Kevin Drum

Republicans Are No Longer Favored To Take Control of the Senate

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

Speaking of poll aggregators and the Senate race, here's an interesting infographic from Vox:

I actually haven't been following the polling super closely, so I didn't realize that basically no one is still projecting a Republican takeover except for Nate Silver—though things are still close enough that none of this probably means much yet. We're still six weeks away from Election Day, and a lot can happen in six weeks.

Still, there's a bottom line here for reporters: Republicans are no longer favored to take control of the Senate. At least, not by the folks who have had the best records for projecting election results over the past decade or so. This should no longer be the default assumption of campaign roundup stories.

There's much more at the link, including forecasts for individual races.

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Polling Cage Fight Heats Up Today

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

Nate Silver today:

I don’t like to call out other forecasters by name unless I have something positive to say about them....

But he wants to make an exception for one guy: Sam Wang. The guy is so preposterously deluded that something just has to be said:

That model is wrong — not necessarily because it shows Democrats ahead (ours barely shows any Republican advantage), but because it substantially underestimates the uncertainty associated with polling averages....In 2010, for example, Wang’s model made Sharron Angle the favorite in Nevada against Harry Reid; it estimated she was 2 points ahead in the polls, but with a standard error of just 0.5 points. If we drew a graphic based on Wang’s forecast like the ones we drew above, it would have Angle winning the race 99.997 percent of the time, meaning that Reid’s victory was about a 30,000-to-1 long shot. To be clear, the FiveThirtyEight model had Angle favored also, but it provided for much more uncertainty. Reid’s win came as a 5-to-1 underdog in our model instead of a 30,000-to-1 underdog in Wang’s; those are very different forecasts....If you want a “polls only” model that estimates the uncertainty more rigorously, I’d recommend The Huffington Post’s or Drew Linzer’s.

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but Silver has managed to become truly torqued off about Wang. If Wang's prediction of this year's Senate race turns out to be more accurate than Silver's, I almost hate to think what might happen. Silver's head is going to explode or something. In any case, this is far more fun than you normally get from a couple of geeky poll aggregators.

By the way, Wang is now projecting that Democrats have an 81 percent chance of controlling the Senate after the election. Not by much, mind you: he figures they're likely to hold exactly 50 seats, which would make Joe Biden the tiebreaker and give Democrats a bare majority. We'll see.

Poverty Keeps Getting Worse and Worse for Working-Age Adults

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 8:14 PM EDT

The Census Bureau released its annual poverty report today, and the headline number shows that the official poverty rate declined from 15.0 percent to 14.5 percent. This decline was driven entirely by a drop in the number of children living in poverty.

This gives me an excuse to make a point that doesn't get made often enough. You'll often see charts showing that the overall poverty rate has remained roughly the same since the late 60s, and that's true. But this is largely due to more generous Social Security benefits, which have reduced elderly poverty from over 30 percent to under 10 percent.

There's been no such reduction among working age adults. In fact, just the opposite. The low point for working-age poverty was about 9 percent, reached in 1968, and since then it's steadily increased. There are small variations from year to year, but basically it went up to about 10-11 percent in the 80s and then increased to 13.6 percent during the Great Recession. It's stayed there ever since.

The safety net has helped most of these folks tread water, but it doesn't change the fact that the market economy has gotten steadily bleaker for the poor over the past 40 years. It's great that we've made such significant inroads against elderly poverty, but aggregates can fool you about the rest of the country. Among everyone else, poverty has only gotten worse and worse.

The Endless Rabbit Hole of Secession, Shetland Islands Edition

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 6:02 PM EDT

NOTE: There's, um, a pretty important update at the bottom of this post.

Following a string of links from an Atrios post, I came across this paragraph from a piece a few months ago about the possibility of Scottish independence:

As for Mr Salmond’s fantasies about oil revenues: stocks are dwindling, fracking is driving down the price, when territorial waters are drawn up he may find some of what he thinks is his oil in the North Sea will actually be England’s, and the Shetland Islands — in whose waters much of his reserves lie — say that if Scotland goes independent, they will seek to re-join Norway.

