Kevin Drum

Scott Walker Is Starting to Look Like a Loser

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 5:51 PM EDT

It seems that Scott Walker may be having problems. First, there's this from our own Russ Choma about Walker's fundraising woes in Texas, home to America's biggest treasure trove of conservative zillionaires:

The union-busting Wisconsin governor may be a conservative darling, but he's way behind the curve when it comes to courting Texas' biggest money men. Bill Miller, a top Texas lobbyist who regularly advises megadonors on their contributions, says he's heard almost no buzz from the donor class about Walker...."No one is asking about him," Miller says. "None of our clients. We have a huge client base. It's oddly quiet for a guy that's supposedly top three among the potential nominees."

....Walker campaign aides say he has been to Austin, Houston, and San Antonio as well, and the response has been "enthusiastic." Future trips to Texas are planned, they say. But if there's an on-the-ground fundraising operation for Walker, Miller isn't the only one who has missed it.

...."Scott Walker has no visible organization in my part of the state. He really doesn't come up," says Gaylord Hughey, a lawyer who's known as the "don of East Texas" by Republican operatives. Hughey has worked as a bundler for the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, and he's currently signed up to raise money for Jeb Bush. "Among the sort of really hard R Republicans, Scott Walker is probably big," he notes, "but to the business donor group, he has not really resonated."

Hmmm. Maybe Walker isn't mean enough for Texas? That's probably not it. In fact, Paul Waldman thinks the guy is so mean it's turning into a problem of its own for Walker. Exhibit A: Walker is hell-bent on demanding drug tests for all welfare recipients:

This is why Scott Walker is never going to be president of the United States.

First, some context. The drug testing programs for welfare recipients are usually justified by saying they’ll save money by rooting out all the junkies on the dole, but in practice they’ve been almost comically ineffective. In state after state, testing programs have found that welfare recipients use drugs at lower rates than the general population, finding only a tiny number of welfare recipients who test positive.

But this hasn’t discouraged politicians like Walker....The test is the point, not the result. Walker isn’t trying to solve a practical problem here. He wants to test food stamp recipients as a way of expressing moral condemnation. You can get this benefit, he’s saying, but we want to give you a little humiliation so you know that because you sought the government’s help, we think you’re a rotten person.

....What does this have to do with Walker’s chances of winning a general election? What George W. Bush understood is that the Republican Party is generally considered to be somewhat, well, mean....So when Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative”...he was sending a message to moderate voters, one that said: See, I’m different. I’m a nice guy.

....And Scott Walker’s attitude is nothing like George W. Bush’s. He practically oozes malice, for anyone and everyone who might oppose him, or just be the wrong kind of person.

So money in Texas-sized chunks is looking like a problem for Walker in the primaries, and his Cruella de Vil-sized malice is likely to be a problem in the general election.

The conventional wisdom about Walker—which I've agreed with in the past—is that he's the candidate best suited to appeal to both the Republican base, thanks to his hardcore meanspiritedness, and to business-class Republicans, thanks to his executive experience and relatively mild demeanor. The problem is that it's a tricky act to make both of these personas work at the same time, and so far Walker doesn't even seem to be trying. He's just sticking with the Mr. Mean persona, and it's not clear if that's even enough to win the primaries, let alone get him into the White House. He's going to need to change his tune if he ever wants to hear the Marine band playing "Hail to the Chief" for him.

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I Want to Hear a Good Argument Against Obama's Deal With Iran

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 2:40 PM EDT

Max Fisher talked to another arms control expert today, and Aaron Stein says it's a very good agreement. The Iran nuclear deal "exceeds in all areas. It makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote."

Fine. The technical experts are all impressed. But what about the opponents of the deal? What do they think?

Luckily, Matt Yglesias did the legwork to confirm what I had already concluded anecdotally: they don't really have any serious arguments against the deal. Oh, they toss out a few tidbits here and there about inspection times and so forth, but it's just fluff. The inspection regime is actually very tough. No, the problem is that conservatives simply don't want a deal. Period. They want sanctions to remain in force forever. Or they just want to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Or they don't say much of anything except that Iran is a bad country, and we shouldn't do deals with bad countries.

