Kevin Drum

Social Media or Not, a Primary Is Still a Primary

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

I'm going to pick on my friend Ezra Klein today. He begins an essay about changes in American politics with a list of four recent developments in this year's presidential primary race:

  • First, Scott Walker, who looked to be the conservative establishment's pick for the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race.
  • Then John Boehner unexpectedly resigned from Congress....
  • Then an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released showing Bernie Sanders merely 7 points behind Hillary Clinton....
  • The same poll showed that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — the GOP's true outsider candidates — have reached a combined 52 percent in the polls, while Jeb Bush, the GOP's top insider candidate, has plummeted from 23 percent to 7 percent.

"Let's state the obvious," says Klein. "No pundit anywhere predicted any two of these things back in June. Hell, I'm not aware of a pundit who predicted even one of them....The models we typically use to understand American politics are breaking down."

Before we get to those models, let's talk about whether they're really breaking down in the first place. Klein is surely right that nobody predicted precisely the four things he mentions. But that sets the bar way too high. Nobody's ever pretended that a model of politics can do that. Instead, let's go through them in a more general sense:

  • Every observer of primaries has written about the "winnowing" effect. This is exactly what it sounds like: some candidates will turn out to be worse than expected and will lose the support of donors and voters. Then they'll drop out. Nobody ever knows exactly who this will be—that's why we run actual races—but everyone expected that at least one or two seemingly strong candidates would drop out before the Iowa caucuses.
  • Pundits have been talking about the possibility of Boehner resigning for at least a year. He has a thankless job these days and was basically forced out by the tea party. But speakers have lost support before—Newt Gingrich is the most dramatic recent example—and what happened to Boehner, though unusual, isn't unheard of.
  • Outsider candidates—Eugene McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley—have a long history of spiking in the polls and giving establishment leaders fits. Sometimes they even win their primary battles, as George McGovern and Barack Obama did.
  • OK, this one is pretty unusual.

Klein's theory is that party insiders have lost a significant amount of influence in our brave new world of internet news sources and social media. And that might be true. But parties have been losing power for a long time, and changes in media infrastructure are nothing new. Candidates who took advantage of the rise of radio (FDR), then the rise of TV (Kennedy, Nixon), and then the rise of the web (Obama) have always done well. In terms of infrastructure, candidates have had to adapt to the rise of primaries, the rise of direct mail, the rise of microtargeting, and much more. Nothing ever stays the same.

Has social media fundamentally changed the landscape of presidential campaigns? I'm not really convinced. It's certainly changed things, but I'm not sure it's changed things any more than the routine-yet-seismic shifts that have been documented about once a decade in campaign tomes going back to Theodore White in 1960.1 Our traditional models of presidential politics need to keep up with the times, but my guess is that they're not quite ready for the graveyard yet.

1Off the top of my head: television in the 60s; convention/nominating rules in the 70s; direct mail in the 80s; talk radio/cable news in the 90s; web/microtargeting in the 00s; social media in the teens.

POSTSCRIPT: But I admit that there has been one big change this year: the rise of the first name. We have Bernie, Hillary, Carly, and Jeb. Has there ever been a primary campaign with more candidates going by their first names? What's up with that?

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Donald Trump Releases Tax "Plan" the Rich Will Love

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

Good news! Donald Trump's tax plan is out. He claims it's revenue neutral, and, remarkably, doesn't claim that this is because of dynamic effects that will supercharge the economy. It's just plain revenue neutral. But let's put aside this extremely unlikely claim for the moment and look instead only at how Trump's plan affects his rich golfing buddies. Here are all the aspects of the plan that benefit the rich:

  • Cut the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent
  • Eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax
  • Eliminate the estate tax
  • Cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent

You will note that these are all very specific proposals. When it comes to lowering taxes, everything is described in loving detail, with exact numbers attached. Now let's take a look at the aspects of Trump's plan that will hurt the rich:

  • Steepen the curve of the Personal Exemption Phaseout and the Pease Limitation on itemized deductions
  • Phase out the tax exemption on life insurance interest for high-income earners
  • End the current tax treatment of carried interest for speculative partnerships that do not grow businesses or create jobs and are not risking their own capital
  • Reduce or eliminate other loopholes for the very rich and special interests

That's…considerably less detailed, isn't it? Revenue-wise, the first three are small potatoes anyway, so it hardly matters. All the action is in the fourth one. There is exactly zero detail there, except for this: "Charitable giving and mortgage interest deductions will remain unchanged for all taxpayers." Trump can be specific when he wants to be, but he only wants to be when he's describing the way taxes for the rich will go down or be unaffected.

