Kevin Drum

No, Democrats Aren't a Bunch of Hopeless Wimps

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 1:52 AM EST

Just a quick note about an election meme that's already driving me crazy: Democrats lost because they're timid, vacillating milksops who can barely string together a coherent message and are congenitally unwilling to stand up for their own beliefs. No wonder everyone hates them!

Give me a break. Democrats are Democrats, and they act pretty much the same every election cycle. And yet, they won big in 2006, 2008, and 2012. If they're such gutless milksops, how were those victories possible?

Look: every election cycle features different candidates. Obviously it's possible that, on average, this year's crop of Democrats were more milksoppy than usual. But here's what's far more likely: 2014 featured a fairly ordinary bunch of candidates, and the party's leadership was roughly as effective and visionary (or not) as it normally is. Ditto for fundraising and GOTV efforts.

But every election cycle has structural differences. This one featured a bad Senate map for Dems. It was a midterm election. The party leader was a president whose popularity has waned. The economy continues to be listless. Washington is paralyzed by gridlock, which means that Democrats didn't have many legislative successes to sell. And anyway, a consistent message would have been all but impossible given all the seats they had to defend in conservative states.

Maybe Dems could have done better. Maybe their message this year really was weak and stale. But if your theory of defeat is based on some enduring and egregious flaw that's inherent in the Democratic Party, you should reconsider. It probably doesn't explain as much as you think. Structural explanations that take account of varying conditions are almost always better.

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The Filibuster Isn't Going Away, It's Just Changing Parties

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 1:04 AM EST

Danny Vinik says that with Democrats soon to be the minority party in the Senate, Harry Reid will employ the filibuster just as much as Mitch McConnell ever did:

Reid has a history of supporting the filibuster when in the minority and criticizing it when in the majority. There’s no reason to expect that to change with McConnell as majority leader.

And that’s a good thing. If Republicans are going to reap the political benefits of indiscriminate filibustering, then Democrats should do so as well. The advantage of filibustering is that it allows a party to block progress without taking all of the blame for it, for the simple reason that most of the public—and, surprisingly, most of the media—don’t realize that filibusters are basically thwarting majority rule. Presidential vetoes, on the other hand, are easy for the public and media to understand and easy to appropriate blame. If Democrats relinquished the tool now, they’d give up a chance to make the same sort of gains. It’d be the equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

Agreed. In fact, it never even occurred to me that Democrats might use the filibuster any less than Republicans have over the past six years. The GOP has taught a master class in the virtues of obstruction, and there's no reason to think that Democrats haven't learned the lesson well. The only question is whether Reid will be able to hold his caucus together as well as McConnell held together his.

Actually, I take that back. That's not the only question. Here's the one I'm really curious about: will the media treat Democratic filibusters the same way they treated Republican filibusters? To put this more bluntly, will they treat Dem filibusters as routine yawners barely worth mentioning? Or, alternatively, will they treat them not as expressions of sincere dissent against an agenda they loathe, but as nakedly cynical ploys employed by vengeful and bitter Democrats for no purpose other than exacting retribution against Mitch McConnell? Just asking.

Are Central Banks Losing Their Credibility on Inflation?

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 9:34 PM EST

Ryan Avent is unhappy that the Fed has basically declared the economy in good shape and ended its quantitative easing program. I'm inclined to agree with him, though I'll grant that it's a legitimately debatable point. But on another point—the Fed's prolonged inability to hit its own 2 percent inflation target—Avent is absolutely spot on:

Inflation has been below the desired level for all but a handful of months since the target was announced. In the nearly three years since the Fed has operated under an explicit 2% inflation targeting regime, annual inflation has been 1.5% on average. In the two most recent months, year-on-year inflation has been 1.4%, below both the target and the average for the period under which the target has been in place.

....We can debate whether the Fed has the right target or not....Do you know what's not up for debate? Whether what we have experienced in America over the last few years represents good monetary policy making. It doesn't. Setting a public target, consistently missing that target, projecting that the target will be consistently missed in future, and conducting policy so as to make sure the target is in fact missed: that is lousy monetary policy making. And I cannot understand why the Fed does not see this record as detrimental to the recovery and highly corrosive of the Fed's credibility.

In fact, this is actually an even bigger problem than Avent acknowledges. Think about it. We now have three major economies—the US, Japan, and Europe—which have persistently undershot their own inflation targets despite having enormous incentives to at least meet them as they try to recover from the Great Recession.

