Kevin Drum

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 1:01 PM EST

Byron Dorgan's retirement has made John Hoeven, the three-term Republican governor of North Dakota, very close to a lock to become a US Senator if he runs. So will he? TPM's Eric Kleefeld has the goods:

[North Dakota] State GOP chairman Gary Emineth told Politico: "I expect Gov. Hoeven to get in, and he's going to work through personal issues relating to his family, but I would be shocked if he's not in the Senate race soon."

North Dakota GOP political director Adam Jones explained to me that the family issues referred to here were simply a matter of Hoeven talking to his family about the prospect of a Senate run and a move to Washington. "First and foremost, the governor is a father and husband before he's a public servant," said Jones. "First he has to decide what's good for his family."

I asked Jones if he thought there was any significant chance that Hoeven wouldn't make the race. His response: "No, absolutely not."

That seems settled. It's worth noting that Hoeven has a truly weird doesn't-match-his-hair mustache and is really young-looking (he's 52). At first, I thought he actually looked kind of bizarrely like Michael Cera. Unfortunately, a few minutes with Photoshop revealed that this was a fairly stupid theory that will not hold up under scrutiny. Behold:

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Dodd, Dorgan, and the Banks

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:44 PM EST

Sen. Tim Johnson will be the senior Democrat on the banking committee after Dodd leaves Congress. (Official photo.)Sen. Tim Johnson will be the senior Democrat on the banking committee after Dodd leaves Congress. (Official photo.)(Cross-posted from MoJo.)

On Twitter, Reuters' Jim Pethokoukis points out that Chris Dodd's retirement is (like everything) "great news for banks." It will make South Dakota's Tim Johnson, who likes banks even more than Dodd, the senior Dem on the banking committee. "And Byron Dorgan was a big Glass Steagall guy," Pethokoukis writes. Indeed—Dorgan was one of several lawmakers who gave earily prescient quotes to the New York Times when the bill was repealed ten years ago. As Kevin wrote in the most recent issue of the print mag, the banks already own the Hill, so while these retirements are good for Big Finance, they don't mark some big transition—they simply reinforce the status quo.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), another hated enemy of liberals, also benefits from Dodd's retirement, since Lieberman probably won't have to face the very popular Richard Blumenthal in 2012.

Dodd's retirement is bad news for Merrick Alpert, who was running what Nate Silver describes as a "competent campaign" but who lacks name recognition and probably can't fend off Blumenthal. (Mother Jones' Ben Buchwalter interviewed Alpert last month.)

Over at TAPPED, Monica Potts wonders "why the White House fought for [Dodd] until the very end." That's easy: Dodd and Biden are close friends, and if Dodd had stayed in, Biden would probably have kept fighting for him all the way through to election day. I won't be surprised when the Times and the Post do their play-by-plays tomorrow or Friday if it turns out that the Veep played a key role in convincing Dodd to give up the fight.

On the Dorgan front, DougJ at Balloon Juice has a truly epic email from a former Dakota senate staffer who gives the R-rated explanation of why Silver immediately moved the North Dakota race to the top of his "most likely to flip" list. It's probably too profane for a family blog, but you can read it over at Balloon Juice.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:16 PM EST

Hi everyone. You've probably noticed by now, but Nick Baumann from our DC bureau is filling in for me for a couple of days as I travel to chilly climes back East. I may have time to put up a post or two — WiFi and flight delays permitting — but if not, Nick has you covered. I'll be back on Friday.

CT-Sen: Dodd Out, Blumenthal In

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 10:34 AM EST

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the embattled five-term incumbent, will announce his retirement later today:

The decision came hours after another Democratic senator, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, also announced that he would not seek re-election this November. The developments underscored the fragility of the Democrats’ 60-vote Senate majority, which is just enough to block Republican filibusters. Democratic incumbents also face serious challenges in Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania among other states.

The Dorgan seat will almost certainly be a Republican pickup. But Democrats probably have a better chance of holding Dodd's seat now that he's out. That's because Richard Blumenthal, the state Attorney General and by far the most popular elected official in Connecticut, is jumping into the race. Only 13 percent of Connecticut voters disapprove of Blumenthal, and his approval rating is a stratospheric 78 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Those put Dodd's numbers to shame. Dodd's exit and Blumenthal's entrance were almost certainly arranged behind the scenes, of course—Dodd probably wouldn't have given up his re-election fight unless he could be sure dropping out would actually improve his party's odds of holding his seat.

