Kevin Drum

Elizabeth Warren Is Not a White Knight for Democrats

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 11:56 AM EDT

As Hillary Clinton's poll numbers drop, Matt Yglesias talks up Elizabeth Warren's chances today:

The basic bargain of the Clinton campaign is breaking down: Democrats increasingly feel they need other options in case Clinton turns out to be much less electable than they thought. So far, that search has manifested in an odd yearning for a third Joe Biden presidential campaign.

But it's always been Warren—not Biden—who seemed like the person who could actually beat Clinton in a primary, who is a more charismatic campaigner than Clinton, who is better than Clinton at garnering positive media coverage, and whose record is more in touch with the populist mood of the electorate. And it's Warren—not Sanders—whom the left wing of the party wanted to recruit as its champion.

I don't see it. Warren's obvious problem is that it's too late: She just doesn't have time to set up a serious campaign with serious fundraising anymore. It's probably too late for Biden too, but at least he has decades of political experience and a big base of supporters that he could call on if he decides to run.

But Warren has an even bigger problem: Her background is just too narrow. This is a problem for Sanders too, but at least he has a well-established record on a wide range of domestic issues and is campaigning on a broad platform of tackling income inequality. Warren, by contrast, is focused like a laser on one thing: Wall Street. I'm sure she has fairly conventional Democratic views on everything else, but she rarely talks about them because she wants to stay focused on financial abuse. This is probably smart on her part, but it makes her a poor choice as a presidential candidate.

A few years down the road this may change. But right now she looks attractive mostly because no one has gone after her yet. She'd look a whole lot less shiny if she threw her hat into the ring this year, and I think she knows it. That's why she's not running. She understands this stuff a lot better than many of her supporters do.

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Is Donald Trump the Victim of a Fickle Media?

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Donald Trump's poll numbers are falling, and political scientist John Sides says it's because the media is covering him less. The chart on the right tells his tale. When the media started covering Trump heavily, he surged in the polls. When they tapered off, he began to drop.

I don't doubt that there's some truth in this, but really, how can you tell? When there's an earthquake somewhere, news coverage spikes, but no one thinks news coverage caused the earthquake. News coverage spiked because something happened. Likewise, news coverage of Trump increased because something happened: He officially entered the Republican race and started racking up a lot of support.

I'm not quite sure how you disentangle the two. Sides acknowledges that this is probably a "self-reinforcing cycle," but how much is coverage driving polling versus polling driving coverage? There's no way to tell.

But there is a further bit of evidence that would be helpful: What does this chart look like for other candidates? In particular, people like Fiorina, Carson, and Sanders, who have surged, as well as folks like Walker and Bush, who have declined. Do those candidates follow a curve that matches the coverage they got? The data is all there, so it should be easy to take a look.

For what it's worth, I think that Trump is just following the usual path of pop culture stardom: a fast rise when he does something to gain attention, followed by decline as people get bored with him and turn to something new. This cycle normally takes months or even years, but in the hothouse environment of a political campaign it's more like weeks. Unlike, say, Hillary Clinton, Trump doesn't have a solid base of support built up over years. He's purely a fad, so his rise and fall are especially fast and spectacular. The media surely plays its role in this, but so does real life.

Rumor of the Day: Gay Marriage Martyr Kim Davis Met With the Pope Last Week

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 12:38 AM EDT

Here's your spine-tingling rumor of the day, straight from Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican. He claims that gay marriage martyr Kim Davis met with Pope Francis last Thursday at the Vatican embassy in Washington DC, just before he left for New York City:

“The Pope spoke in English,” she told me. “There was no interpreter. ‘Thank you for your courage,’ Pope Francis said to me. I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father.’ I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the Pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be okay to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back. It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.”

....Vatican sources have confirmed to me that this meeting did occur; the occurrence of this meeting is not in doubt.

Davis's lawyers also say the meeting took place, and told WDRB News that although they don't have photos of the meeting yet, they'll release them as soon as they get them. Davis herself, though, is silent about all this—which seems a little odd since she hasn't been shy about talking to the media before. So far there's neither confirmation nor denial from the Vatican.

