Kevin Drum

Darrell Issa is Finally Going Off His Nut

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Darrell Issa's latest jihad is also one of his most peculiar: he's accusing the EPA of working too closely with environmental groups. Seriously. That's it. Here's a report from the New York Times about the "cozy" relationship between EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Republicans say the most vivid example of a cozy relationship is an email exchange [...] celebrating legal maneuvering that provided Mr. Obama with something both the E.P.A. and the environmental group wanted: a court-ordered deadline for release of a 2012 E.P.A. regulation curbing greenhouse gas emissions on future power plants — a precursor to Mr. Obama’s announcement in June. (The environmental group had joined with others to sue the E.P.A. to force the regulation, and the E.P.A. quickly settled.)

On Dec. 23, 2010, the day the settlement was announced, Mr. Doniger emailed Ms. McCarthy, “Thank you for today’s announcement. I know how hard you and your team are working to move us forward and keep us on the rails. This announcement is a major achievement.” He added, “We’ll be with you at every step in the year ahead.”

Ms. McCarthy responded, “Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience. Enjoy the holiday. The success is yours as much as mine.”

Reacting to the email exchange, Mr. Vitter said in a statement: “Who is working for whom? The key example in all of this is the settlement agreement on greenhouse gases when the N.R.D.C. sued the E.P.A., the E.P.A. settled, and the two celebrate the agreement. It doesn’t get any more blatantly obvious than that.”

Explosive! "Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience." Truly a smoking gun of improper influence. They used first names and everything!

Issa must really be getting desperate. I mean, normally I understand the supposed malfeasance in his investigations. I may think his charges are foolish, but at least I get it. But this time? Even in theory, what's supposed to be wrong here? An environmental group expressing pleasure at a court ruling? The EPA administrator sending back a polite note? Everybody knew all along that both sides wanted the same thing, so this is hardly a surprise. And certainly light years from scandalous.

Issa must be going off his nut because his investigations keep failing to excite anyone. Or maybe this is just designed to provide some fodder for fundraising emails for the upcoming election. It's hard to figure out what else could be going on.

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Republicans Are Far More Critical of American Schools Than Democrats

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 2:23 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Libby Nelson interviews Jack Schneider, an education professor at College of the Holy Cross, about why Americans think schools are in decline despite the evidence that they're actually better than they used to be. Here's Schneider:

The first reason that people think schools are in decline is because they hear it all the time. If you hear something often enough, it becomes received wisdom, even if you can't identify the source. That rhetoric is coming from a policy machine where savvy policy leaders have figured out that the way that you get momentum is to scare the hell out of people. So reformers have gotten really good at this sky is falling rhetoric....The rhetoric there is the schools are in crisis, we are competing against nations that are going to somehow destroy us if our test scores aren't high enough, and lo and behold, policymakers have a solution.

Schneider points to a couple of pieces of evidence to back up his contention that schools today are better than in the past. The first is NAEP test scores, which have been generally rising, not falling, over the past few decades. The second is the well-known fact that people tend to think their own neighborhood schools are fine but that schools nationally are terrible. A Gallup/PDK poll confirms this perception gap.

But here's an interesting thing. Although it's true that this gap in perceptions is widespread, it's far more widespread among Republicans than Democrats. Take a look at the chart on the right, constructed from the poll numbers. When it comes to rating local schools, there's barely any difference between Democrats and Republicans. Only a small number give their local schools a poor grade. But nationally it's a whole different story. Republicans are far more likely to rate schools as disaster areas nationally.

I'm reluctant to draw too many conclusions about this without giving it some serious thought. Still, there's at least one thing we can say. This difference doesn't seem to arise from different personal perceptions of education. Both groups have similar perceptions of their own schools.1 So why are Republicans so much more likely to think that other schools are terrible? If it doesn't come from personal experience, then the most likely culprit is the media, which suggests that conservative media does far more scaremongering about education than liberal or mainstream media. That's pretty unsettling given the fact that, as near as I can tell, the mainstream media is almost unrelentingly hostile toward education.

But the truth is that I don't watch enough Fox or listen to enough Limbaugh to really know how they treat education. Is this where the partisan divide comes from? Or is it from the Christian Right newsletter circuit? Or the home school lobby? Or what?

In any case, there's more interesting stuff at the link, and Neerav Kingsland has a response here, including the basic NAEP data that shows steadily positive trends in American education since 1971.

1Or so it seems. One other possibility is that far more Republicans than Democrats send their kids to private schools. They rate these schools highly when Gallup asks, but rate other schools poorly because those are the schools they pulled their kids out of. A more detailed dive into the poll numbers might shed some light on this.

Election Rule #34: Process Gaffes Matter. Policy Gaffes Don't.

