Kevin Drum

Immigration Reform Is Dead Because of Bizarro Obama

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 12:04 PM PST

John Boehner says he really, truly wants to pass an immigration reform bill, but he can only do it if President Obama gives him more help. Steve Benen isn't buying it:

To a very real extent, Obama has already done what he’s supposed to do: he’s helped create an environment conducive to success. The president and his team have cultivated public demand for immigration reform and helped assemble a broad coalition – business leaders, labor, immigrant advocates, the faith community — to work towards a common goal.

But that’s apparently not what Boehner is talking about. Rather, according to the Speaker, immigration reform can’t pass because House Republicans don’t trust the president to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.

What’s Obama supposed to do about this? “I told the president I’ll leave that to him,” Boehner told the Enquirer.

I think that translates as "nothing is going to happen." Boehner's excuse, however, isn't that tea party Republicans are obsessed about amnesty and fences and reconquista and all that. His excuse is that Obama has been so brazenly lawless that Republicans simply can't trust him to enforce whatever law they pass. This is all part of the surreal "Obama the tyrant" schtick that's swamped the Republican Party lately. Every executive order, every new agency interpretation of a rule, every Justice Department or IRS memo—they're all evidence that Obama is turning America into a New World gulag. Never mind that these are all routine things that every president engages in. Never mind that they just as routinely get resolved in court and Obama will win some and lose some. Never mind any of that. Obama is an Alinskyite despot who is slowly but steadily sweeping away the last vestiges of democracy in this once great nation.

Barack Obama! A president whose biggest problem is probably just the opposite: he's never managed to get comfortable throwing his weight around to get what he wants. He's too dedicated to rational discourse and the grand bargain. He hires guys who want to nudge, not mandate. He wants to persuade, not coerce. That's our modern-day Robespierre.

Strange times, no?

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Chart of the Day: Why US Economic Sanctions on Russia Won't Have Much Impact

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 10:48 AM PST

My view of economic sanctions has been strongly influenced by Dan Drezner, who tells us (if I can oversimplify for the sake of a blog post) that they basically don't work. That's not an ironclad rule, and there are certain situations where they tend to have some effect. However, one of the primary conditions for success is that the sanctions be broadly applied. If it's just one country, they almost never work. The target of the sanctions will simply bear the loss and increase its trade with other partners.

This is especially apropos to our current situation with Russia. Our ability to impose sanctions is limited to begin with thanks to our obligations under the WTO. But that hardly even matters. What really matters is that our trade with Russia is minuscule. Cutting off a piece of our trade would hardly impact them at all. Most of Russia's trade is with Europe and Asia, so no sanctions regime has even a chance of working unless they agree to join in. So far they haven't, and for the obvious reason: they have a lot of trade with Russia. Sanctions would hurt them as much as it would hurt Putin.

The chart below, via Danny Vinik, tells the tale. We simply don't have much trade leverage with Russia. (The export chart looks pretty much the same.) Until Drezner weighs in on this to tell me different, I'd say this is the definitive answer to the question of whether economic sanctions are likely to have any effect on Russia's conduct.

Please Don't Confuse Me With Facts, Vaccine Edition

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 9:56 AM PST

A couple of days ago I watched Othello for the first time.1 By chance, I had never seen or read it before. But good ol' Shakespeare sure had us humans figured out, didn't he? Here is Emilia, responding to Desdemona's plea that she had never given Othello cause to doubt her fidelity:

But jealous souls will not be answer'd so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.

Why do I mention this? Because of Aaron Carroll's tidy little summary of some Brendan Nyhan research on how to persuade people that the MMR vaccine is safe:

When they gave evidence that vaccines aren’t linked to autism, that actually made parents who were already skittish about vaccines less likely to get their child one in the future. When they showed images of sick children to parents it increased their belief that vaccines caused autism. When they told a dramatic story about an infant in danger because he wasn’t immunized, it increased parents’ beliefs that vaccines had serious side effects.

Basically, it was all depressing. Nothing was effective.

So that's that. They believe not for cause, but believe just to believe. 'Tis a monster begot on itself, born on itself. Of course, it's possible that Nyhan simply didn't find the right intervention. Or that an intervention from a researcher has no effect, but the same intervention from a family doctor might. Still, Carroll is right: it's all kind of discouraging. It's nothing new, but still discouraging.

1It was the 1965 movie version with Laurence Olivier in blackface. Kind of disconcerting. But Frank Finlay was great as Iago.

UPDATE: More here from Dan Kahan, including a reminder that (a) vaccination rates in the US actually haven't declined over the past decade and (b) freaking out about a nonexistent problem is genuinely unhelpful. Also this:

The NR et al. study is superbly well done and very important. But the lesson it teaches is not that it is “futile” to try to communicate with concerned parents. It’s that it is a bad idea to flood public discourse in a blunderbuss fashion with communications that state or imply that there is a “growing crisis of confidence” in vaccines that is “eroding” immunization rates.

It’s a good idea instead to use valid empirical means to formulate targeted and effective vaccine-safety communication strategies.

Much more at the link.

