Kevin Drum

Republicans May Be Shooting Themselves in the Foot Over Abortion

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

Here's an interesting recent poll question:

There's not much need to tell you I just made this up. If it were real, this bill would get 0 percent support. Everyone who saw it would be immediately appalled at the idea that someone could be casually murdered if they were born as a result of rape or incest.

But if you ask this same question about abortion, this is roughly what you get. Very strong majorities, even among Republicans, support an exception to an abortion ban for rape and incest. Among other things, this is why I don't believe most people who claim to believe that abortion is murder. If you support a rape or incest exception, it's pretty obvious you don't really think of abortion as murder.

So where am I going with this? Right here, with Paul Waldman's observation that the Republican Party's move to the extreme right on abortion is getting much more public than in the past:

One moment in the debate that may have struck some as odd occurred when Marco Rubio got a question about him supporting exceptions for rape and incest victims to abortion bans, and he insisted that he supports no such thing. Mike Huckabee declared that “I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.” Scott Walker went even further, stating his opposition to exceptions to save the life of the pregnant woman (“I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother”).

In the past, most Republicans have fudged this issue. The more honest among them admit that it's mostly for political reasons: in their hearts they don't support any exceptions to an abortion ban, but they realize the broader public does. So the lesser evil is to do what's necessary to move public opinion, which is the only way to eventually get to a full-blown ban on abortion.

But that fudging is apparently getting less tenable these days, and it's forcing Republican candidates to take public positions that they know are very unpopular. If this starts to spread, it could be bad news for the incrementalists, who correctly believe that such an extreme position is likely to lose them a lot of support. I wonder what would happen in the next debate if one of the moderators asked one of those show-your-hands questions to the entire field about whether they support a rape or incest exception to an abortion ban? We know where Rubio and Walker are. But what about the rest of them?

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Is Opposition to Obamacare Finally Dying Down?

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 12:44 PM EDT

I missed this when it first got published the day after the Republican debate, but Sarah Kliff says out loud something that was only percolating in the back of my head at the time:

Ten Republican presidential hopefuls took to the debate stage last night to prove their conservative bona fides. They swore they'd unravel President Barack Obama's legacy. But there was one place they barely went: repealing Obamacare.

....Last night, candidates mentioned Obamacare exactly six times during the course of a two-hour debate. Only one candidate, Scott Walker, uttered the Republican rallying cry: "Repeal Obamacare." The near-complete absence of Obama's health overhaul is remarkable.

The rhetorical shift shows a fundamental change in the calculus of Obamacare: It's one thing to talk about dismantling a theoretical law. It's another to take away insurance that tens of millions of Americans now receive. And that's exactly where Republicans are in 2016. So while Obamacare barely made it onto the stage, it might just be the biggest winner of the night.

Kliff goes on to make the case in more detail that repealing Obamacare is fundamentally less attractive than it was four years ago. Back then, it was an abstraction. Today it's a real live program with millions of enrollees.

Is this really why Obamacare got so little attention in the debate? Maybe. Or maybe Fox News just didn't bother giving the candidates much of a chance. After all, if you're looking for conflict, what's the point of asking about something that every candidate on the stage agrees about? It's worth noting that the only question specifically about Obamacare went to Donald Trump, and asked him why he had flip-flopped on single-payer health care. And the only question on Medicaid went to John Kasich, one of the few Republican governors to accept Obamacare funding to expand Medicaid coverage. In both cases there was some potential disagreement between the candidates. So Thursday's debate might not be much of a bellwether about waning interest in Obamacare among Republicans.

Still, I suspect Kliff is onto something. I agree that an actual program with actual enrollees—and one that's operating pretty successfully—is a trickier target than one that's slated for the future. For one thing, you can predict anything you want about a program that hasn't started up yet, but it's harder to keep up the meme that Obamacare will destroy the economy when it's pretty plainly not destroying the economy. For another, even a Republican candidate is going to feel a lot of pushback from constituents who are now using the program and want to know what's going to happen if it goes away and they can't get insured anymore.

