Kevin Drum

Modern Conservativism

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 12:57 PM EST

Here's the last two weeks in a nutshell:

Conservative response to a guy setting his underwear on fire on an airplane: It's Obama's fault! We should declare war on Yemen! We should stop allowing Muslims on our airplanes! We need to connect the dots! We're all going to die!

Conservative response to providing healthcare to 30 million Americans: It's socialism! It's going to bankrupt America! It's Chicago thug politics! It's going to kill grandma! It's going to turn our healthcare system into an abattoir!

Conservative response to regulating the financial industry that almost destroyed America's banking system: It's Marxism! It's going to cause hyperinflation! It's Uncle Sam's jackboot on the commerce of the country! It's the end of innovation! Buy gold!

Conservative response to catastrophic climate change: It's a hoax from the liberal media. Pay no attention to it.

Feel free to add your own observations in comments.

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Quote of the Day: Fiscal Conservatism

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 12:18 PM EST

From Sen Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), on his dedication to fiscal prudence:

Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question."

Note to Hatch: It has never been "standard practice" not to pay for things. It was a short-lived innovation of the Bush/Rove White House not to pay for things. And no, you showed no serious concern about it at the time. Other than that, you're right.

No Drama Obama

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 4:51 PM EST

Adam Nagourney yesterday:

As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

And Ross Douthat:

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

....In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

I think the thing that surprises me is that anyone ever thought otherwise. Among low-information voters I understand the disconnect: they heard hopey-changiness, haven't really gotten it, and are disappointed. But even some very high-information voters seem to be disappointed the same way, and it's baffling. Obama's entire career has been one of low-key, pragmatic leadership. He's clearly a mainstream liberal, but during the Democratic primaries he was famously the least progressive (by a small margin) of the three major candidates on domestic issues. He did everything he could to avoid taking dangerously inflammatory stands on hot-button social issues. His advisors during the campaign were nearly all members in good standing of the center left. His nickname was "No Drama Obama," and his temperament was plainly cautious, sober, and businesslike.

This was all pretty obvious during the campaign, and everybody understood it perfectly well when Republicans went crazy and started tarring him a radical socialist and a bomb-throwing revolutionary. Remember how we mocked all that stuff? But I guess that deep down, an awful lot of people were hoping that he was just play acting during the campaign, pretending to be a solid citizen while the real Obama was plotting to turn us into Sweden.

Personally, I wish Obama would articulate the liberal agenda more full-throatedly, and I wish he'd take a few more risks and push his own caucus a little harder. I've thought that ever since the 2008 campaign. But the fact that he hasn't hardly comes as a surprise. He's as liberal a president as we've had in 40 years, but he's no starry-eyed idealist. Why would anyone ever have thought differently?

Security Madness

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 2:28 PM EST

You have got to be kidding me. Here's the reaction to our latest Osama wannabe's ludicrously failed terrorist plot:

According to a statement posted Saturday morning on Air Canada’s Web site, the Transportation Security Administration will severely limit the behavior of both passengers and crew during flights in United States airspace — restricting movement in the final hour of flight. Late Saturday morning, the T.S.A. had not yet included this new information on its own Web site.

“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”

I'll refrain from further comment until TSA makes this official. Hopefully Air Canada just jumped the gun here. Because if this is true, it means our government has finally and irrevocably gone insane.

UPDATE: Plus there's this from an accompanying story:

In effect, that means passengers on flights of about 90 minutes or less will not be able to get out of their seats, since they are not allowed to move about while an airplane is climbing to its cruising altitude.

Air Canada also told its United States bound customers that they would be limited to a single carry-on item and that they would be subjected to personal and baggage searches at security check points and in the gate area. It said this would result in significant delays, canceled flights and missed connections. Air Canada said it would waive the baggage fee for the first checked bag as a result of the new policy.

Aaron Potter comments: "If this is true, So much for flying with kids." And it means the end of carry-on baggage entirely for anyone who also has a purse or a briefcase.

Apparently al-Qaeda doesn't need to bother with real terrorism anymore: just light off a firecracker on a plane and the U.S. government will react as if a major city had been leveled. Why not just ban air flight entirely and be done with it?