All of this is fatuous, and the critics know it. Sanctions never last forever. If we tried to keep them in place without ever offering Iran a reasonable bargain to lift them, our allies would desert us. Bombing would be just as bad. Instead of keeping Iran in check for ten or more years, it would merely set them back two or three. And it would confirm their belief that the only defense against the United States is a nuclear deterrent. They'd be even more determined to build a bomb after that. As for Iran's leadership not being choir boys, no kidding. You don't make deals like this with friendly countries. You make them with antagonists. That's the whole point.

I don't want Iran to build a nuclear bomb. It would quite likely set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is the last place on the planet that we want to have one. And as near as I can tell, this deal is our best chance to keep Iran nuclear free for a good long time. If any conservative can offer a better plan, I'm all ears. Either:

Describe a tougher deal that you can reasonably argue Iran would have accepted.

     or

Explain why some other course of action would be better at keeping Iran nuclear free than a negotiated deal.

No name calling, no comparisons to Neville Chamberlain, no complaints that Iran hates Israel, and no blather about appeasement. Make an argument. A real argument about a course of action that would be better than the deal currently on the table. Let's hear it.

Making Republicans Mad Is All Part of the Plan to Pass the Iran Deal

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

Why is President Obama talking so much about the Iran nuclear deal? It's not as if he's likely to convince many Republicans to support it, after all. Jonathan Bernstein says the answer lies in the unusual way Congress is being forced to vote on the deal: the agreement takes effect unless Congress votes to disapprove it. Obama can veto any resolution of disapproval, and it only takes one-third of Congress to sustain that veto. In other words, all Obama needs are Democratic votes. And the best way to get those votes is to take advantage of the power of polarization:

By speaking out in favor of something, and doing it repeatedly, presidents tend to polarize public opinion along party lines. If he needed bipartisan support, the best strategy would be to keep his mouth shut.

But Obama doesn't need any Republican help. He just needs Democrats to stick together, and not base their votes on interest-group attachments or, for that matter, on their personal views.

While Obama thinks the Iran agreement should win on its actual merits — otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to it! — not everyone sees it the same way. He can try to give swing voters in the House and Senate substantive reasons to support it. But this wouldn't be as efficient as simply getting the Democrats to act as partisans.

As Bernstein says in his teaser sentence, "A strategy that makes Republicans mad will unite Democrats." So Obama is talking and talking and talking, and conservative media is getting madder and madder and madder. That tends to unite liberals, even those who are strong supporters of Israel and might otherwise be reluctant to support a deal that Israel opposes.

Republicans are cooperating beautifully, aren't they? Obama must be very pleased.

America's Best Poverty-Fighting Tool May Be Even Better Than We Thought

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 11:54 AM EDT

The Earned Income Tax Credit has long been one of the wonk's favorite poverty-fighting tools. It's a tax credit available only to those who work, so it works as a powerful incentive to find employment. It also acts as a subsidy for low-paying jobs, which are often the only ones that the poor can find. And the money comes from the government, so it doesn't distort labor markets or meet resistance from employers, as the minimum wage does.

Today, Dylan Matthews points to an interesting new paper suggesting that the EITC is even better than we thought. Take a look at the chart on the right, which shows what happened after the 1993 EITC increase. It's focused on single women with children, the biggest beneficiaries of the EITC. The red line shows how benefits increased for mothers with children compared to women without children: the difference is about $1,700. The blue dots (with error bars) show the difference in employment. By 1998, employment among mothers with children had gone up about 8 percent compared to women without children. Quite clearly, the EITC subsidy was a big incentive for mothers to find jobs.

It's the combination of these effects—more employment and the direct effect of the tax credit—that makes EITC a more powerful poverty fighter than previously thought.