What does this mean? Everyone has assumed all along that if they were sufficiently motivated, central banks could always generate high inflation—and technically, that's still as true as ever. If you control the printing presses, you can generate inflation. But what if it turns out that in practice it's all but impossible for a modern central bank to meet even a modest inflation target during a severe economic downturn? How do we know whether this is due to lack of will; lack of technical firepower; or lack of political support? And how long does it take before markets decide it doesn't much matter? After all, at some point there's no practical difference between unwillingness and inability.

As Avent mentions, in the past it's been mostly taken for granted that "credibility" for central banks was related to their ability to keep inflation low. Today, though, we have the opposite problem: central banks that are apparently unable to keep inflation high enough despite having tons of motivation to do so. And it's not as if a 2 percent inflation target is especially challenging. No central bank should have a problem hitting that.

And yet, all three of the biggest central banks on the planet apparently are having trouble hitting even that modest target. Are they unwilling or unable? Either way, the longer this goes on, the more their credibility gets shredded. It's a mystery why this isn't an issue of bigger concern.

Things Are Going From Bad to Worse in Syria—And Iraq

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 2:45 PM EST

After reading my post yesterday about the weakness of our anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq, a friend emailed this: "It's also worth mentioning that our non-plan in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, is disintegrating by the minute." Here's the story he linked to:

The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners in its war against the Islamic State.

Moderate rebels who had been armed and trained by the United States either surrendered or defected to the extremists as the Jabhat al-Nusra group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through the towns and villages the moderates controlled in the northern province of Idlib, in what appeared to be a concerted push to vanquish the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to rebel commanders, activists and analysts.

Zack Beauchamp is about as pessimistic as it's possible to be:

These groups were supposed to be the great hope of America's strategy in Syria. That they were defeated so roundly and so soon after the US began implementing its new anti-ISIS strategy is proof positive of a wider truth: America's strategy for Syria has already fallen apart. Despite a spate of ISIS setbacks in recent months, America's effort to defeat ISIS in Syria appears to be making negative progress.

Beauchamp thinks our core problem is the same as always: We just flatly don't have any good alternatives in Syria.

The core of America's strategy — to build a coalition of moderate Syrian rebels to combat ISIS — is in really bad shape. Part of what makes that so discouraging is that the alternative options are terrible.

Simply bombing ISIS, and not seeking out a ground ally in Syria, would be folly.

...Some observers in the US have suggested allying with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. It's more than possible that Obama will choose this: Assad has clearly signaled he's open to American support. But it'd be a strategic and moral disaster....The only other ground presence in Syria that the US could side with is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is already essentially at war with ISIS. But al-Qaeda's Syria branch is, if anything, more of a threat to the United States than ISIS is. No matter who wins that fight, the US loses.

A third option is to simply give up on trying to root ISIS out of Syria, instead focusing on defeating the group in Iraq....This might actually work at achieving its relatively narrower aims....But as long as ISIS can safely retreat to its Syrian territory, it'll be very hard to beat them in Iraq....Moreover, it would mean admitting that Obama's strategy will not succeed in defeating ISIS. It would mean leaving Syrian civilians at ISIS's mercy. And it would allow the group a base from which to threaten the United States.

I don't know if things are as dire in Syria as Beauchamp suggests, but they're pretty damn close. The hawkish advice to "arm the rebels" has, from the start, been more a calculated sound bite than an actual, workable strategy, since it's all but impossible to arm and train only the right rebels. But it sounds good if you don't think about it too hard, and it serves the purposes of camera-hungry pols like John McCain who want to sound tough without being forced to acknowledge the real costs of intervention in a messy civil war that we know next to nothing about. The bottom line is that arming the Syrian rebels was simply never a workable plan.

But if there's no workable plan in Syria, then ISIS becomes doubly hard to defeat in Iraq. We can bomb their supply lines and their retreats back in Syria, but even a bombing campaign ten times the size of the current one would have a hard time making much of a dent in their operations. It's just too big a territory to control from the air.

Bottom line: this is nearly an impossible nut to crack without a large and reliable ground force working alongside us. Even then it would be no piece of cake. At this point, then, we need to either (a) get out, (b) commit to a large re-invasion of Iraq, or (c) come up with a truly credible plan for rebuilding the Iraqi army and brokering a genuine political reconciliation between the country's warring factions. Right now, we're betting on (c) because no one wants to face up to the shitstorm the other two would provoke. But we may not be able to deny reality for very much longer.

Today's Election Explained in 3 Easy Bullet Points

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 11:53 AM EST

Over the past two or three days, a surprising number of people have asked me why the Democrats appear to be doomed in today's midterm election. I don't know for sure whether Democrats are doomed, but there's no denying that things look grim for the donkeys. For the record, then, if Republicans retake the Senate tonight, here are the three big reasons why:

The Map. Democrats are defending a lot of seats that they won in red states in 2008. They were always likely to lose most of them when they came up for reelection, and that's exactly what's happening. By contrast, Republicans had almost no vulnerable seats to defend. The map on the right shows the basic shape of the river.

