Kevin Drum

Nope, the Tax Revolt Isn't Dead Yet

| Thu Nov. 6, 2014 11:02 AM EST

Alec MacGillis writes that there was a very specific reason for the surprising Republican win on Tuesday in the Maryland governor's race:

I knew Democrat Anthony Brown was in trouble in the race for Maryland governor when every single voter I spoke with Tuesday—including several who voted for Barack Obama—at a polling station in a swing district in Baltimore County, just outside the Baltimore city line in the Overlea neighborhood, brought up the rain tax.

The rain tax is a “stormwater management fee” signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 that requires the state’s nine largest counties, plus Baltimore city, to help fund the reduction of pollution in Chesapeake Bay caused by stormwater runoff. The tax is hardly draconian—in Baltimore County, homeowners pay a flat fee that can range from $21 to $39, while commercial property owners are assessed based on the proportion of impervious surfaces (parking lots, roofs, etc.) on their land.

As a native Californian, this naturally brings back memories of the infamous "car tax," which Arnold Schwarzenegger cynically rode to victory in a special election in 2003. And this wasn't even a new tax. A few years earlier the vehicle license fee had been lowered under Governor Gray Davis, but with a proviso that it would go back up if state finances deteriorated. Sure enough, when the dotcom boom turned into the dotcom bust, the state budget tanked and eventually Davis signed an order restoring the old VLF rates. But the VLF never actually increased; it merely returned to the same level it was at before it had been cut.

It didn't matter. Schwarzenegger ran endless TV commercials starring ordinary citizens who simply couldn't believe that anyone expected them to survive if they had to pay the outrageous Democrat car tax. It was just more than a body could bear. (Yes, that really was the tone of the ads. I'm not making it up.) All this caterwauling was over an average of about $70 in taxes that everyone had been paying with no noticeable distress just four years earlier.

And Arnold won. Cutting the VLF made California's finances even worse, of course, as did Arnold's cynical-beyond-all-imagining bond measure a couple of years later to make up for the revenue shortfall. As usual, Californians were somehow suckered into thinking that this was free money of some kind, not something that would cost more in the long run than just paying the VLF in the first place.

Anyway, this is just a long-winded way of saying that lots of liberals have spent the past few years predicting the end of the tax revolt. I plead guilty to this once or twice myself. It generally seems to happen whenever some state or another successfully passes a tax for something, but as California showed a decade ago and as Maryland showed yesterday, it ain't so. I think it's fair to say that raising taxes is no longer an automatic kiss of death, but it's still pretty damn dangerous. For the most part, we still live in Grover Norquist's world.

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Harry Reid's Hubris? Not So Fast.

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 5:38 PM EST

This cracks me up. Via Andrew Sullivan, here is Cato's Roger Pilon cackling over the chickens coming home to roost for Harry Reid:

How sweet it is. Less than a year ago—on November 21st, to be exact—Harry Reid went nuclear....He ended the availability of the filibuster for most executive branch nominations, not by the two-thirds vote that Senate rules had long required but by a simple majority.

....And where will those remaining Democratic senators who voted for Harry Reid’s nuclear option be sitting? Why on the minority side, watching Republicans enjoy their newly acquired power to block controversial Democratic nominees by the vote of a mere majority—all because of Harry’s hubris.

Republicans are now able to block Obama's nominees by a mere majority! Imagine that!

Just to state the obvious, the nuclear option merely removed the ability for a minority to block presidential appointments. Under every version of Senate rules in history, a majority could always block them. So nothing has changed and Reid is paying no "price" for his hubris.

(Technically, I suppose the price Reid is paying is the ability to filibuster his own president's nominees. But I'm pretty sure that was never a big part of his playbook.)

There's something about the institutional filibuster that drives men mad. Over time, it somehow makes "mere majorities" seem almost totalitarian. But mere majorities are the very stuff of democracy, and they've always been allowed to block action. That was the case on November 21st of last year, and it's still the case today.

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 3:05 PM EST

National Review has an editorial today that's headlined—deep breath, folks:

The Governing Trap

No, that's not the Onion. That's for real. NR is earnestly begging Republicans not to try to actually govern the country:

The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can — and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.

I wonder if NR's editors have enough of a sense of humor left to be embarrassed by this? After all, this is precisely what Republicans have been doing to Democrats for six years: obstructing everything imaginable and then snickering as Dems helplessly try to explain to voters that Washington gridlock isn't their fault, it's the fault of that mean Mitch McConnell. Clearly NR understands how well this worked and wants to protect Republicans from having their own playbook used against them.