Here's the bottom line: The sum total of Trump's plan to offset his huge tax cuts for the rich is this: "Reduce or eliminate other loopholes for the very rich and special interests"—except for two of the biggest ones, of course. Take that, you pencil-necked geeks at the Tax Policy Center, who want to use "arithmetic" and "logic" to score Trump's plan to see if it adds up. You can't! Hah!

Two Quotes of the Day to Get Your Week Started

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 11:04 AM EDT

From a visibly dubious Scott Pelley, after listening to Donald Trump's plan to fix every problem in the country without paying for any of them:

You know, the heart of all of your plans seems to be we're going to be rich.

Trump agreed. He's going to have universal health care, better Social Security, an expensive immigration plan, a bigger military, better infrastructure, and lower taxes—and the deficit is going to go down anyway because "we are going to do great." So there.

And this comes from Washington Post reporter Emily Rauhala:

Not to be outdone, U.S. Twitter users responded with a similar mix of mindless put-downs.

The context here is—oh, something or other. Who cares? It would fit pretty much any context, wouldn't it?

Yet Another Look at How Our Kids Are Really Doing in School

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 8:30 AM EDT

So how are our kids doing? I mean, really doing? In particular, how are our black high-school kids doing at math?

A few days ago I showed the results for the Long-Term NAEP math test. This is a version of the NAEP that's stayed fairly similar over the years so that it's possible to see long-term trends. But Bob Somerby isn't buying it. Why not look at the Main NAEP instead, since that's the standard version of the NAEP that usually gets all the headlines?

There are two reasons. First, the Main NAEP starts in 1990, so if you want to see longer-term trends, it's useless. More to the point, it's not even that useful for medium-term trends because there was a major break in 2005: the test changed and the scale changed, from a 500-point scale to a 300-point scale. So what happened between 2000 and 2005? No one knows. There are no official comparisons.

Still, you can do this: look at the change from 1990-2000 and the change from 2005-2013. That should give you a reasonable idea of what's happened over the past 25 years. When Somerby does this, he gets 6.11 + 5.24 = +11.34 points. That's a pretty good gain. By contrast, when you look at the Long-Term NAEP scores over that same period, you get a drop of -1 points. That's a huge difference. What's going on?

Let's take a crack at figuring this out. The long-term scores are easy: neither the test nor the scale have changed, so you just look at the numbers and multiply all of them by 3/5 to norm them to a 300-point scale. For the main test, we need to norm the 1990-2000 scores to a 300-point scale and then paste them together with the 2005-2013 scores. The chart on the right shows what you get.

On the long-term test, scores are still down by about 1 point. Nothing much has changed. But on the main test, scores are up by only 1 point instead of 11 points. What happened? Two things:

  • The 6-point increase from 1990-2000 becomes a 3.6-point increase when you renorm it to a 300-point scale.
  • There's an unrecorded drop of 7.4 points between 2000 and 2005.

Altogether, this shaves about 10 points from the raw 11-point gain. If that's accurate, it means there's no mystery. One test is up by a point and the other is down by a point. Since these tests have a margin of error of about one point, that's close enough to identical not to worry about.

Needless to say, this leaves us with some questions. Is it acceptable to casually renorm scores by simple multiplication? Is the drop between 2000 and 2005 real? Or is it because the test got harder? Why do scores on the main test bounce around considerably while scores on the long-term test stay pretty stable? There hardly seems to be any correlation between scores on the two tests at all.

Almost certainly, experts would be aghast at all this renorming and extrapolation. But I think it gets us closer to the truth. And one way or another, you have to account for that 2000-05 gap. If you ignore it, you're ignoring what could be a substantial part of the story.

In any case, this is why I think you're better off looking at the long-term test if you want to see long-term trends. That's what it's designed for, and you don't have to monkey with the data. Either way, though, we end up with pretty much the same story: black test scores (and white scores and Hispanic scores) have been pretty stagnant since 1990 for high school seniors. This doesn't mean the gains in earlier grades are nothing to celebrate. They are, and reporters should pay more attention to them. In the end, though, it doesn't matter what the score is in the sixth inning if your bullpen consistently blows big leads. What we care about is how well educated our kids are when they leave school and enter the world. Until our high schools are able to build on the big gains they're inheriting from middle schools, we're not going to see any improvement on that score.

