Kevin Drum

We Are Live-Blogging the GOP Debate in South Carolina

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 8:48 PM EST
Crew members set the stage at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, S.C., in advance of Thursday's Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate.

Overall, this was sort of a boring debate, though it heated up a bit at the end. On a substantive level, there's not much to say: nobody really said anything new. I guess that's just the nature of things when you get to the sixth debate. My take:

Bush: He relentlessly tried to be reasonable. Apparently he thinks that eventually this will be a winning strategy, and maybe he's right! But not tonight. He didn't do anything to help himself.

Carson: At his best, he was in snoozeville. At his worst, he was incoherent. He's a goner.

Rubio: He's a hard duck to analyze. Rubio basically has a bunch of index cards in his head, and he recites one of them whenever he gets a question. The thing is, his index cards aren't bad. And he recites them reasonably well. But eventually they just get old. That's how it felt tonight—until he pulled out a brand new index card and attacked Cruz hard at the end. It was a good attack! It might help him. Maybe.

Trump: Fairly quiet by his standards. He did well responding to Cruz about "New York values." His closing statement about the sailors was probably effective. His endless prevarication on the 45 percent tariff was a loser. Not his most dynamic performance, but he did OK. His numbers will probably go up.

Cruz: He was good tonight. He handled the natural-born citizen thing pretty well. Trump pwned him on New York values, but that helped Trump more than it hurt Cruz. His explanation of his tax plan was pretty much incomprehensible, and it was made worse when Rubio went after it, but I think that was his only real stumble. He's a good debater, and probably picked up a few points tonight.

Kasich: He seemed like an island, totally disengaged from everyone else on the stage.

Christie: As always, he tried to seem like (a) the adult in the room and (b) the toughest guy in the room. It worked OK tonight, and he might pick up a point or two. But nothing more.

Overall, I'd say Trump, Cruz, and Rubio might gain a bit. Bush and Carson will drop a bit. Kasich and Christie will stay in nowhere-land.

Transcript here.

10:20 - Kasich: Mailman father blah blah blah. Bush: "Detailed plans count." Oh Jeb.... Christie: Dammit, America is a hellhole and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Carson: Zzzzz. Rubio: Obama wants to ruin America. Hillary too. Cruz: Benghazi! Radical Islamic terrorism! Political correctness! Trump: If I'm president, we will win on everything we do.

10:19 - Time for closing statements. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

10:13 - Bush: We just heard a big spat between two "backbench" senators. Burn!

11:11 - Ooh. Big attack on Cruz from Rubio. Cruz says half the things Rubio said were false. But what about the other half?

11:04 - "We want Rand! We want Rand!" Well, don't we all?

11:01 - Is it a blind trust if Don, Eric, and Ivanka Trump run the company? Um, no. Pretty sure it's not. But I've actually been a little curious about what Trump would do with his company if he won.

10:57 - Christie says current Republican Congress "consorted" with Barack Obama. Quelle horreur!

10:55 - Big fight between Rubio and Cruz. Now Christie comes in to break it up. Let's talk entitlement reform!

10:52 - Rubio says that Cruz's tax plan would be bad for seniors. He's right, but I doubt anyone understood what he said.

10:49 - Carson just gave an answer that I flatly didn't understand. I'll have to review it later.

10:46 - It's tax time. I'm guessing everyone is in favor of cutting them. Especially on corporations and the rich.

10:43 - Now Cruz says his business tax is like a tariff. No, it's not. But who's counting, anyway?

10:41 - Cruz says Trump and Bush are both right about China. Such a peacemaker. The answer is a flat tax. Wait, what? What did I miss?

10:40 - Boos when Trump attacks Bush. The arena must have a big Bush cheering section.

10:39 - Trump also wants a trade war against Japan.

10:38 - Rubio: the answer to all our problems is to do the opposite of Barack Obama.

10:36 - So...Trump says the NYT lied, but I guess they didn't. Imagine that. Trancript here.

10:35 - OK, but what about the tariff, Donald? Blah blah blah. Biggest bank in the world has an office in his building. But he's totally open to a tariff.

10:35 - Did Trump call for 45 percent tariff on China? He says, of course not. He says he'd only do it if he stayed mad at them. Or something.