Chris Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.) Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.)I was actually working on a piece for the magazine arguing that Dodd was a bit of a canary in the coal mine for Democrats, since as chair of the Senate banking committee he's seen as more responsible for the country's economic woes than other Dems. That's moot now. But if the first polls of the race with Blumenthal show even a hint of hope for the Republican challengers, that might be even worse news for Democrats. Linda McMahon (of wrestling fame), former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, and former Ron Paul adviser Peter Schiff were battling to face Dodd in the general. If the most popular politician in a super-blue state like Connecticut is in any sort of trouble against those three, well, national Dems are probably cooked. (Update: Good news for Dems—Blumenthal leads all three Republicans by 30 points. This is probably a safe seat now.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

A Post About Yemen

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:33 AM EST

I've kept silent about Yemen so far because I don't want to even begin to pretend that I know anything about the place. But, like everyone else, I've been reading about it, and I have to say that this paragraph from Richard Fontaine and Andrew Exum is probably the most enlightening one I've seen so far:

Yemen's economy depends heavily on oil production, and its government receives the vast majority of its revenue from oil taxes. Yet analysts predict that the country's petroleum output, which has declined over the last seven years, will fall to zero by 2017. The government has done little to plan for its post-oil future. Yemen's population, already the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and with an unemployment rate of 35%, is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45% of Yemen's population is under the age of 15. These trends will exacerbate large and growing environmental problems, including the exhaustion of Yemen's groundwater resources. Given that a full 90% of the country's water is used for agriculture, this trend portends disaster.

So Yemen's population has tripled since 1975 and will double again by 2035. Meanwhile, state revenue will decline to zero by 2017 and the capital city of Sanaa will run out of water by 2015 — partly because 40% of Sanaa's water is pumped illegally in the outskirts to irrigate the qat crop.

Bizarrely, even after writing this, Fontaine and Exum follow up with this:

Given the threat posed not just by terrorism but by the potential for nationwide instability, the United States should move toward a broader relationship with Yemen, still focusing strongly on counter-terrorism but also on economic development and improved governance....Over the weekend, Obama pledged to double aid to Yemen, but this money must be spent strategically. Several areas are ripe for foreign help, including training and equipping counter-terrorism forces, bolstering border security and building the capacity of the coast guard, expanding counterinsurgency advice to the Yemeni government and expanding programs focused on basic governance and anti-corruption.

Even though they say that economic development is important, nearly their entire list is dedicated to military aid of one kind or another.1 But it's hard to see what good that will do to help a country with a soaring population, no revenue, and a rapidly dwindling water supply. Frankly, it's a little hard to see how anything is likely to have much impact on a country with problems that severe. And until those problems are addressed, it's also hard to see how even the best designed and executed counterterrorism program can have more than a very limited effect. More here from Marc Lynch, who basically seems to agree: "So what should the U.S. do? Pretty much what it's been doing in the Obama administration, which has in fact been thinking seriously about Yemen all year and which has quietly been working there in some constructive and some unconstructive ways. It's never as satisfying as a morally pure call to battle. [...] But the administration shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking it must "do something" to fend off political harping from the right and end up over-committing... or taking steps which ultimately make the situation worse."

1There's more detail in the policy brief that their op-ed is drawn from, but it's still focused almost exclusively on military and counterterrorism programs.

Calling Their Bluff

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 9:35 PM EST

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), formerly a wunderkind college Republican attack dog, but now sort of a journeyman big league Republican attack dog, thinks that a regular old deficit commission is a bad idea. What's needed is a deficit commission that takes tax hikes completely off the table and recommends spending cuts only. Grover Norquist calls this a "grown-up idea," but Pat Garofalo isn't impressed:

How, exactly, does taking taxes off the table from the outset represent a “grown-up” way to make “hard choices”? The whole premise behind a commission is that it will be empowered to make politically unpalatable suggestions (like raise taxes) that Congress wouldn’t normally touch....Getting deficits under control on the spending side alone is economically impossible. Exempting interest on the debt, Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending (which Republicans never agree to cut), “the rest of the budget needs to be cut by 51 percent to have a balanced budget in 2014.” So the numbers just don’t add up. Of course, from the outline of McHenry’s plan, it’s pretty clear that gutting those entitlement programs is his ultimate goal, as they are the only things that he cites as needing reform.

