Kevin Drum

Last Night's "Marcobot Moment" May Have Ruined a Political Career

| Sun Feb. 7, 2016 9:26 AM EST

I was out to dinner last night—the duck at Il Fornaio was great!—so I missed the Republican debate. That was too bad, because apparently the highlight of the night was Chris Christie's brutal beatdown of Marco Rubio over precisely the point I made a few days ago. Here's my version:

To me he seems like a robot: he's memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren't bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person's notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

This has always been my basic take on Rubio, and it makes me a little puzzled by his appeal among the conservative intelligentsia. But maybe they don't really care? Maybe they agree with Grover Norquist's take on the presidency from four years ago:

We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go....We just need a president to sign this stuff....Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.

Well, Rubio has the requisite number of working digits, and he's reliably conservative even if he's not one of the great thinkers of our age. So maybe it doesn't matter if he's a callow empty suit. As long as he signs the stuff that Ryan and McConnell send him, and can give a good speech now and then defending it, he's aces. At a minimum, though, this requires Rubio to effectively hide his inability to think outside of sound bites. Christie shattered that illusion for good last night when he bluntly pointed out Rubio's robotic repetition of the exact same puerile talking point within the space of a couple of minutes. Here's conservative Rubio fan David French:

Marco Rubio’s already-famous exchange with Chris Christie was indeed a brutal moment. I still can’t believe that Rubio went back to the same talking point right after Christie called him on it. Watching it real-time, I honestly wondered if Rubio forgot what he just said. When he started to do the same thing a third time, I couldn’t believe my ears. Christie wasn’t masterful — not by any means — Rubio just served him the worst kind of hanging curve.

French compared this to Rick Perry's famous "Oops" gaffe from 2012. James Fallows called it the "most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88." Social media immediately branded it the "Marcobot" moment, and mashups of the Rubio/Christie exchange showed up everywhere. Here's the edited transcript:

RUBIO: And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world....

RUBIO: But I would add this. Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world....

CHRISTIE: That's what Washington, D.C. Does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him. See Marco, the thing is this. When you're president of the United States, when you're a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn't solve one problem for one person.

RUBIO: Here's the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing.

CHRISTIE: There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody....It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points....

RUBIO [an hour later]: I think anyone who believes that Barack Obama isn't doing what he's doing on purpose doesn't understand what we're dealing with here, OK? This is a president who is trying to change this country.

So there you have it: the exact same canned line three times in a row. And then, even after being called on it in humiliating fashion, he repeats it yet again for a fourth time an hour later.

Will this hurt Rubio? If he's smart, he'll own it. He'll make it the centerpiece of his campaign going forward, sort of like "Make America great again." Unfortunately, now that Christie has pointed out Rubio's index-card habit, everyone is going to be looking for it on every other subject too. Reporters will be combing through his debates and stump speeches looking for canned talking points, and then doing side-by-side comparisons as if he's an author being accused of plagiarism.

We'll see how this plays out. But it sure can't be good news for ol' Marcobot. He might need to think about getting an upgrade to his programming.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Here Is Today's French Fiscal Horsepower History Lesson

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 8:35 PM EST

No one is going to care about this post. Too bad. I feel like writing, and on a weekend you take what you can get.

Anyway, I was musing the other day about the fact that I've always owned foreign cars. Partly this is just chance, partly the fact that I live in California, and, I suppose, partly because my parents always owned foreign cars. The first one was purchased around the time of my birth, and we kids called it the bye-bye, for reasons I presumably don't have to explain. It was, as it happens, a Renault. But which Renault?

I did a bit of lazy googling last night, but nothing looked quite right. Then this morning, I noticed one of those Fiat 500s that J-Lo hawks on TV, and thought that it looked a little like the old Renault. Except I was sure the Renault had vents in the rear.

But wait. Rear vents means a rear engine. So I googled that, and instantly got a million hits for the 4CV, which was clearly the old bye-bye. My mother confirmed this telephonically a bit later. And that got me curious. Citroën, of course, produced the iconic 2CV, which first came off the assembly line at about the same time. What's with that? What's the appeal of __CV to postwar French auto manufacturers?

The answer turned out to be pretty funky. CV stands for chevaux vapeur, or horsepower. But the 4CV is not a 4-horsepower car. CV, it turns out, is used to mean tax horsepower. After World War II, France (along with other European countries) wanted to encourage people to buy low-power cars, so they put a tax on horsepower. But just taxing horsepower would have been too simple. Instead, they used a formula that took into account the number of cylinders, the piston bore, and the stroke. Here's the formula for the 4CV:

These numbers were undoubtedly carefully engineered to produce the highest result that would round down to 4. In fact, the 4CV had a whopping 17 horsepower, and could get to 60 mph in just under 40 seconds. Ours had a few wee problems chugging along at 6,000 feet in Flagstaff on the way to Denver in 1960, but what can you expect for 17 horsepower?