6-Year Itch. It's the sixth year of a presidential term. Barack Obama has mostly managed to avoid the scandals that so often beset presidents in their sixth year, but he's still suffering from the usual accretion of bad news and exhaustion that's almost inevitable at this point. This has tanked his approval rating and tarnished the Democratic brand.

Midterm Falloff. Democratic voting blocs (minorities, the poor, and the young) simply tend not to vote in midterms.

This explains most of what's going on. Beyond this, every race has its own local issues, and nationally we're still suffering from government gridlock; a weak economy; and lots of scary overseas stuff (Ebola, ISIS, Putin, etc.).

For what it's worth—and I reserve the right to change my mind about this later—one thing I don't blame is stupid Democratic strategery. Sure, I'd like to have seen a clearer message from Democrats and a more full-throated defense of liberal priorities. But honestly, I don't see any magic bullets out there. Like it or not, there were a lot of Democrats defending their seats in red states where that message just flatly wasn't a winner, and these folks really had no choice but to distance themselves from Obama. This created obvious problems of its own since (a) it made Dems look a bit aimless and (b) it provided the press with a storyline too juicy to pass up, but I'm hard pressed to figure out a better alternative. Democrats may not have mounted a memorably disciplined or inspiring campaign this year, but neither did they mount a memorably disastrous campaign. For the most part, they muddled along about as well as they could have, and in the end, it probably wasn't enough. That's not very dramatic, but it's probably the truth.

The Child Is Father to the Man -- Baby Food Edition

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 10:21 AM EST

A team of researchers crunched some data about what mothers feed their infants and came away with disturbing news:

In many cases, infants were fed foods that would surprise even the least stringent of mothers. Candy, ice cream, soda, and french fries, for instance, were among the foods some of the babies were being fed....The immediate danger resulting from poor infant diets is early weight gain and stunted growth. Larger weight increases were observed in the infants who consumed higher levels of fat and sugar, and dairy foods (both of which were associated with poorer households and less educated mothers), especially at age one. Those same babies were found to be shorter on average, possibly, the researchers believe, because of a lack of foods that help promote proper bone growth.

The longer term problem with the discrepancy in infant dietary patterns is that these differences—specifically the exposure to certain unhealthy foods, and lack of exposure to certain other healthy ones—can negatively impact a child's long-term health, eating habits, and food preferences.

A follow up to the Infant Feeding Practices study, which analyzed data for the same children at age six, found that infant feeding patterns appear to translate into similar childhood eating habits. And those preferences can last a lifetime.

This is yet another example of the ways in which some of us are born lucky and others aren't—a topic that feels more personal than ever to me lately. It may be that there's no easy answer to the question of how to level the developmental playing field even during the first few years of life, but does anyone seriously disagree that we should try harder?1

1Probably best not to answer that.

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Cellphone Companies Are Working to Track Your Every Move

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 12:48 AM EST

Your cellphone company knows what you did today—whether you want them to or not:

Verizon and AT&T have been quietly tracking the Internet activity of more than 100 million cellular customers with what critics have dubbed “supercookies”.... Consumers cannot erase these supercookies or evade them by using browser settings, such as the “private” or “incognito” modes that are popular among users wary of corporate or government surveillance.

....Privacy advocates say that without legal action, in court or by a regulatory agency such as the FCC or FTC, the shift toward supercookies will be impossible to stop. Only encryption can keep a supercookie from tracking a user. Other new tracking technologies are probably coming soon, advocates say.

“There’s a stampede by the cable companies and wireless carriers to expand data collection,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group. “They all want to outdo Google.”

Is there any hope for reining in this stuff? I'm pessimistic. The vast majority of users just don't seem to care, and even if they do, they can usually be bought off with something as trivial as an iTunes download or a $10 Groupon discount. On the flip side, the value of this data to marketers is enormous, which means it can be stopped only by some equally enormous opposing force. But what? Government regulation is the only counterweight of similar power, and there won't be any government action as long as the public remains indifferent about having their every movement tracked.

So this gets back to basics: How do you get the public to care? Business as usual won't do it. It's going to take something big and dramatic that finally crosses a line and starts to make people feel nervous. That hasn't happened yet, but it might in the future. Stay tuned.

Arizona School District Cutting Contraception from High School Biology Text

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 8:48 PM EST

Via Steve Benen, here's the latest from Gilbert, Arizona:

School district staff here will "edit" a high-school honors biology textbook after board members agreed that it does not align with state regulations on how abortion is to be presented to public-school students.

