Stewart Upton pens a remarkably unpersuasive argument in Foreign Policy today that things are actually going pretty well in Afghanistan:

We're Winning in Afghanistan: Why hasn't the media noticed?

....We are reaching the point in which the misperception being created by the media is undermining our ability to achieve their own definition of success in Afghanistan: denying al Qaeda a safe haven via a strengthened Afghan security force that is capable of taking over lead responsibility in the future.

Have insider attacks and sensational Taliban attacks taken place? Yes, and we are accountable for that. But there is something to the comments made by senior officials that the sensational attacks are reflective of a desperate insurgency. If you were a Taliban commander losing an insurgency for the past couple of years since the surge, wouldn't you feel the need to conduct sensational attacks to give the perception your narrative is winning out and to reassure your followers?

In the space of two paragraphs, Upton hauls out two of the hoariest old tropes of the Afghanistan apologists: (1) media pessimism is undermining us, and (2) all those Taliban attacks are just a sign of desperation. Then there's this:

The results of the surge — specifically, the growth of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) in both size and capabilities — has made it possible for the coalition to transition to what we call a Security Force Assistance mode of operations....Should Afghans see confidence and esprit de corps in the ANSF, we could see something similar to the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq.

That confidence is starting to build....This past week all of the casualties for our area of operations were members of the ANSF. Don't underestimate ANSF's bravery or their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country because they are doing it every single day. They are not afraid of the Taliban, and they move quickly to the sound of the gun.

I don't know how things are really going in Afghanistan. Hell, maybe Upton is right. And the truth is that I'm willing to let them stick to their current 2014 timetable. It's probably the best chance we have of a non-catastrophic endgame. Nonetheless, Upton's happy talk rings pretty hollow when ISAF's own figures show that Taliban attacks remain at far higher levels than they were in 2008 and 2009, before the surge started. I don't see a lot of reason for optimism in the chart below.

Supporters of plans to voucherize Medicare often point to Medicare Advantage as a model. MA providers bid for Medicare contracts and are typically paid a set amount for each beneficiary they sign up. In theory, because MA providers compete against each other (and against traditional Medicare), they have an incentive to provide services more efficiently, offering seniors greater benefits and better care per dollar spent.

That's debatable, but Austin Frakt points us to a new study that makes it an even more dubious claim. The chart on the right is the key evidence, and it requires a bit of explanation. For each year since 1999, it shows the average cost of patients who switch in and out of Medicare Advantage. In 1999, for example, Medicare patients who switched in to MA plans had average costs (in the previous six months) that were 80% of the average. Patients who switched out of MA plans had average costs (in the subsequent six months) that were 40% higher than average.

This same dynamic has held year after year. What it means is that, somehow, MA plans find ways to attract patients with low costs and dump patients with high costs. In other words, to the extent they provide better services for lower costs, they do it by cherry picking the healthiest patients and leaving the sickest patients for traditional Medicare.

If we switch to a fully voucherized Medicare system, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would like, this would almost certainly become worse. Private plans, it turns out, aren't really any more efficient than traditional Medicare, and would probably end up competing on the basis of ever more brutal ways of making their plans attractive to the healthy and unbearable to the sick. This does not strike me as a very appealing model.

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a darling of the tea party who's now running for the Senate, is in hot water:

Defending his stance that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape, Mourdock explained that pregnancy resulting from nonconsensual sex is the will of God. “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Mourdock is getting beat up pretty bad for this, and I think that's just fine. At the same time, can't we all acknowledge that this is just conventional Christian theology? Theodicy is the study of why an omnipotent God permits the existence of evil, and while the term is of fairly recent vintage, Christians and Jews have struggled with the question itself pretty much since the time they decided God was omnipotent. See Job, Book of, for more. Or, if you want to check out something that was more likely to influence Mourdock directly, take a look at the recent mega-bestseller The Shack, which engages with almost precisely the question that Mourdock has struggled with.