The Pink Pussycat

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 1:26 PM EST

Alice Schiller, once the owner (with her husband Harry) of the Pink Pussycat nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, has died. This is from the LA Times obituary:

Opened in 1961, it was pink through and through, just like the inside of Schiller's house and her entire wardrobe....Schiller and her husband drove a pink Cadillac and a pink Rolls-Royce, which bore the words "Follow Us to the Pink Pussycat.

I thought you might all like to see a picture of that Rolls before it was painted pink. That's it, parked in front of our little stucco house in Orange County around 1960 or so. That's my sister standing in front of it, ever so fashionable in her yellow raingear and red boots.

Somewhere I have a picture of the Rolls being unloaded off a ship in Long Beach before my father took possession of it. As you can imagine, this purchase was a boondoggle of the highest order, the car's chief claim to fame being the fact that my brother was almost born in its back seat in 1961. But say this for it: it got everyone to St. Mary's hospital just in time for a happy ending. The next year, we sold it to the Schillers, who painted it pink and eventually installed it in front of the nightclub.

At least, that's my recollection of the story. My mother isn't home right now, so I can't swear to every detail. But that's my connection to today's news. Just thought I'd share.

Real Financial Regulation

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 12:56 PM EST

Nicole Gelinas writes in the LA Times that the proposed new Financial Services Oversight Council wouldn't work:

Such an "omniscient" regulator could not have prevented our current crisis. Five years ago, such a regulator likely would have declared triple-A-rated mortgage-related securities safe, allowing financial firms to borrow more liberally against them than they could against seemingly riskier securities. The bankrupting losses that eventually occurred from such borrowing seemed impossible back then.

Well, she's got a point. They probably would have looked kindly on financial "innovation" back in 2004. Still, it's possible that a regulator independent from the Fed would have at least a fighting chance of not being completely captured by the banking industry and therefore applying a little bit of pushback against the swelling tide of the finance lobby. Besides, does Gelinas have a better idea?

Oh wait, she does:

Congress should instead follow the regulatory philosophy that served the nation well for 50 years after the Depression: Set consistent limits on borrowing across similar financial instruments, no matter what their perceived risks.

....In 2000, for example, the Federal Reserve counseled Congress to prohibit borrowing limits and requirements to disclose trading activity on some new financial instruments, including credit-default swaps. Regulators believed that they, and financial industry executives, had already done what today's proposed systemic risk regulator would do: identify and erase the potential for error.

What if regulators had instead allowed innovation to flourish within some reasonable rules? AIG, for example, would have had to put a consistent cash percentage down behind the $500 billion in promises — a form of borrowing — that it made through credit-default swaps. And it would have had to execute those promises on public exchanges, making them transparent.

AIG might have gone under anyway — failure is a healthy part of capitalism — but it would not have threatened to take the economy with it, necessitating a government bailout that set a dangerous precedent....Borrowing limits in the housing market would have protected the economy too. As the bubble expanded, people would not have been able to keep up with a requirement for, say, a consistent 20% down payment, thus dampening demand. And when the bubble burst, it would not have left behind so much unpaid debt.

I'd make that trade. In fact, with a few exceptions, I'd trade virtually all of the proposed financial regulations for a single set of new standards that placed clear, simple, and direct limits on financial leverage everywhere in the system. Banks, hedge funds, consumers, you name it. If it's leverage, there's a limit to it.

Anyway, it's the day after Christmas and I don't suppose anyone cares about this. But I do! And besides, Nicole Gelinas had the misfortune to have her op-ed run on Christmas Day itself, probably the single most ignored day of the year on the op-ed pages. (There are no ads for after-Christmas sales on the editorial pages, after all.) So I figured she could use a little break.

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Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza

| Fri Dec. 25, 2009 12:00 PM EST

I asked for festive cats, I got festive cats.  So here they are.  Here on the front page we have the usual suspects: Domino on the left, sporting a festive Yuletide ribbon, and Inkblot on the right, hanging out under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa to deliver a case of cat food. But there are loads more cats below the fold. Just click here to see them all.

Merry Christmas!

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 4:24 PM EST

Christmas Eve is here and it's time for my traditional ornamental signoff.  I'll be back in a couple of days, but in the meantime I hope everyone has a nice Christmas, full of friends and family and food that your doctor wouldn't approve of. And be sure to check in tomorrow for our first annual holiday cat extravaganza. A couple of dozen festive felines will be gracing the blog, all intent on making your day merrier. You don't want to miss that, do you?

