Kevin Drum

The GOP Choice: Tea Parties or Independents?

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 1:39 AM EDT

At the risk of embarrassing myself badly if someone points out an obvious mistake, I've stitched together an interesting pair of charts for you to look at tonight. But first some background. As you may know, the latest Gallup generic poll shows a sudden surge of support for Democrats. Why? Gallup suggests it might be related to passage of the financial reform bill, but I'm skeptical of that. Democrats have gone from 2 percentage points down to 6 percentage points up in only two weeks, by far their biggest jump in the past four months. Could a complex and barely understood regulatory bill really have caused that?

Maybe, but here's another possibility. It turns out that the Democratic surge is largely due to a sudden jump in support from independents. So what caused that? Well, I was struck by an unusual correspondence between two of Gallup's charts. It turns out that whenever enthusiasm goes up among registered Republicans, preference for Republicans goes down among independents. The pasted-together chart below — it's a little messy I'm afraid — shows five cases of a jump in Republican enthusiasm (top chart) along with the corresponding drop in Republican support among independents (bottom chart). It's not a perfect correlation, but it's a pretty good one.

Anyway. Here's my guess: every time Republicans do something that gets the tea party base excited, it simultaneously turns off independents. I'm not quite sure what caused the latest jump (NBPP fever? tax cuts pay for themselves? unemployment compensation obstructionism?), but apparently it was something.

So this is the GOP's big problem for November: they need to motivate their base, but their base is so stone crazy that the only way to pander to them is with tactics so outrageous that non-crazies start to turn away. So far this hasn't hurt them too badly because the independents tend to come back until a fresh provocation hits the airwaves a few weeks later, but eventually this might catch up to them. There's obviously no rigorous statistics involved here, just sort of a gut feel. Take it for what it's worth.

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SCIF Envy

| Tue Jul. 20, 2010 12:00 AM EDT

From Bruce Paquin, owner of a construction business in Washington DC, on the U.S. national security establishment:

In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF. They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.

This comes from "Top Secret America," a series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest and Bill Arkin. SCIF stands for sensitive compartmented information facility, a special room "encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes." It's where you go if you're important enough to be allowed to read top secret information.

Bellesiles Followup

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 6:52 PM EDT

Just to follow up on the Michael Bellesiles post from last week, it turns out the story he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about a student whose brother was killed in Iraq was indeed fabricated. But not, apparently, by Bellesiles. For reasons left unexplained in an editor's note, it turns out the student made up the story. Very odd.

Plan B in Afghanistan

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

Joe Klein last week:

Amazing how David Petraeus can just crash through impasses and get his way. He's even able to do get Hamid Karzai, who has boggled every other American who has dealt with him, to do something he doesn't want to do — set up a system of local militias in rural Afghanistan....We should have some sense whether Petraeus' resort to the tribes, which worked in Iraq, will have similar success in Afghanistan by the time the Obama policy review commences in December. But you have to be impressed by the general's ability to get his way, without much fuss and quickly.

I wonder if this explains Petraeus's success?

The Obama administration is revising its Afghanistan strategy to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior members of the Taliban through third parties — a policy to which it had previously been lukewarm. Negotiation with the Taliban has long been advocated by Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan president, and the British and Pakistan governments, but resisted by the US.

Perhaps Petraeus offered Karzai a deal: he supports the local militia idea, the United States supports negotiation with the Taliban. Everybody wins a little something, and if this report is correct, the key to success was likely garden variety diplomacy, not Petraeus's superpowers.

The Rich, Our Newest Old Problem

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 1:15 PM EDT

Ryan Avent writes:

One of the thing that continues to surprise me about Washington, though it shouldn't, is the extent to which those involved in the policymaking process think in terms of interests — almost exclusively. This is a direct reflection of the outsized influence interests have over the policymaking process ("the people" tend not to get all that involved), and it's therefore easily understandable, but it's also pretty pernicious. A politics that seeks to balance interests will consistently give short shrift to the goal of societal good. We can think about this in terms of trade: producing industries may want trade protections, which will be good for their concentrated interest but bad for the economy as a whole. These protections could hurt other industries that use imports as inputs, and which therefore mobilise opposition. Congress subsequently buys off the opposition with subsidies, leaving all interests happy and social welfare clearly reduced.

This is obviously not a new problem. James Madison wrote about it. Mancur Olsen wrote about it. Small, intense interest groups have an advantage over large, diffuse populations, and that advantage is probably multiplied by the modern technology environment, which makes it easier to quickly mobilize communities of interest than ever before.

Still, even taking that into account, it's become worse, hasn't it? Partly this is because the Republican Party has become almost purely driven by specific corporate interests, not free market principles writ large, while simultaneously convincing a lot of ordinary citizens that all these bennies they're handing out are merely a sign of capitalism at work. Likewise, after the grim years of the 80s, Democrats decided their old interest groups were no longer enough to produce electoral victories, and decided they needed to become a party of big business too. That same technology environment that makes mobilization easier also makes campaigning more expensive, and with the skyrocketing growth in income inequality over the past 30 years, there's really only one place to get the money you need to win office: rich individuals and rich businesses. Which are, to a considerable extent, the same things.