Wait. What? Rejoin Norway? Hasn't it been quite a few centuries since they had anything to do with Norway? I clearly haven't been paying enough attention to this stuff. What's it all about? Here's a piece from earlier this year:

David Cameron today summoned Norwegian Ambassador Hårek Hardbalne to Downing Street to demand that Norway makes clear it has no territorial interest in the Shetland Islands. This follows yesterday’s extraordinary announcement by the leader of Shetland Islands’ Council, Leif Erikson, that Shetland planned to hold a separate referendum on independence from Scotland should Scots choose independence from the UK on September 18th.

....In an interview with the BBC, ambassador Hardbalne said that he did not wish to comment on the surprise move by Shetland but wished to stress that Norway has always upheld the democratic rights to self determination. The BBC reported that the threat of sanctions and exclusion from NATO already had the Norwegians running scared.

That's Dr. Leif Erikson, by the way. In any case, apparently the Shetland Islands really have been making noises about this. If Scotland secedes in order to grab a bigger share of North Sea oil wealth, then why shouldn't they secede from Scotland? They have the same gripe about unfair division of oil revenues, after all. This is from 2012:

The Orkney and Shetland islands could remain part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes to separate, according to a report submitted by their MSPs to the Government. The islands could even declare independence themselves, it adds.

Alternatively, they could agree to join a separate Scotland only if they are granted a much bigger portion of North Sea oil and gas revenues, around a quarter of which lies in Shetland’s waters alone. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, agreed the threat was political “dynamite” but questioned why Mr Salmond was the only politician who could use oil wealth to argue for self-determination.

This bit of soap opera is obviously old news to anyone who's followed the Scottish independence movement closely, but that doesn't happen to include me. In any case, it's an amusing confirmation of my belief that no matter how small a political unit you have, there's always a piece of it that's richer than the rest and feels like it should no longer have to subsidize all the rest of the freeloaders. I wonder if the Shetland Islanders would be open to an invitation to join the state of California?

UPDATE: It appears that I've been taken in by an April Fools post regarding the whole Norway business. Leif Erikson is not the leader of the Shetland Islands council, and Hårek Hardbalne (aka Hagar the Horrible) is not the ambassador from Norway. So sorry. But in a way, being suckered into this joke somehow makes this whole post better, doesn't it?

As for the rest of it, there doesn't seem to be much to that either. There's been some talk here and there about secession and/or rejoining the UK if Scotland votes for independence, but nothing very serious. Basically, I was pretty thoroughly snookered by all this.

UPDATE 2: If you're interested, the Wall Street Journal has a more sober assessment of the Shetland Islands here. Bottom line for those too lazy to click: "People on this remote North Sea archipelago are following the Scottish independence campaign as intently as the rest of the U.K. Some even want another vote soon after—on their own independence from Scotland....To be sure, the breakaway campaign is a fringe one. 'I don't get a sense there is an appetite for full independence,' said Malcolm Bell, a member of Shetland Island council."

No, Ronald Reagan Was Not Just a More Amiable Version of Barry Goldwater

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

Jacob Weisberg is critical of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, the third volume in his history of movement conservatism from 1958 to 1980. The first two books covered Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon; the third spans the period from 1972 through 1976, which encompasses the end of Nixon and the rise of Reagan. Here's Weisberg:

Most historians view the Nixon-Reagan transition as a break in the ideological continuum, a shift from an era in which Republicans made peace with the growing welfare and regulatory state to one in which a newly energized conservative movement effectively challenged it. Perlstein, by contrast, sees the move from Nixon to Reagan as continuity: Both men tried to reverse what the 1960s were doing to the country.

....An alternative thesis is the one Perlstein seemed to be framing up with his first, shorter, and better book: that the crucial bridge in modern Republican politics was the one leading from Barry Goldwater to Reagan. Nixon was the last important President of the New Deal Era, in the same way that Bill Clinton is best subsumed under the rubric of the Reagan Era....In his attack on government, Reagan drew very little from Nixon, and a great deal from Goldwater....Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast. That’s the bridge Reagan walked across and the one I wish Perlstein had tried to sell us.

I think Weisberg has missed the bridge that Perlstein is trying to sell us. Reagan wasn't merely a better, more congenial version of Barry Goldwater. That's part of the story, but there's a second part as well: Reagan's exploitation of the politics of resentment that Nixon rode to victory in 1968 and 1972. Just as Reagan sanded off the scariest edges of Goldwaterism to make it more palatable to a national audience, he also sanded off—or perhaps just kept hidden—the scariest edges of right-wing populist resentment. But make no mistake: it was there, and it was a big part of Reagan's appeal. Intellectually, Reagan's politics may have been the child of Goldwater, but emotionally they were the child of Nixon.