So that's your history lesson for the day. Apparently the French tax the horsepower of cars to this day, though the formula has changed over time. According to Wikipedia, "Since 1998 the taxable power is calculated from the sum of a CO2 emission figure (over 45), and the maximum power output of the engine in kilowatts (over 40) to the power of 1.6." The power of 1.6? I guess they still love a little pointless complexity in France.

A Nice Paragraph About Why Humans Are So Damn Paranoid

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 12:39 PM EST

I'm reading Sapiens right now, a history of early mankind published last year by historian Yuval Noah Harari. I haven't gotten very far into it, so I don't know if his idiosyncratic theories will end up being persuasive. Still, it's the kind of learned but big-think book I tend to like regardless of how well it holds up. I wish more deeply accomplished people were willing to write stuff like this.

That said, here's a nice excerpt about the dangers of moving to the top of the food chain too fast:

[It was] only in the last 100,000 years—with the rise of Homo sapiens—that man jumped to the top of the food chain....Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into the position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.

....In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

This is just another way of saying that human intelligence evolved too fast for human emotions and morals to keep up. Either way, though, it sure rings true. Just take a look at the current presidential race. If any country should feel self-confident and safe, it's the United States. But boy howdy, we sure don't, do we?

Yep, the "Top Secret" Emails Were All About Drones

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 11:01 AM EST

So just what was in those "top secret" emails that Hillary Clinton received on her personal email server while she was Secretary of State? The New York Times reports what everyone has already figured out: they were about drones. What's more, the question of whether they contain anything that's actually sensitive is mostly just a spat between CIA and State:

Some of the nation’s intelligence agencies raised alarms last spring as the State Department began releasing emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, saying that a number of the messages contained information that should be classified “top secret.”

The diplomats saw things differently and pushed back at the spies. In the months since, a battle has played out between the State Department and the intelligence agencies.

....Several officials said that at least one of the emails contained oblique references to C.I.A. operatives. One of the messages has been given a designation of “HCS-O” — indicating that the information was derived from human intelligence sources...The government officials said that discussions in an email thread about a New York Times article — the officials did not say which article — contained sensitive information about the intelligence surrounding the C.I.A.’s drone activities, particularly in Pakistan.

The whole piece is worth reading for the details, but the bottom line is pretty simple: there's no there there. At most, there's a minuscule amount of slightly questionable reporting that was sent via email—a common practice since pretty much forever. Mostly, though, it seems to be a case of the CIA trying to bully State and win some kind of obscure pissing contest over whether they're sufficiently careful with the nation's secrets.

Release them all. Redact a few sentences here and there if you absolutely have to. It's simply ridiculous to have nebulous but serious charges like these hanging like a cloud over the presidential race with Hillary Clinton unable to defend herself in any way. Release them and let the chips fall where they may.

What's It Like Being a Gay Soldier Fighting ISIS?

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 10:32 AM EST

I took my third dose of dexamethasone yesterday, and then a low-dose sleeping pill at midnight. I slept from 3-5 am. My body is currently a battlezone between the buzz from the dex and the sedative effect of the Temazapam, so perhaps my sense of humor is skewed. Still, I couldn't help but snicker at the cover of the latest Harper's that I took to bed last night:

I love all my fellow lefties, even the ones who think I'm a squishy centrist sellout. You keep me honest. But sometimes you just have to laugh at our obsessions. A package about the war against ISIS is a fine idea, but using a third of it to highlight the plight of gay soldiers in the Syrian army? That's so PC it makes your teeth hurt.

Of course, you might not find it funny at all—and you'll let me know it. If so, there's no point in explaining why this is so amusing. Like religion, you either get it or you don't.

Female Genital Mutilation Is Not a Uniquely Muslim Problem

| Sat Feb. 6, 2016 10:10 AM EST

The Independent reports that about 5,000 girls and women in Britain are subjected to female genital mutilation each year: "FGM is carried out for cultural, religious and social reasons within families and communities where it is believed to be a necessary preparation for adulthood and marriage." Ian Tuttle is exasperated by their kid-glove treatment of the practice:

True. But which cultures? Which religions? Hint: It’s not Anglicans....Let’s be frank: FGM is not spontaneously afflicting preteen and teenage girls; it’s not an illness being randomly caught. It’s a barbarous act being perpetrated by parents of young girls in specific and identifiable cultural/religious groups. Refusing to acknowledge that reality does not help to protect vulnerable women; it aids those who seek to repress them.