Putin Lets It All Hang Out at Press Conference

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 9:06 AM PST

Julia Ioffe says Angela Merkel was right: Vladimir Putin has lost his marbles. Here is her reaction to his televised press conference earlier today:

Slouching in a fancy chair in front of a dozen reporters, Putin squirmed and rambled. And rambled and rambled. He was a rainbow of emotion: serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still the acting president of Ukraine, but he can't talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president. Ukraine needs elections, but you can't have elections because there is already a president. And no elections will be valid given that there is terrorism in the streets of Ukraine. And how are you going to let just anyone run for president? What if some nationalist punk just pops out like a jack-in-the-box? An anti-Semite?

....The American political technologists they did their work well. And this isn't the first time they've done this in Ukraine, no. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these people...these people in America. They are sitting there, in their laboratory, and doing experiments, like on rats. You're not listening to me. I've already said, that yesterday, I met with three colleagues. Colleagues, you're not listening. It's not that Yanukovich said he's not going to sign the agreement with Europe. What he said was that, based on the content of the agreement, having examined it, he did not like it. We have problems. We have a lot of problems in Russia. But they're not as bad as in Ukraine. The Secretary of State. Well. The Secretary of State is not the ultimate authority, is he?

And so on, for about an hour. And much of that, by the way, is direct quotes.

Other sources aren't quite as scornful as Ioffe, but they're close. The Guardian described Putin's remarks as "impromptu and occasionally rambling." The New York Times said he was "clearly furious." Adam Taylor of the Washington Post called it "a series of half-truths, circular reasoning, and bravado."

In any case, the main actual news of the press conference is that Putin said he saw no need to send forces into eastern Ukraine "yet," but reserves the right to do so in the future. So that's the latest.

Obama's Response to Russia Begins to Unfold

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 10:51 PM PST

As near as I can tell, every single Ukraine hawk agrees that we shouldn't even think about a direct military response to Putin's incursion into Crimea. Every single one. Instead they want a diplomatic response: economic sanctions, aid to Ukraine, asset freezes, visa restr—

Oh wait. What's this?

The United States prepared Monday to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials involved in the military occupation of Crimea, as the escalating crisis in Ukraine prompted turmoil in global markets, pounding the Russian ruble and driving up energy prices....If Moscow does not reverse course, officials said they would ban visas and freeze assets of select Russian officials in the chain of command as well as target state-run financial institutions.

Hey, it looks like the weakling-in-chief is doing exactly what the hawks have been clamoring for him to do. But how about those economic sanctions?

U.S. sanctions would mean little to Moscow as U.S. trade accounts for less than 2% of the Russian economy. “Our levers of influence here are particularly limited here,” says a House Democratic aide. “The administration is working on lining up support in Europe. But that’s the big question: how proactive, how robust are they willing to be.”

And, um, how do the Europeans feel about this?

German officials emphasized the need for diplomacy, while Dutch diplomats ruled out sanctions for now. A British document photographed by a journalist said the government of Prime Minister David Cameron would not support trade sanctions or block Russian money from the British market....“It’s particularly important for the United States to bring Europe along,” said Julianne Smith, a former national security aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “To the extent that the United States tries to put economic pressure on Russian industry, they won’t feel the impact as much as they would if we had Europe standing with us. That’s easier said than done.”

Look: it's obvious that none of this stuff can be done overnight. So maybe the peanut gallery on the right should hold off on the sophomoric name calling for another day or two. Obama is already working on the unilateral actions that are open to him, and other, broader sanctions simply won't have any serious effect unless and until the Europeans go along. No president can make that happen with a snap of his fingers.

Right now, the catcalls from the right are little more than transparent political opportunism. Obama's "weakness" didn't provoke Putin's military incursion into Crimea. If anything, it was provoked by Putin's feeling that the West was gaining influence in Ukraine and he was losing it. Nor is Obama refusing to respond decisively. He is refusing to give in to hysteria, but he plainly intends to make Putin pay a price for his adventurism. The fact that this can't be done instantly is just a feature of the world, not a sign of fecklessness on Obama's part. It's time for everyone to stand down a bit and see how he plays his hand.

UPDATE: Turns out that Michael Cohen already said all this and more here. It's worth a read.

What's the Endgame for Israel?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 7:49 PM PST

Jeffrey Goldberg interviews President Obama about the future prospects for Israel if it continues to refuse to negotiate seriously about the creation of a Palestinian state:

OBAMA: I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario....Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?

GOLDBERG: You sound worried.

OBAMA: Well, I am being honest that nobody has provided me with a clear picture of how this works in the absence of a peace deal....When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?....And so if I’m thinking about the prime minister of Israel, I’m not somebody who believes that it’s just a matter of changing your mind and suddenly everything goes smoothly. But I believe that Bibi is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it. If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.

This has long been my view as well. I'm not naive about the difficulties of negotiating with the Palestinians, but even if you're much more hawkish than I am, my question has always been: what's the endgame? If Israel continues to pursue a hawkish path, what happens? Is a permanent occupation of the West Bank the goal? Is any other outcome even possible? And is that really credible? Is it good for Israel? Will the rest of the world tolerate it forever?

