Kevin Drum

Republicans Maybe Not as Inept as We Think

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 12:49 PM EDT

Paul Waldman thinks Republicans have become a bunch of bumblers and idiots:

Think about it this way: Has there been a single instance in the last few years when you said, "Wow, the Republicans really played that one brilliantly"?

In fact, before you'll find evidence of the ruthless Republican skillfulness so many of us had come to accept as the norm in a previous era, you'll need to go back an entire decade to the 2004 election. George W. Bush's second term was a disaster, Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006, they lost the White House in 2008, they decided to oppose health-care reform with everything they had and lost, they lost the 2012 election—and around it all they worked as hard as they could to alienate the fastest growing minority group in the country and make themselves seem utterly unfit to govern.

In fact, in the last ten years they've only had one major victory, the 2010 midterm election.

Hmmm. It's true that the GOP has had a rough decade in a lot of ways. The number of self-IDed Republicans has plummeted since 2004; their standing among the fast-growing Hispanic population has cratered; and their intellectual core is now centered in a wing of the party that believes we should return to the gold standard. This isn't a promising starting point for a conservative renaissance.

Still, let's not kid ourselves. If Republicans were really as woefully inept as Waldman says, then Democrats should be kicking some serious ass these days. I haven't especially noticed this. They won in the sixth year of Bush's presidency, when out parties always win, and then won in 2008, when an economic collapse pretty much guaranteed a victory for anyone with a D after their name. Then they had a single fairly good year—followed by an epic blunder that lost them a sure seat in Massachusetts, and with it control of the Senate. They got crushed in 2010. They won a squeaker in 2012 against an opponent who made a wedding cake figurine look good by comparison. For the last four years, they've basically gotten nothing done at all.

And what about those Republicans? Well, they have a hammerlock on the House, and they might very well control the Senate after the 2014 election. They've won several notable Supreme Court victories (Heller, Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, etc.). They control a large majority of the states, and have passed a ton of conservative legislation in areas like voter ID and abortion restrictions. Their "Just Say No" strategy toward President Obama has tied Democrats in knots. They won an all but total victory on spending and deficits.

Nor is it really true that today's GOP is notably more bumbling than it used to be. The myth of "ruthless Republican skillfulness" in the past is just that: a myth. George H.W. Bush screwed up on Supreme Court picks and tax hikes. Newt Gingrich—ahem—sure didn't turn out to be the world historical strategic genius everyone thought he was in 1994. George W. Bush—with the eager backing of every Republican in the country—figured that a war in Iraq would be just the ticket to party dominance for a decade. Ditto for Social Security reform. Republicans were just sure that would be a winner. By contrast, their simpleminded Obama-era strategy of obstructing Democrats at all times and on all things has actually worked out pretty well for them given the hand they were dealt.

Make no mistake: It's not as if Republicans have been strategic geniuses. There's no question that they have some long-term issues that they're unable to address thanks to their capitulation to tea party madness. But if they're really so inept, how is it that in the past 15 years Democrats haven't managed to cobble together anything more than about 18 months of modest success between 2009-10?

I dunno. Republicans keep getting crazier and crazier and more and more conservative, and liberals keep thinking that this time they've finally gone too far. I've thought this from time to time myself. And yet, moving steadily to the right has paid off pretty well for them over the past three decades, hasn't it?

Maybe it will all come to tears in the near future as the lunatic wing of the party becomes even more lunatic, but we liberals have been thinking this for a long time. We haven't been right yet.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Gruber: "It Was Just a Mistake"

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Why did Jonathan Gruber tell an audience in 2012 that states which failed to set up Obamacare exchanges would be depriving their residents of federal subsidies? Jonathan Cohn caught up with Gruber this morning and got an answer:

I honestly don’t remember why I said that. I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake.

....There are few people who worked as closely with Obama administration and Congress as I did, and at no point was it ever even implied that there’d be differential tax credits based on whether the states set up their own exchange. And that was the basis of all the modeling I did, and that was the basis of any sensible analysis of this law that’s been done by any expert, left and right.