POSTSCRIPT: If you want to look at the raw data yourself, there are plenty of ways to do it. However, the following printed reports provide easy access to all of it:

For what it's worth, two more notes. First, the main test is given to 12th graders. The long-term test is given to 17-year-olds, who are both 11th and 12th graders. Also: since 2000, the two tests have been given a year apart. Neither of these is likely to affect scores or trends in any material way.

West Coast Super Blood Moon Blogging

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 12:06 AM EDT

You didn't think I'd just ignore this, did you? Of course not. So here's my contribution to super blood moon blogging. This was taken at 8:24 pm, just as the moon was starting to come out of full eclipse. Luckily, all our cloud cover was to the west, and the east was nice and clear. The exposure apparently tested the outside limits of my little catblogging camera, and the color shifted considerably from shot to shot—sometimes red, sometimes a sort of orangey rust, sometimes a bit purplish. That's what you get with a cheap camera and residential streets, I guess. Enjoy.

Ben Carson Supports the European Court of Human Rights on Sharia Law

| Sun Sep. 27, 2015 3:18 PM EDT

Last week Ben Carson said, "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." Today Jake Tapper grilled him about that, and Carson made it clear that he was primarily talking about adherence to sharia law:

CARSON: I would have problems with somebody who [is] not willing to reject sharia and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Quran....You have to make a specific declaration and decision to reject the portions of it.

TAPPER: What portions of it?

CARSON: The portions of it that tell you how you treat women. The portions of it that indicate that the kafir, who are the people who are not believers, are subject to different rules. That they can be dominated.

Very famously, in early 2001 a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights agreed about this:

The Court considers that sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable....It is difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts.

Two years later, on appeal to the Grand Chamber, this view was upheld:

The Court concurs in the Chamber’s view that sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy.

Carson's main problem, of course, is his apparent belief that there are more than a handful of Muslim Americans who want to impose sharia law on the nation in the first place. There aren't. That said, no less than the European Court of Human Rights agrees with him in principle that sharia is incompatible with the tenets of democracy and, presumably, therefore the Constitution of the United States as well.

As it happens, I agree with the ECHR on this subject—though I wouldn't restrict my reservations about religious doctrine and democracy solely to Islam. Therefore, I suppose I agree with Carson in a narrow kind of way. I wouldn't support a Muslim for president who said that he'd like to see the United States adopt sharia law. I think I'm hardly alone in this. Therefore, instead of endlessly badgering Carson about whether he thinks that every Muslim would "automatically...put their religion ahead of the country," how about just cutting to the chase and asking him this instead:

  • If a Muslim candidate said that he followed the principles of sharia in his private life but had no desire to impose it on the country, would that satisfy you?
  • As a Christian, can you assure us that you follow Christian precepts in your private life but have no desire to impose them on the country?

This seems fair, what with the Constitution not favoring one religion over another. In fact, I'd suggest versions of these questions would be fair for any candidate of any faith. And regardless of that faith, once the assurance is given, that should be the end of it unless there's some very specific reason to believe there's more to the story.

Anyone disagree?

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VW Tries to Blame Engine Emissions Fraud on Low-Level "Engineers and Technicians"

| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

I guess it was just a few bad apples. That's a relief:

Volkswagen has blamed its emissions scandal on a “small group” of people and has suspended a number of staff as Matthias Müller was unveiled as its new chief executive.

....Berthold Huber, the acting head of VW’s supervisory board, called the crisis a “moral and policy disaster”....“The test manipulations are a moral and political disaster for Volkswagen. The unlawful behaviour of engineers and technicians involved in engine development shocked Volkswagen just as much as it shocked the public.”

This is ridiculous. What incentive do low-level engineers and technicians have to do this on their own? Hell, they couldn't even take on a project like this unless their managers OKed the time to do it, and their managers wouldn't do it unless they were being pressed by higher-ups. Anybody who's ever worked at a big corporation knows this perfectly well. And according to Bloomberg, that's exactly what happened:

Volkswagen AG executives in Germany controlled the key aspects of emissions tests whose results the carmaker now admits were faked, according to three people familiar with the company’s U.S. operations.