Did this actually happen, or is it a truly bizarre hoax? I cannot tell you. But I figured you'd want to know.

WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATE: It actually happened. From the New York Times: "On Wednesday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed the meeting, but he declined to elaborate. 'I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,' he said."

Chart of the Day: Intriguing New Data on Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 10:57 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Roberto Ferdman passes along some fascinating new research on the frustrating problem of getting kids to eat their vegetables in school lunches:

It turns out there might be an ingenious solution hiding beneath everyone's nose.

Researchers at Texas A&M University [found] there's at least one variable that tends to affect whether kids eat their broccoli, spinach or green beans more than anything: what else is on the plate. Kids, in short, are much more likely to eat their vegetable portion when it's paired with a food that isn't so delicious it gets all the attention. When chicken nuggets and burgers, the most popular items among schoolchildren, are on the menu, for instance, vegetable waste tends to rise significantly. When other less-beloved foods, like deli sliders or baked potatoes, are served, the opposite seems to happen.

So let me get this straight. The way to get kids to eat vegetables is to serve them crappy-tasting food that makes the vegetables seem good by comparison? That's the ingenious solution?

Yes indeed. So if we just starve the little buggers and then give them a choice of steamed broccoli or vegemite on wheat, they might go ahead and force down the broccoli. And since you are all sophisticated consumers of the latest research, I'm sure you want to see this in chart form. So here it is for veggie dippers (notably, a "vegetable" already disguised with mounds of ranch dressing). As you can see, when paired with yummy Chef Boyardee ravioli, the kids turn up their noses at the dippers. But when the entree is a yucky sunbutter sandwich, kids cave in and sullenly eat more than half of the little devils.

This all comes from "Investigating the Relationship between Food Pairings and Plate Waste from Elementary School Lunches." However, if you click the link and read the report, you will almost certainly find yourself tormented with yet more questions. I'm here to help:

Q: What the hell is a sunbutter sandwich?

A: According to an exhaustive search of the entire internet, it's a peanut-free peanut butter sandwich made out of sunflower seed spread.

Q: What vegetable do kids hate the most?

A: Sweet potato fries, which barely edge out green peas. Oddly, sweet potato fries are far more loathed than raw sweet potato sticks. I suppose it's because the raw sticks are served with some kind of horrific dipping sauce.

Q: What's the most popular vegetable?

A: Tater tots.

Q: Knock it off. What's the most popular real vegetable?

A: It's a little hard to say, but the garden salad with ranch dressing seems to do relatively well.

Q: Is a cheese-stuffed bread stick really considered a proper entree?

A: Apparently so. And as loathsome as it sounds, I suppose it's not really all that different from a slice of cheese pizza.

Q: Is a whole dill pickle really a "vegetable"?

A: In west Texas, where this study was done, it is.

Q: How about mashed potatoes?

A: Yep.

Q: French fries?

A: Yes indeed.

Q: Seriously?

A: It appears so.

Q: Is one of the authors really from the Alliance for Potato Research and Education?

A: That's what it says. In fact, they're the ones who financed this study. I can't tell if they got their money's worth or not.

Whose Tax Plan Is Best For Millionaires?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:03 PM EDT

So here's where we stand. Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate of 4 percent per year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

Who's next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who's going to call her on it? I mean, what's Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Besides, she has to compete with Ben Carson, who doesn't have an official tax plan but has vaguely said he likes the idea of a flat 10 percent tax based on the Biblical practice of tithing—though he's been a little wobbly on whether his tax rate would really be exactly 10 percent. I guess even God can be improved on.

In case you're curious, here are the top tax rates on the rich from each of the leading candidates. The most dynamic defenders of free enterprise are at the top, while the losers are at the bottom:

  • Carson: 10-15 percent
  • Paul: 14.5 percent
  • Huckabee: ~17 percent (23 percent FairTax that eliminates the payroll tax)
  • Trump: 25 percent
  • Bush: 28 percent
  • Christie: 28 percent
  • Rubio: 35 percent
  • Fiorina: ?
  • Cruz: ?