Beyond that, NR is afraid that trying to govern will just upset one faction or another in the GOP's delicately balanced coalition, and that makes no sense. Who needs a bunch of crazy tea partiers stirring up trouble again? There's no reasoning with those folks! Better to just lie low.

As cynical political strategy, it's hard to argue with the logic here. Republicans probably are better off doing nothing for the next two years except mocking President Obama and throwing out occasional symbolic bits of red meat to keep the rubes at bay. Usually, though, this is the kind of thing you talk about quietly behind closed doors. It's a little surprising that we've gotten to the point where apparently this level of cynicism is so routine that no one thinks twice about spelling it out in public in explicit detail. Welcome to modern politics.

It's Power Outage Day!

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 11:36 AM EST

I almost forgot, but an Edison worker just knocked on my door to remind me that power is scheduled to go out here for a few hours. The last time this happened, I figured I was all set: my tablet was charged and my cell phone hotspot was ready to go. Who needs electricity? Unfortunately, it turned out that the local T-Mobile tower was inside the maintenance area, so it went down along with everything else. No hotspot, no internet connection, no blogging.

This time perhaps I'll be luckier. But if there's nothing new on the blog for the next few hours, now you know why.

A Rudderless Campaign Promises 2 More Years of Trench Warfare

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 11:14 AM EST

Jonathan Cohn on last night's election results:

The silver lining for Democrats is that Republicans didn't run on a governing agenda. They had no Contract With America, as they did in 1994, and they did not rally behind a single legislative cause, as they did in 2010. In fact, the one message on issues that came through loud and clear—thanks to state-based initiatives—was that people like a higher minimum wage, something that Republicans oppose. As my colleague Danny Vinik has noted, Republicans can't honestly claim a mandate tonight. They can't even claim a mandate to undo Obamacare, the program that they claim to hate most.

No, all Republicans did was say they were opposed to the president . On Tuesday night, that was enough to win.

That's true. If Democrats were unable to unite behind a single, populist message—and it's certainly fair to say they didn't—neither did Republicans. Their campaigns were a mishmash of Ebola and immigration and Obummer and terrorism and vague discontent with a still sputtering economy. There were no unifying themes, and no big-ticket promises for legislative action.

Republicans will have more leverage to make modest inroads on their agenda. But they aren't going to repeal Obamacare, they aren't going to cut taxes on the rich, and they aren't going to outlaw abortion. There's simply nowhere near enough popular support for those things, and they did nothing during the campaign to change that. Roughly speaking, we have another two years of trench warfare ahead of us. The public may think it voted against that, but it didn't.

No, Democrats Aren't a Bunch of Hopeless Wimps

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 1:52 AM EST

Just a quick note about an election meme that's already driving me crazy: Democrats lost because they're timid, vacillating milksops who can barely string together a coherent message and are congenitally unwilling to stand up for their own beliefs. No wonder everyone hates them!

Give me a break. Democrats are Democrats, and they act pretty much the same every election cycle. And yet, they won big in 2006, 2008, and 2012. If they're such gutless milksops, how were those victories possible?

Look: every election cycle features different candidates. Obviously it's possible that, on average, this year's crop of Democrats were more milksoppy than usual. But here's what's far more likely: 2014 featured a fairly ordinary bunch of candidates, and the party's leadership was roughly as effective and visionary (or not) as it normally is. Ditto for fundraising and GOTV efforts.

But every election cycle has structural differences. This one featured a bad Senate map for Dems. It was a midterm election. The party leader was a president whose popularity has waned. The economy continues to be listless. Washington is paralyzed by gridlock, which means that Democrats didn't have many legislative successes to sell. And anyway, a consistent message would have been all but impossible given all the seats they had to defend in conservative states.

Maybe Dems could have done better. Maybe their message this year really was weak and stale. But if your theory of defeat is based on some enduring and egregious flaw that's inherent in the Democratic Party, you should reconsider. It probably doesn't explain as much as you think. Structural explanations that take account of varying conditions are almost always better.

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The Filibuster Isn't Going Away, It's Just Changing Parties

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 1:04 AM EST

Danny Vinik says that with Democrats soon to be the minority party in the Senate, Harry Reid will employ the filibuster just as much as Mitch McConnell ever did:

Reid has a history of supporting the filibuster when in the minority and criticizing it when in the majority. There’s no reason to expect that to change with McConnell as majority leader.