And there's another tidbit of evidence on this front. A couple of weeks ago CNN released a poll that asked voters what their most important issue was. Among Republicans, only 14 percent said health care. They're far more concerned about the economy and the nexus of terrorism and foreign policy. Democrats, conversely, ranked health care very highly. This suggests that Democrats are now more committed to keeping Obamacare than Republicans are to getting rid of it.

I might be reading this wrong, and I wouldn't want to draw any firm conclusions from a campaign that still has many months to run. Still, my sense is that Obamacare just isn't getting as much attention from Republicans as it used to. Sure, they all want to repeal it, but their talking points are starting to sound very pro forma. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush mentioned it during the debate, for example, but only as part of a laundry list of stuff they'd do to improve the economy.

We'll see. It will certainly get more attention during the general election, when it becomes a serious point of contention. But my guess is that it just doesn't have the juice it used to. It's working OK. The economy hasn't collapsed. The budget hasn't exploded. It's helping actual people. And although they'll never admit it publicly, most Republicans candidates know that repealing it takes more than the stroke of a pen. It's a lot harder than they make it sound.

Hillary Clinton Threads the Needle on College Tuition Plan

| Mon Aug. 10, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton plans to offer a major proposal to deal with skyrocketing student debt:

With Americans shouldering $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and about eight million of them in default, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will propose major new spending by the federal government that would help undergraduates pay tuition at public colleges without needing loans.

....Under the plan, which was outlined by Clinton advisers on Sunday, about $175 billion in grants would go to states that guarantee that students would not have to take out loans to cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. In return for the money, states would have to end budget cuts to increase spending over time on higher education, while also working to slow the growth of tuition, though the plan does not require states to cap it.

....Her plan does not go as far as some liberal advocacy groups would like, because she still expects families to make a “realistic” contribution to cover some tuition costs — through savings or loans — while students would contribute based on wages from 10 hours of work per week. In contrast Mr. O’Malley proposed “an aggressive goal — to give every student and their family the opportunity to go to college debt-free,” said Lis Smith, his deputy campaign manager.

Hillary is Hillary, so I'm sure when this is announced it will be accompanied by a detailed policy paper that makes a very good case for how it can work. My initial reaction is that it sounds kind of complicated, and I wonder if this kind of incentive can really keep states from finding ways to spend less and less on higher education. Will tuition costs go down only to be replaced by ever-increasing "fees"?

At the same time, this is pretty carefully crafted to appeal to multiple constituencies. It will appeal to middle-class voters by guaranteeing that tuition costs at state universities will be kept to a reasonable level. But it will also appeal to low-income voters with little chance of sending their kids to college. They probably wonder why taxpayers should subsidize a free education for mostly middle-income kids who are going to use that education to make more money after they graduate. Clinton has threaded this needle by insisting that families still have to contribute and students should work at least part-time.

I doubt this will become a major campaign issue. However, it will cost $350 billion over ten years, and Democrats have to be careful about how many programs like this they propose. Once you put a price tag on them, Republicans can start adding up the damages and asking where the money will come from. In this case, Clinton says it will come from effectively raising taxes on the rich, but that can only go so far. If she has very many more of these programs to announce, eventually middle-class families will have to shoulder some of the bill. That's catnip for Republicans.

Cruz, Fiorina Are Big Winners In First Post-Debate Poll

| Sun Aug. 9, 2015 6:38 PM EDT

A new NBC poll has gotten a lot of attention today for suggesting that Donald Trump won the Republican debate on Thursday. And maybe he did! But I'd take the results with a grain of salt. Here's why:

  • As the chart on the right shows, Trump's support didn't increase. It stayed where it was. The big gainers were Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson.
  • It was an overnight poll. So it might reflect what viewers thought of the debate itself, but it doesn't take account of the weekend fallout over Trump's post-debate treatment of Megyn Kelly. Nor does it take into account the media treatment of Trump over the past few days. This may or may not make a difference, but I'd wait a few days to see how things play out.
  • It's an internet poll, not a telephone poll. The methodology is fairly sound, but it's nonetheless another reason to treat the results with caution.

I'm not foolish enough to predict what's going to happen to Trump's poll numbers over the next week. I feel safe saying that Trump will implode eventually, and that he'll implode over something like this weekend's lunacy. But whether it will happen over this weekend's version of this weekend's lunacy—well, who knows? The base of the Republican Party is pretty inscrutable to a mushy mainstream liberal like me. I'm really not sure what will and won't set them off these days.