So why not extend the EITC to cover more people (men, women, the childless, the very poor, etc.) and make it more generous, instead of focusing on raising the minimum wage? Virtually every serious economist on both left and right would support this. Some might have different kinds of wage subsidies they like better, but all of them prefer the EITC to the minimum wage.

The answer, of course, is that the minimum wage is paid by employers. The EITC is paid by the government. Therefore it has to be funded by the government. And that means either raising taxes to cover the cost, or else slashing some other social program. Republicans refuse to do the former and Democrats refuse to do the latter. In the latest round of this game, both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama agree that the EITC should be increased, but neither is willing to accept the other's funding proposal. Matthews provides the gory details:

Because Obama and Ryan both fund their plan in ways that are totally unacceptable to the other side, they haven't come to a deal to pass this plan. Obama would pay for the expansion by raising taxes on hedge fund managers and rich self-employed people, while Ryan would cut other safety net programs and "corporate welfare," which is this case means specifically energy subsidies the Obama administration likes. Ryan has explicitly rejected Obama's funding mechanism, and it's hard to imagine Obama accepting Ryan's.

So we have a stalemate, even though both Ryan and Obama and practically everyone else believe an increased EITC is one of the most effective anti-poverty tools we have. What's worse, outside the wonk world the EITC has been losing ground among Republican politicians for decades. It's now generally viewed by the tea party set as just another giveaway to the moochers and takers, culminating in the widespread belief during the 2012 campaign that the poor ought to pay more taxes, not less. More on this grubby history here.

The Latest From Greece: A Quick Rundown

| Thu Jul. 16, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

A quick summary of Greece to start my morning (or ease you into lunch if you're on the East coast):

  • The Greek parliament has passed the first batch of legislation demanded by the Europeans.
  • This seriously split Syriza, and could even lead to the downfall of the government. In the meantime, there was rioting in the streets of Athens.
  • The European Central Bank responded by providing €900 million to Greece's banks. It's not much, and capital controls will stay in place for a while. But it keeps the ATMs churning out €60 per day, which is better than €0 per day.
  • Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB, said it was "uncontroversial" that Greece needs substantial debt relief. It all depends on Greece keeping its side of the deal. So now both the ECB and the IMF—two-thirds of the Troika—are publicly on board with debt relief.

That's about it for now. Amid the chaos, things are moving forward. Nonetheless, the religious types among you should give thanks daily that you don't live in Greece.

Photo of the Day: A Tiny Little Piece of Pluto -- In Hi-Res!

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 3:28 PM EDT

Here it is: the first high-res frame of Pluto from yesterday's flyby. Apparently all the frames will be available on Friday, at which point we'll have high-res imagery of the entire planet.

Yes, planet. Anyone want to take a look at this and still claim that Pluto is just a second-rate little dwarf? Come on. Grumpy is a dwarf. Pluto is a planet.

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The Technical Experts Weigh In, And They're Pretty Impressed With the Iran Deal

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Arms control guru Jeffrey Lewis has long been skeptical that we could conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. Now that we have, he's pored through the entire document and he says he's impressed:

Max Fisher: Why is this a good deal?

Jeffrey Lewis: It's a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we're very likely to find out, and to do so with a enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There's a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That's why it's a good deal.

....Max Fisher: A lot of what you wrote throughout 2014 was skeptical. Not of the idea of the Iran deal, but rather skeptical that they could make it work, that they would get there in time, that they would have all the right conditions.

Jeffrey Lewis: That's right. I had no faith whatsoever that they could pull this off.

Max Fisher: Now that we're here, what grade would you give it?

Jeffrey Lewis: I would give it an A.

....Max Fisher: We did a post just rounding up tweets from arms control analysts on what they're saying about the Iran deal, and it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the non-proliferation merits. Maybe there are some we just missed, but it seems like the consensus was overwhelmingly positive, which was so interesting to me because it's very different from the conversation among Middle East policy analysts, which is much more divided. Why do you think that is?

Jeffrey Lewis: ....As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don't look this good....I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, "Does it slow it down?" Yes. "Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?" Yes. "Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?" Yes. "Okay, good deal."