That said, I think Weisberg also makes some sharp criticisms of The Invisible Bridge. I enjoyed it, but it rings true when he complains that "for long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers." It's a little more of a pastiche than either of his first two books, and too often this is to the detriment of the bigger story.

But there was another, more fundamental, disappointment. The genius of Before the Storm, the first book in the series, is that it explained the birth of movement conservatism to a liberal audience. This is harder than it sounds. A conservative history, simply because of the unspoken assumptions that would inevitably color it, would largely leave liberal readers cold. An overtly liberal history, by contrast, would almost certainly be unable to truly explain the appeal of Goldwater and his supporters. But Perlstein threads this needle brilliantly. Before the Storm explains the rise of Goldwater in a way that conservatives consider fair but that liberals find comprehensible.

For better or worse, Perlstein abandoned this approach in The Invisible Bridge. Maybe that was inevitable as the spotlight moved first from a principled loser like Goldwater to a destructive manipulator like Nixon and then to a man who set back the liberal project in a way that's still painful to this day. It's just plain easier to be dispassionately curious about Goldwater than about either Nixon or Reagan. Nonetheless, this failing also makes The Invisible Bridge less interesting. Even granting the hagiographic glow that conservatives tend to demand of Reagan biographers, this really isn't a book that very many conservatives would consider fair. And except for brief flashes of insight1 it doesn't truly explain to liberal sensibilities just what was so appealing about the man.

It's still a lovely book that I paged through hungrily. And let's face it: saying that it's not as good as Before the Storm is something you could say about nearly every book ever written. It's still pretty damn good. But I wish Perlstein had gone a little lighter on his obvious contempt for Reagan and spent a little more time owning up—perhaps uncomfortably—to just what it was about the liberalism of the 70s that finally drove so many voters crazy.

1For example, there's this brief bit about the White House consulting Reagan during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger [] solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.

More like that, please.

Quote of the Day: Maybe Bill Clinton Needs a Minder

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 1:01 PM EDT

From Ed Kilgore, commenting on the latest "gaffe" from Bill Clinton:

The idea of a former two-term President of the United States having to get his remarks vetted by some campaign operative who was in high school when Clinton was negotiating with the Israelis and Palestinians may seem humiliating. But it may come to that.

This is all related to a minor dustup over Bill making some ambiguous off-the-cuff remarks about Bibi Netanyahu in a rope-line chat at the Harkin Steak Fry this weekend. By itself, it's not a big deal, but it might be an omen of things to come. After all, you may recall that Bill's remarks during Hillary's 2008 run for the Democratic nomination were not, um, 100 percent helpful at all times. And there's nothing the media loves more than a bit of Clinton discord that can be dissected and psychoanalyzed for days on end. It might not be fair, but no one ever said presidential campaigns were fair.

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Chart of the Day: Fox's Benghazi Obsession

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

The good folks at Media Matters have taken on the soul-crushing task of tallying up coverage of Benghazi on Fox's prime-time evening shows, and they report that Fox has aired nearly 1,100 segments in the 20 months since the attacks. In a bit of a shocking upset, the winner of the obsession war wasn't heavy favorite Sean Hannity, but the normally more mild-mannered Bret Baier.

However, don't count Hannity out quite yet. By far, the stupidest Benghazi talking point has been the endless "stand down" infatuation—the notion that rescuers were available but someone in the White House deliberately ordered them not to go in. This is stupid not just because it's been debunked over and over and over, but also because it makes no sense. Even if Obama hates America, why would he do this? It's political suicide.

Anyway, guess who's spent the most time on the stand down order? That's right: Sean Hannity, by a huge margin. Hannity might not have won the overall obsession crown, but he certainly won the special award for pandering idiocy.

As you'd expect, coverage was heaviest just after the Benghazi attacks in 2012, but even after that initial flurry Fox has kept up a steady drumbeat of 20-30 Benghazi segments each and every month. It makes me wish I could figure out an anti-Obama angle for my obsession with lead and crime. These guys would be the greatest allies ever. I need to put my thinking cap on.