10:30 - Bush still trying to be reasonable. It's so crazy it might work!

10:29 - "Radical Islamic terrorism." Say it. SAY IT!

10:24 - Trump: "There's something going on and it's bad." I guess that's Trump's campaign in a nutshell.

10:22 - Bush: "You can't make rash statements." Exciting as always!

10:21 - Jeb Bush steps up and defends letting Muslims into the country. Good for him.

10:19 - No follow-up, of course.

10:18 - These guys have lots of criticism of Obama, but they sure are shy about proposing actual concrete measures to step up the fight against ISIS.

10:15 - Should we send 20,000 ground troops to Iraq to fight ISIS? Carson says we should just give the military whatever they ask for. That's it. And we should send in lots of special ops to put ISIS on the run. Uh huh.

10:11 - The fights between Trump and Cruz have been amusing, but generally speaking this debate has been pretty boring. Lots of canned applause lines and not a lot else.

10:10 - Does Saudi Arabia suck? Kasich says they need to stop funding radical clerics and madrasses. But what if they don't?

10:07 - Ooh. Bush brings out the old Jerusalem chestnut. Go Jeb!

10:05 - New York values? William F. Buckley came out of Manhattan! New Yorkers were great after 9/11! So there.

10:01 - Sorry for the hiatus. So what's going on? Guns? Looks like everyone is in favor of guns, guns, and more guns.

9:37 - The hamsters that power seem to be tired tonight. Sorry about that. If you're having trouble commenting, keep trying!

9:34 - Cruz mostly treats natural-born citizen controversy as a joke. Probably smart.

9:31 - Audience booing Trump again.

9:30 - Audience booing Trump when he starts talking about polls.

9:27 - Audience not happy that Neil Cavuto asks Cruz about whether he's a natural-born citizen. Cruz calls it a "birther" theory.

9:23 - Ah, an old favorite: Cruz turns a million-dollar loan from Goldman Sachs into an attack on the liberal media. That never gets old, does it?

9:20 - Trump says Syrian refugees are Trojan horses.

9:19 - Carson: What if someone hit us with an EMP, cyber-attack, and dirty bomb all at once? That would be pretty bad.

9:18 - Carson already whining about not getting enough questions.

9:17 - Rubio: Benghazi! Also: Obama has betrayed Israel, gutted the military, and apologized on ten world tours. That's quite the memorized applause list.

9:13 - Bush: ISIS has a caliphate the size of Indiana! Also, US military has been totally gutted. Can't even project power anymore.

9:11 - I wonder if anyone is going to acknowledge that American sailors did cross into Iranian waters near a major military base?

9:09 - If economy collapses next January, Kasich will balance the budget. That should work great.

9:06 - Cruz just can't wait to bring up the American sailors. Ugh. Apparently he would have nuked Tehran immediately upon their capture.

8:57 - "The pirates are fighting in advance." Huh?

8:48 - What will Donald Trump say tonight? In just a few minutes we'll find out!

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The Truth About Benghazi Is Finally Going to Be Exposed

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 6:03 PM EST

You remember Lamar Smith, don't you? He's the nutbag congressman from Texas who's been harassing NOAA because they've published papers saying the climate has warmed up. Smith knows that climate change is a hoax, so he wants NOAA to turn over vast troves of email that his staff can trawl for evidence of the government's massive conspiracy to fudge the data.

So far NOAA hasn't cooperated, but Smith can harass them because he's the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Climate change is science,1 so that puts it squarely in his bailiwick.

But there's more to science than climate change. You know what else is science? Cybersecurity. And do you know one of the key cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the US government? Email servers. And do you know who used private email servers a few years ago? Hillary Clinton. And do you know what she was writing emails about? Benghazi. So that means Benghazi falls under Smith's jurisdiction:

Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on Wednesday launched his own investigation of Clinton’s private email server, invoking the panel’s jurisdiction over cybersecurity issues. The new investigation will focus on the private IT companies involved in maintaining the Clinton server.

....The Smith probe, according to three letters sent to the company's involved with the server, will focus on Colorado-based Platte River, which housed Clinton’s server after she left State; Datto, the Connecticut-based back-up company they used as a backstop; and SECNAP, a Florida company that provided cybersecurity for her server.