What I find occasionally odd is that so many conventional bits of theology like this are so controversial if someone actually mentions them in public. God permits evil. My faith is the only true one. People of other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. Etc. There's a lot of stuff like this which is either explicit or implied in sects of all kinds, and at an abstract level we all know it. Somehow, though, when someone actually says it, it's like they farted in church. Weird.

Mitt Romney says the American Navy is smaller than it was in 1916. In a naive ship-counting sense, where big ships and small ships all carry the same weight, that might be true. But what really matters is relative strength: how powerful is the U.S. Navy compared to all the rest of the navies of the world? Over at the Monkey Cage, Brian Crisher and Mark Souva summarize a dataset they created earlier this year that estimates the naval power of various countries from 1865 through 2011. The chart on the right is taken from their data.

So how are we doing? In 1916, America controlled about 11 percent of the world's naval power. In 2010, we controlled about 50 percent. We may have fewer ships than we did during World War I, but we carry a way bigger stick than we did back then. Measured in the only way that makes sense, American naval strength today is greater than it's ever been in history.

In my piece a few months ago about the Republican push for voter ID laws ("The Dog That Voted"), I hung my narrative largely around Thor Hearne, the little-known Republican lawyer who founded the American Center for Voting Rights in 2005 and spent the next two years barnstorming the country with grim tales of voter fraud and stolen elections. Then, having tilled the field, he disappeared, leaving others to finish up the task of passing voter ID laws all over the country.

But if Hearne was the policy entrepreneur who got it all started, Hans von Spakovsky is the ubiquitous snake oil salesman who's become the most persistent foot soldier in the voter fraud wars. In the New Yorker this week, Jane Mayer profiles the man who has become the most famous and brazen purveyor of voter fraud whoppers in the country. Here she is on the issue of people casting ballots under a false name:

Von Spakovsky offered me the names of two experts who, he said, would confirm that voter-impersonation fraud posed a significant peril: Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, at American University, and Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. Pastor, von Spakovsky noted, had spoken to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about being a victim of election fraud: voting in Georgia, he discovered that someone else had already voted under his name.

When I reached Pastor, he clarified what had happened to him. “I think they just mistakenly checked my name when my son voted—it was just a mistake.” He added, “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.” Pastor believes that, compared with other democracies, America is “somewhere near the bottom in election administration,” and thinks that voter I.D.s make sense—but only if they are free and easily available to all, which, he points out, is not what Republican legislatures have proposed. Sabato, who supports the use of voter I.D.s under the same basic conditions, says of the voter-impersonation question, “One fraudulent vote is one too many, but my sense is that it’s relatively rare today.”

This is typical von Spakovsky. He routinely throws out incendiary charges, apparently hoping that either no one will check up on them or that no one will care once they eventually hear the real story. Rick Hasen wrote about his encounters with von Spakovsky in some detail in The Voting Wars, and he talked to Mayer for her piece:

Hasen, who calls von Spakovsky a leading member of “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad,” told me that he respects many other conservative advocates in his area of expertise, but dismisses scholars who allege widespread voter-impersonation fraud. “I see them as foot soldiers in the Republican army,” he says. “It’s just a way to excite the base. They are hucksters. They’re providing fake scholarly support. They’re not playing fairly with the facts. And I think they know it.”

To repeat a point I've made before: there's only one kind of fraud that voter ID laws can stop: impersonation fraud, where someone tries to vote under a false name. Even in theory, ID laws can't stop ballot box stuffing or registration fraud or machine tampering or any other kind of vote fraud. They can only stop impersonation fraud.

And impersonation fraud just doesn't exist. No politician would be insane enough to try it on a broad enough scale to throw an election, and virtually no individuals are insane enough to risk a felony just for the sake of casting a single vote:

Hasen says that, while researching “The Voting Wars,” he “tried to find a single case” since 1980 when “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.” He couldn’t find one. News21, an investigative-journalism group, has reported that voter impersonation at the polls is a “virtually non-existent” problem. After conducting an exhaustive analysis of election-crime prosecutions since 2000, it identified only seven convictions for impersonation fraud. None of those cases involved conspiracy.

