Kevin Drum

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:14 AM EST

I'll be traveling for a couple of days, and Nick Baumann from our DC bureau will once again be filling in for me during my absence. (Thanks, Nick!) I may contribute a post or two while I'm gone, but that depends on time and the WiFi gods. If not, I'll be back Friday afternoon. See you then.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Kitchen Sink

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:09 PM EST

Josh Marshall makes the point today that one thing hurting congressional Democrats is that they aren't doing enough to force Republicans to cast embarrassing votes that can be used against them during the upcoming midterm elections.  Matt Yglesias calls this belief "a bit dangerous and delusional":

Look out the window at the state of the labor market. Not the labor market for the Washington DC metro area or for the kind of college-educated professionals likely to be social acquaintances of congressional staff, but of the country as a whole. How on earth is the electoral situation not going to be bleak for the party in charge? This is the worst recession since World War II.

Under the circumstances, there are two useful things a member of congress can do. One is to take actions that improve the economic situation. The other is to pass laws that tackle important long-run problems. But if you can’t do the first thing, I think you’re really fooling yourself if you think some kind of parliamentary hijinks are going to transform the situation.

I think my take is different: there's no reason Dems shouldn't be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Fixing the economy would clearly do Democrats more good than anything else, but honestly, it's too late for anything passed this month to have much effect by September. And although I'm in favor of tackling long-term problems, that probably has a pretty negligible effect on short-term opinion too.

So whatever happens on these fronts, that's the background that you have to accept. If the economy sucks, it's going to be bad news for Dems. But once you've done everything you can to improve the economy and address things like healthcare reform, why not also do whatever else you can to scare up a few votes? Playing games with wedge votes probably won't have a huge effect, but you might as well give it a try. Unless it's literally preventing you from doing more important stuff, there's no reason not to.

A Ray of Hope on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 4:41 PM EST

Greg Sargent flags the latest robopoll from Public Policy Polling as good news for the cause of healthcare reform. It turns out that Republican are ahead in the generic congressional ballot regardless, but there's a direct pair of questions asking for support levels if healthcare passes vs. healthcare failing. If it fails, Republicans lead by five points. If it passes they lead by only four points. In other words, there's no difference: Dems don't lose anything by passing healthcare, so they might as well do the right thing and then do their best to sell it to the public over the next ten months.

As much as I'd like to believe this, I was all ready to disagree with Greg. After all, what matters isn't the national sample, but how people in each state respond. And if swing states have more Republicans and fewer Democrats, "no difference" could easily lead to a several point deficit once you look at the crosstabs.

But then I went and looked at the crosstabs. And guess what? The news is actually better than I expected. Basically, Republicans are already as opposed to Democrats as they can get: 85%-4% if healthcare fails vs. 87%-4% if it passes. So it's not as if passing healthcare is going to cost any Republican votes. Likewise, Democratic support for Democrats goes from 76%-8% if healthcare fails to 79%-11% if it passes. It's the same margin either way.

But take a look at independents. If healthcare fails they support Republicans by a 14-point margin. But if it passes they support Republicans by only an 8-point margin. Democrats clearly make up some ground.

This is only one poll, and state-by-state results still matter more than a national sample. But it sure looks as though independents would be noticeably less disgusted with Democrats if they have the spine to pass their healthcare plan. What's more, since this poll makes it clear that independents are more open on the subject than either confirmed Democrats or confirmed Republicans, there's a real opportunity to win them over once healthcare is passed and everyone calms down a little.

This is a small beacon of hope, but it's real. It really does look as if passing healthcare is better for swing-state Democrats than not passing it.

Chart of the Day: Take Two

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:44 PM EST

Since Bruce Bartlett has gone to the trouble of making a nice chart out of the latest Kos/Research 2000 poll, it would be churlish of me not to steal it. So here it is. Source data here. Cliff Notes version: Republicans are nuts.

But let's look on the bright side. Only 23% of Republicans want to secede from the union. Not bad! Only 21% think ACORN was able to pillage the 8 million votes it would have taken to steal the 2008 election. Reality based! And be honest: Sarah Palin does have more executive experience than Barack Obama. Especially now that she's managed that book tour. So there's nothing wrong with thinking she's better qualified to be president.

I used to talk about the Texification of the Republican Party, but that's now obsolete. We're officially seeing the Foxification of the Republican Party. It's Roger Ailes' world now, we just live in it.

This Just In

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:13 PM EST

So here's a weird thing. Today my copy of the LA Times has five sections instead of the usual four. The new section is called LATExtra, and it features "late-breaking stories, primarily from California but also including the latest possible reporting from throughout the nation and the world."

That's fine, I guess. But as near as I can tell, the front page of today's inaugural LATExtra doesn't contain a single late-breaking story. They're all just ordinary news pieces. The inside pages seem equally non-urgent. Very strange.

UPDATE: Thanks, commenters! Apparently the LAT leased its presses to the Wall Street Journal, which gets the late press run. So the composing room deadline for the LAT's news pages has moved up to early evening. LATExtra then gets anything late breaking, which I guess is defined as anything later than about 6 pm. Or something. LAObserved has the story.

Chart of the Day: Military Spending

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Via Spencer Ackerman, here's the Pentagon's estimate for future spending. Ignore the gray bars at the top — those are just the numbers for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Look instead at the blue bars. That's the base Pentagon budget, and it's increasing 3% per year in nominal terms.

