Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 January 2010

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:58 PM EST

Catblogging today is a visual metaphor for the dismal week we progressives have been suffering through. It's been raining Old Testament style this week in Southern California, and that means Inkblot doesn't get to go out and play in the morning. Instead, all he can do is stare forlornly out the bleak, gray window, wondering why Daddy won't let him go outside.

Of course, he should know why by now. Daddy did let him go out once or twice earlier in the week and feline opinion was firm: Inkblot. Did. Not. Like. It. At all. Water came out of the sky and fell on his fur! I've told him he should blame it all on Democratic fecklessness and Republican intransigence. And why not? That's what I'm blaming everything else on this week. Might as well get some mileage out of it.

Here's hoping that everyone regains a measure of sanity next week. There's a lot of work to do.

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Wall Street Yawns

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:25 PM EST

"New Bank Rules Sink Stocks" shouted the Wall Street Journal yesterday after President Obama announced his plan to rein in the size and riskiness of the financial sector. But here's an email I got this morning from a friend:

Nobody I've talked to on Wall Street seems to think the proposed reforms (although details remain vague) are anything more than PR, aimed in the wrong direction, don't do anything to make risk-taking more expensive, and are mere structural reforms that will be annoying to get around, but will be gotten around.

We'll see what comes out in the next few days. Maybe there's more to it than telling a bank you can't invest in PE funds. We can hope anyway.

But if the intent was to "go after the banks" and get the HuffPo crowd revved up, it seems to be working. Hey, maybe we can throw in Geithner or Bernanke's scalp and "hope" will re-spring eternal.

Or at least for the next couple weeks.

You know, if investors were really worried that these new rules were going to have teeth, the Dow would have dropped a couple thousand points, not a couple hundred. But the details of Obama's proposal are sketchy, Barney Frank has already made it clear that nothing will happen quickly, and Tim Geithner is busily assuring everyone that he'll make sure it's all done with a light touch. So nothing to worry about, folks.

Obama could have seriously taken on Wall Street last June if he'd wanted to. It's not as if he was too busy with healthcare, since he was mostly leaving that up to Congress anyway, and in any case it's a completely different set of people who work on these things. And it would have been popular. But now? It's pretty hard to suddenly pivot into populist mode and be taken seriously. So no one is taking him seriously.

And once again: the key thing would be to regulate leverage in every form throughout the entire financial system. That would allow us to have a thriving financial sector that's also a safe financial sector. Unfortunately, it's also the one thing that would seriously limit the ability of Wall Street banks to make astronomical amounts of money. So it remains largely off limits.

UPDATE: More here from Felix Salmon, who has a good roundup of whether Obama's proposals are likely to have a serious impact.

Time to Grow a Pair

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 2:50 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan's frenzied approach to politics doesn't always wear well. But you have to admit, when he's on a roll, he's on a roll. Here he is today on the end of the "phony war" of Obama's first term, in which there was still some hope of co-opting and compromising with the forces of reaction:

But the truth is that these forces have also been so passionate, so extreme, and so energized that in a country reeling from a recession, the narrative — a false, paranoid, nutty narrative — has taken root in the minds of some independents. Obama, under-estimating the extremism of his opponents, has focused on actually addressing the problems we face. And the rest of us, crucially, have sat back and watched and complained and carped when we didn't get everything we want. We can keep on carping if we want to. But it seems to me that continuing that — as HuffPo et al. appear to be doing — is objectively siding with the forces of profound reaction right now.

....Look at what we are facing right now: a take-no-prisoners right, empowered by a massive new wave of corporate money unleashed by the Supreme Court, able to wield a 41 seat minority to oppose anything Obama wants, setting up a cycle of failure for a president whom they can then pillory at the polls, and unrepentant about near-dictatorial powers for the presidency, and the routinization of torture in the American government. These forces cannot be appeased. They simply have to be confronted.

....This is about more than health reform and we have to see it in that context. This is about a cynical nihilist attempt to break this presidency before it has had a chance to do what we elected it to do by a landslide vote. It is an attempt to destroy a majority's morale, to break a president's foreign policy autonomy, to prevent engagement in the Middle East peace process, to stop action on climate change, to restore torture, to increase tensions with the Muslim world, to launch a war on Iran. We cannot delude ourselves that if Obama fails, this is not the alternative. It is.

