Kevin Drum

How Good a Dealmaker Is Donald Trump, Anyway?

| Sun Nov. 22, 2015 1:12 AM EST

Here is Donald Trump on who he listens to regarding economic issues:

Honestly, I feel that I have such a vast feeling for it that I really—you know, Milton Friedman was good—but I don’t really listen to anybody. I just put it in and I have a feeling for, it’s almost common sense, it’s a business instinct.

Translation: Milton Friedman is the only conservative economist he can think of. And he probably wouldn't listen to the guy if he were still alive anyway. Why mess with his killer instincts?

Which raises two questions. First: How good a developer is Donald Trump? Seriously. My sense is that he's about a 5 on a scale of 1-10. He's had some successes, he's had some failures, and he seems to have found a decent—but hardly dazzling—niche in golf resorts. Overall, he started with a lot of money and has since grown his business at roughly the rate of the economy. Not bad, but nothing to crow about.

And second: why is it that we seem to have heard nothing about Trump from other developers? They'd have the best read on how good he really is, after all. If he were truly brilliant, I figure he would have been soliciting testimonials all over the place. I haven't seen any. But if he's a second-rater with a big mouth, I figure we would have heard that too. But I haven't. I haven't really heard anything. Do developers not like to talk smack about each other because they never know where their next deal might come from? Do they just generally shun publicity? Do they genuinely not know much about Trump because he doesn't really do much business these days aside from golf courses, branding deals, and TV shows?

What's the deal here? Trump must have a reputation within the New York developer community. So what is it?

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Yes, Donald Trump Agreed That We Should Have a National Registry of Muslims

| Sat Nov. 21, 2015 1:33 PM EST

I was arguing on Twitter with Mickey Kaus last night about the Trump Muslim registry story, and today he's touting a Byron York piece about how the "Trump database story was built on a foundation of nothing." But that's not fair. The whole thing started when Yahoo's Hunter Walker asked Trump about Syrian refugees. York asked Walker for audio of the interview, which he provided. Here's the relevant excerpt:

WALKER: France declared this state of emergency where they closed the borders and they established some degree of warrantless searches. I know how you feel about the borders, but do you think there is some kind of state of emergency here, and do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?

TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to do things that we never did before. [Blah blah blah] But we have to err on the side of security for our people and our nation.

WALKER: And in terms of doing this, to pull off the kind of tracking we need, do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?

TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely....

When I first read Walker's story, I concluded that he had been on a fishing expedition. I still think that, but this transcript actually softens my objections. The first question is reasonably motivated by the French response to the Paris attacks, and Trump makes it clear that he's willing to go pretty far to deal with the ISIS threat. So Walker takes the bait and goes further. Trump then tap dances and never really addresses the question about registries.

So far, though, the most you can do is criticize Trump for not immediately denouncing the registry proposal. But he's now on notice. Headlines began appearing about this, and it was a big topic of discussion on Thursday. After the Yahoo story hit, Trump could no longer pretend to be taken by surprise if someone asked again about registering Muslims. And sure enough, MSNBC's Vaughn Hillyard did. Here's the transcript:

Hillyard: Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?

Trump: There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems. And today you can do it.

[Some talk about Trump's wall on the Mexican border ensues.]

Trump: We have to stop people from coming in to our country illegally.

Hillyard: But specifically, how do you actually get them registered into a database?

Trump: It would be just good management....

Hillyard: Do you go to mosques and sign these people up?

Trump: Different places. You sign ‘em up at different, but it’s all about management. Our country has no management.

Hillyard: Would they have to legally be in this database, would they be–

Trump: They have to be — they have to be — let me just tell you: People can come to the country, but they have to come legally. Thank you very much.

This is pretty plain. Sure, Trump is at a ropeline and he's distracted. But he knows the registry issue is a live question, and Hillyard is very clear about what he's asking. There's some confusion in the middle about whether Trump is talking about a Muslim registry or a wall on the Mexican border, but there's no confusion at all when Hillyard asks "Do you go to mosques and sign people up?" And York himself agrees:

Trump's offhand decision to tell MSNBC he would implement a database was an enormously stupid thing to do. And by Friday afternoon, Trump tweeted, "I didn't suggest a database -- a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America."

