Kevin Drum

We Are In Love With War

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

I'm going to make this short because I simply don't have a thousand-word essay in me about war fever. But the more I think about our campaign against ISIS, the more dismayed I become. I always figured that if the time ever came when a president wanted to bomb Iran, it would be pretty easy to whip up the usual war frenzy over it. That's been baked into the cake for a long time. But Iraq? And without even a very big push from President Obama? I mean, for all that I'm not happy over his decision to go back to war in Iraq, he's been relatively sober about the whole thing.

But it barely matters. The mere concrete prospect of a new war was all it took. According to polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans are on board with the fight against ISIS and nearly half think we ought to be sending in ground troops. That's despite the fact that practically every opinion leader in the country says in public that they oppose ground troops. At this point it would take only a tiny shove—a bomb scare, an atrocity of some kind, pretty much anything—and 70 percent of the country would be in full-bore war frenzy mode.

It's like we've learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

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Intel Community Dusts Itself Off and Casually Shows Obama Who's Boss

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 10:49 AM EDT

A friend brings to my attention this New York Times piece:

By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.

But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”

He comments:

Look, if you publicly throw the intel community under the bus, they're going to come back at you. They have better access to the press. They have careerists with longstanding media relationships that they know how to work and how to shape their stories....Plus, you're giving Republicans wonderful fuel for their absolute strongest subject — bar none — national security: Obama is fighting (insert intelligence community / generals / Secret Service / other military service), more than ISIS.

The idiocy of picking this fight in public is pretty unnerving frankly.

There's not much point in dwelling on this forever, but Obama's comment blaming the intel community for misjudging ISIS absolutely blanketed every news outlet in the country last night. It really does make you wonder what's going on over in the West Wing. Was Obama's comment on Sunday just a dumb mistake? Does he really have contempt for the intelligence community? Did he somehow think he could get away with blaming them and not getting any blowback? Or what?

Here's Why Obama Fumbled on the Economy Last Night

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 7:17 PM EDT

Paul Waldman asks us to imagine what's going to happen the next time there's some kind of Islam-inspired terror attack on American soil:

The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven't seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning—kidding! They'd go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we're more vulnerable than we've ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that "this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home," might just tear off his shirt and scream, "We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!" right on Fox News Sunday.

Now bear with me a for a moment. Here's a seemingly unrelated story about Sam Brownback's effort to spur economic growth in Kansas by lowering taxes on the rich and cutting back on welfare:

As he runs for reelection, Brownback is finding that what he once called a “real live experiment” in red-state governance is struggling to produce the benefits he had promised....In an interview on his way to Dodge City — where he would sign legislation creating a “National Day of the Cowboy” — Brownback said he regretted referring to his plans as an experiment. But he defended his tenure, saying it represented a Ronald Reagan-style approach to governance that eventually would rebuild Kansas’s economy after a long slide.

“I wish I could take that back, because I don’t consider this an experiment,” he said. “So many people on the left really want this to fail. . . . This is a long-term strategy to make us more competitive.

Democrats and Republicans are both good at some things and bad at others. One of the things that Republicans are good at is making—and repeating over and over and over—firm predictions about the outcomes of their policy preferences. If you fail to wage eternal war in the Middle East, there will be a terrorist attack in the United States. If you lower taxes, the economy will improve. Etc.

These are easy things to understand for voters. And guess what? Eventually there will be a terrorist attack. Eventually the economy will improve. So when those things happen, Republicans have a nice, simple story already planted in the public mind that allows them to take credit or place blame for it.

Democrats are not so good at this. President Obama fumbled last night on 60 Minutes when he tried to take credit for the improved state of the economy compared to when he took office. Partly, of course, this is because the economy is only in so-so shape. But it's also because Democrats have no simple, pre-digested narrative. They never said—over and over and over—that if we passed a stimulus bill, the economy would improve. Or that if we rescued GM, the economy would improve. Or that if we raised taxes on the wealthy, the economy would improve. Instead, Democrats had sort of a dog's breakfast of policy choices that they endorsed, but never made into a centerpiece of a claim about economic recovery. So now, when the economy is recovering, nobody really gives them any credit.

Now, this may be a more honest way of conducting our affairs. Most government policies really do have only a modest effect on economic growth. Likewise, most government policies have only a modest effect on the chances of someone eventually pulling off a terrorist attack. But honest or not, it means voters don't associate Democrats with much of anything. They don't give them credit for improving the economy, for example, or for preventing terrorist attacks. And honest or not, it's political malpractice.

Report: Secret Service Lied About White House Fence Jumper

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 4:41 PM EDT

Omar Gonzalez, the White House fence-jumper from earlier this month, apparently surprised the guard at the front door because a nearby alarm box had been muted:

After barrelling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.

Secret Service officials had earlier said he was quickly detained at the main entry. Agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said the office is not commenting due to an ongoing investigation of the incident.

So....they just lied?

On a related note, I wonder who the whistleblowers are that have been feeding all this stuff to WaPo's Carol Leonnig? Not that it matters, I suppose, but I'm curious about whether it's folks who are appalled by the security lapses or folks who have some other kind of axe to grind.

Here's Yet Another Rage-Inducing Scam in the American Health Care System

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 1:03 PM EDT

Here is your statistic of the day:

The average salary of an emergency room physician was $311,000 in 2014, rising from $247,000 since 2010 — a period when many other types of doctors experienced declines in salaries, according to Merritt Hawkins, a physician staffing firm.

Why is this? A shortage of ER physicians? More emergencies? Higher standards for ER work?