....So fight, Mr President. And to the House Democrats who won't go along with the only way to salvage health reform: this is the only sure-fire way you will lose in November. If you pass this bill, you may also go down in this climate. But you will have done something you can be proud of. Politics cannot always be about narrow self-interest. If it always is, nothing important can get done.

This really is a defining moment for both Obama and the Democratic Party more broadly. So far both have failed miserably: the party is in a state of meltdown, surrendering completely to a resurgent Republican narrative, refusing to fight for anything it believes in, and caving in to a truly toxic combination of electoral fear and narrow interest group parochialism. For his part, Obama seems either unable or unwilling to rally his troops. I'm not sure which. But the American public really needs to hear some conviction from him, and so far they haven't. He's remained aloof from the healthcare upheaval, pivoted on financial regulation in a way that looks driven more by politics than by core beliefs, and has just generally sounded more chastened than reinvigorated.

This really needs to turn around fast. Another week like this — hell, another day or two like this — and we might as well start measuring the Oval Office drapes for the upcoming Cheney/Palin administration. It's time for everyone to take a deep breath and grow a pair. Today would be a good time to start.

Selling Climate Change

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 1:49 PM EST

Ah, Frank Luntz, the evil genius of conservative wordsmithing. But wait! The one-time Republican wunderkind is no longer just a Republican, no longer all that young, sports a full beard to mask his youthful appearance, and even moved to California for a while. I think he's back in Virginia these days, but apparently we green-ified him while he was here, because he recently teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to figure out the best way of selling the public on action to combat global warming. Kate Sheppard reports his advice: the public already believes in global warming, so just shut up about it:

So what should environmentalists say instead? Luntz suggests less talk of dying polar bears and more emphasis on how legislation will create jobs, make the planet healthier and decrease US dependence on foreign oil. Advocates should emphasize words like "cleaner," "healthier," and "safer";  scrap "green jobs" in favor of "American jobs," and ditch terms like "sustainability" and "carbon neutral" altogether. "It doesn't matter if there is or isn't climate change," he said. "It's still in America's best interest to develop new sources of energy that are clean, reliable, efficient and safe."

Brad Plumer has more:

"You're fighting the wrong battle," he told the assembled group of advocates. People want to hear about "energy dependence on the Middle East" and "creating jobs that can't be shipped overseas" rather than "melting glaciers or polar bears."....Luntz insists that Americans would support a cap on carbon emissions — 80 percent of Dems, but also 43 percent of Republicans he surveyed are either definitely or pretty sure climate change is a problem that's caused in part by humans. But he doesn't believe cap-and-trade can pass as long as "it’s called ‘cap-and-trade,’ and all the messaging that’s been used against it. The title has become so demonized that they’ve got to come up with a new name.”

Well, that's not bad advice, though honestly, any new name would get demonized pretty quickly too. And of course liberals are hobbled by overscrupulous wonks — like me! — who really hate blathering on about "energy independence on the Middle East" since we know perfectly well that (a) nothing we do is going to change that and (b) it's not the real issue anyway. Besides, it also plays into the hands of the coal industry, which might be bound and determined to destroy the planet but will do so with a product that's as American as apple pie.

So this needs some thought. Should we accept a little bit of benign fudging and the possibility of emboldening the coal industry in return for better messaging? Or stick to our guns and give no quarter to King Coal? Hmmm.

Quote of the Day: Futility

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 12:54 PM EST

From Ronald Brownstein, explaining in a nutshell what's happened to our political system:

We are operating in what amounts to a parliamentary system without majority rule, a formula for futility.

Yep. In a parliamentary system, party discipline is absolute. With a few rare exceptions, you vote with your party at all times, and there's no such thing as "bipartisanship." And it works fine. But it works fine because parliamentary democracies have a bunch of machinery that makes it work: majorities are able to pass legislation, no-confidence votes can bring down an unpopular government, party platforms are taken seriously, etc. We don't have any of that stuff. What we've evolved over the past 20 years is a de facto parliamentary system without any of the machinery that makes it work. The result is national gridlock.

