Kevin Drum

What Have the Democrats Ever Done For Us?

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 8:21 PM PDT

Yesterday I wrote a post griping about the supposed mystery of why so many working and middle class voters (WMC for short) have drifted into the Republican Party over the past few decades. It's hardly a mystery, I said, and it's not an example of people voting against their own economic interest. The problem is simple: Democrats haven't really done much for the WMC lately, so fewer and fewer of them view Democrats as their champions. That being the case, they might as well vote for the party that promises to cut their taxes and supports traditional values.

Scott Lemieux agrees with many of the specific points I made, but nonetheless thinks I went too far with my "general framing." His post is worth a read, and it also gives me a handy excuse to write a follow-up. This is partly to expand on some things, partly to defend myself, and partly to concede an issue or two. So in no special order, here goes:

First off, you're really talking about the white WMC, right?

Yeah, that's usually how this stuff is framed. As it happens, I'd argue that although the black and Hispanic WMC still firmly supports Democrats, they largely do it for noneconomic reasons these days. But that's a subject for a different day. What we're talking about here is mostly about the white WMC.

But has this drift toward the Republican Party even happened? Haven't you written before that it's a myth?

Yes I have, based on the work of Larry Bartels, who says this is solely a Southern phenomenon. However, I've been persuaded by Lane Kenworthy's work that the drift is both real and national. It's not a myth.

Lemieux says that relative to Republicans, Democrats are better than I give them credit for. What about that?

No argument there. I don't think anyone could read this site for more than five minutes and not know what I think of the modern Republican Party.

Plus he says that Obamacare has been a big plus for the WMC. And a bunch of folks on Twitter said the same thing.

That's a point I'll concede. I was thinking of a few things here. First, most WMC voters already get health coverage at work, so Obamacare's impact on them is limited. Beyond that, the Medicaid expansion was targeted at the poor, and the exchange subsidies get pretty small by the time you reach a middle-class income. But my memory was faulty on that score. A middle-class family with an income of, say, $50-60,000 still gets a pretty hefty subsidy. And of course there are other features of Obamacare that help the middle class too. I was a little too dismissive of this.

On the other hand, this is also a pretty good example of Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They stuck together unanimously to pass the bill, which was great. But ideological ambivalence had already watered it down significantly by then, and ever since Obama signed it, it seems like half the party has been running for cover lest anyone know they voted for it. If Democrats themselves can't loudly sell their own bill as a middle class boon, it's hardly any surprise that lots of middle-class voters don't see it that way either.

But Democrats have done a lot of things beyond just Obamacare.

Sure, and I've listed them myself from time to time. But here's the thing: folks like Lemieux and me can look at this stuff and make a case that Democrats are helping the middle class. Unfortunately, it's mostly too abstract to register with average voters. Did the stimulus bill help the WMC? Probably, but it's not concrete enough for anyone to feel like it helped them personally. How about the CFPB, which Lemieux mentions? I think it's great. But if you stopped a dozen average folks on the street, not one would have the slightest inkling of what it is or whether they benefited from it. These things are just too small, too watered-down, and too sporadic to have much impact. What's more, whatever small impact they do have gets wiped out whenever Democrats support things like the 2005 bankruptcy bill or get cold feet about repealing something like the carried interest loophole.

OK, but why did you "yadda yadda" all the genuinely big things Democrats have done for the poor?

I didn't. I explicitly mentioned them. And this isn't some kind of shell game over definitions of "poor" and "working class." After all, no one ever asks why the poor have drifted away from the Democratic Party, even though they presumably have social views that are similar to the WMC. You know why? Because they haven't drifted away. And why is that? Because Democrats have done stuff for them.

That's the whole point here. The WMC feels like Democrats do stuff for the poor, but not for them. And there's a lot of truth to that.

But what can Democrats do? Republicans block every proposal they ever make.

I'm not blaming them for that. Politics is politics. And I'm not ignoring the fact that Dems stand up against Republicans all the time. They do. Nor is this an exercise in "both sides do it." Obviously Republicans are far more slavishly devoted to the interests of corporations and the rich than Democrats.

