Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

Illegal Immigration From Mexico Continues to Decline

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 2:41 PM EST

The latest Pew report on illegal immigration from Mexico shows that the flow of people across the southern border continues to slow. There are fewer immigrants coming to the US and there are fewer going back to Mexico. In total, the flow of people across the border has declined by a third over the past five years, and there are now more people leaving than coming. Pew estimates that the total population of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the US has declined by 1.3 million since 2007.

Why? The slowing American economy, especially in border communities, is one reason. A desire to reunite with family members is another. Fewer connections in the US is yet another. And in terms of total immigration, Mexico is now only barely ahead of other countries, according to a question used in the American Community Survey:

Under this measure, 246,000 Mexicans, 195,000 Chinese and 199,000 Indians arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and 2012....Regardless of the exact number of new immigrants from each country arriving in the U.S. each year, the trends are clear: Over the past decade, immigration from China and India to the U.S. has increased steadily, while immigration from Mexico has declined sharply.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear Donald Trump or another Republican demagoging about walls and rapists and all the rest. Illegal immigration from Mexico is down substantially, and it's becoming a smaller problem every year, not a bigger one.

Here Is Hillary Clinton's Plan to Defeat ISIS

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:25 PM EST

Here's the Reader's Digest version of Hillary Clinton's plan for defeating ISIS:

It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign....We need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services....We can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission....We may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility.

....Ultimately, however, a ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight. But that won’t happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS....We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation.

....We should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units....Increased support from our Arab and European zones....create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.

....Arab and Turkish partners....military intelligence and financial contributions....We need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS. The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS.

For anybody who's been following this stuff, none of this should come as a surprise. At this point, I'd call it the conventional wisdom on ISIS: a stronger air campaign; local ground troops; political reconciliation in Baghdad; and better alliances with Turkey and our Arab allies. The truth is, this speech could have been given by any thoughtful Republican too. They would have spiced it up with a few more references to unspeakable evil and wars against civilization, and they would have pretended that all this stuff would be easy if we didn't have an appeaser in the White House, but the practical advice wouldn't differ much. As near as I can tell, that's because there just aren't many alternatives.

Now, the obvious problem is that all of this is easier said than done. A bigger air campaign is easy. But turning the Iraqi army into a competent fighting force is harder. Pressuring Baghdad to get its house in order is even harder. And a diplomatic solution in Syria that frees up local rebels to fight ISIS is so hard that I doubt we can do it.

So in a sense, this all boils down to competence. Roughly speaking, everyone agrees on the basic outline of what needs to be done. The question is which candidate is most likely to be able to do it. It's easy to figure out that, say, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are at the bottom of that list. But who's at the top? Who do you trust the most to make progress on all this stuff? That's where the hammer and the nail finally meet.

The Press Needs to Stop Encouraging Republican Lunacy Toward Muslims

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Donald Trump is still Donald Trump, trying to gain attention by saying obviously outrageous things. But his latest outrage looks a little contrived. Here's the full context of his recent interview with Yahoo's Hunter Walker:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

It would be one thing if Trump floated the idea himself of warrantless searches and special IDs. It's quite another if a reporter brings them up and Trump tap dances a little bit. Needless to say, in a better world Trump would have explicitly denounced all these ideas. Obviously we don't live in that world. Still, the only thing Trump actually said here is that we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. The rest was just a reporter fishing for a headline.

To state the obvious: no, we don't need to do anything that was "unthinkable" a year ago. As my colleague Miles Johnson notes, "of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the US since the September 11 terrorist attacks, only two have been arrested on terrorism-related charges." The American Muslim community has been instrumental in preventing jihadist violence in the US since 9/11, and to deliberately alienate them, as Trump and many other Republicans are proposing, is just about the most dangerous thing we could do.

We know how to fight dangerous people. We know how to fight terrorism. And we don't have to shred the Constitution to do it. Instead of fishing for headlines and stoking the latest round of fatuous fearmongering from Republicans, maybe we'd be better served if reporters started asking them hard questions instead.

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Brennan Center: No "Crime Wave" in 2015

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 11:24 AM EST

Has there been an explosion of crime in 2015? It will take some time before official figures are available, so the Brennan Center decided to compile some unofficial figures through October. They surveyed the 30 largest cities and asked for both the murder rate and the overall "index" crime rate (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft). Their conclusion: the murder rate is up 11 percent while the overall crime rate is down 1.5 percent.

It's true that some cities have seen very large increases in their murder rates. But that's not uncommon. The base of murders is pretty small, so it doesn't take much to create a big spike in a single year. The overall crime rate, which has a much larger base, is usually more stable.

Any time the murder rate goes up, it's a good idea to be concerned. But murder rates have ticked up by 10 percent or so on several occasions in the past. There's just a lot of noise in the data. Overall, though, there's little evidence of any kind of explosion in either the murder rate or the crime rate. A few cities (Baltimore, DC, Denver, most of Texas) seem to have a serious problem, but that's about it.

When Will Republicans at Last Get Serious About National Security?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:23 AM EST

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page sings the praises of French President François Hollande:

French security forces Wednesday conducted hundreds of antiterror raids and placed more than 100 suspects under house arrest....Security forces found a weapons cache in the city of Lyon that included Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket launcher....France has some 11,500 names on government watch lists. Many are likely to be detained under the three-month state of emergency that Mr. Hollande declared after Friday’s attacks.