It's about damn time, if you ask me. John Boehner wouldn't allow investigations like this because he was scared it would make congressional Republicans look like idiots. That's typical Boehner. Just another gutless Beltway sellout. But Paul Ryan is running things differently, and now Smith has been unleashed. Finally, we'll get the truth.

And please: no whining about how this is obviously just a witch hunt designed to hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Oversight is one of Congress's most solemn duties. The truth is out there, folks.

1Supposedly, anyway.

Poor Ted Cruz Is Now Hoist By His Own Petard

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 3:13 PM EST

The continuing conversation about whether Ted Cruz is eligible to be president is a travesty. But I have to confess, it's also sort of delightful.

First the travesty part: Ted Cruz was born a US citizen. No one doubts that. This is enough to be "natural born" and thus eligible for the presidency. No one doubted that either—until Donald Trump brought it up. Then it suddenly became a topic of endless discussion. That's a travesty. One of these days Trump is going to casually mention that aliens really did build Stonehenge, and by the next day MSNBC, Fox, the New York Times, and conservative talk radio are all going to become obsessed with neolithic building techniques. Crikey.

But there's also a delightful part to this. I could quote a number of people on the legal aspects of this issue, but here's Jack Balkin on the "key theoretical questions" about being a natural born citizen:

Should be understood as a lay member of the public would understand it or whether is a legal term of art?...Fixed concept [or] common law concept subject to evolutionary development?...Depends only on English common law authorities [or] on statutory changes?...Has become liquidated in practice by congressional statutes?...Cannot be altered by Congress [or] read together with Congress's powers under the Naturalization Clause?

My, my, what an originalist jumble! Should we rely on documents that are centuries old to try and divine Jemmy Madison's probable interpretation of "natural born"? Or maybe go even further back and rely on English common law? Or perhaps the collective hivemind of Congress in 1790?

It's a pretty problem. At least, it is if you take originalism seriously. I don't, especially, since it's pretty obviously just an intellectual charade designed to justify conservative constructions of the law. But Ted Cruz does, and now he needs to deal with the fallout. Bummer, dude.

Debate Liveblogging Tonight!

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 1:34 PM EST

I will be liveblogging tonight's Republican debate. It's on the Fox Business Channel at 9 pm Eastern. That's 6 pm Pacific—or as we like to call it around here, God's Time Zone.

The Fox Business Channel is probably somewhere on your cable dial, but you might want to check to make sure. If it's not, you can watch the debate online at As you probably know, since Rand Paul has been whining about it endlessly, tonight's debate is down to a mere seven candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush. I think we can expect some passive-aggressive needling of Ted Cruz from Trump ("I'm not saying you aren't natural born, but people out there are talking...."); some SOTU-inspired crocodile tears about the lack of civility in Washington; and several stirring defenses of the Second Amendment rights of gun dealers to avoid background checks.

Should be fun! See you tonight.

The Movie Presidency Has Finally Come of Age

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 12:35 PM EST

Matthew Dickinson finally made it to a Trump rally:

As I was leaving the event, a reporter for a local New Hampshire television station pulled me aside for an on-camera interview in which he asked me the secret of Trump’s appeal. Put on the spot, I answered, “I think this is part of his appeal, is he doesn’t say things — he doesn’t shy away from saying things that people might think but most politicians aren’t comfortable saying.”

Actually, I think this gets it exactly backward. Sure, Trump uses blunt language that most politicians don't, but for the most part he's not really saying anything new or different. Every Republican candidate wants to fight ISIS, close the borders, lower taxes, scrap the Iran deal, repeal Obamacare, etc. Policywise, Trump is a pretty typical modern Republican.1

The biggest part of his appeal, ironically, is what he doesn't say: for all his endless talk, Trump never provides any detail. He never feels pinned down by reality. Other candidates feel obligated to explain their positions when they're pushed, but Trump just shrugs and says not to worry; it's all going to happen exactly like he says. Likewise, when he's on stage he plows his way through a set-piece laundry list of all the stuff he wants to do, and the crowd goes wild. It's pure affinity politics and the audience loves it. I doubt that most of them really think he can do all the stuff he promises, but it's a satisfying dream, and they like the dream.