Photo ID laws are a scam. Republicans loudly deny that their real purpose is to suppress the vote among blacks, students, and the poor — all of whom have lower than average rates of possessing photo ID — but what other motivation is left? They have no impact on voter fraud and everyone knows it.

From Jennifer Rubin, in a column insisting that Barack Obama has too apologized for America:

Liberals don't even see that Obama’s excoriating his predecessor is apologizing for this nation, but of course it is. George W. Bush wasn't acting as a private citizen, and whatever he actions he took were done in the name of the United States.

This pretty much mocks itself, doesn't it? In any case, Jimmy Carter will certainly be glad to hear that conservatives plan to stop criticizing all the actions he took in the name of the United States. Better late than never, I guess.

Just a quick update. The press mostly seems to be stuck in its post-first-debate groove of insisting that Mitt Romney has all the momentum and is closing fast on President Obama. And maybe so. But that's not what our best forecasters think. Models from both Sam Wang and Nate Silver show the same thing: Romney surged after the first debate, but by October 12 that started to turn around. Since then, the momentum has mostly been Obama's. Just sayin'.

Speaking of the hack gap, can I take a little victory lap on this? Think about what we saw last night: Mitt Romney dispassionately marched through the entire oeuvre of conservative obsessions on foreign policy and rejected virtually every single one of them. He's getting out of Afghanistan with no conditions; he's happy we helped get rid of Hosni Mubarak; he'll take no serious action against Syria; he wants to indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the World Court; he didn't even mention Benghazi; and he refused to say straight-up that he'd support Israel if they bombed Iran. It's the kind of performance that should have had a guy like Charles Krauthammer tearing his hair out, but instead we got this:

I think it's unequivocal: Romney won. And he didn't just win tactically, but strategically.

Was there any rending of garments anywhere else? Not for a second. Conservatives just reveled in the fact that Romney apparently made himself acceptable to undecided voters. Yuval Levin: "Romney clearly achieved his aim." Ramesh Ponnuru: "Advantage Romney." Rich Lowry: "Romney executed what must have been his strategy nearly flawlessly." Bill Kristol: "Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as—probably more capable than—Barack Obama of being the next president." Stanley Kurtz: "Romney has now decisively established himself as a credible alternative to Obama." Erick Erickson: "Mitt Romney won this debate."

On a substantive level, Romney's performance from a conservative point of view was worse than Obama's in the first debate. It was pure rope-a-dope, with Romney abandoning virtually every foreign policy position the right holds dear while utterly refusing to attack President Obama as the weak-kneed appeaser they believe him to be. And yet....no one seemed to mind. As far as the right is concerned, two weeks before an election is no time to get too worried over principle.

I'm just curious. Has this passage from the debate last night gotten any attention in conservative circles? It's Mitt Romney explaining what he'd do to Iran aside from tightening sanctions further:

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariahs they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

Can you imagine the howls from the Drudge/Rush/Fox axis if Obama — or any other Democrat — had said that? Their contempt for legal proceedings at The Hague is pretty well known, and the idea that a president of the United States would make such impotent action a centerpiece of his Iran strategy would elicit withering scorn. National Review would splash it on its cover, the Weekly Standard would write a hysterical editorial, Drudge would bring out his siren, and Rush would spend hours harping on it. "The Hague" would become yet another in a long line of conservative pet rocks, to go along with Fast & Furious and Obama's removal of the Churchill bust from the White House.

And yet, I didn't notice any conservatives taking issue with this last night. Am I wrong about that? Or is the hack gap every bit as big as I think it is?