As for the rest of the results, I'm stumped over Ted Cruz's gain. He didn't seem to especially stand out on Thursday. Conversely, Fiorina is easy to understand, and Carson's bump might just be due to increased name recognition. Bush and Walker dropped a little more than I would have guessed, but 3 percent still isn't much. We'll see if all these results hold up over the next week.

Donald Trump Has Finally Catapulted Us Into an Alternate Universe

| Sat Aug. 8, 2015 9:55 PM EDT

The Donald Trump saga continues its trip into Bizarroland today with the exit of Roger Stone from the Trump campaign. Trump claims he fired Stone, while Stone says he resigned—and he has the resignation letter to prove it. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm guessing Stone is the more believable party here. So why did Stone leave?

In the letter, which was obtained by The Post, Stone expressed regret for the end of a “close relationship — both personal and political/professional — since the 1980s.” But, he added, since “current controversies involving personalities and provocative media fights have reached such a high volume that it has distracted attention from your platform and overwhelmed your core message ... I can no longer remain involved in your campaign.”

Not all of you are familiar with the Stone oeuvre, so how can I put this? Roger Stone complaining that Trump has become too vitriolic and combative is like the Kardashian family getting on your case for being too much of a publicity hound. It's like Dick Cheney advising you that you're banging the war drums too loudly. It's like Louis XIV telling you to cool it with the mansion building.

Roger Stone is famous for calling himself a "GOP hit man." He admires Richard Nixon so much he has Nixon's face tattooed on his back. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he founded an anti-Hillary group called Citizens United Not Timid. He played a bit part in the Watergate scandal at the age of 19. He is famous for his many rules, one of which is "Attack, attack, attack—never defend."

This is the guy who left the Trump campaign because Trump was too preoccupied with "provocative media fights." The same guy who has proudly called his brand of politics "performance art" can no longer stomach the performance art that is the Trump campaign.

So this is where we are. On Friday, Erick Erickson criticized Trump for being sexist. Today, Roger Stone quit Trump's campaign because he was being too combative. We are now officially living in an alternate universe. Mr. Spock finally has his beard.

Will Wherevergate Finally Sink Donald Trump?

| Sat Aug. 8, 2015 12:57 PM EDT

Our story so far: In Thursday's debate, Fox host Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump why he was so fond of insulting women. Trump answered that he had just been kidding around. "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness," he said. "And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either."

That didn't go over too well, but Trump seemed like he'd probably survive it. Unfortunately, Trump being Trump, he couldn't leave bad enough alone. In the spin room after the debate he started attacking Kelly and boo-hooing about how she had treated him worse than the other candidates. Then, showing the restraint he's famous for, he followed this up with a series of increasingly unhinged tweets about Kelly throughout the night and into the early morning. Finally, during a CNN interview on Friday night, he said this:

You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her....wherever.

Let's call it Wherevergate. This was a pretty obvious allusion to Kelly being unable to control her anger because she was having her period. Then things got weird.

(That's right. Things weren't really weird yet. So far this is all pretty normal in Trumpland.)

Anyway, Erick Erickson—tea party activist extraordinaire and founder of the influential RedState blog—got wind of Trump's "wherever" comment and decided he was unhappy about it. Now, this is weird, because Erickson is not exactly famous for either his restraint or his sympathy for women's tender feelings. He once called retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter a "goat fucking child molester"; called Michelle Obama a "Marxist harpy wife"; and lashed out at feminists during the 2008 campaign by calling a statement from the New York chapter of NOW the "latest salvo fired from the thighs of ugly nags."

In other words, Erickson is not the shy and retiring type. But he eventually apologized for those comments and apparently decided to turn over a new leaf. "I've definitely had to grow up over time," he told Howard Kurtz in 2010. So when he heard Trump's remark about Kelly, he decided enough was enough. If he was going to grow up, then by God, everyone had to grow up. Trump hadn't, so Erickson called up Trump's campaign manager late on Friday and disinvited Trump from this weekend's big RedState shindig in Atlanta. "I think there is a line of decency that even a non-professional politician can cross," he told the Washington Post. "Suggesting that a female journalist asking you a hostile question is hormone related, I think, is one of those lines."