But the damage had been done. In the end, the responsibility is always the candidate's to be on guard for attempts, by journalists or rival campaign operatives, to entice him into saying damaging things.

So was the Muslim registry story built on a foundation of nothing? Sure, in a way. But reporters ask hypothetical questions all the time. This is hardly a startling new technique. What's more, Trump has built his entire campaign on saying things outrageous enough to get lots of media attention. But now he's complaining that a reporter gave him a chance to say something outrageous and it generated a lot of media attention? Give me a break.

As York says, Trump has since backtracked on Twitter: "I didn't suggest a database-a reporter did." True enough. But Trump pretty obviously agreed. This wasn't a gotcha or a cleverly loaded question. It was obvious what both reporters were talking about. The first time he tap danced. The second time he agreed. Trump is a grown man who's accustomed to dealing with the press. There was nothing unfair about this. He may have backtracked now, but he thought it sounded like a fine idea until the blowback became a little too intense.

How Big a Deal is the SAFE Act?

| Sat Nov. 21, 2015 12:24 PM EST

Dante Atkins on the SAFE Act:

The bill requires the specific signatures of three high-ranking officials to personally approve refugees into the United States, a burden that both Republicans and the White House believe would all but cease the flow of refugees into the United States because it is believed that said officials would be too fearful of the career implications should one of the detainees turn out to become even a mere criminal, much less a terrorist.

I have to say, this bill has me confused. After looking into it, I wrote a post a couple of days ago suggesting that it was mostly symbolic. The vetting process didn't change, it just needed to be documented and "certified" by the White House. Beyond that, some top officials would get half a dozen refugee approvals every day for their autopen to sign. Big deal. The only real effect would be a short pause while the certification was drafted and signed off.

Since then, though, every single story I've read about this bill describes it on a spectrum from "tightening" requirements to virtually shutting down the flow of refugees from Syria entirely. None of them ever provide any details, though. They talk about background checks, but the FBI already does background checks on refugees from Syria and Iraq. They talk about tougher procedures, but there are no new procedures in the bill. The actual vetting process itself is left up to the executive branch.

And yet, the White House is dead set against this bill, which it probably wouldn't be if it was mostly just symbolic. So I remain puzzled. What's the real deal with this bill? Is it really likely that, say, the Director of National Intelligence would simply refuse to ever sign off on a refugee approval? Hell, the DNI already signs off on hundreds of things with more potential for blowback than that.

I dunno. It's all very strange.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:50 PM EST

This has sure been a crappy week, and Hilbert and Hopper agree. As you can see, they decided to flee upstairs to the bedroom and adopt disapproving looks. Those are for Donald Trump. They are hoping that us human types can do more than just glower, so let's get to it.

Charter Schools: Great in Cities, Ho-Hum in Suburbs?

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:15 PM EST

Evaluating charter schools is tricky. Maybe highly motivated parents send their kids to charters and others don't. The solution is to identify schools that are oversubscribed and track students who won and lost the lottery to get in. That way you get a random set of parents on both sides. But maybe charters kick out bad students after they've attended for a year or two. The solution is to tag lottery winners as charter kids forever. They count against the charter's performance regardless of where they end up later. Fine, but maybe oversubscribed charters are different in some way. What about less popular charters where you can't do any of this lottery-based research?

Susan Dynarski, an education professor at the University of Michigan, acknowledges all of this, but says we can draw some conclusions anyway:

A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than other public schools.

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

Interesting. But if this is really the case, why?

Jeb Bush Opposed to Manipulating People's Fears Over Syrian Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Jeb Bush comments on Donald Trump's plan to create a Muslim registry in the United States:

Trump's solutions are "just wrong," Jeb Bush said Friday...."It’s not a question of toughness. It’s manipulating people's angst and their fears. That’s not strength. That’s weakness," Bush said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Good for Bush, though it's a low bar to oppose a national registry for everyone of a specific religion. I don't think Bush will be the only one to choke on that notion. Still, he was clear about his opposition, and clear about why it's wrong.