I didn’t assume every state would set up its own exchanges but I assumed that subsidies would be available in every state. It was never contemplated by anybody who modeled or worked on this law that availability of subsides would be conditional of who ran the exchanges.

So there you have it: Gruber screwed up. More importantly, as he points out, he's performed immense amounts of technical modeling of Obamacare, and all of his models assumed that everyone would get subsidies even though not every state would set up its own exchange. As Cohn says, this was pretty much the unanimous belief of everyone involved:

As I’ve written before, I had literally hundreds of conversations with the people writing health care legislation in 2009 and 2010, including quite a few with Gruber. Like other journalists who were following the process closely, I never heard any of them suggest subsidies would not be available in states where officials decided not to operate their own marketplaces—a big deal that, surely, would have come up in conversation.

Kudos to Peter Suderman and his sleuths for uncovering this and getting everyone to talk about it for a day. It's a news cycle win for conservatives. But restricting subsidies to state exchanges just flatly wasn't part of Congress's intent. There's simply no way to rewrite history to make it seem like it was.

57 Percent of Republicans Want to Impeach Obama

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 10:38 AM EDT

This is completely, barking insane:

I don't even know how to react to this stuff anymore. A solid majority of Republicans wants to impeach President Obama for....what? An EPA regulation they don't like? Postponing Obamacare's employer mandate for a year? Not prosecuting some immigrant kids who have been in the country since they were three?

This goes beyond politics as usual. It's nuts. Fox News is now officially in charge of one of America's two major political parties.

Did Congress Actually Intend to Withhold Subsidies From Federal Exchanges?

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 2:24 AM EDT

In the Halbig case, the plaintiffs argued that the provision in Obamacare limiting subsidies to people enrolled through state exchanges was no typo. In fact, they claimed, Congress intended to limit subsidies to state exchanges as an incentive for states to set up their own exchanges instead of relying on the federal government. The problem with this theory is that literally nobody who was involved with the legislation or who covered it during its passage remembers anything of the sort, and the rest of the bill pretty clearly assumes that everyone gets subsidies regardless of whether they're enrolled via a state exchange or the federal exchange.

Today, however, Peter Suderman presents some evidence that this was indeed Congress's intent. It's not evidence from 2009-10, when the bill was being debated. Nor is it from anyone involved in Congress. It's from Obamacare expert Jonathan Gruber speaking to an industry group in January 2012:

What’s important to remember politically about this is if you're a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits—but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country.

I don't really know what to make of this. It's a very odd mistake for Gruber to make, because in January 2012 the IRS had already issued a preliminary ruling on this exact question and had already held a public hearing asking for comments. Gruber surely knew this, and therefore knew that (a) the final ruling hadn't been issued yet, but (b) the IRS had already signaled that it intended to rule that subsidies were allowed on federal exchanges. Maybe he misremembered the IRS's preliminary ruling, or maybe he was just mixing this up with something else. Who knows? Perhaps Gruber will tell us on Friday.

In any case, I doubt this changes anything too much. Although Gruber was a consultant on the law and intimately familiar with its details, he was neither a legislator nor a congressional staffer. The fact that he bollixed an audience question two years after the law's passage doesn't mean much. It's a nice gotcha moment, but probably not much else.

Power Outage Blogging

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 1:02 AM EDT

Hey, I'm back! It turned out that today was the day for our annual neighborhood power outage, and at first I thought I was sitting pretty. I've got a Windows tablet, which means it's compatible with MoJo's blogging software. I've got my Bluetooth keyboard. And my phone will act as a WiFi hotspot, so I can connect to the net. Who needs electricity?

Well, apparently this year's blackout was so extensive that it took out the local T-Mobile cell tower. So that was that. No internet connection. I thought I had this thing wired, but apparently not.

Anyway, at the time my computer died I think I was writing a brilliant post about Republicans and abortion, but I no longer remember just what brilliant point I was going to make. It probably amounted to an assertion that they've always been against it and nothing has really changed. Maybe I'll remember tomorrow.