I say: bring 'em on, baby. We should let McHenry have his commission, make sure it's well stocked with Republicans, force them to put down on paper just exactly what spending programs they want to gut, and then put it to an up-or-down vote in Congress. We liberals are always demanding that Republican "fiscal conservatives" should tell us just what spending they want to get rid of, and now here's McHenry volunteering to commit political hara-kiri by setting it all down in a nice, official report and then forcing Republicans to put their votes where their mouths are. That would be great.

For Democrats, that is. Sadly, my guess is that the actual grownups in the GOP will put the kibosh on this idea pronto. But I can still dream.

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Ping Pong Update

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 6:40 PM EST

I learned something new today. Apparently conference committees are largely a thing of the past. Jeff Davis explains:

Section 511 of Public Law 110-81 (the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007) amended Senate Rule 28 (conference reports) to put in a strengthened point of order against conference reports that exceed the scope of the difference between the House and Senate bills....As amended by the ethics law, Rule 28 now works similar to the "Byrd Rule" on reconciliation bills — any provisions ruled out-of-scope by the Parliamentarian are stricken from the conference report unless at least 60 Senators vote to waive the provision....The changes to rule 28 make it much more difficult for Democratic leaders to add "sweeteners" to a conference report to buy votes, since 41 Senators could knock out any individual sweetener out of the conference report without defeating the entire conference report.

....As a result, since the rule changes took in effect, Democratic leaders have basically stopped sending large controversial bills to conference committees, preferring to ping-pong them instead to avoid problems in the Senate with the newly strengthened rule 28....In 2009, after the Hundred Days in which Stimulus and S-CHIP were sent through conference, only appropriations bills and the bipartisan defense authorization bill(s) were sent to conference. Everything else was ping-ponged, most notably the Defense appropriations bill right before Christmas, which had been selected by the leadership to carry many other unrelated provisions and which therefore was not sent to conference committee due to rule 28 concerns.

Do they still make Schoolhouse Rock? If so, I guess it needs some updating.

Too Big To Fail

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 6:06 PM EST

I just finished reading Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail, and I know that I really shouldn't complain about it. As a first draft of history kind of thing, it's spectacularly good, with almost mind boggling amounts of detail about what went down during mid-September of 2008. Within the tick-tock genre, it's a real public service. The problem is that it's also a Woodwardesque effort that leaves you guessing who his sources are and what axes they have to grind. Sometimes, though, his sources are pretty obvious, and the narrative suddenly stops dead for a pandering little soliloquy like this one. Its star is Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack at the height of the crisis:

He needed some air, he told [his wife], and decided to go on a walk. As he roamed up Madison Avenue, he realized that his entire adult life, his entire professional career was on the line. He had been in battles before — his losing fight with the firm's former CEO, Philip J. Purcell, had been a notable one — but never anything like what he faced now. But this was not just about his personal survival; it was about the fifty thousand people around the globe who worked for him, and for whom he he felt a keen sense of responsibility. Images of Lehman employees streaming out of their building the previous Sunday still haunted him. He needed to buck up. Somehow, he was going to save Morgan Stanley.

And then he slid down the batpole to the batcave and got to work! Give me a break.

That aside, what else have I learned from the book? Apparently everyone on Wall Street really does watch CNBC 24/7. Tim Geithner doesn't come out of this affair looking very good. I guess he didn't cooperate with Sorkin. Jamie Dimon, on the other hand, does emerge as a good guy. I guess he did cooperate. And the biggest, clearest lesson of all: no one really had any idea what was going on last September. The whole thing was just massive confusion from beginning to end. By the time I was finished with the book, I couldn't tell whether I felt more or less sorry for all these guys.

