Kevin Drum

An Endorsement From Barack Obama Might Be the Kiss of Death This Year

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 10:31 AM PDT

A friend just emailed me with a gloomy outlook for Democrats in this year's midterm elections. I don't really have an outlook myself yet, though obviously Democrats suffer from a difficult electoral map, the traditional 6-year blues, and their usual problem turning out voters in off-year elections. But as long as we're being gloomy, here's something else to add to the bonfire. It's an extract from a Washington Post poll graphic showing how voters react to congressional candidates being associated with the Obama administration. It's not a pretty picture.

Now, if you want some good news, all you have to do is take a look at some of the other numbers in the poll, which makes it clear that most people have no idea what really makes them more or less likely to vote for someone. At the very bottom, for example, you'll see that virtually no one is willing to fess up that they're more likely to vote for an incumbent, despite mountains of research showing that incumbency is the single most powerful predictor of electoral success there is. So maybe this is all just a bunch of hooey. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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The British Economy Is Not a Poster Child for Austerity

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 9:59 AM PDT

Keith Humphreys notes that economic growth over the past year has been similar in Britain and the United States even though the two countries adopted very different responses to the Great Recession:

But don’t expect the similar levels of growth in the two countries to shake many people’s faith in their economic views. Most of the “slim government” crowd will argue that Britain didn’t cut enough (or that the U.S. growth isn’t real) and that’s why the U.K. hasn’t left the U.S. in the dust. Most increased government spending supporters will see proof that the stimulus wasn’t big enough (or that the U.K. growth isn’t real) because if it had been U.S. growth would be dwarfing that of the sceptred isle.

Many people seem to have stable preferences about whether they want government bigger or smaller. They will point to current economic conditions as the reason for why their preferences should prevail, but their preferences do not change when those putatively justifying economic conditions fade away. Neither are most people fazed when the government spending policies they support (as well as those that they oppose) deliver different results than they expected. Motivated reason is such a force in this particular policy area that rather than arguing over what current economic conditions particularly require, debaters are probably better off cutting to the chase and arguing directly about the real issue: Disagreement about how big or small we want the government to be.

I don't think this is fair. If you want to compare Britain and the US, you have to look at their entire growth trajectory since the start of the recession. The chart on the right is taken from OECD numbers, so it's an apples-to-apples comparison. And really, there is no comparison. As of 2012 (the most recent figures available from the OECD) Britain's GDP was still 3 percent below its 2007 level. By contrast, US GDP was 4 percent above its 2007 level.

We can argue all day long about what caused this divergence, but I think the raw data is fairly unequivocal. Whatever the reason, the US economy really did suffer less and recover more robustly than the British economy.

Florida Special Election Turns Out Not to Be Very Special After All

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 8:06 AM PDT

Dave Weigel describes the dispiriting nature of yesterday's special election in Florida's 13th district:

The Pinellas County race pit Alex Sink, an uninspiring corporate Democrat, against David Jolly, a say-anything lobbyist who spent half a week of the stretch sleazily and baselessly calling his opponent a "bigot." Both of them came off like people desperately trying to sell you a time share.

And then he explains why Republican David Jolly won:

Having now spent 6,000-odd words on the Florida special election, I should admit that smart analysts predicted the result with one number. Two-hundred thousand. If that many ballots showed up in FL-13, Democrats were hitting their turnout models and winning the race. If fewer, they were losing. There were about 180,000 votes cast in the race, and the Democrats lost.

Yep. Basically, it was a tight race in a district previously held by a Republican but won by Obama in 2012. And Jolly ended up winning by two percentage points. There's really not much of a lesson to be learned here aside from the fact that (a) it was truly a tossup district, and (b) Democrats have a really tough time with turnout in non-presidential elections. Eventually they're going to have to figure out what to do about that.

President Obama Takes on Overtime Rules

| Tue Mar. 11, 2014 10:58 PM PDT

From the New York Times:

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated....Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25.

This is obviously just the latest in Obama's long series of Constitution-crushing moves that flout the law and turn the president into a despot-in-chief, gleefully kneecapping Congress and — wait. What's this?

In 2004, business groups persuaded President George W. Bush’s administration to allow them greater latitude on exempting salaried white-collar workers from overtime pay, even as organized labor objected....Mr. Obama’s authority to act comes from his ability as president to revise the rules that carry out the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress originally passed in 1938. Mr. Bush and previous presidents used similar tactics at times to work around opponents in Congress.

Oh. So he's just doing the same stuff that every other president has done. Sorry about that. You may go about your business.

For what it's worth, this gets to the heart of my impatience with all the right-wing hysteria about how Obama is shredding the Constitution and turning himself into a modern-day Napoleon. I'm not unpersuadable on the general point that Obama's executive orders sometimes go too far. But so far no one has provided any evidence that Obama has done anything more than any other modern president. They all issue executive orders, and Obama has actually issued fewer than most. They all urge the federal bureaucracy to reinterpret regulations in liberal or conservative directions. They all appoint agency heads with mandates to push the rulemaking process in agreeable directions. And they all get taken to court over this stuff and sometimes get their hats handed to them.

Is Obama opening up whole new vistas in executive overreach? I don't see it, and I don't even see anyone making the case seriously. You can't just run down a laundry list of executive actions you happen to dislike. You need to take a genuinely evenhanded look at the past 30 or 40 years of this stuff and make an argument that Obama is doing something unique. Until you do that, you're just playing dumb partisan games.

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.

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.

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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.