And that’s a good thing. If Republicans are going to reap the political benefits of indiscriminate filibustering, then Democrats should do so as well. The advantage of filibustering is that it allows a party to block progress without taking all of the blame for it, for the simple reason that most of the public—and, surprisingly, most of the media—don’t realize that filibusters are basically thwarting majority rule. Presidential vetoes, on the other hand, are easy for the public and media to understand and easy to appropriate blame. If Democrats relinquished the tool now, they’d give up a chance to make the same sort of gains. It’d be the equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

Agreed. In fact, it never even occurred to me that Democrats might use the filibuster any less than Republicans have over the past six years. The GOP has taught a master class in the virtues of obstruction, and there's no reason to think that Democrats haven't learned the lesson well. The only question is whether Reid will be able to hold his caucus together as well as McConnell held together his.

Actually, I take that back. That's not the only question. Here's the one I'm really curious about: will the media treat Democratic filibusters the same way they treated Republican filibusters? To put this more bluntly, will they treat Dem filibusters as routine yawners barely worth mentioning? Or, alternatively, will they treat them not as expressions of sincere dissent against an agenda they loathe, but as nakedly cynical ploys employed by vengeful and bitter Democrats for no purpose other than exacting retribution against Mitch McConnell? Just asking.

Are Central Banks Losing Their Credibility on Inflation?

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 9:34 PM EST

Ryan Avent is unhappy that the Fed has basically declared the economy in good shape and ended its quantitative easing program. I'm inclined to agree with him, though I'll grant that it's a legitimately debatable point. But on another point—the Fed's prolonged inability to hit its own 2 percent inflation target—Avent is absolutely spot on:

Inflation has been below the desired level for all but a handful of months since the target was announced. In the nearly three years since the Fed has operated under an explicit 2% inflation targeting regime, annual inflation has been 1.5% on average. In the two most recent months, year-on-year inflation has been 1.4%, below both the target and the average for the period under which the target has been in place.

....We can debate whether the Fed has the right target or not....Do you know what's not up for debate? Whether what we have experienced in America over the last few years represents good monetary policy making. It doesn't. Setting a public target, consistently missing that target, projecting that the target will be consistently missed in future, and conducting policy so as to make sure the target is in fact missed: that is lousy monetary policy making. And I cannot understand why the Fed does not see this record as detrimental to the recovery and highly corrosive of the Fed's credibility.

In fact, this is actually an even bigger problem than Avent acknowledges. Think about it. We now have three major economies—the US, Japan, and Europe—which have persistently undershot their own inflation targets despite having enormous incentives to at least meet them as they try to recover from the Great Recession.

What does this mean? Everyone has assumed all along that if they were sufficiently motivated, central banks could always generate high inflation—and technically, that's still as true as ever. If you control the printing presses, you can generate inflation. But what if it turns out that in practice it's all but impossible for a modern central bank to meet even a modest inflation target during a severe economic downturn? How do we know whether this is due to lack of will; lack of technical firepower; or lack of political support? And how long does it take before markets decide it doesn't much matter? After all, at some point there's no practical difference between unwillingness and inability.

As Avent mentions, in the past it's been mostly taken for granted that "credibility" for central banks was related to their ability to keep inflation low. Today, though, we have the opposite problem: central banks that are apparently unable to keep inflation high enough despite having tons of motivation to do so. And it's not as if a 2 percent inflation target is especially challenging. No central bank should have a problem hitting that.

And yet, all three of the biggest central banks on the planet apparently are having trouble hitting even that modest target. Are they unwilling or unable? Either way, the longer this goes on, the more their credibility gets shredded. It's a mystery why this isn't an issue of bigger concern.

Things Are Going From Bad to Worse in Syria—And Iraq

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 2:45 PM EST

After reading my post yesterday about the weakness of our anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq, a friend emailed this: "It's also worth mentioning that our non-plan in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, is disintegrating by the minute." Here's the story he linked to:

The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners in its war against the Islamic State.

Moderate rebels who had been armed and trained by the United States either surrendered or defected to the extremists as the Jabhat al-Nusra group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through the towns and villages the moderates controlled in the northern province of Idlib, in what appeared to be a concerted push to vanquish the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to rebel commanders, activists and analysts.

Zack Beauchamp is about as pessimistic as it's possible to be:

These groups were supposed to be the great hope of America's strategy in Syria. That they were defeated so roundly and so soon after the US began implementing its new anti-ISIS strategy is proof positive of a wider truth: America's strategy for Syria has already fallen apart. Despite a spate of ISIS setbacks in recent months, America's effort to defeat ISIS in Syria appears to be making negative progress.