This is what people keep getting wrong about Trump. He's not really channeling anger so much as he's channeling dreams and aspirations. He's selling a delightful movie version of the presidency—or maybe a one-man Broadway show version—and at least for the few minutes Trump has them in his spell, his fans love it.

1His only real heterodox stand is that he doesn't want to touch Medicare or Social Security. His foreign policy is a little hard to get a handle on, but it's basically pretty Cruz-esque: loud and blustery, but not really much committed to foreign interventions.

Is It Open Season on Drones?

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 11:03 AM EST

I keep coming back to this story in the Washington Post today:

William Merideth had just finished grilling dinner for his family when he saw a drone hovering over his land. So he did what he said any Kentuckian might do — he grabbed his Benelli M1 Super 90 shotgun, took aim and unleashed three rounds of birdshot. “The only people I’ve heard anything negative from are liberals that don’t want us having guns and people who own drones,” said the truck company owner, now a self-described “drone slayer.” Downing the quadcopter, which had a camera, was a way to assert his right to privacy and property, he said.

My initial reaction: hooray for Merideth! A nice dinner of buckshot seems about right for a drone hanging around my backyard.

On further thought, this may seem excessive. Dangerous, too, especially if you live in a suburb or a city. The owner of the drone in question says it was 200 feet up, and really, who cares if someone is watching you from 200 feet up? But this is what gives me pause:

“There is gray area in terms of how far your property rights extend,” said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center....According to the Federal Aviation Administration, every inch above the tip of your grass blades is the government’s jurisdiction. “The FAA is responsible for the safety and management of U.S. airspace from the ground up,” said an agency spokesman, echoing rules laid out on its website.

If this is really true, then a drone could fly right into my backyard and hover around looking for anything it wants. Thieves could keep a close eye out to see when houses are empty. Peeping Toms could be staring through our second-story windows. Busybodies could film you at night while you were disposing of bodies in your backyard.

I don't know what the answer to this whole drone revolution is. All I can say is that I'm not on board with the laissez faire idea of just letting 'em rip and then deciding later what we want to do. There are too many dangers that are already obvious, and will plainly become even more pressing as the drone population grows from the millions to the billions. Especially in the case of hobbyist drones, there's really no compelling interest for non-regulation except that they're having fun and don't want anyone to spoil their party. I don't find that especially persuasive. I'd really like to see some tightening of the rules for using drones sooner rather than later, especially in populated areas. We can ease up later if it seems wise.

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The 21st Century Sure Has Been a Great Time to Be a Corporation

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 1:20 AM EST

This is apropos of nothing in particular. I was just noodling around on something else and happened to run across this data, so here it is. The economic recovery of the Bush years might have been pretty anemic for most of us, but it was sure a great time for the corporate world: Between 2001 and 2006, pretax profits went up 3x and after-tax profits went up even more. These profits dipped during the Great Recession, of course, but they've fully recovered since then. All in all, since the start of the 21st century the income of ordinary folks has declined about 5 percent, but after-tax profits in the nonfinancial sector have gone up nearly 4x. Nice work, business titans!

Come On, Folks, Give Nikki Haley a Break

| Wed Jan. 13, 2016 8:04 PM EST

My Twitter feed has been alight with mockery of the latest from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: "We've never, in the history of this country, passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion," she said at a press conference today. What an idiot!

But, you know, always click the link. Here's the full quote:

When you've got immigrants who are coming here legally, we've never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion. Let's not start that now.

This still isn't quite correct: After World War I a series of immigration restrictions were passed that explicitly favored northern European whites; limited immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans; and banned Asian immigrants almost entirely. Still, Haley can be forgiven for not knowing about this or other examples of restrictive immigration laws. It's not especially common knowledge these days. In any case, she obviously wasn't pretending that Jim Crow and its ilk never existed.

So let's dial down the faux outrage. Haley was doing the Lord's work here, criticizing Donald Trump's call to bar Muslims from entering the country. In fact, given the context, she might have meant to refer not to immigrants at all, but merely to people visiting the country on ordinary visas—in which case she didn't really say anything wrong at all. Either way, though, she did nothing worse than betray an incomplete knowledge of American history while talking off the cuff. It's hardly a big deal.