Watching Sean Hannity on Fox, I'm sure not feeling much excitement about Romney's performance. He spent five minutes talking to Sarah Palin, and they spent most of the time expressing disappointment about what Romney didn't say. "He just didn't have time to make all the points he needed to," Palin sighed. In the end, they used nearly the entire segment imagining the attacks Romney should have made, rather than defending what he did say. I'm not surprised, since Romney went out of his way to be as un-Foxlike as possible on the warmongering front.

I'm not sure if this will be the line of the night, but Obama was obviously prepared for Romney to repeat his tired talking point that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917." I guess Romney just couldn't resist. But Obama zinged back immediately:

Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.

Not only is this a good line, but it made Romney look naive and childish, dishing out puerile talking points without really understanding what they mean.

The CBS snap poll of uncommitted voters gave the debate to Obama, 53%-23%. CNN's poll of all debate viewers (which tilts Republican) showed Obama winning 48%-40%. PPP's poll of swing state voters had Obama winning 53%-42%.

For my money, Obama's best moment came after Romney hauled out his "apology tour" trope. The transcript doesn't do it justice. On paper it sounds good, but his delivery made it great. He sounded just a smidge outraged by the whole thing, which was exactly the right tone.

On MSNBC, Steve Schmidt says he thinks Romney passed the "commander-in-chief test." I'm not so sure about that. I don't think this debate hurt him badly, but I sure don't think he looked especially ready to take over America's foreign policy.

Mark Kleiman: "Obama landed some heavy blows, while Romney maundered; in a sane world, Obama would count as the clear winner. In the actual world, more or less a draw. Romney’s capacity not to notice when he’s had a hole blown in him is astounding." I suspect that's a little too pessimistic. I think most viewers probably noticed Romney's inability to articulate any real policy differences with Obama.

Chuck Todd: Republicans "aren't claiming victory, just saying he passed a bar." That sounds about right. Also, "Foreign policy heavyweights were disappointed, didn't feel like he articulated anything."

Andrew Sprung: "As I expected, Romney brought Moderate Mitt to this debate. Practically the first word out of his mouth was "peace" — and throughout, he stressed that he wanted to foster peace....Now, Mitt is the one pushing economic aid in the Muslim world, using sweet persuasion to defuse extremism, fostering a new ally in Syria, rebuilding a relationship with Pakistan. He even had the chutzpah to suggest that he was the one more likely to bring about a Israeli-Palestinian settlement. He portrayed China as a potential partner, implying they'd just brush off being labeled a currency manipulator."

Andrew Sullivan thinks Romney did better than I did: "For Romney, he made no massive mistakes. No Gerald Ford moments. And since the momentum of this race is now his, if now faltering a little, a defeat on points on foreign policy will be an acceptable result. But this was Obama's debate; and he reminded me again of how extraordinarily lucky this country has been to have had him at the helm in this new millennium."

Hilarious line of the night comes from Sean Hannity: "Marines still use bayonets, so maybe somebody should educate the president about how the military works." Seriously? Apparently so. Later on Hannity was crowing about the Marines using horses in Afghanistan too. This just reeks of desperation.

Republicans are spinning hard to make this sound like an Obama debacle, but if you read between the lines, conservative reaction to the debate hasn't been very positive. Romney decided — probably with good reason — that he needed to be extremely restrained tonight, and this meant that he barely mentioned any of the Republican pet rocks that keep the base so riled up. No Churchill bust. No failure to meet with Netanyahu. No attacks over Benghazi. Only a bare mention of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt. This has left conservatives mostly mooning about what Romney should have said and relitigating Benghazi all over again. They think Obama has proven himself the weakest world leader since Neville Chamberlain, and they just don't understand why Romney didn't mop up the floor with him.

The conventional wisdom, such as it is, is that Romney took this tack because he needs to build support among women, and bellicosity doesn't play well with that demographic. Maybe so. We'll see if that works out for him. But it sure has left a long trail of despondent conservatives behind him.