In the meantime, what happened this afternoon? Anything I need to get on top of?

Help Us Solve the Rotisserie Chicken Mystery

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 2:18 PM EDT

Megan McArdle alerts me today to a story from a local TV station that answers a question I've vaguely wondered about for a while: Why is it cheaper to buy a cooked and seasoned rotisserie chicken than a raw chicken? Cat Vesko provides the straight dope:

Right now, an uncooked chicken at Ralphs runs you $9.87, but a rotisserie chicken is $6.99; at Gelson's, you'll pay $8.99 for a cooked chicken or $12.67 for the raw version; and at that beloved emporium of insanity Whole Foods, a rotisserie chicken is $8.99, while a whole chicken from the butcher counter is $12.79 ... per pound.

....In most cases, preparing meals from scratch is significantly cheaper than buying them pre-made. What makes rotisserie chickens the exception? The answer lies in the curious economics of the full-service supermarket....Much like hunters who strive to use every part of the animal, grocery stores attempt to sell every modicum of fresh food they stock. Produce past its prime is chopped up for the salad bar; meat that's overdue for sale is cooked up and sold hot. Some mega-grocers like Costco have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs, but employees report that standard supermarkets routinely pop unsold chickens from the butcher into the ol' rotisserie oven.

This is a curiously roundabout explanation, but it boils down to this: whole chickens that are about to reach their sell-by date—and be thrown out—are instead taken to the deli to be cooked up. The grocery store doesn't make as much money as it would selling the chicken fresh, but it makes more money than it would by throwing it out.

I guess this makes sense. Except for one thing: the number of rotisserie chickens in your average supermarket is huge. As near as I can tell, the number being roasted in any single hour is greater than the total number of raw whole chickens in the entire poultry section. In other words, there's just no way that supermarkets toss out (or come close to tossing out) enough whole raw chickens to account for the vast pile of rotisserie chickens on offer. An awful lot of these chickens must have been purchased explicitly for the rotisserie. At least, that's what my informal eyeball estimate tells me.

What's more, the availability of all those cheap rotisserie chickens is a conspicuous incentive to stop buying whole raw chickens in the first place, and supermarkets obviously know this. This is one of the reasons most supermarkets stock so few whole chickens these days.1 So selling rotisserie chickens cheaply is just cutting their own throats. Why would they do that and lose money on the chicken?

So there must be something else going on. I'm not sure what, but I suspect there's more to the story than just using up chickens that are approaching their sell-by date. Do I have any readers who work in supermarkets and can enlighten us?

1Not the only reason, or even the main reason, of course. The main reason is that most of us just don't want to bother cooking a whole chicken these days.

UPDATE: The most popular guess in comments is that rotisserie chickens are a loss leader. Sure, you lose a dollar or two on each one, but you make up for it with the cole slaw and 2-liter sodas and so forth that everyone buys to go with them.

This is the most obvious explanation, and I'm totally willing to buy it. I just want to know if it's true. Not a guess, but a confirmation from someone who actually knows if this is what's going on. Anyone?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Question About Botched Executions

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

I'm reluctant to ask a question that may strike some people as too cavalier for a subject that deserves only serious treatment. But after yesterday's botched execution in Arizona—the latest of several—I continue to wonder: why is it so damn hard to execute people?

For starters, there are plenty of time-tested approaches: guillotines, firing squads, hanging, electrocution, gas chambers, etc. Did those really fall out of favor because people found them too grisly? Personally, I find the sterile, Mengele-like method of lethal injection considerably more disturbing than any of the others. And anyway, if you're bound and determined to kill people, maybe you ought to face up to a little bit of grisly.

Beyond that, is it really so hard to find a lethal injection that works? Obviously I'm not a doctor, but I do know that there are plenty of meds that will very reliably knock you unconscious. And once you've done that, surely there are plenty of poisons to choose from? Or even asphyxiation: place a helium mask over the unconscious prisoner and he'll be painlessly dead in about ten minutes or less.