Beauchamp thinks our core problem is the same as always: We just flatly don't have any good alternatives in Syria.

The core of America's strategy — to build a coalition of moderate Syrian rebels to combat ISIS — is in really bad shape. Part of what makes that so discouraging is that the alternative options are terrible.

Simply bombing ISIS, and not seeking out a ground ally in Syria, would be folly.

...Some observers in the US have suggested allying with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. It's more than possible that Obama will choose this: Assad has clearly signaled he's open to American support. But it'd be a strategic and moral disaster....The only other ground presence in Syria that the US could side with is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is already essentially at war with ISIS. But al-Qaeda's Syria branch is, if anything, more of a threat to the United States than ISIS is. No matter who wins that fight, the US loses.

A third option is to simply give up on trying to root ISIS out of Syria, instead focusing on defeating the group in Iraq....This might actually work at achieving its relatively narrower aims....But as long as ISIS can safely retreat to its Syrian territory, it'll be very hard to beat them in Iraq....Moreover, it would mean admitting that Obama's strategy will not succeed in defeating ISIS. It would mean leaving Syrian civilians at ISIS's mercy. And it would allow the group a base from which to threaten the United States.

I don't know if things are as dire in Syria as Beauchamp suggests, but they're pretty damn close. The hawkish advice to "arm the rebels" has, from the start, been more a calculated sound bite than an actual, workable strategy, since it's all but impossible to arm and train only the right rebels. But it sounds good if you don't think about it too hard, and it serves the purposes of camera-hungry pols like John McCain who want to sound tough without being forced to acknowledge the real costs of intervention in a messy civil war that we know next to nothing about. The bottom line is that arming the Syrian rebels was simply never a workable plan.

But if there's no workable plan in Syria, then ISIS becomes doubly hard to defeat in Iraq. We can bomb their supply lines and their retreats back in Syria, but even a bombing campaign ten times the size of the current one would have a hard time making much of a dent in their operations. It's just too big a territory to control from the air.

Bottom line: this is nearly an impossible nut to crack without a large and reliable ground force working alongside us. Even then it would be no piece of cake. At this point, then, we need to either (a) get out, (b) commit to a large re-invasion of Iraq, or (c) come up with a truly credible plan for rebuilding the Iraqi army and brokering a genuine political reconciliation between the country's warring factions. Right now, we're betting on (c) because no one wants to face up to the shitstorm the other two would provoke. But we may not be able to deny reality for very much longer.

Today's Election Explained in 3 Easy Bullet Points

| Tue Nov. 4, 2014 11:53 AM EST

Over the past two or three days, a surprising number of people have asked me why the Democrats appear to be doomed in today's midterm election. I don't know for sure whether Democrats are doomed, but there's no denying that things look grim for the donkeys. For the record, then, if Republicans retake the Senate tonight, here are the three big reasons why:

The Map. Democrats are defending a lot of seats that they won in red states in 2008. They were always likely to lose most of them when they came up for reelection, and that's exactly what's happening. By contrast, Republicans had almost no vulnerable seats to defend. The map on the right shows the basic shape of the river.

6-Year Itch. It's the sixth year of a presidential term. Barack Obama has mostly managed to avoid the scandals that so often beset presidents in their sixth year, but he's still suffering from the usual accretion of bad news and exhaustion that's almost inevitable at this point. This has tanked his approval rating and tarnished the Democratic brand.

Midterm Falloff. Democratic voting blocs (minorities, the poor, and the young) simply tend not to vote in midterms.

This explains most of what's going on. Beyond this, every race has its own local issues, and nationally we're still suffering from government gridlock; a weak economy; and lots of scary overseas stuff (Ebola, ISIS, Putin, etc.).

For what it's worth—and I reserve the right to change my mind about this later—one thing I don't blame is stupid Democratic strategery. Sure, I'd like to have seen a clearer message from Democrats and a more full-throated defense of liberal priorities. But honestly, I don't see any magic bullets out there. Like it or not, there were a lot of Democrats defending their seats in red states where that message just flatly wasn't a winner, and these folks really had no choice but to distance themselves from Obama. This created obvious problems of its own since (a) it made Dems look a bit aimless and (b) it provided the press with a storyline too juicy to pass up, but I'm hard pressed to figure out a better alternative. Democrats may not have mounted a memorably disciplined or inspiring campaign this year, but neither did they mount a memorably disastrous campaign. For the most part, they muddled along about as well as they could have, and in the end, it probably wasn't enough. That's not very dramatic, but it's probably the truth.