The Problem with Incrementalism

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 12:17 PM EST

I think I assumed that everyone already knew this, but probably not. Matt Yglesias points out today that not only do Senate rules allow a minority to obstruct bills with majority support, but they allow them to delay even bills that have supermajority support:

First you need to file cloture on the motion to proceed. Then it takes about a day for cloture to “ripen.” Then there’s the cloture vote. Then a 30 hour waiting period. Then the vote on the motion to proceed. Then, even if there’s nothing left to debate, you need to do the whole thing over again. File for cloture. Take a day for cloture to ripen. Then the cloture vote. Then 30 hours. Then you vote.

One consequence of this is that if you have 100 small ways to improve the health care system, each of which piss off some small interest group, you can’t do the sensible thing and just bring each small idea to the floor separately and pass it. The sheer amount of time it takes to overcome some random bloc of Senators’ opposition makes it not worthwhile for most members. To get an idea enacted into law over determined opposition, you not only need at least 60 Senators to agree with it, you need them to be enthusiastic enough to let your pet plan eat up all this time.

By itself, this isn't such a bad thing. The Senate is supposed to be the "cooling" chamber, so having rules in place that allow the minority to delay action is entirely in keeping with its original intent. But when you put it together with the institutionalization of the filibuster, the routine use of personal holds, and the almost complete breakdown of partisan aisle crossing, it's a recipe for disaster.

But regardless of what you think of all that, this is why the idea of giving up on healthcare reform and instead passing a bunch of little bills is such a bad idea. Policywise it's bad because most of these little things don't work unless they're part of a bigger plan, and politically it doesn't work because the Senate literally doesn't have enough time in the year to pass them all. There's really no alternative to passing the existing bill as is and then working to improve it during the budget reconciliation process later this year.

Unfortunately, that's not going well. So pick up the phone and call your representative and your senators. Tell 'em to pass the damn bill.

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Cui Bono?

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 11:59 AM EST

So who's the real winner of Thursday's ruling that allows corporations to buy all the political advertising their checkbooks allow? Big banks? The Republican Party? The pharmaceutical industry? Maybe. But Jim Innocenzi, a GOP strategist in Alexandria, thinks it will be a windfall for media corporations:

"There is only so much advertising space available the last 30 to 60 days [before an election] anyway, so all the ruling does is jack up the cost of 30-second commercials at the end of the campaign," he said.

Elsewhere, Mark Kleiman nominates another unforeseen beneficiary:

One aspect of the ruling that hasn’t gathered much attention: as far as I can tell, the analysis doesn’t distinguish between domestic and foreign corporations....So the ruling allows Hugo Chavez to spend as much money as he wants to helping and harming American politicians. If the Russian, Saudi, and Chinese governments don’t currently have appropriate vehicles for doing so, you can count on it: they soon will.

....The United States has a $13 trillion GDP, and total annual campaign spending is on the order of $2 billion. Buying influence on the American government has to be the highest-leverage activity ever invented, and Justice Kennedy and his four accomplices just invited every oligarch and tyrant in the world to play. This is not just a threat to democracy; it’s a threat to sovereignty.

It's been quite a week, hasn't it?

Obama the Miracle Worker

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 9:06 PM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here is a passage from James Suroweicki’s summary of Obama's first year in office:

I never understood the somewhat messianic qualities that certain voters ascribed to him: Obama has been exactly the kind of President I expected him to be (and the kind of President I hoped he would be), namely rational, pragmatic, thoughtful, and even-tempered. But clearly many voters — even, oddly enough, some of those who didn’t vote for him — expected a miracle worker. When they got a problem-solver instead, one with little authority over Congressional Democrats and no authority at all over obstructionist Republicans, they were disappointed.

I know this is received wisdom, but honestly, it deserves a lot more skepticism than it usually gets. Did a lot of people really think Obama would be a miracle worker? I don't personally know of a single person who felt that way, and the fact that he got huge crowds for his speeches means only that he was a charismatic guy, lots of people liked what he had to say, and liberals were stoked at the prospect of dumping Bush and Cheney. Sure, maybe a few thought he was the salvation of American politics, but there's really not much evidence that this was a very widespread belief — and no evidence at all that Obama himself ever believed it.