Maybe in their hearts, the uber-hawks have simply accepted this as the best of a bad bunch of options. The West Bank will remain an occupied colony forever; it will be a drain on Israel, but not an unsustainable one; and the rest of the world will complain but, ultimately, do nothing. That doesn't sound like a stable solution to me, but Israelis have tolerated it for nearly half a century now, so maybe they've decided it can last forever. I just don't know.

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The Best Oscar of Last Night Was the Screenplay Award for "Her"

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 12:29 PM PST

Today presents a blogging problem: The news cycle is devoted almost entirely to events in Ukraine—as it should be—and I've already probably said more about this than I should. I don't have any special expertise in the area, and I really hate the phenomenon of instant expertise that takes hold of pundits everywhere whenever something like this happens. I'm keenly aware of all the big underlying issues—Russia's long cultural ties to Ukraine; the eastward spread of NATO and the EU; anti-Russian sentiment in Kiev; the weakness of Russia's military; Putin's one-note thuggishness; Ukraine's endemic corruption and its internal fights over who gets to profit from the Russian gas trade; etc. etc.—and also keenly aware that a bare knowledge of all this stuff doesn't really make me worth reading on the subject. For what it's worth, I've already made a prediction that Putin will stop at Crimea because (a) the Russian army doesn't have the strength to do much more, and (b) Putin isn't willing to pay the price both in military and diplomatic terms for a broader intervention in eastern Ukraine. But I could be wildly wrong. Who knows?

So then, what should I write about today? I'm not sure, though I imagine that I'll end up writing more about Ukraine despite everything I just said.

In the meantime, how about a nice Oscars thread? No? Oh come on. I'll toss out a provocation to get everyone started: the best award of the night was the Best Original Screenplay win for Her. Not because it was my favorite movie of the year or anything, but because it was the first screenplay in ages that genuinely surprised me. Not in the sense of a last-minute twist that comes out of nowhere—that's common enough—but in the sense of a narrative that shifted directions smoothly and naturally into something much more interesting than I thought it would be. The art of Hollywood screenwriting has deteriorated so badly that this doesn't happen very often anymore. I won't say more in case you haven't seen the movie and still plan to, but feel free to discuss in comments.

Adventures in Factoids: The Great Birthday Gap

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 10:13 AM PST

Joyce Carol Oates tweets:

Stunning data: though 91% of women remember virtually all birthdays of relatives, friends, etc., mere 8% of men remember more than one.

Is this true? Or just too good to check? I have to say I'm skeptical. My memory sucks pretty badly, but even I can remember half a dozen birthdays. So that's a data point against the 8 percent theory. On the other hand, it's true that these are all birthdays of immediate family members. With one exception outside of that—a friend whose birthday is the same as my mother's—I'm pretty clueless. Though, oddly enough, I remember Matt Yglesias's exact birthdate because he turned 10 the day I got married. And Jim Henley shares my birthday, so I remember that. I'm not really sure any of these coincidental dates really count, though.

Still, 8 percent? That just hardly seems likely. I demand Scientific Evidence™.

Is Putin Making a First Move to De-Escalate?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 9:23 AM PST

From the LA Times:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to a German proposal for international observers to review the tense standoff in Ukraine’s Crimea area, a Kremlin news service dispatch indicated Monday.

The proposal for a “contact group” of mediating foreign diplomats and an observer delegation to assess Moscow’s claims that ethnic Russians are threatened with violence under Ukraine’s new leadership was made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a late Sunday phone call to Putin, her spokesman told journalists in Berlin on Monday.

Is this for real, or is it just a stalling tactic? There's no telling, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's at least semi-real, since it could provide a convenient excuse to call a halt to things. And that's something Putin probably wants. I don't know what his long-term plans in Crimea are, but I doubt that he has any appetite for a military incursion into the rest of Ukraine. That's not because he's voluntarily showing a sense of restraint. It's because Russia just doesn't have the military to pull it off. A few thousand troops in South Ossetia or Crimea is one thing, but even a minimal military presence in eastern Ukraine would be orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive. Unless Putin has truly gone around the bend and is willing to risk another Afghanistan or another Chechnya, that's just not in the cards.

A lot of American pundits are pretty cavalier about Russia's military capabilities, assuming they can do anything they want simply because Putin is such a tough guy. But it's just not so. The Russian military might be up to an intervention in eastern Ukraine, but it would take pretty much everything they have. This is not the Red Army of old.

It's also the case that although Putin may put on a brave show, he's well aware that intervention in Ukraine would unite the West against him in no uncertain terms. Those same pundits who are so cavalier about Russian military strength are also far too willing to take Putin's bravado at face value. That's a mistake. He doesn't want Russia cut off from the West, and neither do his oligarch buddies. He may be willing to pay a price for his incursion into Crimea, but he's not willing to keep paying forever. As long as Western pressure continues to ratchet up, at some point he'll start looking for a way out.

Angela Merkel Says Vladimir Putin Is Out to Lunch

| Sun Mar. 2, 2014 11:01 PM PST

The latest on the Ukraine front:

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.

Wonderful. In related news, I think David Ignatius gets things about right here.