....Their accounts show the chain of command and those involved in the deception stretched to Volkswagen headquarters.... Ulrich Hackenberg.... Wolfgang Hatz are among those who will leave the company in the wake of Winterkorn’s resignation two days ago, two people familiar with the matter said. The two previously ran units at the heart of the affair — Hackenberg, a Winterkorn confidant, was responsible for VW brand development from 2007 to 2013, while Hatz ran the group’s motor development from 2007 to 2011.

Will it go even higher? Stay tuned. However, I'll call BS on UBS, which apparently thinks this scandal "could signal the eventual end of the combustion engine." Please. There's no difficulty "amassing accurate data" on engine emissions, as one of their analysts suggests. VW amassed very precise data. They just chose to hide it by means of a calculated, premeditated, multi-year fraud. Anyone who hasn't done the same should be in fine shape.


| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Last night the Mother Jones site suddenly went crazy—but only on Firefox on my tablet. Every other combination of site, browser, and platform works fine. This morning, AdBlock suddenly stopped working. Everywhere. Have gremlins invaded my house? I guess I'll just wait a day or two and see if everything spontaneously fixes itself, as so often these things do.

UPDATE: Apparently AdBlock wiped out my filter subscriptions on every device. Why? Gremlins, perhaps. I added another one and now it works again. But I still have weirdo rendering on the MoJo site, on my tablet. Perhaps some strange difference between Firefox on Windows 7 (desktop) and Windows 8.1 (tablet)?

UPDATE 2: Now the New York Times crossword puzzle site is broken on my desktop, but works fine on my tablet. It was fine yesterday. WTF?

UPDATE 3: Huh. The NYT crossword works if I disable AdBlock. Something related to the new filter subscription?

Chart of the Day: The Current State of the GOP Race

| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 7:00 AM EDT

Here's the Real Clear Politics take on the Republican primary race as of Friday. I've modified it to show only the top six candidates—which, let's face it, are the only ones we're really interested in at this point. Note that this is not a single poll, but an aggregate of the most recent four national polls, all taken after last week's debate.

Needless to say, you shouldn't treat this as gospel. Other poll aggregators may show slightly different results. Still, it's a pretty good roadmap to the current state of play.

UPDATE: Here's the HuffPost Pollster version of the same chart. I decided I didn't really care about Ted Cruz, so I ditched him.

New Hillary Clinton Emails Surface

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 8:23 PM EDT

Uh oh:

The Obama administration has discovered a chain of emails that Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to turn over when she provided what she said was the full record of work-related correspondence as secretary of state, officials said Friday, adding to the growing questions related to the Democratic presidential front-runner's unusual usage of a private email account and server while in government.

This is the kind of thing that really could hurt Hillary Clinton. But when you scroll down to the details, it looks a lot less sinister:

The messages were exchanged with retired Gen. David Petraeus....They largely pertained to personnel matters and don't appear to deal with highly classified material, officials said.

....The State Department's record of Clinton emails begins on March 18, 2009 — almost two months after she entered office. Before then, Clinton has said she used an old AT&T Blackberry email account, the contents of which she no longer can access. The Petraeus emails...start on Jan. 10, 2009, with Clinton using the older email account. But by Jan. 28 — a week after her swearing in — she switched to using the private email address on a homebrew server that she would rely on for the rest of her tenure. There are less than 10 emails back and forth in total, officials said, and the chain ends on Feb. 1.

In other words, we're missing the very tag end of an innocuous email chain from Hillary's Senate days that spilled over into her tenure as Secretary of State. That's a little hard to get too exercised about.

I don't know what the broader picture is here. Clinton has consistently said she switched to her new email address on March 18, but the Petraeus emails make it look like she might have switched by January 28. Or maybe she partially switched? Or else emails started getting forwarded to the new account as a test for a few weeks, and then got deleted on March 18 when she began using it for good? Beats me.

Either way, this seems typical of this whole affair. Substantively, it's hard to believe anything shady is going on here. After all, it's unlikely there's anything to hide from her first few weeks in office, and certainly not the Petraeus emails. But optically, it certainly looks bad. It seems like another example of Clinton handling her email issue awkwardly and defensively when she doesn't really need to.

On the bright side for Hillary, this news was released on a day when the media was preoccupied with popemania and John Boehner's resignation. So at least she's not getting another round of dismal front-page headlines out of it. Yet.