There are still plenty of other interests: abortion groups, gun groups, environnmental groups, and so on. But they're all increasingly overshadowed by the rich as a catch-all interest group. The rich, ever since the mid-70s, have gotten ever richer, which gives them more power to push government policies that help the rich. This makes them richer still, which in turn gives them yet more power. Rinse and repeat. If the rich were a little brighter or a little more enlightened, this might not be a huge problem. But they aren't.

The Romans said cui bono. Deep Throat said "follow the money." Today neither one is really an adequate description. We need an update.

I Just Can't Quit You, Sarah Palin

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

This is, I kid you not, a screen shot from the front page of the Washington Post. In case you missed it, Sarah Palin made a mistake in a Twitter post Sunday night, using the word "refudiate" instead of "repudiate."

I repeat: this is front page news. In the Washington Post. I'm reminded of Ari Melber's piece last week about Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" video, which, it turns out, only 2% of her Facebook fans watched. Where did the rest of its 368,000 views come from? Links from the traditional media, it turns out:

It's quite a feat. Palin blasts the "lamestream" media while claiming to commune directly with her base, which draws extensive media coverage for an effort that actually reaches a tiny number of people. Without the media assist, though, Palin would just be sitting on a Facebook page with 2 percent participation and a YouTube video with niche numbers....Some reporters are catching on. "I hope we don't hear from Sarah Palin about media bias anymore," Chuck Todd recently said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "because it is amazing the ability this woman has to get media attention with as little as she does, whether it's a Twitter or a Facebook update."

In fairness to the Post, Palin's miscue was a huge Twitter sensation among lefties last night. I swear, I think about 50% of the posts in my Twitter feed for a two or three hour period last night were lame jokes about "refudiate." And in further fairness, as long as Palin seemingly has make-or-break endorsement power in Republican campaigns and remains a possible presidential candidate, they have to cover her. But isn't it about time to limit that coverage to actual newsworthy events? If she gives a major speech on the future of national security in a multipolar world, fine. Cover away. But a mistake in a Twitter post? Maybe think twice about that.

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The Ground Zero Mosque

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 11:38 AM EDT

Does anyone know of a tick tock that explains how the "Ground Zero mosque" became a sudden cause célèbre among the tea party wing of the conservative movement? Here's a New York Times story from last December, and it doesn't so much as mention any objection to the purchase of the building in question (which is two blocks away from the World Trade Center site). By May, Newsweek was suggesting that plans for the mosque were "prompting outrage in the blogosphere," but not much of anywhere else. At the same time, CNN reported that local residents were divided but that the Community Board of lower Manhattan had approved the project unanimously.

Now, a couple of months later, it seems to have erupted into a full fledged right wing frenzy. So who started it? Hannity? Rush? Sarah P.? Does anyone have a timeline showing how and when the noise machine picked up on this as the outrage du jour?

UPDATE: Here's a start from TPM, which takes the story through May 28. Anybody got something more recent that explains when the big guns started getting involved?

What Happens After November?

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:49 AM EDT

Jon Chait has a good post today on a subject that's been in the back of my mind too: what lessons are Republicans taking from the Tea Party takeover of the GOP? As he points out, so far it's been a disaster. Pat Toomey's primary challenge of Arlen Specter brought us healthcare reform, Sharron Angle's victory in Nevada is likely to let Harry Reid keep his seat, and Tea Party darlings Rand Paul (in Kentucky) and Marco Rubio (in Florida) have turned safe seats into nailbiters. And of course there was Doug Hoffman's insurgency last year in New York's 23rd district, which accomplished nothing except to split the conservative vote and hand the seat to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War:

This is four Senate seats put at serious risk by running right-wing primary challenges, plus one enormous liberal domestic policy accomplishment....I have seen no recriminations whatsoever in hindsight. And yet it seems perfectly clear that the effect of these challenges has been a disaster from the conservative perspective.

....Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It's a tactical radicalism, a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever.

The usual way this stuff works is that a party that overreaches gets pummeled at the polls and then grudgingly moves to the center in order to win back votes. Think Republicans after Goldwater, Democrats after Reagan, and Britain's Labor Party after Thatcher. The main question is, how long does it take?

Republicans have now gotten pummeled for two elections in a row. That's not enough. Three in a row might do it, but unfortunately for the GOP, they're going to win big this year no matter what. Even if Republicans do worse than expected — say, a 20-seat pickup in the House and three or four in the Senate — that's plenty big enough for them to think of it as a resounding public endorsement. In fact, it might be the worst of all possible worlds for them: big enough to keep everyone motivated, but small enough to keep them in the minority, where they can continue to spout the most extreme Tea Party rhetoric with no need to back it up. It's the ideal combination to keep them deluded into thinking that if they just follow the one true path a little more diligently, victory will be theirs.