Lying With Charts, Anti-Abortion Edition

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 3:13 PM EDT

During this morning's Planned Parenthood hearings, Rep. Jason Chaffetz displayed a chart that seemingly showed a huge increase in the number of abortions they've performed. Actually, though, the number has increased only about 2 percent per year since 2006. How did this happen? Well, it turns out that Americans United for Life, which made the chart, decided to ignore the y-axis. But I'm sure it was an honest mistake, probably due to poor math skills from a lifetime spent in the liberal public education system. So as a public service, I've replotted the data using conventional "numbers" and "slopes." You're welcome.

POSTSCRIPT: And why has the line for cancer screenings gone down? According to Cecile Richards, it's because "some of the services, like pap smears, dropped in frequency because of changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often."

UPDATE: Tim Lee helpfully points out that Planned Parenthood also provides STD testing and contraceptive services. If you add everything up, you get the rather boring chart below. I guess that doesn't make very good TV, does it?

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Water on Mars Is the New Fake Moon Landing

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

I spend a depressing amount of time writing about crackpots these days. On the other hand, it can be pretty amusing too. So does that mean I'm depressed but having fun anyway? Um....I guess so. For example, here's Rush Limbaugh yesterday commenting on the news that NASA has discovered running water on Mars:

I said, "what do you think they’re gonna do with this news?" I said, "look at the temperature data, that has been reported by NASA, has been made up, it’s fraudulent for however many years, there isn’t any warming, there hasn’t been for 18.5 years. And yet, they’re lying about it. They’re just making up the amount of ice in the North and South Poles, they’re making up the temperatures, they’re lying and making up false charts and so forth. So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars that will help advance their left-wing agenda on this planet?"

....OK so there’s flowing water on Mars. Yip yip yip yahoo. You know me, I’m science 101, big time guy, tech advance it, you know it, I’m all in. But, NASA has been corrupted by the current regime. I want to find out what they’re going to tell us. OK, flowing water on Mars. If we’re even to believe that, what are they going to tell us that means? That’s what I’m going to wait for. Because I guarantee, let’s just wait and see, this is September 28, let’s just wait and see. Don’t know how long it’s going to take, but this news that there is flowing water on Mars is somehow going to find its way into a technique to advance the leftist agenda. I don’t know what it is, I would assume it would be something to do with global warming.

I dunno, I just can't tell anymore. Is he serious? Is this meant as a joke? Or what?

But I guess it doesn't matter, since his audience will take this seriously regardless. So now we can expect some new kind of conspiracy theory to make the rounds about how the Obama administration is fabricating news about water on Mars. Probably to distract attention from Hillary's email server. Or Benghazi. Or Planned Parenthood. Or one of the dozens of other mind-blowing scandals that Obama somehow keeps under wraps thanks to his pals in the liberal media. Or, as Rush says, maybe it's really all about global warming something something something.

Or something.

What's Up With the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 1:32 PM EDT

Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, is testifying before Congress today, and you can probably guess how that's going. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) went first and asked about grants made to overseas organizations:

"Do any of these funds go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo?" Chaffetz said early in the back-and-forth.

"Congressman, let me tell you —" Richards said before Chaffetz interrupted her.

"No, no, no. We don't have time for a big narrative," Chaffetz said.

"I'm not going to give you a narrative —" Richards said.

"Yes or no," Chaffetz replied, before Richards gave a more lengthy response.

The "lengthy response" took 16 seconds: Richards said that Planned Parenthood gives money to lots of family planning organizations in Africa, and she'd be happy to provide Chaffetz with a list.

But does anyone know what this was all about? Is there some kind of conservative horror story about the Democratic Republic of the Congo making the rounds? You know, the kind of thing no normal person has ever heard of, but that circulates endlessly in newsletters and email chains? I couldn't find anything, but maybe I just don't know where to look.

Anyway, why does Jason Chaffetz care about Planned Parenthood's grants to the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Does anyone know?