This is the kind of feedback I've been waiting for. Do technical experts who actually understand the nuances of the deal language think this is a good agreement? And apparently most of them do.

Conversely, the critics have mostly been focused on the fact that the deal eventually lifts the economic sanctions on Iran that have been in place for the past few years. This will improve the Iranian economy and give them more money to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis.

This is true, of course, but it was the whole point of the negotiations from the start. To oppose it on those grounds is basically to say that we should simply keep the sanctions in place forever. But that's not even remotely feasible. Sanctions never last forever, especially when they have to be upheld by the entire international community. If the US flatly refused to negotiate, eventually the Chinese and Russians would drop out of the sanctions regime, followed by the Europeans, and then we'd be the only ones left. And sanctions from the US alone just wouldn't have much impact on Iran.

In other words, the arguments in favor of the treaty are looking a whole lot more thoughtful and realistic than the arguments against it. But it's primary season for Republicans, so I suppose that doesn't matter all that much. Iran is bad, therefore a deal with Iran is bad. It's good enough for the campaign trail.

Do Republicans Really Want to Scuttle the Iran Deal?

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 11:43 AM EDT

Greg Sargent reports that Republicans are gearing up to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal:

Republicans are very, very confident that they have the political advantage in the coming battle in Congress over the historic Iran deal announced yesterday. Multiple news reports today tell us that Republicans are gearing up their “attack plan,” and those reports are overflowing with GOP bravado.

Well, of course they are. That's just smart politics. If you want to build a bandwagon, you have to act like a winner.

In fact, though, Republicans have very little chance of blocking the deal. To do so they have to vote to disapprove the agreement, which President Obama will veto. Then they have to round up a two-thirds vote to override the veto. That's very, very unlikely.

(And why this odd procedure where the deal takes effect unless Congress disapproves it? They can thank one of their own, Sen. Bob Corker, for proposing this unusual procedure. And anyway, his legislation passed 98-1, so it was pretty unanimously the will of the Senate. The theory behind it was that Obama could simply enact any deal as an executive order without involving Congress at all, and this was at least better than that.)

But then Sargent brings up another one of those 11-dimensional chess conundrums:

But here’s the question: Once all the procedural smoke clears, do Republicans really want an endgame in which they succeeded in blocking the deal? Do they actually want to scuttle it?

Perhaps many of them genuinely do want that. But here’s a prediction: as this battle develops, some Republicans may privately conclude that it would be better for them politically if they fail to stop it. The Iran debate may come to resemble the one over the anti-Obamacare lawsuit that also recently fell short.

The idea here is that if Congress kills the deal, several things will happen. First, the rest of the signatories (UK, France, Germany, EU, China, Russia) will still lift their sanctions if Iran meets its end of the bargain. So that means the sanctions regime will effectively disintegrate. Second, our allies will blame us for tanking the deal. Third, Iran will have an excuse for pushing the boundaries of the agreement and remaining closer to nuclear breakout than they would be if the deal were intact.

And Republicans would take the bulk of the blame for all this. Do they really want that? This is an international agreement, after all. Conservatives like Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Vladimir Putin have approved it. If we don't, will they conclude that the US is no longer a partner worth negotiating with? These are things worth pondering, especially if Republicans expect one of their own to be president 18 months from now.

Planned Parenthood "Sting" Video Is Yet Another Right-Wing Nothingburger

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

Yesterday I watched the (now infamous) hidden video from the Center for Medical Progress, which allegedly shows a couple of undercover "buyers" for a fetal tissue procurement company having lunch with Deborah Nucatola, director of medical services for Planned Parenthood. And it was obviously pretty fishy. Nucatola was talking very openly about how they dispose of fetal tissue from abortions, and doing it in a way that exhibited no stress and no sense at all of being involved in a shady operation. The price per specimen was $30-100,which obviously covered no more than shipping and normal handling. It plainly wasn't enough for this to be an illegal for-profit business.