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

Last year, it was conventional wisdom that Republicans had a very good shot at gaining control of the Senate in this year's midterm election. But then GOP candidates started to falter a bit in Kansas, South Dakota, and other swing states. Charles Pierce comments on how this has played out with Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado:

The meme looked a little weak and faltering. It was time to make it strong again. And then we saw one of those remarkable moments in which the keepers of Our National Dialogue moved to shore up their own endangered credibility, thereby reviving the meme. Instead of being a demonstration that Joni Ernst's entire previous political career was built on fringe bushwah, her ability to "distance" herself from these positions was presented as a demonstration of how politically deft she is. Out in Colorado, Cory Gardner, who has spent every second of his time in politics as a proud anti-choice loon, is now ahead of incumbent Mark Udall at least in part because of the credit Gardner has accrued for shrewdly "softening" his long history of extremism. That this might be naked opportunism seems lost in the narrative somewhere. I don't think it's entirely out of line to believe that a lot of people in my business need the Senate to change hands in November to vindicate how smart they were in February.

Maybe. Or it might just be the usual preoccupation that political reporters have with process over substance. For example, Steve Benen notes today that Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes recently dodged "a straightforward question about whom she voted for in the 2012 presidential election" and got hammered for it. But in Iowa, when Ernst refused to say if she wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency or what she'd do for those who’d lose health care coverage if Obamacare is repealed, the reaction was mostly crickets.

The difference is that Grimes was clumsy over her handling of a process issue: her support for a president of her own party. Reporters feel free to go after that. Ernst, by contrast, was crafty over her handling of policy issues: in this case, environmental policy and health care policy. Likewise, Gardner is being crafty about his handling of abortion and contraceptive policy. That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don't want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy—or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate's policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

There are exceptions to this rule if a candidate says something truly loony. But the bar is pretty high for that. Generally speaking, policy views are out of bounds for political reporters, regardless of whether they've changed or whether they're transparently absurd. Ernst knows that. Grimes apparently didn't.

There's No Ebola Vaccine Yet Because We Cut the NIH Budget Ten Years Ago

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

As we all know, the federal budget is bloated and wasteful. It needs to be cut across the board. Right?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has "slowed down" research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'" Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

Collins obviously has some skin in this game, but he's probably right. What's more, even without a vaccine we'd probably be better prepared to react to the Ebola outbreak if we hadn't spent the past decade steadily slashing funding for public health emergencies. The chart on the right, from Scientific American, tells the story.

There are consequences for budget cuts. Right now we're living through one of them.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Catblogging has become harder recently. There's no shortage of cuteness, obviously, but getting good pictures of the cuteness is tricky. The problem is simple: 55-year-old human reflexes combined with cheap-camera shutter lag are simply no match for 10-month-old kitten reflexes. This produces lots of pictures like the one on the right. You'll just have to take my word for it, but that's Hopper carrying around one of her stuffed mice. I've muted all the chirping sounds from my camera, which reliably caused them to turn their heads just as the autofocus finally whirred to its proper setting, but even so I have hundreds of photos like this one.

Still, they slow down once in a while, so catblogging isn't completely lost. On the left, Hopper is behind the drapes trying to chase down an errant bug. On the right, Hilbert is majestically surveying his space.

Americans Hold Wide Range of Opinions on Various Subjects

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

Ashley Parker apparently drew the short straw at the New York Times and got assigned to write that hoariest of old chestnuts: a trip through the heartland of America to check the pulse of the public.

So how's the public feeling these days? Here's Heather Lopez, a church worker in Terre Haute, Indiana:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”

Roger that. You will be unsurprised to learn later that Ms. Lopez "said she got much of her information from Fox News." Where else would she? We're in the heartland, folks! And not by coincidence. Parker's trip was deliberately designed to take her nowhere else. Because, as we all know, real people can be found only in small towns and cities in middle America.

Not that it matters. Also unsurprisingly, Parker ran into people with a wide range of opinions. It turns out that America contains lots of people and they think lots of different stuff. It's remarkable.

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Was Obama Naive?

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has finally come around to a fair assessment of Barack Obama's term in office: not perfect, by any means, and he probably could have accomplished more with better tactics and a better understanding of his opponents. Still and all, he accomplished a lot. By any reasonable standard, he's been a pretty successful liberal president.

Ezra Klein says this is because he abandoned one of the key goals of his presidency:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition.

....Obama spent his first two years keeping many of his policy promises by sacrificing his central political promise. That wasn't how it felt to the administration at the time. They thought that success would build momentum; that change would beget change. Obama talked of the "muscle memory" congress would rediscover as it passed big bills; he hoped that achievements would replenish his political capital rather than drain it.

In this, the Obama administration was wrong, and perhaps naive.

This is, to me, one of the most interesting questions about the Obama presidency: was he ever serious about building a bipartisan consensus? Did he really think he could pass liberal legislation with some level of Republican cooperation? Or was this little more than routine campaign trail bushwa?

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.

(Reagan is the exception. Perhaps that's why he's still so revered by conservatives despite the fact that his actual conduct in office was considerably more pragmatic than his rhetoric.)