Assignment Desk: How Does the Media Deal With Domestic Violence?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 11:46 AM EDT

I have an assignment for an enterprising reporter or intern with access to a telephone. I'd like a survey done of a dozen or so major media outlets, including but not limited to ESPN, CNN, the New York Times, CBS, Fox, the Nation, and National Review. And Mother Jones, of course. Here are the survey questions:

  1. To your knowledge, have any of your employees ever been charged and/or convicted of domestic violence?
  2. In general, what is your corporate policy for dealing with employees who have been convicted of domestic violence?

Just curious!

It's Hard to Say It, But US Policy Toward Terrorist Ransom Demands Is Probably Right

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

Rukmini Callimachi's story in the New York Times today about the anger and frustration of James Foley's family over their treatment by the US government is heartbreaking. Foley was among dozens of hostages being held by ISIS, but one of the few to be murdered. Why? Because the others were Europeans, and European governments routinely pay ransoms to win the release of their citizens:

“The F.B.I. didn’t help us much — let’s face it,” Diane Foley said in a telephone interview. “Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid, or should be paid,” she said. “It was horrible — and continues to be horrible. You are between a rock and a hard place.”

....The United States and Britain are among the only countries that abide by a zero-concession policy, refusing to accede to terrorists’ demands, arguing that doing so encourages more kidnapping. By contrast, European countries have repeatedly paid to free their citizens, despite signing numerous declarations vowing not to, prompting condemnation from former American officials and analysts.

....As early as February of this year, the Europeans proceeded from requesting proof of life to making a ransom counteroffer, according to a person closely involved in the crisis who said the average sum negotiated per person was around €2 million.

The Foleys and the other American families were left to answer the emails themselves and kept largely in the dark....The families said they had little evidence that the kidnappings had become a major concern for the Obama administration, though they acknowledge that they were not necessarily aware of all of the government’s efforts. While they reached out to the State Department and were repeatedly told “everything was being done,” they said they never had any clear indication that this was a policy priority.

The Foley family has been berating the Obama administration for the death of their son ever since the video of his beheading was released, and who can blame them? If I were in their shoes, I'd probably feel exactly the same way, and I probably would have been desperate to try to raise the ransom money.

But the hard truth is that this is why I wouldn't have been in charge of the government's response. There's very little concrete research that tells us whether the US non-negotiation policy is effective, but common sense suggests that it is. And at the very least, it starves terrorist groups of a flow of cash they can use to finance their operations. The European approach may seem more humane, but it's largely driven by political cowardice—their governments are afraid of the public backlash if they get stuck in a long-running hostage situation—and seems highly likely to lead to more hostages and more deaths in the long run.

Of course, we now know that the US government was trying to free Foley and the others. But the rescue mission failed, and the Foleys, of course, were told nothing of it beforehand.

How hard-hearted do you have to be to say that, sadly, the Foleys are wrong and US government policy is right? I'm not sure. But that's how it strikes me. And I have nothing but contempt for conservative writers who have used this episode as an excuse for launching crude attacks on Obama. If you think the United States should change its policy regarding ransom demands, then have the guts to say so. Otherwise, keep your yap shut. The Foleys have an excuse for their grief. No one else has an excuse for exploiting it.

Americans Are Refreshingly Realistic About the ISIS Threat

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 6:28 PM EDT

Paul Waldman draws my attention to a new Pew poll with an interesting result. Hawkish Republicans have been running around for the past month insisting that ISIS terrorists are a direct threat to the United States, and therefore we have to fight them in Iraq so they don't come over here and start killing helpless women and small children en masse.

But apparently hardly anyone is buying it. Only 18 percent of Americans think that fighting ISIS will reduce the odds of a terrorist attack on US soil. And there's not a big difference between the parties. Even among Republicans, only 23 percent think a military campaign against ISIS will make us safer at home. That's a refreshingly realistic appraisal.

But why? Is it because the Republican fear campaign is so transparently unhinged? Or is it because of President Obama's unusually low-key approach to the ISIS campaign? I'd like to think it's at least partly the latter. I'm not very excited about any kind of campaign against ISIS at the moment, but as a second-best alternative, it's at least nice to see it being sold to the public as a case of having to eat our vegetables rather than as yet another exciting bomb-dropping adventure in defense of our national honor. It's a step in the right direction, anyway.