So I shrugged and went on with my day. Then the video landed on the front page of the Washington Post and it went mainstream. I assume Fox has been running it on a 24/7 loop as well. But as near as I can tell, it's completely bogus. The video tries to imply that Planned Parenthood is performing illegal abortions and that it's selling fetal tissue for profit, also a felony. But there's not the slightest evidence of either. In fact, as Media Matters points out, if you watch the unedited video it's crystal clear that the charges for the fetal tissue they sell are designed only to cover the actual costs of the process. Nucatola says repeatedly that affiliates want to "break even," not make a profit.

So there's basically nothing here. Bioethicists have been debating for years whether it's a good idea to sell fetal tissue, and as you can imagine, they've been disagreeing for years and show no signs of ever coming to a consensus. Some think it's wrong and some think it's OK. That's not surprising since some people think abortion is wrong and some think it's OK. And if you think abortion is wrong, you're certainly not going to be happy about the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

Nonetheless, it's a common practice, and one that's critical for a lot of medical research. What's more, it's only done if the mother wants the tissue donated.

So: scandal? Not hardly. Is it wrong? If you think abortion is murder, then of course you think it's wrong. If you think abortion is morally benign, as I do, then you're glad to see donated tissue being used in important medical research. And that's pretty much that. In the end, this is just another sad attempt at a sting video that goes nowhere once you get beyond the deceptive editing. It's time for conservatives to find a different toy to manufacture fundraising opportunities for their base.

The IMF Throws a Monkey Wrench Into the Greek Soap Opera

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 12:26 AM EDT

The Greek drama continues. Just as it appears that Greece has capitulated to every demand short of selling off the Parthenon, one-third of the Troika1 is having second thoughts:

The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

The aggressive stance sets up a standoff with Germany and other eurozone creditors, which have been reluctant to provide additional debt relief.

Reluctant? Yeah, I guess you could put it that way. But it would be a mite more accurate to say that it will be a cold day in hell before Angela Merkel agrees to any debt relief for Greece.

In any case, there's a weird kabuki-like character to this whole thing. Everybody agrees that Greece will never pay back all the debt it owes. Just not gonna happen. So why don't Greece's creditors bite the bullet and face reality? It's not because the Germans and others are stupid and don't realize they're never getting all their money back. It's because....

Well, it's not entirely clear why. Officially, Germany says that under EU treaties it's illegal to forgive debt. I'm not sure anyone really believes that, though. Unofficially, no one wants to write down the debt because it's the thing that keeps Greece under the EU lash. The only reason Europe can demand draconian austerity measures from Greece is because they can threaten to withhold the loans Greece needs to keep servicing its massive debt. This would throw Greece into default and economic chaos—which is precisely the threat that forced Greece to accept the European terms for a new bailout a few days ago.

Still, why not write down a big chunk of the debt? There would still be enough left to keep Greece under control. This is where things get even fuzzier. One answer is that it sets an uncomfortable precedent. If Greece gets a big debt writedown, why shouldn't Portugal and Spain and Italy? Another answer is that the size of the Greek debt really does matter, if only cosmetically. Europe wants Greece to cut its spending and run a balanced budget. The bigger Greece's debt service, the more it has to cut spending to achieve balance.

Does any of this make sense? Sure, from a certain point of view—namely that of a European public that's fed up with Greece and doesn't want its leaders using their tax dollars to pull Greece's fat out of the fire. But the IMF doesn't have to worry about European public opinion. It wants to face reality and just admit what everyone already knows. And here's the reality. First, even with a big writedown, Greece will still be safely under the Troika's thumb. Second, from an economist's perspective all that matters about Greece's finances is that it achieves primary budget balance—that is, balance not counting debt payments. So the IMF doesn't care about squeezing the Greek budget beyond all reason based on an artificial debt number.

In any case, the IMF has supported debt relief for some time, but has only now decided to go public as a way of exerting pressure on Europe. Will it work? No telling. As always, stay tuned. The soap opera never ends.

1For those of you who haven't been following this stuff religiously, the Troika consists of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. These are the three entities that Greece owes money to.