It's too bad he's taken this long. He could have been a voice for sanity from the start and set himself apart from the crowd. At this point, though, it would just make him look tentative and indecisive. He lost a chance to do the right thing and possibly get a big payoff from it.

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Obamacare's Growing Pains Are About What You'd Expect in a Newly Competitive Market

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Yesterday United Healthcare announced that they would be exiting the Obamacare exchanges after 2016. They were losing too much money and figured it was time to call it quits.

What does this mean? Here are a few bullet points:

  • UH is a relatively small part of Obamacare, accounting for about 5 percent of exchange members.
  • However, its presence is bigger in some states than others.
  • Overall, then, this is only moderately bad news for Obamacare as a program. In some places, however, it's very bad news. And obviously, for the people affected who have to switch plans in 2017, it's a huge pain in the ass.

Beyond this, the news depends on why UH is doing so badly:

  • It could be that UH simply isn't competitive. If that's the case, it's nothing more than the expected result of marketplace competition. If other companies are more efficient or offer better products, you're in trouble.
  • However, it's also possible that UH's exit exposes some fundamental problems with Obamacare. UH claims—without offering any real evidence—that people are signing up when they get sick and then dropping out. This is unsustainable in any insurance market, and if people really have found loopholes that allow this on a large scale, it's bad news for Obamacare. It would be especially bad news since Republicans are rooting for Obamacare to fail and will refuse to allow any changes that might make it work better.

Generally speaking, I think that what we've been seeing recently is a fairly predictable consequence of setting up a competitive market: there's going to be a lot of churn at the beginning, as companies figure out what works best. Some, like UH and the ill-fated co-ops, will drop out. Others will discover they were too optimistic and will raise rates. Others will gain market share at their expense because they're better run or made better actuarial projections. In a few years, this will all settle down and we'll finally have a pretty good idea of just how well Obamacare works and how much it costs.

We could have avoided this kind of thing by creating a simpler, more universal program, but that just wasn't politically possible. Creating a competitive marketplace was the only way to get Obamacare passed. Unfortunately, competition has both pluses and minuses. In theory, it should provide lower prices and better value in the long run. But it might take a while to get there.

More detail is available from John Cohn and Megan McArdle.

Republicans Play "Can You Top This?" Over Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 10:46 AM EST

I think it's been nearly 24 hours since I last looked in on our Republican candidates and their prudent, thoughtful stands on Syrian refugees. So where do we stand?

  • Ben Carson compared Syrian terrorists to rabid dogs, suggesting this means we'd be wise to avoid all dogs.
  • Marco Rubio made some strained analogy to Nazis because.... Nazis.
  • Donald Trump wants to keep a database of Muslims. All Muslims? Only newly arrived Muslims? Who knows.
  • Ted Cruz wants to ban all Syrian refugees except Christians.
  • Jeb Bush thinks that's a great idea too.
  • John Kasich has proposed that we create a Department of Judeo-Christian PR.
  • Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie all want to flatly ban Syrian refugees.

We've seen variations of "Can You Top This?" before, perhaps most notably in 2012 regarding illegal immigration. That's probably no coincidence. But that was before Donald Trump joined the field of presidential wannabes and upped the stakes considerably. Now they've gone from merely odious to actively loathsome.

What's the answer? I think maybe Ben Carson has the right idea. These guys are like rabid dogs, which means it might be wise for us to simply avoid all Republicans. You can't be too careful, after all.

More detail here if you can stomach it.

Here Is Today's Case Study in Right-Wing Media Virtue and Rectitude

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 9:53 PM EST

A friend of mine watches Fox News so I don't have to,1 and he says they've been practically wetting their pants over the story of Hillary Clinton's campaign calling the founder of the Laugh Factory and threatening him if he didn't take down a short video compilation of Hillary jokes.

What's that? This already sounds really unlikely? I guess so. It sure doesn't seem very smart for a highly visible presidential candidate, does it? Still, Judicial Watch says it happened, and Fox and Rush and Sean are all over it too. So I guess it must be true. They wouldn't just make stuff up, would they?

