sifted through on a plate in the pathology lab of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

....I keep calling it a hand. Maybe I shouldn’t....But I see a hand — five fingers and lines across the joints, like you learn to sketch in art class. I see a hand in form no different from my own. Or no different from Horowitz’s hands, or Edison’s, or Michelangelo’s.

The most famous image Michelangelo painted was of hands: God’s hand extended to Adam’s....The sculptor Auguste Rodin spent much of his life fashioning hands....Rodin prefigured Heidegger’s observation: “My hand . . . is not a piece of me. I myself am entirely in each gesture of the hand, every single time.”....Galen of Pergamon, the great Greek physician, in his treatise On the Use of the Various Parts of the Body, noted that to man alone had the Creator chosen to give the hand, the only instrument “applicable to every art and occasion”:

....The gods, the arts, survival, history — all that we are has required, literally, many hands. In the hand, the whole man, and in the man, the whole cosmos.

Now, in a pie dish, for sale.

That's very poetic, but like the video itself, tells us nothing. Yes, Planned Parenthood donates fetal tissue to medical research facilities. They charge enough to cover their costs, nothing more. Among the tissue they donate are hands. And this is not a sinister "black market," as the video claims: It's done in the open with the permission of the mother, and the tissue is transferred only to qualified researchers.

The idea behind the video, of course, is that it's supposed to automatically trigger disgust in us. And it does. After all, most of us felt a little disgusted when we dissected frogs in 9th grade biology. It's just part of human nature, and the Planned Parenthood haters are smart to take advantage of it.

But you know what? I'm an organ donor. I'm not sure my organs are actually safe for harvesting anymore, but if they are, then my body will be chopped up and used for its best and highest purpose when I'm dead. Some organs will be used for transplants, I hope. Some will be given to research laboratories. Some may end up as the raw materials for other stuff. If I were alive and watching, I'd probably feel pretty queasy. And yet, no one really blinks an eye at the routine job of harvesting organs and tissue from dead people who have given their permission.

This is no different. It's every bit as altruistic and admirable as harvesting useful tissue from adults. Period.

So far, the worst anyone has come up with from these videos is that some of the Planned Parenthood folks caught on tape used a "tone" that was unfortunate. Give me a break. This is the way any doctor talks among other health care professionals. They're experienced enough to talk plainly about their work in private, and they make jokes about it like any normal person. It's simply wrong to pretend that this is anything ominous.

And that hand on the pie dish? Who knows? It might save someone's life someday.

POSTSCRIPT: And I'll repeat what I said before. If you think abortion is murder, then of course you object to the use of organs and tissue from aborted fetuses. If you don't, then you think it's fine. There's nothing new going on here. It's just a slightly different twist on the same fight between pro-lifers and pro-choicers that's been going on for decades