Healthcare's Penultimate Hurdle

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 12:31 PM EST

Ezra Klein calls it "winning ugly," but a win's a win: early this morning the Senate voted 60-39 to pass its healthcare reform plan, only the second time in American history that a healthcare bill of this magnitude has even reached the Senate floor. Next stop: a House-Senate conference committee after the winter recess and then one final vote for all the marbles, probably in late January.

So why do I not feel more elated? Part of the reason is that in the modern era of the institutional filibuster, 60 votes is a paper-thin margin and there's still a chance that someone could come back from recess bloodied and beaten up and looking for a pretext to change their vote. The conference report might give them an excuse, and that would mean healthcare reform dies again.

But I think that's unlikely. The bigger reason, of course, is that healthcare has splintered the liberal movement so badly. There's a far-left wing so obsessed with the demise of the public option that it's working overtime to team up with reactionaries to destroy the bill and — maybe — Obama's presidency along with it. The more moderate left supports the bill, but hardly enthusiastically. For us, it's a "starter house," or "the best we could get." That's not exactly a rallying cry. And independents are just confused and exhausted by months of political sniping, intra-left bickering, and the relentless flood of Beck/Palin/Drudge demagoguery.

So it doesn't feel much like a victory yet. But it should. I'm 51 years old and this bill is, without question, the biggest progressive advance in my adult life. You have to go back to the great environmental acts of the early 70s to get close, and to the civil rights/Medicare era to beat it. That's four decades, the last three of which have constituted an almost unbroken record of conservative ascendency. And now that ascendancy is just days away from being — finally, decisively — broken. Warts and all, we're on the cusp of passing a bill that provides all of this:

  • Insurers have to take all comers.  They can't turn you down for a preexisting condition or cut you off after you get sick.
  • Community rating.  Within a few broad classes, everyone gets charged the same amount for insurance.
  • Individual mandate.  (Remember how we all argued that this was a progressive feature back when John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were championing it during the primaries?)
  • A significant expansion of Medicaid.
  • Subsidies for low and middle income workers that keeps premium costs under 10% of income.
  • Limits on ER charges to low-income uninsured emergency patients.
  • Caps on out-of-pocket expenses.
  • A broad range of cost-containment measures.
  • A dedicated revenue stream to support all this.

A trillion dollars in benefit for low and middle income workers. 95% of Americans insured. Medical bankruptcies on the verge of disappearing. And for the first time ever, an acknowledgement that decent healthcare ought to be universal in the United States. This is historic. This is a cause for celebration, not recriminations. As recently as 2005, I wasn't sure I'd ever see this day, and now, a mere three years later, it's here. I can still hardly believe it.

UPDATE: Some good thoughts in a similar vein here from Jon Chait.

Polishing the Pig

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 8:21 PM EST

Matt Yglesias comments on Barack Obama's obviously false assertion that he never campaigned on the public option:

I think Obama could fairly say something like “for some activists, the public option may have been the centerpiece of health reform but it’s never been that for me and it wasn’t the heart of what I proposed during the campaign.” But he definitely did campaign saying he’d create one. I’m also really not sure why Obama would try to make consistency with campaign rhetoric a hallmark of his drive. He definitely campaigned against Hillary Clinton’s proposed individual mandate to buy health insurance and also attacked elements of John McCain’s health plan in terms that could easily be seen as inconsistent with the insurance excise tax concept.

Here's what I don't get. As near as I can tell, presidents pretty much never say things like this. They never concede a mixed bag on anything they're associated with. The Iraq war was always going swimmingly. Welfare reform was an unqualified boon. Reagan never raised taxes. Etc. Likewise, Obama seems unwilling to admit that the healthcare reform that finally got spit out of Congress is anything other than exactly what he wanted all along.

I suppose the conventional wisdom is that whatever you end up with is something you have to sell to the American public, and the only way to sell anything successfully is to relentlessly claim it's the greatest thing since Abraham Lincoln invented bifocals. So I guess my question is whether this is really true. Would it hurt Obama (or any president) to admit to a few modest reservations or problems while vigorously defending an overall initiative? Or is the conventional wisdom right, and the best offense is a good offense? Opinions?