....Mr. Hollande has been right to declare war on Islamic State and order French bombing raids on its capital in eastern Syria. France is still a militarily capable nation, as it proved when it turned back an al Qaeda offensive in Mali in 2013. It can do significant damage to ISIS if it increases the tempo of its current bombing or deploys its Foreign Legion to liberate the city of Raqqa.

....Until America gets a new Commander in Chief, Mr. Hollande is the best antiterror leader the West has.

Hmmm. It's certainly true that Hollande has been among the most hawkish of European leaders. It's also true that France was one of the first to join the US air campaign against ISIS—though their military efforts so far have been little more than pinpricks. But let's roll the tape back to June 2014, when President Obama was first trying to put together a coalition. He and Hollande issued a joint communique with all the right promises, but as France 24 reported, "Behind that facade of unity, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS."

Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs....For the moment, however, no military measures are planned....Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

....The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

That's the best anti-terror leader the West has, according to the Journal. Nobody had "specifically" asked France, so Hollande decided to hang tight and see which way the wind was blowing.

This is the kind of thing that makes it so hard to talk about ISIS and terrorism. It's not as if this has been Obama's finest hour, after all, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the opposition has generally been much worse. Obama waffled over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then Congress bungled things further by refusing to approve Obama's call for retaliatory strikes—with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio joining in. Obama may have been late to recognize the threat from ISIS, but he's still the guy who put together the coalition. France has been a good partner in the fight against ISIS, but that happened only after Obama spent some time cajoling them into action.

And Republicans simply can't be bothered to take any of this seriously. They blather about Obama being weak, but when you ask them for their plans you just get nonsense. They demand "leadership"; they bask in cheap applause lines about a bigger military; they all chime in like puppets to agree on a no-fly zone; they suggest we stop worrying about civilian casualties; they propose more arms for the Kurds; they want to team up with Sunni tribal leaders without saying how they'd accomplish it; and they vaguely imply that we should bomb ISIS differently....or more....or with greater determination....or something.

None of this is remotely serious. A bigger military wouldn't affect ISIS. A no-fly zone wouldn't affect ISIS. Killing civilians would actively help ISIS. The Kurds aren't going to fight ISIS in Sunni territory. Sunni leaders aren't going to be reliable allies until they trust Baghdad to treat them equitably. And sure, we could bomb more, but there's not much point until we have the ground troops to back it up. But Republicans have been unanimously opposed to American troops all along, and Iraqi ground troops flatly aren't yet willing or able to do the job.

I hardly want to be in the position of pretending that Obama's ISIS strategy has been golden. But Republicans make him look like Alexander the Great. They treat the whole subject like a plaything, a useful cudgel during a presidential campaign. Refugees! Kurds! Radical Islam! We need to be tougher!

That isn't leadership. It barely even counts as coherent thought. It's just playground jeering. But right now, that's all we're getting from them.

Jeb Bush Has Missed a Chance to Revitalize His Campaign

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 10:13 PM EST

I'm just noodling around here, but I wonder if Jeb Bush has blown a chance over the past few days. See, I figure his only hope of winning is to let everyone else fight it out for a share of the tea party vote while he gets the lion's share of the other half of the Republican Party. If he's the one guy who appeals to moderate Republicans, he can win.

Now, generally speaking, Jeb has been more moderate than the rest of the field in response to the Paris attacks. But should he have gone further? It wouldn't have been hard. Make a real case for taking in refugees. Propose a serious, conservative plan for dealing with ISIS instead of resorting to jingoism and shibboleths. Criticize the other candidates for fearmongering. Maybe even say that he agrees with President Obama that it's long past time for Congress to act on an authorization for military force against ISIS.

A serious, measured approach like this from a Republican candidate would have been so different, so unexpected, that it could have gotten him some real attention. The press would have swooned. Moderate conservatives would have noticed. Bush would have stood out from the field for the first time. And it would have played to his strengths instead of forcing him into a Trumpesque mold that he's obviously uncomfortable with.

And as an added bonus, it would have been the right thing to do. What's not to like?

Shopping Around Is the Key to Low Prices in Obamacare

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 7:56 PM EST

Abby Goodnough writes today about switching health care coverage each year during Obamacare's year-end open enrollment period:

The Obama administration is encouraging switching as a way to avoid steep increases in premiums — and to promote competition among insurers, as the law intends. Next year will be no different: The price of plans will rise in most states, and the administration says that 86 percent of people who currently have coverage through the federal exchange can find a better deal by switching.

“This may be just one of those environments where there’s a new normal,” said Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.

For many consumers, the volatility in the markets has been a source of anxiety and disruption. To have any choice at all is a welcome development, many say. But switching plans is also becoming an unwelcome ritual, akin to filing taxes, that is time-consuming and can entail searching for new doctors and hospitals each year.

This is unquestionably a downside to encouraging competition in the health insurance marketplace. As carriers jostle for position, the lowest-price coverage is going to change from year to year—and if you're a price-sensitive shopper, that means your coverage is going to change from year to year too.

I suspect this problem will settle down after a couple more years, as insurance companies get more experience with the Obamacare pool and get better at pricing their policies. In the meantime, though, it really does pay to shop around. A new Kaiser study of 2016 rate increases provides some concrete numbers. If you bought the cheapest silver plan in 2015 and then you stick with it in 2016, your premium may go up quite a bit. But if you shop around for the plan that has the lowest price in 2016, your premium will barely change at all. The chart on the right tells the story. For low-income buyers, shopping around means virtually no premium increase at all. For middle-income buyers, it means a larger but still pretty modest increase.

Moral of the story: If price is a major issue for you, shop around! It's a pain in the ass, but it pays off.