Can anyone point me to a readable but fairly comprehensive history of executions over the past few decades? When and why did lethal injection become the method of choice? Why does there seem to be only one particular cocktail that works effectively? Lots of people have asked the same questions I'm asking, but nothing I've ever read really seems to explain it adequately.

Quote of the Day: John Boehner Invites Obama to Ignore Congress on Immigration

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 11:49 AM EDT

From House Speaker John Boehner, who is currently beavering away on a plan to sue President Obama for dealing with too many problems on his own:

We’ve got a humanitarian crisis on the border, and that has to be dealt with. But the president clearly isn’t going to deal with it on his own, even though he has the authority to deal with it on his own.

Man, this begs for a follow-up, doesn't it? What exactly does Obama have the authority to do on his own, Mr. Speaker? What unilateral actions would you like him to take without congressional authorization? Which particular law would you like him to reinterpret? Inquiring minds want to know.

A Quick First Look at Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

Paul Ryan is out today with his anti-poverty proposal, and my first reaction after a quick skim is that I'm surprised at how limited it is. Maybe that's fine. There's no law that says every white paper has to offer a comprehensive solution to every federal program ever invented. In any case, Ryan is offering ideas primarily in three areas:

Experimentation. In a few select states, he wants to consolidate a number of federal poverty programs and then allow states to use the money to test different approaches to fighting poverty. It would be revenue neutral ("this is not a budget-cutting proposal—this is a reform proposal") and states would have to agree to a rigorous program of testing and research to evaluate how well their plans work.

EITC. Ryan wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. This would be paid for by unspecified cuts in other anti-poverty programs.

Education. This is a bit of a hodgepodge and requires some reading between the lines. Mostly, he seems to want to block grant spending on early childhood programs; increase federal support for K-12 vouchers; "modernize and reform" tuition assistance for colleges; and block grant job training programs.

Ryan also has some ideas about prison reform and loosening occupational licensing standards. I'll try to have more on this later after I've read his paper more thoroughly. Overall, my initial reaction is that I like the idea of more rigorously testing different anti-poverty approaches, but I'm pretty skeptical of Ryan's obvious preference for eventually eliminating most federal anti-poverty programs and simply sending the money to the states as block grants. This is a longtime conservative hobbyhorse, and not because states are models of efficiency. They like it because it restricts spending, especially during recessions when federal entitlement programs automatically increase but block grants don't. That may please the tea party set, but it's bad for poor people and it's bad for the economy, which benefits from countercyclical spending during economic downturns.

This is just a quickie reaction. More later.

For Lower Back Pain, You Can Skip the Tylenol

| Wed Jul. 23, 2014 8:24 PM EDT

Here's the latest from the frontiers of medical research:

About two-thirds of adults have lower back pain at some point in their lives, and most are told to take acetaminophen, sold under brand names like Tylenol, Anacin and Panadol. Medical guidelines around the world recommend acetaminophen as a first-line treatment.

But there has never been much research to support the recommendation, and now a large, rigorous trial has found that acetaminophen works no better than a placebo.

The good folks at Johnson & Johnson will no doubt disagree with extreme prejudice, but I'm not surprised. I suppose different people respond differently, but I've basically never responded other than minimally to Tylenol. It might dull a bit of headache pain slightly, but that's about it. However, there's more:

Dr. Williams said that acetaminophen had been shown to be effective for headache, toothache and pain after surgery, but the mechanism of back pain is different and poorly understood. Doctors should not initially recommend acetaminophen to patients with acute low back pain, he said.

Hey! That's right. I had some mild toothache recently thanks to a filling that involved a fair amount of work beneath the gum line. It acted up whenever I chewed food on that side of my mouth, and I found that Tylenol made it go away within 20 minutes. I was pretty amazed, since Tylenol had never really worked for anything else. But it was great for toothache.

Anyway, everyone is different, and Tylenol might work for you better than it does for me. It might even work for back pain. It doesn't on average, but that doesn't mean it's ineffective for everybody. In the meantime, maybe the medical research profession could hurry up a bit on that business of understanding what lower back pain is all about, OK? It so happens that I could use some answers on that score.