So when candidates say this, do they really believe it? Or does it belong in the same category as promises that you'll restore American greatness and supercharge the economy for the middle class? In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

Clearly, then, Obama was wrong about the prospects for bipartisanship. But was he naive? I'd say he's guilty of a bit of that, but the truth is that he really did end up facing a hornet's nest of unprecedented proportions. This might have taken any new president by surprise.

Germany Continues to Demand a European "Austerity Suicide Pact"

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:25 AM EDT

Matt O'Brien is gobsmacked that Germany continues to promote the virtues of austerity even as Europe edges ever closer to a triple-dip recession:

Germany should stop obsessing about its short-term deficit, and start spending more on roads and bridges and schools instead. Markets are all but begging it to....But out of some misplaced sense of fiscal self-righteousness, Germany would rather let its critical infrastructure fall into disrepair than take this free money.

....But Germany is stubbornly sticking with spending cuts instead, and it's making the rest of Europe do the same.

It's an austerity suicide pact, and Germany doesn't even want the ECB to cushion the blow. It turns out, though, that forcing your customers into a worse depression than the 1930s isn't good for you, either. It's left Germany, which despite its image as an economic powerhouse has only grown 1.1 percent a year the past decade, teetering on the edge of its own slump — with Russian sanctions maybe enough to push it over.

It really is stunning to watch this play out. Germany is playing the same role that Republicans played in the US in the aftermath of the Great Recession, except that Europe's economy is in worse shape than ours was and Germany's enforced austerity is worse than anything even the tea party was able to achieve. The evidence is overwhelming that this conduct is hurting Germany itself as well as the rest of Europe, but there's simply no budging them. What are they thinking?

We Have a Saudi Arabia Problem, Not an Islam Problem

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 10:55 AM EDT

Fareed Zakaria steps into the brawl touched off by Bill Maher and Sam Harris last week about whether Islam is inherently violent and reactionary:

Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?

I'd put this differently. I don't think the world has a Muslim problem. It has a Saudi Arabia problem. The closer a country is to the warped influence of Saudi Arabia, the more violent and illiberal it is. Go west to Tunisia and Morocco and Islam becomes more moderate. Go north to Turkey and it becomes more moderate. Go east to India and Indonesia and it becomes more moderate.

Obviously this is hardly a perfect correlation. If you want to find exceptions, you can. But generally speaking, Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Islam's problems, a country that stands for virtually everything that the liberal West condemns. It is almost feudally anti-democratic. It is corrupt. It is theocratic. It treats women and gays horribly. Its legal system is barbarous. It is intolerant of any religion other than its own fundamentalist strain of Wahabi Islam. It is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and the rest came from nearby countries. Saudi Arabia is a country that, by rights, should be shunned by every government on the planet.

But they're not. For historical reasons, we've instead forged a longtime alliance with the princes of Riyadh. The world is paying a high price for this.

Here's Why Kobani Probably Isn't Going to Be Saved

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:48 AM EDT

Writing about Kobani and ISIS this morning, I casually mentioned that "If you want quick results against ISIS, then speak up and tell us you want to send in 100,000 troops." I got a bit of pushback on this from people suggesting that it wouldn't take anywhere near that number of troops to take out ISIS and save a small town.

Actually, I was lowballing. For starters, here's a map showing Kobani's predicament:

Kobani is the tiny yellow patch of Kurdish territory at the top of the map. It's deep inside Syria, surrounded almost entirely by territory controlled by ISIS. The only country with the capability of getting in ground troops is Turkey, and they're refusing to do anything. Why? Because Kobani is home to Kurdish separatists, and Turkey has no intention of saving their bacon.

In a nutshell, this is America's problem: we have no trustworthy allies in the region who truly care about ISIS. The Turks care about keeping Kurdish separatists under control and securing their border with Syria. The Arabian Gulf countries care about Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian patrons. The Iraqis care about maintaining Shiite dominance over their Sunni minority. They're all willing to play along in the US war against ISIS, but it's not really a high priority for any of them. As Fred Kaplan puts it, "ISIS gains much of its strength from the fact that the countries arrayed against it—which, together, could win in short order—can't get their act together; they have too many conflicting interests tearing them apart." What's more, those conflicting interests are deep and longstanding. These countries will humor us to varying extents since they'd just as soon stay on our good side, but the bottom line is that helping America fight its latest shiny-toy war just isn't something they really care about. They have their own fish to fry.

Given all that, you should ask yourself this: What would it take to rescue a small city that's hundreds of miles behind enemy lines with no allies to help you out? Answer: A hundred thousand troops would be a good start, but there's no guarantee that even that would be enough.

So was it "tone deaf" for John Kerry and others to talk about how Kobani wasn't strategically important to us? Maybe so. The problem is that the real-life adult answer would have acknowledged that (a) we don't have the capability to save Kobani, and (b) our NATO ally Turkey has chosen not to save Kobani. Neither of these is something that the American public is really prepared to digest.