In fact, this is mostly the triumph of a conservative narrative. It was conservatives who spent months during the 2008 campaign taunting Obama for his alleged messiah status and it was conservatives who were constantly misquoting him about being "The One" or griping about how he thought his silver tongue could save the world and induce vicious dictators to swoon. Remember the video on the right, prepared by the McCain campaign? Or this one? Conservative media was crawling with this kind of mockery during 2008.

This might not be such a big problem if it weren't for the fact that it's latched onto the political psyche like a leech, causing even normally sensible writers like Michael Hirsh to spout nonsense like this:

It's difficult to understand why, faced with solving a Depression-size economic crisis, two wars, and global warming to boot, he felt that he also had to grab hold of the third-rail issue of health care during his inaugural year.

It's been a disaster, of course, and may go down as one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history. For the American public — haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by Wall Street's government-aided Grand Heist, aghast at the size of federal spending that never seems to find its way into their pockets — health care was simply an intervention too far.

....There was nothing new about this, of course. It falls into the age-old annals of hubris, the same excess of pride that got Achilles and Agamemnon in trouble with the gods. Obama apparently did buy into the idea that he was a Man of Destiny and, being one, possessed bottomless supplies of political capital.

Look: Obama is a pragmatic, cautious, technocratic, mainstream liberal. He campaigned heavily on healthcare reform, and when he took office he followed up on it. And far from being "one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history," it almost worked. It's been derailed only by the equivalent of a political meteor strike: a precise 60-vote majority plus the death of a sitting senator at just the wrong time plus the bizarre meltdown of his replacement just as the bill was nearing the finish line. If not for this 1000:1 mischance, it would still be cranking along and would be close to passage.

And honestly, does anyone really believe that healthcare reform would have fared better if Obama had put it off until after 2010, when his congressional majorities would have been smaller? Or that the Senate would have gotten up the gumption to really kick the finance industry's ass if it hadn't had healthcare to worry about? Please.

There are all sorts of ways to criticize Obama's handling of healthcare. Maybe he should have produced a plan of his own. Maybe he should have pressed Congress to move faster. Maybe he should have been more personally involved. Who knows. But he didn't take up healthcare reform because he thought he was a Man of Destiny, he took it up because it was a major campaign promise and presidents aren't limited to doing only one thing at a time. Give me a break.

Time to Pick Up the Phone

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 6:15 PM EST

A reader writes in about my plea to call your representative and ask them to vote for the Senate healthcare bill:

Unfortunately my congressman is a Republican. The closest Democrat to me is Glenn Nye and he voted against it the first time.

It might be helpful if you could direct your readers to where they can get the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of their state's  U.S. Representatives.

It's true: calling Republicans isn't a great use of your time. But if your representative is a Democrat, you should call. Don't email. That's a waste of energy. Pick up the phone and call. For a full list of congressional names and phone numbers, go to Congress.org. Type in your representative's name and it will pop up an information page that includes a phone contact. Don't know who your representative is? Enter your zip code and it will tell you.

Want to do more? You might try calling one of the folks on the list below. On the left are representatives who signed a pledge not to vote for any bill that doesn't contain a public option. They're probably opposed to passing the Senate bill as is, so it's worth calling to let them know that with the political landscape changed, it's time to rethink their position. On the right are Blue Dog Democrats. They should already be willing to vote for the Senate bill since it's a little more conservative than the House bill, but it's also got slightly softer anti-abortion language than the House bill. So if one of them is nearby, give them a call too.

Be polite. Be ready to sit on hold for a while. But we're going to spend the next 20 years working on universal healthcare in America, and by the time we're done what matters won't be precisely where we started, but that we started at all. It's time to start.