If we applied the same freeze to Pentagon spending that we're applying to domestic spending, their FY13 base budget would be the same as their FY10 base budget: $531 billion. That would be a $51 billion savings in just a single year. So why not do it? What is it that makes us think our national security needs are going to get more and more pressing but not our domestic needs?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

DADT Update

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:01 PM EST

We have good news and bad news today on the gays-in-the-military front. First the good news:

The nation’s top two Defense officials called for an end on Tuesday to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said it was his personal and professional belief that “allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

Needless to say, Bill Clinton didn't have this level of support from within the Pentagon when he tried to end the military ban on gays in 1993. And experience tells us that it's necessary in order to get anything done. So two cheers for Gates and Mullen. Unfortunately, there's also this:

But both Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

....To lead a review of the policy, Mr. Gates appointed a civilian and a military officer: Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe. Pentagon officials said the review could take up to a year.

Italics mine. Here's the hopeful interpretation: we're still on track to firmly end DADT in an amendment to the Pentagon budget this year, but implementation will be left up to Gates and he'll be given until, say, January 2011 to publish new regs. The less hopeful interpretation is that Congress won't do anything until the Pentagon review is done, which would mean delaying repeal until 2011 and implementation until 2012.

For now, I'll assume the hopeful interpretation since it seems more likely. But I'm a little more nervous about it than I was last week.

The Vision Thing

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:14 PM EST

You might have missed it, but there were actually two huge, boring federal documents released yesterday. The second one was the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is — well, self-explanatory, really. It's a review of our defense strategies that's published every four years. And P.W. Singer (aka the other Peter Singer) doesn't think much of the 2010 edition:

The closest to a summary I can come to is this: We plan to do what we do now, but we'll try to do it a little bit better. That's probably not what was intended.

....For such an important effort, the report disappoints in two key areas. The first is that of vision....President Obama has made a forward-looking, positive vision of America's role in the world a centerpiece of his policy goals, and the Pentagon could have used the review to expand on that vision as it pertains to national security.

Instead, the 2010 review offers more a series of agenda items than a comprehensive vision. Even more, most of these items are belated ones that should have been worked out since the 2006 version. There is no thread that links it all together, no broader framework that lays out the journey we are on, the challenges we face and, most important, what we must do to end up at our target destination.

I understand the issue here, as well as Singer's second disappointment, the overall lack of clear goals and hard metrics. But honestly, I wonder if that's really as big a problem as he suggests. It's natural to think of these kinds of documents as a chance to change direction and create new visions, but let's be honest: do we really need a whole new vision of America's national security every four years? In 1997 the QDR's vision included the ability to fight two medium-sized wars at once, and now, 12 years later, that vision is gone. But during that time, did it really drive the Pentagon in any directions it wouldn't have gone anyway? And will its loss really make any concrete difference?

I have my doubts. Sometimes, your plan really is to keep doing pretty much the same thing, but to do it smarter and better. Maybe a QDR that avoids grand pronouncements and hard metrics that no one really takes seriously isn't such a bad thing. Sometimes honesty is a better policy.

Peanuts

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 11:53 AM EST

The LA Times provides a brief overview today of the programs President Obama wants to cut in order to freeze the overall level of domestic discretionary spending:

The familiar programs on the list this year include the C-17 cargo jet, a program to restore polluted industrial sites, a program for reclaimed coal mines and various scholarship programs.

....The cuts in mine grants never went anywhere last year. "We will do everything in our power to stop this attempted robbery again," Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said Monday.

Others on the termination list also have ready-made support. A website for Boeing's C-17 cargo plane notes that the program employs more than 30,000 people, with concentrations in Southern California, where the plane is made, and Missouri. A defense spending bill in December included $2.5 billion to buy 10 C-17s that the Pentagon did not request.

This is a familiar point, but always worth making one more time. The domestic discretionary budget is peanuts, and to make it even worse, elephants and donkeys1 both love peanuts. They won't give them up just because the president wants them to. So we'll likely end up with a peanut budget just as big as it was before — maybe bigger! — as cuts get added back into the budget while increases are happily accepted. Obama's spending freeze might be good PR, but it's lousy politics and lousy policy.

1OK, I don't really know whether donkeys like peanuts. Can someone find out for me? In the meantime, just roll with the image.

The Social Contract

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 11:18 AM EST

David Brooks says today that old people are being selfish because they take a lot more out of the political system than they put in. Ezra Klein demurs:

It's worth making the mechanism explicit: When commentators complain that seniors are "taking money," here's what they mean: They are going to the doctor, the doctor is prescribing treatments, and Medicare is paying for those treatments.

....Brooks calls their behavior selfish. He writes that "the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children."....[But] it's hard to say that what seniors are doing is selfish: They're going to the same doctors as everyone else, doing the same things that everyone else does when they get there. Our health-care system is unaffordable across the board. We need to fix that, but there's no special key held by seniors (save maybe their disproportionate tendency to vote in midterm elections), and nor do they deserve special condemnation.

I agree that they don't deserve special condemnation. The social deal we made several decades ago is that those of us of working age pay taxes for programs that will be consumed by senior citizens. That deal makes perfect sense — but it also points to a way in which seniors could embrace what Brooks calls a "cause of nonselfishness." Instead of standing foursquare with the anti-tax jihadists, as they largely do, they could be working to make sure that this deal continues. That means changes in the way we deliver healthcare services and it means changes in the tax base of the federal government. By opposing both of those things in large numbers, today's seniors (and soon-to-be seniors) are helping to ensure that they're the only generation that will truly benefit from this deal.

This is obviously not what Brooks meant. But the future health of the country and the future continuation of the social deal we've made depends on raising taxes, lowering long-term deficits, and making changes to the way healthcare is delivered. Some of these changes will affect today's seniors and some will affect tomorrow's. But if they want their children to enjoy the same kind of retirement they're allowed to enjoy, these are the things they should support. In general they don't, and that deserves condemnation. Not special condemnation, since lots of other people feel the same way, but condemnation nonetheless since they know, better than most, just what those taxes are for.