I haven't been able to figure out how this ends. I guess I'll just have to wait and see like everyone else. One scenario is that they pick up seats but stay in the minority for next decade or so, and that's how long it takes for them to come to their senses. Another is that they win a congressional majority and then — what? It's obvious they have no intention of taking a meat axe to spending, and equally obvious that they know how unpopular this would be no matter what the tea partiers say. Check out Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) on Meet the Press today for comically convincing evidence of this. But what happens then? Is there any point at which the tea partiers will finally figure out that Republicans are willing to talk endlessly about slashing the federal government but are never willing to actually do it?

Or is John Quiggin right? Would Republicans, against all odds, actually try to live up to their rhetoric and end up shutting down the government, as Newt Gingrich did in 1995? And if so, what happens then? Sarah Palin in 2012? Followed by a Goldwater-style election debacle? It's hard to think of any way in which this ends up well for either the Republican Party or for the country.

Can California Legalize Marijuana?

| Sun Jul. 18, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

Mark Kleiman, clearly competing for killjoy of the year honors, explains why a California initiative to legalize marijuana won't work:

The federal Controlled Substances Act makes it a felony to grow or sell cannabis. California can repeal its own marijuana laws, leaving enforcement to the feds. But it can't legalize a federal felony. Therefore, any grower or seller paying California taxes on marijuana sales or filing pot-related California regulatory paperwork would be confessing, in writing, to multiple federal crimes. And that won't happen.

True, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has announced that the Justice Department will not prosecute people who are selling medical marijuana in compliance with California's law. But that's an entirely different matter....The feds can afford to take a laid-back attitude toward California's medical marijuana trade because it's unlikely to cause much of a trafficking problem in the rest of the country. Because dispensaries' prices are just as high as those for black-market marijuana, there's not much temptation to buy the "medical" sort in California and resell it out of state.

By contrast, the non-medical cannabis industry that would be allowed if Proposition 19 passed would quickly fuel a national illicit market....As a result, pot dealers nationwide — and from Canada, for that matter — would flock to California to stock up. There's no way on earth the federal government is going to tolerate that. Instead, we'd see massive federal busts of California growers and retail dealers, no matter how legal their activity was under state law.

On his blog, Mark says, "I may vote for the proposition anyway, just as a protest against the current laws." Me too. Besides, there's really no telling what the feds will do until someone forces the issue. So why not force it? At the very least it has a chance to move the public opinion needle a bit. Besides, I think it would be entertaining to watch the tea partiers twist in the wind trying to figure out which is more important: (a) making sure the hippies don't get their dope or (b) fighting the jackbooted tyranny of federal officers interfering with the sovereign Tenth Amendment right of states to police their own borders. Or something.

In any case, my guess is that Prop 19 will fail. It probably would regardless (it's already behind 44%-48%), but Mark is right: opponents can make a pretty scary case that it would lead to California becoming the pot capital of the United States and fueling gang/mafia/DEA wars of all stripes. The ads sort of write themselves. Unfortunately, we're probably still a few years away from having any chance of seriously discussing a sane marijuana policy. Even in California.

SCADA-phobia

| Sun Jul. 18, 2010 5:19 PM EDT

I honestly don't know if this is something to take seriously or just the latest in cyberwar hype, but....

Anti-virus specialists report that a new trojan is spreading via USB flash drives, apparently exploiting a previously unknown hole in Windows.

....An investigation by malware analyst Frank Boldewin has shown that this is not just any old trojan designed to harvest passwords from unsuspecting users....During his investigation, Boldewin came across some database queries the trojan made that point towards the WinCC SCADA system by Siemens. As Boldewin explained in an email to The H's associates at heise Security, a "normal" malware programmer wouldn't have managed to do that. Boldewin continued "As this Siemens SCADA system is used by many industrial enterprises worldwide, we must assume that the attackers' intention was industrial espionage or even espionage in the government area".

Stewart Baker explains what he thinks this means:

This particular exploit is remarkably sophisticated and singleminded....Most troubling is what the malware goes looking for once it starts up. The entire attack seems designed to exploit holes in the Siemens SCADA software that runs electric grids around the world.

As far as I can tell, there’s no reason to compromise a SCADA system other than to take it down. The SCADA system doesn’t contain credit card numbers or other financial data, and I doubt that compromising it is a cost-effective way to steal power for free....There are no obvious secrets to steal from a SCADA system — other than the secret of how to bring the system down. So the logical goal of the malware is not so much espionage as sabotage.

Let me repeat that for emphasis. This elaborate, previously unseen piece of malware, which surely could have been a big moneymaker if used to create a botnet or to send spam, has instead been put to use for a purpose that has no obvious economic payoff — compromising the power grid.

The comment thread on Baker's post is lively and, needless to say, not everyone agrees with him that this is as big a deal as he thinks. And since I don't have the chops to have an independent opinion, don't take this post as an endorsement of what Baker says. But it seemed interesting and potentially ugly. Just thought I'd pass it along.

And while I'm on the subject, if you didn't read Mark Bowden's Atlantic piece about the Conficker worm, "The Enemy Within," when it came out a few weeks ago, it's well worth your time. It's pretty riveting stuff if you have even a little touch of nerd in you.