Hell, I don't even personally oppose every manifestation of the neoliberal policy evolution of the post-70s Democratic Party. Some of it I support. I'm a fairly moderate, neoliberalish squish myself most of the time. If you care about evidence in the policymaking process, the evidence is pretty strong that some lefty dreams just don't make sense.

Nonetheless, the corporate drift of the Democratic Party since the 80s is simply a matter of record. Lemieux and I can toss out lists of small-ball Democratic accomplishments all day long, but the vast majority of low-information voters have never heard of them or don't think they really do them any good. Maybe they're mistaken or misguided, but that's the way it is.

If Democrats want to regain the support of the WMC, they have to consistently unite behind stuff that benefits the WMC in very simple, concrete ways. Democrats do that on abortion, for example, and everyone knows where they stand even if they don't win all their battles. It's the same way with economic policy. Even if they don't win all or most of their battles, they need to unite behind real programs for the middle class; they need to talk about them loudly; they need to stop diluting their message by taking the side of the plutocrats whenever it's convenient; and they have to keep it up for decades.

Maybe the reality of modern politics prevents this. But if that's the case, then it's time to stop navel-gazing about why the WMC has drifted away from the Democrats. The answer is staring us all in the face.

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The Mystery of the Disappearing Malaysian Plane Deepens Even Further

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 3:14 PM PDT

Here's the latest strangeness surrounding the disappearance of that Malaysian airliner:

As a search continued Tuesday for a Malaysian airliner that mysteriously disappeared, Malaysian military officials said radar data showed it inexplicably turned around and headed toward the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles off its scheduled flight path, news agencies and Malaysian media reported.

....Search teams from 10 nations had initially focused their efforts mainly east of the peninsula....A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed that the plane changed course and said it was believed to be flying low, the Associated Press reported.

It is, of course, mysterious that the plane veered off course and turned west an hour after takeoff. But that's not the real puzzle. The plane disappeared on Saturday. If the Malaysian military tracked it turning west into the Malacca Strait in real time, how is it that it took them three days to bother telling anyone about this? That seems damn peculiar even if things were just generally fubared at the time. Here's another account:

The [Malaysian] air force chief did not say what kind of signals the military had tracked. But his remarks raised questions about whether the military had noticed the plane as it flew across the country and about when it informed civilian authorities.

According to the general’s account, the last sign of the plane was recorded at 2:40 a.m., and the aircraft was then near Pulau Perak, an island more than 100 miles off the western shore of the Malaysian peninsula. That assertion stunned aviation experts as well as officials in China, who had been told again and again that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier, when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula. But the new account seemed to fit with the decision on Monday, previously unexplained, to expand the search area to include waters west of the peninsula.

And yet another:

It is unclear why the west coast contact, if correct, was not made public until now. Asked on Monday why crews were searching the strait, the country's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told reporters: "There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can't."

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

Opposition to Obamacare Remains Under 40 Percent, the Same as Always

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 11:15 AM PDT

Greg Sargent points us to the latest CNN poll on Obamacare today, one of the few polls that accurately judges public attitudes on the subject. Instead of just asking whether people support or oppose the law, CNN asks if their opposition is because the law is too liberal or not liberal enough. The latter aren't tea partiers who hate Obamacare, they're lefties and Democrats who mostly support the concept of Obamacare but want it to go further. Counting them as opponents of Obamacare has always been seriously misleading.

I went ahead and charted CNN's poll results over time, and they've been remarkably stable. Ever since the law passed, about 40 percent of the country has opposed it, while more than 50 percent have either supported it or said they want it to go even further. This goes a long way toward explaining the supposedly mysterious result that lots of people oppose Obamacare but few want to repeal it. The truth is that actual opposition has always been a minority view. Polls routinely show that only about 40 percent of Americans want to repeal Obamacare, and there's nothing mysterious about that once you understand that this is also the level of actual opposition to the law.

Sargent has more here, including some interesting internals and crosstabs.