....The book in question, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition), has a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies and drugs that can induce abortion.

....The board made its decision after listening to a presentation from Natalie Decker, a lawyer for Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom....Decker did not recommend a way to change the book but said it could be redacted or have additional information pasted in. "The cheapest, least disruptive way to solve the problem is to remove the page," board member Daryl Colvin said.

This whole thing is ridiculous, and the prospect of taking a razor blade to p. 547 of this textbook is cringe-inducing. Hell, as near as anyone can tell, the book doesn't even violate Arizona law, which requires public schools to present childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion. Apparently there are just some folks in Gilbert who don't like having the subject presented at all.

Still, ridiculous as this is, I do have a serious question to ask. I checked, and this is not a "Human Sexuality" text or a "Health and Family" book. It's straight-up biology: photosynthesis, genes, evolution, eukaryotic cells, vertebrates, nervous systems, hormones, the immune system, etc. etc. So why, in a generic biology textbook, is there a special boxed page devoted to specific technical means of contraception in human beings? That really does seem like something pasted in to make a point, not because it follows naturally from a discussion of reproduction and embryonic development in class Mammalia.

So....what's the point of including this in the first place? To annoy conservatives? To satisfy some obscure interest group? If this book were used in a sex ed class, that would be one thing. It would clearly belong. But in a standard biology text? I don't really get it.

We Still Don't Have a Real Plan in Iraq

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 2:00 PM EST

In the LA Times today, David Zucchino takes a long look at the state of the Iraqi army, and he comes away pretty unimpressed. He begins with the collapse of two divisions during the battle for Mosul last June:

Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq's security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped....Discipline is ragged, men disappear or go on leave at will, and commanders list "ghost soldiers" while collecting their paychecks, they said.

....The U.S. military has not explained how a few more months of "advise and assist" will create a functional army after years of training was followed by wholesale desertions in Mosul and in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad....Asked how many Iraqi security forces are combat-ready today, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, said the command could not provide an estimate. He suggested asking the Iraqi army.

....Officers in one of many units that collapsed in Mosul, the 2nd Battalion of Iraq's 3rd Federal Police Division, said their U.S. training was useful. But as soon as their American advisors left, they said, soldiers and police went back to their ways. "Our commanders told us to ignore what the Americans taught us," Shehab said. "They said, 'We'll do it our way.'"

....Retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, in charge of Iraqi training in 2007 and 2008....estimated that up to 60% of the army could be combat effective if properly led and backed by U.S. advisors and airstrikes. But he questioned whether 1,400 advisors can reconstitute a badly fractured force in a matter of months.

"I don't know what they're doing, frankly," Dubik said of the advisors. "I see us as very slow on the uptake politically and militarily. Ultimately, we will need more advisors and trainers."

In a sense, there's nothing new in this report. But it underlines the fact that we've never been given even a remotely plausible plan for how our training mission in Iraq is supposed to work. Apparently that's because we don't really have one, and it's frankly unclear if even the military advisors who are doing the training really believe in their own mission.

It's a mistake to think of ISIS as some kind of superhuman force that inevitably destroys anything in its path. When all's said and done, it's still no more than ten or twenty thousand fighters taking advantage of sectarian divisions to assert tentative control over Sunni areas of Iraq. Nonetheless, we've seen this movie before in the mid-2000s, and it took years of effort—involving far, far more than 1,400 advisors—combined with the eventual revolt of Sunni chieftains to finally regain control of Iraq. And even that was temporary thanks to the unwillingness of the Iraqi leadership to make even a pretense of forming an inclusive government. Without a political reconciliation, it turned out that our military victories were hollow.

Apparently the air campaign against ISIS has been somewhat effective—if not at turning them back, at least at preventing their further spread. But a broader victory requires both the political compromise that evaded us last time, as well as a plan for rebuilding the Iraqi army. We should be very nervous when no one seems able to provide even some routine happy talk about how our 1,400 advisors are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It's hard to see where this goes from here.

AP: Ferguson Flight Restrictions Aimed at Media, Not Public Safety

| Mon Nov. 3, 2014 12:05 PM EST

Yesterday, after making a Freedom of Information request for audio recordings of FAA traffic managers in St. Louis, the Associated Press reported that flight restrictions around Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations probably didn't have anything to do with police safety:

"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press....At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there."

....The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis County Police Department, which responded to demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, that the restriction was solely for safety and had nothing to do with preventing media from witnessing the violence or the police response.

Police said at the time, and again as recently as late Friday to the AP, that they requested the flight restriction in response to shots fired at a police helicopter. But police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed "rumors."

We are all shocked and surprised, aren't we?