Conservatives Have a New Worst Enemy: Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 12:16 PM EDT

In a story which appeared sometime in the past few days,1 LA Times reporter David Savage notes something that's been nibbling at the back of my mind but hadn't quite made it to the front. It's about Chief Justice John Roberts:

He voted against gay marriage, in favor of weakening a federal law against racial bias in housing and for the Arizona Republicans who challenged the state’s independent panel that draws election districts. He joined 5-4 majorities to block an Obama administration clean-air rule and to uphold a state's use of substitute drugs to carry out lethal injections.

But as Roberts this week marks the 10th anniversary of becoming chief justice, he finds himself in the crosshairs of right-leaning pundits and GOP presidential hopefuls who brand him a disappointment and openly question his conservative credentials because of the one case of the six in which he voted with the court’s liberals. The decision marked the second time Roberts had voted to uphold President Obama’s healthcare law.

Roberts has indeed been getting a lot of flak from conservatives, despite the fact that on high-profile cases he's been pretty much a conservative's dream. The only big case in which he deviated was Obamacare. But whether conservatives like it or not, this really does demonstrate a very conservative sense of judicial restraint. Obamacare was a historic and substantial piece of legislation duly passed by Congress and signed by the president shortly after a landslide election, and in the end Roberts was unwilling to strike it down on a thin pretext.

But relitigating Obamacare isn't the point here. The point is that this is the only major case where Roberts has deviated from political conservatism, and he's been practically disowned because of it. Compare that to the fate of liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. They both joined conservatives in striking down mandatory Medicaid expansion, a major piece of the law. Liberals were almost unanimously aghast.2 But that was it. It was one case. There's been no big movement among liberals to disown them and demand that future presidents appoint more reliably liberal justices.

Now, you can argue that conservatives have good reason to be ultra-vigilant, having been serially disappointed by justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter. Still, this backlash against Roberts carries real risks for conservatives:

That same month [when he upheld Obamacare for the second time], he joined with Kennedy and the court’s liberals to block most of an Arizona law that targeted immigrants living there illegally. Roberts agreed that federal authorities, not the states, had control over immigration policy.

Since then, [Brianne] Gorod says there has been some shift in Roberts’ votes and opinions. “He now occasionally breaks company with his conservative colleagues,” she said. “He is concerned about the reputation and legitimacy of the court. He’s also concerned about increasing partisanship in Washington. This doesn’t mean he is becoming a liberal.”

One of the things that conservatives have generally done better than liberals is to avoid mocking people who might one day join the cause. Here they're running the risk of doing just that. If conservatives make it clear that they now hate Roberts' guts, his tribal affiliations are going to weaken. That may not be judicially defensible, but it's human nature. If they don't want to end up with another David Souter, they should cool it on Roberts. Otherwise they might end up with one sooner than they think.

1It was on the front page of the print edition today. The search function says it doesn't exist at all. The online version—finally located via Google—says it went up on the 25th. Typical LA Times.

2Except for me. I continue to think it was the legally correct decision.

Carly Fiorina Now Even Wronger About Planned Parenthood Video

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

During the Republican debate earlier this month, Carly Fiorina referred to the Planned Parenthood sting videos made by the Center for Medical Progress: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table," she said, "its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

That does not appear on the video. The video does include an interview with a technician who claims that she has seen this happen, and there's some spliced footage of an abortion used to illustrate her testimony. But that's it. Nevertheless, Fiorina has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on the accuracy of her obviously inaccurate statement.

Today, the provider of the footage released the entire 13-minute video:

He [] made no claim that the images shown in the video had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, the organization that Fiorina and others have targeted for federal defunding. “I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion,” Cunningham said.

....The full source video, which is extremely graphic, lasts about 13 minutes, and shows a fetus being extracted from the mother, placed in a metal bowl, prodded with medical instruments and handled by someone in the room. At times the fetus appears to move, and at other times it appears to have a pulse. There are no images on the full video of any attempt to harvest the brain of the fetus, and there is no sound. Cunningham said the jump cuts in the video are the result of the camera being turned off and on.

So there you have it. The video was not taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fetus shows some reflexive movement, but that's all. No one says the fetus has to be kept alive. No one harvests the brain.

But other than that, Fiorina was 100 percent correct!