Kevin Drum

Does the 6-Year Itch Spell Doom for Obama?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 3:50 PM EDT

The theory of the six-year itch is well-known phenomenon: American presidents suffer all too often during their second terms from an onslaught of scandals that hobble their ability to act. Larry Summers thinks this is a good reason to ditch the limit of two four-year terms and instead switch to a single six-year term. Jonathan Bernstein isn't buying it:

He can point to all sorts of second-term miseries going back to Franklin Roosevelt. But the apparent pattern doesn't hold up that well. A classic example is Richard Nixon. Yes, Watergate dominated and ruined Nixon's second term, but the series of abuses of power that cost him the presidency—and the initial cover-up—occurred during his first term. Similarly, George W. Bush's second term was spoiled to a great extent by the Iraq war (which Summers bizarrely omits from his summary); Iraq, too, was a first-term decision.

Quite right. But I'm not sure this makes the point Bernstein wants it to make. Back in 2004 I predicted that if George Bush were reelected, he'd suffer through a bunch of scandals, and that turned out to be right. I suggested there were three reasons that second terms tended to be overrun by scandal, and this was No. 2:

Second, there's the problem that second terms are, well, second terms. It takes more than two or three years for a serious scandal to unfold, and problems that start to surface midway through a president's first term usually reach critical mass midway through his second term…George Bush is especially vulnerable to this since his first term already has several good candidates for scandals waiting to flower. Take your pick: Valerie Plame? The National Guard? Abu Ghraib? Intelligence failures? Or maybe something that hasn't really crossed anybody's radar screen yet, sort of like the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel that no one took seriously in 1972.

I think Bernstein and I are saying similar things here. In Bush's case, there were indeed some new problems in his second term: Katrina in 2005 and several assorted scandals that revolved around Jack Abramoff in 2006. The same has happened to Obama. Regardless of whether you think that things like Fast & Furious or Solyndra were genuine scandals (I don't), they have the same effect. More recently, you can add the IRS and Benghazi. And again, regardless of whether these are real scandals or invented ones, they work the same way. Low-information voters don't always pay attention to whether a scandal is "real." They just keep hearing about one thing after another, and eventually conclude that where there's smoke there's fire.

As it happens, I'd say that Obama has done a remarkably good job of running a clean administration, and I suspect that scandalmania isn't actually hurting him much. Despite the best efforts of Republicans to pretend otherwise, there's just not much there. You can hate his policies or his personality or his competence or his leadership ability, but the truth is that he's run a pretty clean shop on the scandal front.

Still, if you accept the general proposition that scandals tend to pile up over time, that means you're likely to have a fairly impotent president by year six. And maybe that means a single six-year term would be for the best.

The problem with this is that there's not much evidence for it. If six years really is some kind of magic scandal number, then you'd expect to see it at work elsewhere. But do you? How about in Britain, which has indeterminate terms? Or Germany, where Angela Merkel is heading into her ninth year in office? Or in cities and states without term limits? More generally, in other jurisdictions with different terms, how much evidence is there that voters become highly sensitive to mounting scandals by year six?

Not much, I think, though I suspect that voters do just generally get tired of politicians and parties after about six years or so. After all, by then it's clear that all the stuff they promised won't happen, so why not give the other guys a shot? Hell, lots of people are complaining these days about Obama failing to bring postpartisan peace and harmony to Washington, DC, as if there were much he could ever have done about that in the face of unprecedentedly unanimous obstruction from Republicans starting on day one. But still: He did say that was one of his goals, and he sure hasn't delivered it. So let's throw him out. The next president will be able to do it for sure. Right?

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Lindsey Graham Lays Down a Terrorism Marker

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

Lindsey Graham says that if we don't attack "ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it"—and attack them right now—they'll be attacking us on American soil before long. "This is about our homeland," he said yesterday. Steve Benen correctly interprets Graham's remarks:

In this case, Graham seems to be laying down a marker: if members of the Islamic State, at some point in the future, execute some kind of terror strike on Americans, Lindsey Graham wants us to blame President Obama — because the president didn’t stick to the playbook written by hawks and neocons.

I don't think anyone is actively hoping for a terrorist attack on American soil. Just as I don't think anyone was actively hoping to keep the American economy in ruins back in 2009. Still, these are cases where ideology and politics line up nicely: if something bad does happen, Republicans want to lay down a marker making sure that everyone knows whose fault it is.

Sometimes this doesn't work: Republicans confidently predicted doom in 1993 when Bill Clinton raised taxes, for example. But wrong predictions are quickly forgotten. Occasionally, however, predictions are right, and then they can be milked forever. When Ronald Reagan insisted that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, and the economy then dutifully improved, his reputation was cemented forever—even though tax cuts played only a modest role in the economic recovery of the 80s.

Another major terrorist attack on the American homeland is bound to happen sometime. Who knows? It might even happen within the next year. And make no mistake: if it does happen, Lindsey Graham wants to make sure you know who to blame. If it doesn't happen, well—look! Gay climate Obamacare!