Needless to say, The Donald didn't take this lying down. Erickson's decision, he said, was "another example of weakness through being politically correct....Blame Erick Erickson, your weak and pathetic leader." Was that enough? Of course not. "Not only is Erick a total loser," he said in a statement released Saturday, "he has a history of supporting establishment losers in failed campaigns so it is an honor to be disinvited from his event."

Oh, and his "wherever" comment? Trump said he was referring to Kelly's nose. "Only a deviant would think anything else."

Roger that. So far, Erickson's acolytes are apparently divided about the whole thing. Some are glad to see Trump's back, others think Erickson has fallen into the pit of lefty political correctness. Stay tuned for more.

In any case, after all the inflammatory stuff Trump has said over the past couple of months, this appears to be the comment that's finally going to cause him some real trouble. Go figure. Carly Fiorina immediately tweeted, "Mr Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse." Lindsey Graham criticized Trump too, while other Republican candidates were more circumspect. So far, anyway. But I suspect this will turn into a feeding frenzy before long. Republicans are still spooked about the whole War on Women thing, and they're none too happy about Trump taking on a Fox News host either. I think we can expect the Sunday talk shows this week to be all Trump all the time.

So that's that, though I'm sure this post will be out of date almost as soon as I publish it. I just thought you'd all like to know what had happened while you were snoozing away the weekend.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 7 August 2015

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

As promised, Hilbert and Hopper are taking the week off. So meet Tatiana, recently adopted by my sister's friend Pat. She goes by Tati and she's about a year old. Her collar features a skull-and-crossbones motif, but its fierceness is undermined by the hearts at the end of the bones and the flowers in between each skull. Plus it's pink. Bluebeard would be rolling in his grave. But I'm informed that this is a fashion statement, and who am I to argue?

In any case, Tati doesn't seem especially fierce—though I gather that a couple of catnip mice have recently met their match. She is also considerably more energetic than Pat's beloved old cat, who passed away recently. I can sympathize with that: we've got two of the tireless little furballs. They'll be back next Friday.

Schumer's Opposition Is Good News for the Iran Deal

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 1:03 PM EDT

In other news, Chuck Schumer announced yesterday that he would oppose the Iran nuclear deal. Since Schumer is a longtime friend of Israel and an influential guy among Democrats, this is seen as a big deal. But I don't think it is. Here's why:

  • He announced just as Congress was going into recess.
  • This means he has a good excuse for not twisting arms over the next few weeks, but can still meet with donors and voters without having lots of awkward discussions about why he hasn't come out against the deal.
  • He also waited until Democratic support for the deal was nearly airtight. At this point, Schumer would have to persuade virtually every undecided Dem to vote No in order to kill the deal.
  • And just for good measure, he made a low-key announcement on the same day that the big Republican debate dominated the news cycle.

To me, this has the smell of someone who wants to oppose the deal, but doesn't really want to kill it. Schumer will go through the motions when Congress reconvenes, but I suspect he won't be trying all that hard to undermine support for a deal negotiated by his party's president. Far from taking this as bad news, I'd say it's a very good sign that the Iran deal will survive when it goes to Congress.

Will the Economy Help Democrats or Republicans More Next Year?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Paul Krugman notes that there wasn't much talk about the economy in last night's debate. Why not?

The chart shows private-sector job gains after two recessions — the 2001 recession, and the 2007-2009 Great Recession — ended, in thousands. You can argue that the economy should have bounced back more strongly from the deeper slump; on the other hand, 2008 was a huge financial crisis, which tends to leave a bad hangover.

....Now, am I claiming that Obama caused all that job creation? No — policy was pretty much hamstrung from 2010 on....Recovery should have been much faster, and I believe that there is still more slack than the unemployment rate suggests. But if President Romney were presiding over this economy, Republicans would be hailing it as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Instead, they’re trying to talk about something else.