POSTSCRIPT: Plus this: the downside of insta-books is lousy copy editing. Somebody should be fired over the number of egregious typos in this book.

Avatar

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 5:39 PM EST

I saw Avatar yesterday. Oddly, I think my reaction was almost exactly the opposite of everyone else's. Originally I didn't plan to see it, since the ads and trailers just didn't make it look very interesting, but then I heard a tidal wave of commentary that went like this: Yes, the story is lame, but the tech is so awesome you just have to go. It's like being one of the first to see The Jazz Singer.

So I went to see it in glorious 3D. And yes, the story was lame. But really, it wasn't that lame. It was cartoonish, and the characters were strictly 2D, but it wasn't so dumb that I felt like walking out of the theater at any point. All by itself that makes it better than about a third of the movies I see each year.

So the story was OK, and even the message was just the usual hamhanded Hollywood stuff. But the tech? I was underwhelmed. I've seen 3D before, and the 3D in Avatar was strictly run of the mill. The CGI was OK, but nothing special. There were some cool aspects to Pandora, but they were few and far between. Am I really supposed to be impressed by a floating rock colony? As for the aliens themselves, I'll take it on faith that their portrayal was a technological miracle. But the end result was.....some vaguely human looking blue people that moved almost — but not quite! — as naturally as if they were real. I dunno. I just wasn't that awestruck.

Anyway, I know I'm late to the party on this. But I guess I was surprised that the story was a little more engaging than I thought it would be and that the tech was less spectacular than I thought it would be. Anyone else have a similar reaction?

UPDATE: For more Avatar fun, here's Patrick Goldstein on why grumpy conservatives hate it.

How's Obama Doing?

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 2:41 PM EST

Today's raging topic in the lefty blogosphere: is Mark Halperin merely a wanker? Or is he already Galactic Wanker of the Year a mere week into 2010?

The proximate cause of this conversation is his Time article, "A Report Card on Obama's First Year." Here's what he says Obama did well: work with Congress, handle foreign policy, focus on the long term, take executive action, and steer clear of scandal. Not bad!

But here's where he did less well: managing his image, creating administration stars, wooing the great and good, changing the tone, and managing the White House policy process. Hmmm. As pretty much everyone has commented, the good stuff is all substantive, while the bad stuff, with one exception, is all about optics and atmospherics. Do these lists really add up to an equal amount of good and bad?

Obviously not, although I think it's worth defending Halperin in one narrow way: the world is what it is, and if the world is full of people who think that optics and atmospherics are a big deal, then optics and atmospherics are a big deal. Deal with it. Aside from that, though, the real question is whether Halperin is merely reporting this stuff or if he actively approves of it. Take this passage, from his bit about Obama failing to change the tone in Washington:

Once the new President cast his lot with his party in passing an economic-stimulus measure rather than seeking bipartisan agreement, rival Republicans started digging in. The White House's original plan was to leverage Obama's popularity and the agenda-setting power of the majority to force centrist Republicans to break ranks and cast cross-aisle votes on key measures — but the Administration underestimated the weakness of the opposition, which paradoxically strengthened the hand of the conservative activist grass roots, making compromise by GOP officials with the Democrats seem politically untenable. Obama's aides continue to blame the Republicans for refusing to play ball, but the buck stops with the President, whose paths to success on issues such as climate control, jobs and education are all narrower because of a partisan bitterness that rivals that of the Clinton and Bush eras.

What to make of this? On the one hand, Halperin fails to mention that Obama agreed to let tax cuts make up 40% of the stimulus bill and still couldn't get any Republican support. On the other hand, he pretty clearly lays the blame for this on weak Republicans who have become slaves to the most extreme part of their base. But then, on the third hand, he whipsaws back and suggests that it's all Obama's fault anyway, because, well, he's the president. If he wants to be successful, then one way or another he needs to figure out a way to make Republicans play ball.

But is Halperin saying this is how things ought to be, or is he merely reporting that, like it or not, this is the way things are? Beats me. It gets harder and harder to tell at places like Time these days. In any case, maybe Halperin should follow up with a list of five things the media and the Beltway glitterati are doing better than you think — and five things they're doing worse. That would be some serious link bait.