Wheaton College: Still Standing Despite a Bit of Mild Criticism

| Wed Jan. 13, 2016 5:43 PM EST

Perhaps you remember the case of Larycia Hawkins. She's the professor at Wheaton College who declared on her Facebook page that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. Wheaton College follows the "evangelical Protestant tradition," which apparently has different thoughts on this matter, and as a result Hawkins is in the process of being fired.

Over at National Review, David French says that this ought to be entirely uncontroversial:

But this is Christian higher education, and the Left is taking direct aim at Christian academic freedom and institutional liberty. In 2014, it launched an ill-fated attack on Gordon College’s accreditation, and last month the LGBT Left issued a report loudly condemning Christian colleges for having the audacity to exercise their statutory and constitutional right to opt out of Title IX. So it should come as no surprise that the Left is rallying around professor Hawkins, trying to pressure Wheaton into yielding on its statement of faith.

I read this over lunch, and with nothing more pressing on my mind than eating a slice of pizza, I decided to click those four links to find out just what kind of pressure the Left was bringing to bear. I urge you to click yourself to check my work. The first three go to a trio of little-read diaries at the Huffington Post. Here are the most impassioned statements I could find in each of the three:

Letter endorsed by Su'ad Abdul Khabeer and 26 others: In our view, the measures taken by Wheaton administrators...dampen the spirit of free inquiry so crucial to the academic environment; ultimately depriving the student body of the benefit of a deeply dedicated educator....[We] call upon her employers to renew their own commitment to the principles of tolerance and academic freedom.

Ken Wilson: There's a way out of this morass. But it requires a commitment to the apostolic counsel of Romans 14-15. In a nutshell it boils down to this: we're going to disagree over highly contentious issues....In the meantime, we can feast ourselves on the rich fare of mere Christianity. In a community shaped by Romans 14-15, there would be plenty of room for Julie Rodgers and Dr. Larycia Hawkins at the table.

Pamela A. Lewis: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? To the extent that Christians and Muslims come from the same Abrahamic tradition, yes they do....However, when it is a question about what these faiths call God and how they worship God, there are significant differences with respect to rituals and patterns of devotion....Whether or not Professor Hawkins has violated Wheaton College's Statement of Faith will be decided by Wheaton College. But I am with those who believe that she was moved by her understanding of Christ's commandment to love and stand with the vulnerable and the stranger, whoever they may be at the moment.

That's...not...really very fiery stuff. I imagine the administrators at Wheaton College can still sleep nights. The fourth link goes to a pretty straightforward CNN story in which Hawkins herself is critical of Wheaton's actions, which is hardly surprising since she's the one being fired.

So where do these milquetoast statements leave us? French acknowledges that so far, "the Left has merely used its powers of persuasion to try to move Wheaton from its statement of faith." But what about tomorrow? "Schools that don't conform to leftist orthodoxy may soon consequences far worse than a barrage of negative news coverage."

Maybe so. But it's always worth clicking the links. If this is the best that the big, bad Left can do—and I assume French would have linked to worse if it existed—I think Christian colleges are probably not in any imminent danger. It's pretty stunning sometimes just how little criticism it takes to bring out the victim in us all.

Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney Says Voters Are Tired of Romney-esque Message

| Wed Jan. 13, 2016 3:13 PM EST

This is...interesting:

Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, has been encouraging party leaders to develop better policies to address wage stagnation. For instance, he supports raising the federal minimum wage, a departure from Republican orthodoxy.

As a party we speak a lot about deregulation and tax policy, and you know what? People have been hearing that for 25 years and they’re getting tired of that message,” Romney said in a recent interview. He added, “I think we’re nuts not to raise the minimum wage. I think as a party, to say we’re trying to help the middle class of America and the poor and not raise the minimum wage sends exactly the wrong signal.”

It's always easier to say something like this when you're not running for president anymore, isn't it? Still, he's got a point. With the average working-class Republican family paying roughly zero percent in federal income taxes and probably never coming into personal contact with a federal regulation in their lives, this message may indeed be getting a little long in the tooth.