How is the economy going to play in the 2016 campaign? It's a bit of a mystery at two different levels:

  • There's the poli-sci model level, where the state of the economy is a background factor that affects the vote. A good economy helps the party in power, a bad economy helps the party out of power. Right now, though, the economy is in the middle: not bad, but not great. Next year, when we start plugging numbers into the models, they're probably going to show a tight race.
  • Then there's the campaign level, where candidates actively offer economic proposals (and criticisms) that they think will resonate with voters. Hillary Clinton will have a hard time here, since "it could have been worse" is not a winning slogan. Nor is "Republicans would be crowing if they had done it." But it's going to be hard to brag on the economy when it's only in modestly good shape.

If Jeb Bush is the nominee, he'll be blathering about 4 percent growth and claiming that anyone who says that's impossible is just a defeatist who's given up on America. Unfortunately, a lot of voters will probably believe him, because voters generally believe anything a candidate says. And Hillary won't be able to fight back much, since it really would make her look like a defeatist. Luckily, "4 percent growth" is a fairly abstract concept to most people, and probably isn't a great campaign slogan in the first place.

In the end, I suspect the economy will be in one of those middle states where it's just not that big a deal in the campaign and won't help either candidate much. Instead, the big campaign issues are going to be more specific: stuff like Obamacare, Common Core, ISIS, Clinton/Bush Derangement Syndrome, etc. Unless something big happens over the next 12 months, it's going to be one of those grind-it-out campaigns based on small-ball issues, foreign policy, and GOTV mechanics. Lotsa fun, no?

Rubio, Fiorina Declared Winners of Last Night's Media Bowl

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

I didn't get a chance to hear any of the post-game commentary after last night's debate. After blogging continuously since 2 pm (Pacific time) I just collapsed in the living room with the pizza Marian had gotten and watched whatever it was she had on TV. So I never got a chance to see who had been anointed the winner.

This morning I see that apparently the answer is Marco Rubio, which makes Marian two for two picking winners. Maybe she should be the one writing this blog. Ed Kilgore had about the same reaction to this that I did:

As for the "winners" and "losers" bit, there's no question Carly Fiorina is being deliberately promoted to the Big Stage where GOPers wanted her all along to supply low-gender-politics-risk attacks on Hillary Clinton. I watched her yesterday and saw a former CEO used to doing power-point presentations for stockholders doing her standard speech, amplified by a very lucky question she got about Donald Trump. And for all the (justified) talk about the Fox moderators being tough on candidates, nobody's asking Fiorina the obvious question about her extremely limited qualifications for the presidency.

....I'm also a bit mystified by all the wild praise today for Marco Rubio, but maybe I've just seen his earnest Second-Generation-American routine one time too many to be impressed any more. He got reasonably lucky in his questioning; the only heat he drew was over his alleged support for a rape exception to an abortion ban; he denied it, and used the question to position himself as a real RTL ultra, which is apparently what he wanted to do.

Yeah, my sense is that both Fiorina and Rubio did fine, and since no one else did spectacularly, maybe that's enough to make them winners. But big winners? I don't see it either.

Interestingly, I also see this morning that the commentariat is quickly converging around the idea that Fox News manipulated the debate pretty blatantly. The GOP wanted Fiorina on the main stage because they wanted a woman there, and Fox obliged by giving her easy questions and then praising her to the skies after the debate was over. Likewise, the GOP really wants Trump gone, and Fox obliged by asking him lots of awkward questions. Trump himself certainly played along, claiming afterward that he had been ambushed and treated badly by the moderators, especially Megyn Kelly.

Maybe. I didn't notice Fiorina getting off any easier than the other candidates, but I did notice the over-the-top effusive praise she received in the post-game shows on Fox. Something sure seemed to be going on there. Fiorina wasn't that good.

As for Trump, I think he was bound to have trouble in a debate forum, where he has less opportunity to duck questions he doesn't want to answer. Also, as I said last night, his schtick gets old when you see it over and over in the space of two hours. If, at some point, you don't seem to take any of the questions seriously, even your supporters are going to start thinking that maybe you don't belong in the White House.

In any case, this seems to be a pretty good example of the media having a bigger impact than the debates themselves. Fiorina and Rubio were the winners of last night's media bowl and Trump was the loser. In the future, everyone will know to stay on Megyn Kelly's good side.