Is There a Hillary Doctrine?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Hillary Clinton is being taken as an effort by Hillary to distance herself from President Obama. Here's the most frequently quoted snippet:

HRC: Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.

....JG: What is your organizing principle, then?

HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.”

I've seen the first part of this excerpt several times, and each time I've wondered, "So what's your organizing principle." When I finally got around to reading the interview, I discovered that this was Goldberg's very next question. And guess what? Hillary doesn't have one.

She's basically hauling out an old chestnut: We need to be strong at home if we want to be strong overseas. And that's fine as far as it goes. But it's not an organizing principle for foreign policy. It's not even close. At best, it's a precursor to an organizing principle, and at worst it's just a plain and simple evasion.

It so happens that I think "don't do stupid stuff" is a pretty good approach to foreign policy at the moment. It's underrated in most of life, in fact, while "doctrines" are mostly straitjackets that force you to fight the last war over and over and over. The fact that Hillary Clinton (a) brushes this off and (b) declines to say what her foreign policy would be based on—well, it frankly scares me. My read of all this is that Hillary is itching to outline a much more aggressive foreign policy but doesn't think she can quite get away with it yet. She figures she needs to distance herself from Obama slowly, and she needs to wait for the American public to give her an opportunity. My guess is that any crisis will do that happens to pop up in 2015.

I don't have any problems with Hillary's domestic policy. I've never believed that she "understood" the Republican party better than Obama and therefore would have gotten more done if she'd won in 2008, but I don't think she would have gotten any less done either. It's close to a wash. But in foreign policy, I continually find myself wondering just where she stands. I suspect that she still chafes at being forced to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war—and largely losing to Obama because of it. I wouldn't be surprised if she still believes that vote was the right thing to do, nor would I be surprised if her foreign policy turned out to be considerably more interventionist than either Bill's or Obama's.

But I don't know for sure. And I probably never will unless she gets elected in 2016 and we get to find out.

The Majesty of the Law, Rare Wine Edition

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:32 PM EDT

Rudy Kurniawan is a rare wine dealer who was convicted of defrauding his billionaire clients by pouring cheap wine into faked-up bottles and pawning them off as rare vintages. Yesterday he was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite his attorney's plea for leniency:

“Nobody died,” Mr. Mooney said. “Nobody lost their job. Nobody lost their savings.”

Judge Richard M. Berman interrupted him to ask, “Is the principle that if you’re rich, then the person who did the defrauding shouldn’t be punished?”

Stanley J. Okula Jr., a federal prosecutor, said it was “quite shocking” that Mr. Mooney was arguing for a different standard for those who have defrauded rich people. “Fraud is fraud,” he said. “There is no distinction in the guidelines, or in logic, for treating it differently.”

Quite right. As we all know, the law treats the rich and the poor equally. And the rich especially equally.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

Last week you could barely see Domino's face, so this week we get a close-up. Here she is outside in the summer sun enjoying a chin smooch from Marian.

In other cat news, click here to read about Coco, the lovely Siamese Wi-Fi sniffing cat from Virginia. If I tried this with Domino, she would sniff out my Wi-Fi and....that's about it. She doesn't roam much, and these days even less than usual. I don't think she's ventured more than ten feet from a doorway in years.

Quote of the Day: The Bane of the Magic Asterisk

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

Brad DeLong on the debasement of budget policy since the Reagan era:

Ever since the start of 1981 and the miseducation of David Stockman, the bane of a sensible American fiscal policy has most often been the magic asterisk: the implicit claim that some policy that the politician dares not name or some magical Budget Fairy will fly down from above and make everything OK. When this magic asterisk is found, by my guess 90% of the time it is in budget "plans" from Republicans—but a good 10% of the time it is found in plans from Democrats (yes, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Gene Sperling, I am looking at you).

This has reached its zenith in the budget "plans" of Paul Ryan and his fellow tea partiers. I can't remember the last time I saw a budget plan from a Republican that was even remotely honest.

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Marijuana Legalization Seems to Be Working Out....So Far

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 12:33 PM EDT

Here are a few typical headlines I've seen recently about Colorado's legalization of marijuana:

Washington Post: Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows

Vox: Marijuana legalization didn't stop Colorado's decade-long decline in teen pot use

HuffPo: If Legalizing Marijuana Was Supposed To Cause More Crime, It's Not Doing A Very Good Job

There's a phrase missing from all of these: "so far." I hope that pot legalization turns out great and every other state eventually follows the lead of Colorado and Washington. But honestly folks, it's early days yet. Legalization almost certainly has long-term dynamics and feedback effects that we simply won't know about for years. What happens during the first few months is all but meaningless. Even if the stories themselves are more nuanced, this ought to be reflected in the headlines too.