President Obama Reaches Out to the Kids

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 9:33 AM PDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that President Obama has taped a Between Two Ferns segment with comedian Zach Galifianakis to promote Obamacare. Time's James Poniewozik comments:

It’s a specific, unusually edgy kind of comedy for any politician, much less a sitting President–a cringe-humor show whose whole idea is playing off staged discomfort with the guest. Obama trades insults, he stews at the clueless slights (will he build his Presidential library “in Hawaii or your home country of Kenya”?), he needles Galiafinakis about his handsome Hangover co-star Bradley Cooper. (“He kind of carried that movie, didn’t he?”)

It’s the tone of the comedy as much as the online medium that really targets the young audience Obama is pitching to here. There’s a cringe-humor generation gap; if you’re over a certain age, or simply haven’t watched much of a certain kind of contemporary comedy, you’ll probably watch it thinking that the segment is bombing and Obama is getting legitimately angry. But it’s a good fit for Obama’s sense of humor, which is a little dry and a little cutting–in ways that don’t always play in rooms when there are no ferns present.

This doesn't seem quite right to me. I'm in my fifties, and I thought it was pretty funny. Maybe you have to be even older not to get it? Post-SNL, perhaps? I'm not sure. Go ahead and watch it here and let's do a reader poll. Rate it from 1 to 5 stars and be sure to include your age.

Taking Advantage of Cancer Patients for Fun and Profit

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 8:43 AM PDT

When we last met cancer patient Julie Boonstra, she was the centerpiece of a TV ad claiming that her new insurance plan under Obamacare was far more expensive than her old plan and didn't cover all her medications. On examination, it turned out to cost about the same. Today, however, the Detroit News reports that, in fact, Obamacare will save Boonstra more than a thousand dollars per year:

Boonstra said Monday her new plan she dislikes is the Blue Cross Premier Gold health care plan, which caps patient responsibility for out-of-pocket costs at $5,100 a year, lower than the federal law’s maximum of $6,350 a year. It means the new plan will save her at least $1,200 compared with her former insurance plan she preferred that was ended under Obamacare’s coverage requirements.

....When advised of the details of her Blues’ plan, Boonstra said the idea that it would be cheaper “can’t be true.”

“I personally do not believe that,” Boonstra said.

....She also said her out-of-pocket maximum could be higher than advertised because there’s one prescription that was previously covered by her old plan that isn’t and she now buys with a separate prescription discount card....Boonstra’s health plan covers all prescriptions, [Blue Cross spokesman Andy] Hetzel said, who advises she use the coverage instead of a prescription discount card so co-pays would go toward meeting the out-of-pocket maximum.

If you think I'm posting about this just because it's a big, fat poke in the face to the Koch-funded ambulance chasers at AFP who originally ran the Boonstra ad—well, you're right. But there's a real point to be made about this too. I don't know anything about Julie Boonstra, but it sure seems as if she's been bamboozled by a bunch of fanatic Obamacare haters who have caused her a ton of pain and misery. Boonstra had some genuine problems with the rollout of the exchanges, just as many people did, but once that finally got straightened out, she ended up with coverage that was both better and less expensive than her previous plan. There's no reason for her to be so anxious about her continued care.

But she never really learned that. For purely venal political reasons, AFP found itself a woman fighting cancer and proceeded to stoke her fears of her new health coverage in order to get a TV ad made. A TV ad. These are people who, if there's any justice, should not be sleeping easily at night. They are swine.

Dianne Feinstein Upset that CIA Is Spying on Dianne Feinstein

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 7:52 AM PDT

If the CIA has lost Dianne Feinstein....

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday sharply accused the CIA of violating federal law and undermining the constitutional principle of congressional oversight as she detailed publicly for the first time how the agency secretly removed documents from computers used by her panel to investigate a controversial interrogation program.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the situation amounted to attempted intimidation of congressional investigators, adding: “I am not taking it lightly.”

In the end, I suspect that she will indeed take it lightly. Still, if there's one thing an intelligence agency shouldn't do, it's get caught monitoring the Senate committee that oversees it. The intelligence community can spy on millions of Americans and Dianne Feinstein yawns. But spy on Dianne Feinstein and you're in trouble.

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Short-Term Unemployment Is In Pretty Good Shape. Long-Term Unemployment Continues To Be a Catastrophe.