Nope. Elisabeth Rosenthal's latest rage-inducing piece about America's health care system1 suggests the reason is far more corrupt. Apparently one of the great trends in American health care2 is to outsource ER staffing. This means that even if you're careful—possibly while in great pain or barely even coherent—to show up at an in-network ER covered by your insurance plan, there's a pretty good chance that the actual doctors who attend you aren't in your network. Naturally, this being American health care,3 you have no choice in this matter even if you're savvy enough to know about the whole in-network and out-of-network distinction. And as we all know, out-of-network docs in the American health care system4 are basically allowed to charge any prices they want. And they do.

This is a great scam for everyone. Presumably hospitals save money because freelance ER docs cost them less. And the ER docs cost less because they know they'll be able to run the ol' out-of-network scam on lots of patients, thus raking in the bucks. It's a win-win.

As a result, during a period of economic stagnation that produced zero wage growth for everyone else, ER docs are now making $64,000 more than they did four years ago. And they're doing this by preying on the most vulnerable, most easily scammable members of society: folks who are flat on their backs and almost by definition unable to understand what's going on around them. Not that it would matter if they did, of course. The law provides no recourse even if you don't like this system. That's the way things roll in the American health care system.5

If this kind of stuff doesn't make you pop a vein, I'm not sure what would. It's right on a par with the telemarketing ghouls who prey on senior citizens with dementia. Except that these guys wear white coats and are welcomed into all the best country clubs.

1Best in the World, Baby.™

2Best in the World, Baby.™

3Best in the World, Baby.™

4Best in the World, Baby.™

5Best in the World, Baby.™

Republicans Once Again Favored to Take Control of the Senate

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Remember my post a couple of weeks ago saying that Republicans were no longer favored to take control of the Senate? Well, recent polls have not been kind to the Ds, and now everyone—including Sam Wang—agrees that Republicans are once again favored. Here's the Vox aggregation of aggregators:

You may now either celebrate or else sharpen up your seppuku knives, depending on your partisan leanings. But keep one thing in mind: two weeks ago, only one pollster out of six thought Republicans were favored. Today six out of six think Republicans are favored. Things can change mighty fast, and there's still more than a month to go before Election Day. Your guess is as good as mine whether Joni Ernst can go five consecutive weeks without letting the crazy show.

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Obama Needs to Learn How to Admit Error on National TV

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 11:10 AM EDT

So President Obama was on 60 Minutes last night. Steve Kroft asked about the meteoric rise of ISIS in northern Iraq:

Steve Kroft: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

I can't find a full transcript to verify that this was the complete context surrounding Obama's remark, but I wonder what possesses him to do stuff like this? It's Management 101 that you don't throw folks under the bus (on national TV!) unless you have pretty convincing reasons for doing so. I mean, all he had to do was say that "we underestimated" what was happening in Syria.

This is really tone deaf. Even if the whole debacle really was Clapper's fault, it would still sound terrible to say so. Was this just a real-time flub? Or, after six years, does Obama still not understand how petty it sounds to try to deflect blame this way?

Obama Threatened Far More Often Than Any Previous President

| Sat Sep. 27, 2014 8:35 PM EDT

Carol Leonnig has a piece in the Washington Post today about a botched Secret Service response to a 2011 shooting at the White House:

The suspect was able to park his car on a public street, take several shots and then speed off without being detected. It was sheer luck that the shooter was identified, the result of Ortega, a troubled and jobless 21-year-old, wrecking his car seven blocks away and leaving his gun inside.

The response infuriated the president and the first lady, according to people with direct knowledge of their reaction. Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about fearing for her family’s safety since her husband became the nation’s first black president.

Her concerns are well founded — President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors, according to people briefed on the Secret Service’s threat assessment.

Gee, I wonder why?

A Very Special Friday Cat Blogging - 26 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 26, 2014 2:35 PM EDT

So. Marian and I paid a visit to our local shelter on Monday. We figured on adopting an adult cat. Maybe a calico, if one was available. So naturally we walked out with two kittens, one gray and white and the other black and white. They're brother and sister, 10 months old. For the moment, their code names are Miss Flopsy (on the left) and Mr. Mopsy (on the right). Soon they'll get permanent names, but we haven't decided yet what they'll be. Vickie and Bertie? Luke and Leia? Frankie and Ellie?

In any case, life is more exciting around here these days. There is much chasing and pouncing. So far they've both fallen off just about everything that's possible to fall off. My bookcases are a shambles. And eight hours of sleep at night is not really on the agenda.

But I know you all want to reward me for this act of catblogging heroism, don't you? And you can! If you haven't done it already, how about contributing a few bucks to the MoJo investigative fund? Please think of the kittens, won't you?

It only takes a minute to make your tax-deductible contribution, and you can give using your smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Flopsy and Mopsy thank you!

Chart of the Day: The Death of Print

| Fri Sep. 26, 2014 1:29 PM EDT

Here's a BLS chart that shows how much we spend on reading-related materials. But what does it mean? It's true that young folks spend less on reading material than anyone else, but that's mostly because of their complete non-interest in dead-tree magazines and newspapers. Also, presumably, because young folks spend less on everything than prosperous older folks.

But if you add up the books + e-readers category, young folks are spending nearly as much as anyone else. It's just not clear what they're reading. E-books? Longform articles? Blogs? TMZ? Hard to say. Then again, it's not clear what the older folks are reading either. It may be on paper, but it's probably not Shakespeare for the most part.

In any case, this shows fairly dramatically that print is dying. As we all know by now, young folks mostly prefer digital. And so do plenty of non-young folks like me. I occasionally have to read a print book, but I'm annoyed whenever it happens.