IBM Unveils Chip That's Maybe As Powerful As a Cockroach

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:37 AM EDT

IBM has announced a new chip that it says is a breakthrough in emulating the human brain:

"Power is the fundamental constraint as we move forward," says Horst Simon, deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a major supercomputer user. "This chip is an indication that we are really at the threshold of a fundamental change in architecture."

....TrueNorth, IBM says, uses 5.4 billion transistors—four times more than a typical PC processor—to yield the equivalent of one million neurons and 256 million synapses. They are organized into 4,096 structures called "neurosynaptic cores," each able to store, process and transmit data to any other using a communications scheme called a crossbar.

The design is "event-driven," Mr. Modha says. That means that individual cores fire up only when they are needed, rather than running all the time. This scheme makes the chips more power efficient. Where a comparable standard microprocessor draws 50 to 100 watts per square centimeter, TrueNorth draws just 20 milliwatts, or thousandths of a watt, IBM says.

That's about as many neurons as a small insect has. You'd need something on the order of 100,000 of these chips to provide as many neurons as the typical human brain—though that's probably not really a meaningful number. If digital neurons are faster than chemical neurons, you might need fewer of them. You also don't need any of the neurons that are designed solely to keep the body physically alive. And traditional chips can pick up a lot of the load too. On the other hand, the 3-D structure of the brain provides some advantages you don't get from a 2-D chip.

In other words, who knows? Maybe you need 10,000, maybe you need a million. Maybe this whole approach will turn out to be a dead end. And we're still a long way off from developing the software to make this all work in any case.

Still: it's cool stuff. There are lots of different approaches to developing artificial intelligence, and this is certainly a plausible one. It probably won't take too long before we know whether it really holds the promise that AI researchers hope it does.

Obama's Intervention in Iraq Is All About the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

Why did President Obama decide to re-engage militarily in Iraq? Was it to prevent the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority trapped on Mt. Sinjar? Partly, perhaps, but Max Fischer writes that the real motivation was to protect Iraq's northern Kurds:

If you are a member of ISIS, here is how you might hear Obama's message: Stay away from Iraqi Kurdistan, and the rest of northern Iraq is yours to keep. Based on Obama's words and actions so far, you would not be so wrong.

....Invading Iraq's Kurdish region, it turned out, was Obama's red line for ISIS. There are a few reasons why. The Kurdish region is far stabler, politically, than the rest of Iraq. (Kurds are ethnically distinct from the rest of Iraq, which is largely ethnic Arab; most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.) The Kurdish region, which has been semi-autonomous since the United States invaded in 2003 and has grown more autonomous from Baghdad ever since, also happens to be a much more reliable US ally than is the central Iraqi government. It has a reasonably competent government and military, unlike the central Iraqi government, which is volatile, unstable, deeply corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian.

....On a background briefing call with White House officials late on Thursday, the emphasis on defending Erbil came through loud and clear: the US is clearly designing its intervention around protecting the Kurdish region; any effect for the rest of Iraq is secondary, and was premised on Iraq's government first fulfilling some political commitments.

The effect, though, is to imply that the US will not intervene against ISIS if they remain on the correct side of the red line — effectively giving them the US go-ahead to continue terrorizing the vast territory in northern Iraq they've already seized.

In the Middle East, red lines don't always work so well. This one will obviously depend to a large degree on how competent the Kurdish militias turn out to be, and whether they can repel the ISIS troops with nothing more than a modest amount of aerial support from the US. Given the small size of the ISIS forces, and the reputation of the Kurdish Peshmerga, this certainly ought to be feasible. If even the Kurds are having trouble against ISIS, however, this suggests that ISIS is considerably stronger than anyone thought. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Wall Street Judge Left With "Nothing But Sour Grapes"

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

A few years ago, federal district judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve an SEC settlement with Citigroup over charges that they had deliberately offloaded toxic mortgage securities into a special fund so that they could make money by betting against their own customers. Rakoff objected partly because he thought the SEC's proposed fine was too small—"pocket change," he called it—but mostly because there was no public reckoning of what Citigroup had done. Not only weren't they required to admit wrongdoing, they weren't required even to admit the bare facts of what they had done.

Sadly for Rakoff—and for the public—an appeals court overruled him, basically saying that the SEC had full discretion to reach any settlement it desired, and the judge's only real role was to make sure it wasn't tainted by collusion or corruption. Earlier this week, Rakoff backed off:

They who must be obeyed have spoken, and this Court's duty is to faithfully fulfill their mandate.

....Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary's contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.

Quite so, and the SEC's long tradition of issuing wrist slaps to big Wall Street firms—and withholding all the details of their corruption from the public—is now safe once again. Apparently that kind of thing is only for the little people.

Of course, Congress could intervene, giving the SEC more manpower and demanding more accountability, but that's not going to happen either. After all, sometimes people say mean things about Wall Street firms. Surely that's punishment enough?

Via Michael Hiltzik, who has more at the link.