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 9:42 PM PDT

Via Zachary Goldfarb, here's a chart from the 2014 Economic Report of the President. It shows unemployment rates of various durations, and I've redrawn it a bit to scale everything to 100 in 2007. That gives you a clearer idea of what's going on. As you can see, short-term unemployment levels are nearly back to their 2007 levels and continuing to drop. Long-term unemployment, by contrast, is still three times its 2007 level.

For all practical purposes, long-term unemployment is now practically our entire unemployment problem.

No, University Students Should Not Be Forced to Have Facebook Accounts

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 4:35 PM PDT

Thoreau attended a teaching conference this weekend. The keynote speaker had some things to say about communicating with the kids these days:

One small observation: The guy was insisting that we need to move all of our digital communication with students away from email and course management systems (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and instead communicate with students entirely via Facebook, posting assignment links there.  I shall refrain from speculating on what sorts of stocks are in his retirement portfolio.  Instead, I will note that while he was standing up there saying “Look, I’m old, you’re old, we’re all old, so we need to get with the times or become obsolete, now move your class to Facebook already!”, the Kids These Days are actually becoming less interested in Facebook.  You could say that he proved his own point about faculty being old and out of touch, except he’s an administrator in his day job.  So he actually proved that administrators are out of touch.

I am completely out of touch with both kids and universities, plus I'm an old fogey. And if you really want to know the truth, I'm not sure why university professors need to communicate with their students digitally at all. Don't they still meet a couple of times a week in meatspace, like we used to when I was a lad? Can't assignments and office hours and so forth be sufficiently communicated during class time?

But fine. I get it. We all communicate digitally these days, so university professors need to do it too. But you know what? University students actually do know how to use email. Sure, they might consider it something that's mainly used for sending messages to grandma and grandpa, but they all know how to use it. And it has the virtue of being universal, extremely flexible, and supporting embedded links to any old thing you want. Students who plan to find jobs after graduation should probably know how to use it.

But my real point is this: If I were a student, I'd be pissed if I were actually forced to get a Facebook account in order to communicate with a professor. Maybe I don't like or trust Facebook. And what if my other professors all have different favored ways of communicating? Am I forced to get a Tumblr account and a Pinterest account and a Google+ account and a Twitter account? That would be annoying as hell. Why should any of those things be required merely to be a student? Email is free, easy to use, and isn't a vehicle for creating more Silicon Valley zillionaires. Any student who can't be bothered to use it has way bigger problems than having to endure a slightly fogeyish professor.

Europeans Unhappy Over High American Capital Standards

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 12:20 PM PDT

The Fed has adopted rules that require foreign banks operating in the US to maintain the same capital standards as US banks. German bankers are unhappy about this:

In comments prepared for a speech in Berlin Monday, Andreas Dombret said that recent U.S. regulatory initiatives, "such as the enhanced standards for bank holding companies and foreign banking organizations, worry me. They seem to contradict the need for international cooperation."

....The Fed recently approved new rules that force the largest international banks operating in America to establish U.S.-based "intermediate holding companies," which will be subject to the same capital and liquidity requirements as domestic banks....European bankers have sharply criticized the move. "This is a considerable competitive handicap for European banks, as their U.S. competitors aren't subject to any equivalent requirements in the EU," said Michael Kemmer, head of the Association of German Banks last month.

Well, in that case, I recommend that the EU raise its capital standards and then subject American banks to it. Instead, last month they decided to ease leverage standards. I guess they've already forgotten what things looked like back in 2010. In case you have too, the chart on the right tells the story.

Chart of the Day: The Ranks of the Uninsured Are Dropping

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 10:21 AM PDT

Last year Gallup reported that the number of uninsured had dropped during the final quarter of 2013. That was good news, but might have been a statistical fluke. Today, via Greg Sargent, Gallup reports that the ranks of the uninsured have now dropped substantially for two quarters in a row:

The CBO estimates that the number of uninsured will drop by 4-5 percentage points in 2014 thanks to Obamacare. If you use 2011-12 as an approximate baseline, Gallup reports a drop of about 1.5 percentage points through February. These numbers probably aren't precisely comparable, but they represent a ballpark—and it doesn't look like a statistical fluke anymore. We're making progress.