Slate's Michelle Goldberg called Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory, and he says that a few days ago he got a comically threatening phone call from someone named "John." And that's it. John never called back. Masada never told Judicial Watch about the incident. In other words, there's almost literally nothing there.

But apparently some Laugh Factory employee heard about the call, and somehow it went from there to Judicial Watch. Or something like that. Who knows, really? *

Goldberg comments:

What we have here is a small-scale demonstration of how the Hillary smear sausage gets made. It starts with a claim that's ambiguous at best, fabricated at worst, and then interpreted in the most invidious possible light. The claim is reported in one outlet and amplified on Twitter. Other outlets then report on the report, repeating the claim over and over again. Talk radio picks it up. Maybe Fox News follows. Eventually the story achieves a sort of ubiquity in the right-wing media ecosystem, which makes it seem like it's been confirmed. Soon it becomes received truth among conservatives, and sometimes it even crosses into the mainstream media. If you watched the way the Clintons were covered in the 1990s, you know the basics of this process. If you didn't, you're going to spend the next year—and maybe the next nine years—learning all about it.

And there you have it. This is where Mena airport and Vince Foster and Whitewater and the Clinton death list and all the other charming inventions of the Clinton smear squad came from. Seems like only yesterday.

1Not really. Believe it or not, it's part of his job.

*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that Judicial Watch never contacted Masada in the reporting of its story. See update below.

UPDATE, 11/20/15: According to Judicial Watch, Masada told them the call had come from a "prominent" person inside Clinton's campaign, who Masada declined to identify. According to Michelle Goldberg, who followed up afterward: "Masada told me that on Nov. 11, he got a call from a man named John—he doesn't remember the last name—who sounded 'distinguished, like an attorney.' John said he represented the Clinton campaign."

So Judicial Watch did indeed call Masada, and I apologize for suggesting otherwise. However, there remains zero evidence that the call actually came from anyone inside the Clinton campaign. It could be, as Goldberg points out, a harmless prank or somebody trying to make trouble for the campaign.

It's Time for Yet Another SAFE Act!

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 6:09 PM EST

I'm currently at my local infusion center getting my bones strengthened, but the miracle of modern technology means that I can blog even with an IV drip in my arm. Besides, it's only my left arm, and who needs that?

Anyway, today's subject is the SAFE Act. Congress has already passed two SAFE Acts and considered two more over the past couple of decades, so apparently it's a pretty popular acronym. This time around it stands for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, and it's a strange beast. It's designed to show that Congress is responding to the alleged threat from Syrian refugees, but it actually does nothing much at all. Vetting doesn't change, procedures don't change, and no limits are placed on the number of refugees we can accept. All it does is require the administration to formally certify the procedures already in place—and force three top officials to personally sign off on every Syrian or Iraqi refugee.

In other words, it's basically a fraud. It will create a short pause in the refugee program while some poor schmoe who draws the short straw goes through the makework of drafting the "certification" procedure and getting it approved, and that's about it.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, and Democratic leaders in Congress are opposed to it. Nonetheless, nearly 50 Dems voted for it in the House today. Depending on your tolerance for such things, they're either cowards or pragmatists. The Senate won't even take up the bill until December, and there's a good chance that refugee hysteria will have died down by then. So it may never even make it to the president's desk.

So what to think about this? I'd say you could reasonably look at it two ways:

  • It's a cowardly bill that panders to unwarranted fears instead of trying to calm them.
  • It's basically a craven but noble lie. It pretends to do something in order to mollify the masses and prevent something worse from passing, but it really does very little and is moving slowly enough that it might just die of its own accord.

Really it's both. It's cowardly for sure. On the other hand, refugees are the latest excuse for shutting down the government in a few weeks, and a bit of cheap symbolism might be a small price to pay for removing it. I wouldn't vote for this bill, and I certainly wouldn't speak in favor of a "pause" if I were part of the Democratic leadership team (lookin' at you, Chuck). But I also might decide it's not a hill to die for. Sometimes that's just how politics works.