Hmmm. "Not Anglicans." Obviously Tuttle is blaming Muslims. Oddly, though, he doesn't come right out and say this. Why? The map on the right might provide a clue.

According to UNICEF, the practice of FGM is mostly limited to central Africa. It's not common in Morocco or Algeria or Libya or Saudi Arabia or Oman or Jordan or Syria or Iran. Basically, it's concentrated in a small swath of states in western Africa and another swath of states along the Red Sea (those in red and orange). With the exception of a handful of countries, only a small percentage of women who undergo FGM believe the practice is required by religion.

Still, that religion is Islam. There's no need to tiptoe around that ugly fact. Or is there?

Basically, FGM is a practice limited to certain parts of Africa—and although it's more common among Muslims than other religions, Christians are pretty close in most countries. As for Britain, its FGM problem is more due to where their African immigrants come from than it is to Islam per se.

Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice, and Muslims in many countries are far too tolerant of it. Anyone who fights it—as do many feminist NGOs as well as Islamic clergy and scholars—is literally doing God's work. But it's uncommon in the heartland of Islam, and in Africa it's practiced by plenty of Christians too. The only way to represent it as a uniquely Islamic problem is to imply it with a wink and a nudge but without actually producing any evidence.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Let Us All Take a Random Walk Through New Hampshire

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 8:53 PM EST

I'm feeling a little bored, and that means all of you have to listen to me regaling you with a bunch of random political tweets from my timeline. This is, truly, the best way of getting a real feel for the campaign trail from afar. First up is Donald Trump, who canceled an event today because airports were closed in New Hampshire:

Apparently so. CNN reports that Trump's operator at LaGuardia was open for business, and the operator in Manchester says it is "always open for business, 24 hours a day." And even if Trump did have airport trouble, it was only because he insists on going home to New York every night. Apparently the man of the people just can't stand the thought of spending a few nights at a local Hilton.

This whole thing cracks me up because of Trump's insistence that he's a "high energy" guy. But he can't handle a real campaign, the kind where you spend weeks at a time on the road doing four or five events a day. He flies in for a speech every few days and thinks he's showing real fortitude. He'd probably drop from exhaustion if he followed the same schedule as Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush.

Next up is Marco Rubio:

This is what makes it hard for me to figure out Rubio's appeal. To me he seems like a robot: he's memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren't bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person's notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

Of course, this is just a specific example of a more general problem. Every four years, it looks to me like none of the Republican candidates can win. They all seem to have too many obvious problems. But of course someone has to win. So sure, Rubio reminds me of an over-ambitious teacher's pet running for student council president, but compared to Trump or Carson or Cruz or Fiorina or Christie—well, I guess I can see how he might look good.

And now for some old-school Hillary Clinton hate:

Well, I'll be happy to credit the Intercept, but I can hardly say it reflects well on them. This is yet another example of hCDS—Hillary Clinton Derangement Syndrome.1 I mean, has any candidate for any office ever been asked for transcripts of their paid speeches? This is Calvinball squared. Besides we all know the real reason Hillary doesn't want to release the transcripts: she gave the same canned speech to everyone and happily pocketed an easy $200 grand for each one. Hell, who wouldn't do that? Plus there's the obvious fact that the hCDS crowd would trawl through every word and find at least one thing they could take out of context and make into a three-day outrage. Hillary would have to be nuts to give in to this.

Who's next? How about Ted Cruz?

Cruz really pissed off Ben Carson in Iowa, just like he seems to piss off nearly everyone who actually gets a whiff of him up close. This is bad for Cruz because he's trying to appeal to evangelical voters. Unfortunately, Carson has apparently decided that as long as he's going to lose, he might as well mount a kamikaze attack against Cruz on the way down. And evangelicals listen to Carson. If he says Cruz bears false witness, then he bears false witness.

Finally, some good news for Bernie Sanders:

As it turns out, the Quinnipiac poll is probably bogus. Sam Wang points out that the median post-Iowa bounce was +6 percent in New Hampshire and +4 nationally—in Hillary's favor. So everyone should take a deep breath.