Public Option Blue Dogs
Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
Corrine Brown (FL-03)
Andre Carson (IN-07)
Judy Chu (CA-32)
Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05)
Mike Capuano (MA-08)
John Conyers (MI-14)
Elijah Cummings (MD-07)
Bill Delahunt (MA-10)
Lloyd Doggett (TX-25)
Donna Edwards (MD-04)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Chaka Fattah (PA-02)
Bob Filner (CA-51)
Barney Frank (MA-14)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Luis Gutierrez (IL-04)
Alcee Hastings (FL-23)
Maurice Hinchey (NY-22)
Mazie Hirono (HI-02)
Michael Honda (CA-15)
Jesse Jackson, Jr. (IL-02)
Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Marcy Kaptur (OH-09)
Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI-13)
Dennis Kucinich (OH-10)
Barbara Lee (CA-09)
Carolyn Maloney (NY-14)
Eric Massa (NY-29)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Jim McGovern (MA-03)
Gwen Moore (WI-04)
Jerry Nadler (NY-08)
Grace Napolitano (CA-38)
John Olver (MA-01)
Bill Pascrell (NJ-08)
Donald Payne (NJ-10)
Chellie Pingree (MN-01)
Laura Richardson (CA-37)
Lucille Roybal-Alard (CA-34)
Linda Sanchez (CA-39)
Jose Serrano (NY-16)
Albio Sires (NJ-13)
Jackie Speier (CA-12)
Pete Stark (CA-13)
Bennie Thompson (MS-02)
John Tierney (MA-06)
Ed Towns (NY-10)
Nydia Valezquez (NY-12)
Maxine Waters (CA-35)
Diane Watson (CA-33)
Mel Watts (NC-12)
Lynn Woolsey (CA-06)
John Yarmuth (KY-03)
Jason Altmire (PA-4)
Mike Arcuri (NY-24)
Joe Baca (CA-43)
John Barrow (GA-12)
Robert Marion Berry (AR-1)
Sanford Bishop (GA-2)
Dan Boren (OK-2)
Leonard Boswell (IA-3)
Allen Boyd (FL-2)
Bobby Bright (AL-2)
Dennis Cardoza (CA-18)
Christopher Carney (PA-10)
Ben Chandler (KY-6)
Travis Childers (MS-1)
Jim Cooper (TN-5)
Jim Costa (CA-20)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3)
Lincoln Davis (TN-4)
Joe Donnelly (IN-2)
Brad Ellsworth (IN-8)
Bill Foster (IL-14)
Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8)
Bart Gordon (TN-6)
Jane Harman (CA-36)
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL)
Baron Hill (IN-9)
Tim Holden (PA-17)
Frank Kratovil (MD-1)
Betsy Markey (CO-4)
Jim Marshall (GA-8)
Jim Matheson (UT-2)
Mike McIntyre (NC-7)
Charlie Melancon (LA-3)
Mike Michaud (ME-2)
Walt Minnick (ID-1)
Dennis Moore (KS-3)
Patrick Murphy (PA-8)
Scott Murphy (NY-20)
Glenn Nye (VA-2)
Collin Peterson (MN-7)
Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL)
Mike Ross (AR-4)
John Salazar (CO-3)
Loretta Sanchez (CA-47)
Adam Schiff (CA-29)
Kurt Schrader (OR-5)
David Scott (GA-13)
Heath Shuler (NC-11)

Will Republicans Support Bank Reform?

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 4:39 PM EST

Jim Manzi on Barack Obama's proposal to rein in the size and riskiness of big banks:

The political aspects of such reform are compelling. People are disgusted at recent bank bonuses. I’m a right-of-center libertarian businessman, and I’m disgusted by them....The “populist” observation that the fact of a bunch of well-connected guys each pulling down $10 million per year while suckling on the government teat constitutes almost certain evidence of self-dealing is accurate, and all the fancy finance talk in the world can’t get around it. President Obama has a clear political incentive to pursue this proposal. I assume Republicans will see that they have a clear political incentive to go along, rather than standing up for such a situation. Hopefully, this will create the political dynamic that will allow real, positive reform.

Well, I hope Republicans see it that way too. Unfortunately, Scott Brown's victory on Tuesday probably makes this unlikely. After all, what lesson are they likely to take from it? There's no deep thinking required to figure this out: obstruction works, and the louder and more furious the better. I expect them to double down on their opposition to all things Obama, cheered on by Drudge and Fox and Palin and Limbaugh and the tea partiers, certain that this is the path to maximal electoral victory in November.

But maybe I'm wrong! Maybe they'll suddenly do a U turn and decide that cooperating with Democrats to reregulate Wall Street millionaires is a great idea. Offhand I can't think of anything less likely, but you never know.