Still, the big Bernie bounce is what people were talking about today, and it will contribute to an irresistible media narrative. And let's face it: Hillary Clinton has never been a natural politician. Most Democrats like her, but they don't love her, and this makes Sanders dangerous. What's more, since Clinton already has a record for blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead to a charismatic opponent, he's doubly dangerous. If Democrats convince themselves that they don't have to vote for Clinton, they just might not. She has lots of baggage, after all.

Is this fair? No. It's politics. But Clinton still has more money, more endorsements, more superdelegates, more state operations, and—let's be fair here—a pretty long track record as a sincerely liberal Democrat who works hard to implement good policies. Sanders may damage her, but she's almost certain to still win.

And that's that. Isn't Twitter great? It's practically like being there. I can almost feel my shoes crunching on the snow drifts.

1This is a good example of a retronym. At first, we just had CDS. But then Hillary ran for president, so we had to make up a new term for insane Bill hatred: bCDS. And that, of course, means we also need hCDS. It's like brick-and-mortar store or manual transmission.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 February 2016

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 2:54 PM EST

Here are the furballs up on the balcony surveying their domain. All is well in the kingdom—though Hilbert does appear to be alarmed about something. Probably a patch of light on the opposite wall or something. Hilbert is quite convinced that we humans don't take the threat of light patches seriously enough. Someday, perhaps he'll have the last laugh.

The Bernie vs. Hillary Fight Is Kind of Ridiculous

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 2:50 PM EST

Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow supports Hillary Clinton: "I think Bernie's terrific as an advocate. There's a difference between a strong community advocate and being someone who can get things done." Martin Longman says this is an example of how nasty things are getting: "Breaking out the Sarah Palin talking points isn't smart. Talk about how people view socialism all you want, but don't dismiss community organizers or advocates. This isn't a Republican campaign."

I had to laugh at that. Nasty? I'd rate it about a 1 on the Atwater Scale. Toughen up, folks.

And speaking of this, it sure is hard to take seriously the gripes going back and forth between the Hillary and Bernie camps. Is it really the case that we can't even agree on the following two points?

  • Sanders is more progressive than Clinton.
  • Clinton is more electable than Sanders.

I mean, come on. They're both lefties, but Sanders is further left. The opposing arguments from the Clinton camp are laughable. Clinton is more progressive because she can get more done? Sorry. That's ridiculous. She and Bill Clinton have always been moderate liberals, both politically and temperamentally. We have over two decades of evidence for this.

As for electability, I admire Sanders' argument that he can drive a bigger turnout, which is good for Democrats. But it's special pleading. The guy cops to being a socialist. He's the most liberal member of the Senate by quite a margin (Elizabeth Warren is the only senator who's close). He's already promised to raise middle-class taxes. He can't be bothered to even pretend that he cares about national security issues, which are likely to play a big role in this year's election. He wants to spend vast amounts of money on social programs. It's certainly true that some of this stuff might appeal to people like me, but it's equally true that there just aren't a lot of voters like me. Liberals have been gaining ground over the past few years, but even now only 24 percent of Americans describe themselves that way. Republicans would tear Sanders to shreds with hardly an effort, and there's no reason to think he'd be especially skilled at fending off their attacks.

I like both Sanders and Clinton. But let's stop kidding ourselves about what they are and aren't. Republicans won't be be swayed by these fantasies, and neither will voters. We might as well all accept it.

Obamacare Enrollment Up About 15 Percent This Year

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 1:07 PM EST

Open enrollment for Obamacare is over, and HHS announced yesterday that 12.7 million people signed up via the exchanges plus another 400,000 via New York's Basic Health Program. So that gives us 13.1 million—up from 11.4 million last year. And since HHS is getting better at purging nonpayers, this number should hold up better throughout the year than it did in 2015. Charles Gaba has more details here.

Add to that about 15 million people enrolled in Medicaid thanks to the Obamacare expansion, and the total number of people covered this year comes to 28 million or so. This means Obamacare has reduced the ranks of the uninsured from 19 percent to about 10 percent. Not bad.

Obamacare's raw enrollment numbers remain lower than CBO projected a few years ago, but that's partly because employer health care has held up better than expected—which is a good thing. The fewer the people eligible for Obamacare the better. More on that here. Generally speaking, despite the best efforts of conservatives to insist that Obamacare is a disastrous failure, the truth is that it's doing pretty well. More people are getting covered; costs are in line with projections; and there's been essentially no effect on employment or hours worked. The only real problem with Obamacare is that it's too stingy: deductibles are too high and out-of-pocket expenses are still substantial. Needless to say, though, that can be easily fixed anytime Republicans decide to stop rooting for failure and agree to make Obamacare an even better program. But I guess we shouldn't hold our collective breath for that.