Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2009

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 3:49 PM EST

We have a winner in our cat cover contest!  Though actually it was a tie.  There were two cats who received the same number of votes, but one of them turned out to be an internet cat while the other one is (I hope) a real live cat belonging to a real live MoJo reader.  It was also my favorite cat cover of the bunch.  So by the awesome tiebreaking power vested in me as final coverblogging judge, I declare the winner of our cat cover contest to be Ginger, possibly the smuggest looking cat I've ever seen.  All hail Ginger!

The dynamic duo will be back next week.  In the meantime, if you're Ginger's owner, email me to claim your prize.  Have a good weekend, all.

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The Fall of Greg Craig

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 2:42 PM EST

Time has an interesting tick-tock this week about Greg Craig, the White House lawyer tasked with dismantling Bush-era interrogation and detention policies.  At first, Obama was on board with Craig's plans.  Then, reality set in.  Here he is deciding whether to release a set of "torture memos" last spring:

Obama arrived at [Rahm] Emanuel's office a few minutes later, took off his windbreaker and sat down at a table lined with about a dozen national-security and political advisers. He asked each to state a position and then convened an impromptu debate, selecting Craig and McDonough to argue opposing sides. Craig deployed one of Obama's own moral arguments: that releasing the memos "was consistent with taking a high road" and was "sensitive to our values and our traditions as well as the rule of law." Obama paused, then decided in favor of Craig, dictating a detailed statement explaining his position that would be released the next day.

But for Craig, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Four days later, former Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Obama on Fox News Channel for dismantling the policies he and Bush had put in place to keep the country safe. More significant was the reaction within Obama's camp. Democratic pollsters charted a disturbing trend: a drop in Obama's support among independents, driven in part by national-security issues. Emanuel quietly delegated his aides to get more deeply involved in the process. Damaged by the episode, Craig was about to suffer his first big setback.

Obama repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, but Guantánamo proved much easier to say than to do....But inside the White House, the mood had changed amid the furor over the release of the torture memos in April. McDonough and other NSC advisers assembled in the Oval Office to discuss it. Obama raised questions about security — were the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on board? Separately, his legislative-affairs staff warned of stiff congressional resistance — and Republicans responded on cue. Word of the plan leaked on April 24, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell launched three weeks of near daily attacks on the idea of letting the Uighurs loose in the U.S. Dick Durbin, Obama's mentor and the Democrats' No. 2 in the Senate, called the White House asking for ammunition to fight back against McConnell and the Republicans. "What's our plan?" Durbin asked.

....Obama needed to regain control quickly, and he started by jettisoning liberal positions he had been prepared to accept — and had even okayed — just weeks earlier. First to go was the release of the pictures of detainee abuse. Days later, Obama sided against Craig again, ending the suspension of Bush's extrajudicial military commissions. The following week, Obama pre-empted an ongoing debate among his national-security team and embraced one of the most controversial of Bush's positions: the holding of detainees without charges or trial, something he had promised during the campaign to reject.

The whole piece is worth a read.

More Obama Narratives

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 2:17 PM EST

A couple of days ago I griped about the media's insistence on imposing its preferred one-size-fits-all narrative on Obama's trip to China.  The narrative I had in mind was the one about China's huge dollar holdings driving major changes in policy when the evidence for that was pretty thin, but over at CJR Greg Marx picks up on another one:

As media narratives go, this whole “Barack Obama is a popular individual and a gifted speaker with a compelling personal story, but doesn’t automatically get everything he wants!” thing is getting awfully old, awfully fast.

The theme popped up months ago, when the press began to notice that though America had elected a “change” president, the world was—surprise!—not changing overnight. It cropped up again around the time of the off-year elections, when the media noticed that Obama’s personal appeal is not a magical amulet that can be transferred to unpopular Democrats. And it has framed much of the coverage of Obama’s recently completed trip to Asia.

[Several examples follow.]

If it were clear that Obama is pursuing a “biography-as-diplomacy” approach, this question might be pressing. And, if he were pursuing a strategy that rested primarily on his public appeal or his silver tongue, the observations from the NYT and LAT would be more significant, too. But, since evidence that he’s doing so is slight, this sort of frame comes off as more trite than trenchant.

Narratives will always be with us, but it would be nice if they could at least be tenuously based on reality.  The narrative about China's increasing leverage due to its dollar holdings has at least a little bit of that going for it, even if it gets overplayed, but the "silver tongued orator" narrative has really been plucked out of nowhere.  Yes, Obama is a good speaker, but there's zero evidence that his administration or his governing style is based on this in any significant way.  Just the opposite, in fact.  So knock it off, folks.

Passionate Minorities

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:46 PM EST

Ezra Klein on the new recommendations suggesting women should start getting mammograms at age 50, not age 40:

You could hardly imagine a better example of why cost control is so hard: This was a recommendation from an institution with no actual power that was based entirely on accepted medical evidence. Cost was not a component in the analysis. This is simply the data on whether mammograms make sense for most women between 40 and 50, not whether they're "worth" doing as opposed to other expenditures.

And the political outcry has been deafening.

Beyond the purely scientific aspect of the debate, one of the notable things about the reaction to the new mammography guidelines is the way it highlights how passionate minorities drive so many public debates.  The USPSTF recommendation is based on large-scale costs vs. large-scale benefits, but the conversation that followed has been based mostly on personal stories.  And you'll never hear any personal stories about the costs.  Only the benefits.  Virtually all of the personal testimony over the past few days has been from women who either contracted breast cancer in their 40s and were saved by a mammogram, or who have unusual conditions that require unusual monitoring.  Obviously, if you fall into one of these categories you're going to feel very, very strongly about the benefits of early mammography.

And the millions of women who (if the USPSTF is to be believed) got mammograms in their 40s and suffered ill effects of one kind of another?  For the most part those effects were relatively minor, so nobody feels motivated to write op-eds about them.  But they're surprisingly widespread: the report suggests that the cumulative risk of a false positive result is over 50% for women who get annual mammograms between 40-49.  That's a lot of false positives, a lot of extra biopsies, and a lot of unnecessary panic.

It's a close call, and annual testing may still be worth it.  (The USPSTF continues to recommend it for women with a family history, genetic prediliction, or environmental risks.)  That's a largely personal choice.  But as with most political arguments, the public debate on this is being driven mostly not by dispassionate science, but by a passionate minority.  That's democracy for you.

UPDATE: Via comments, it turns out that women who get false positives are occasionally motivated to write op-eds about the experience after all.  Here's one from Andrea Stone.

World Class Hypocrisy

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 12:50 PM EST

Bruce Bartlett nominates Arizona Rep. Trent Franks as Congress's biggest hypocrite.  He makes a pretty decent case.

Everyone's Getting Testy

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 2:56 AM EST

The Washington Post reports that tempers are getting short on Capitol Hill.  And not just among Republicans:

President Obama's allies in the Congressional Black Caucus, exasperated by the administration's handling of the economy, unexpectedly blocked one his top priorities, using a legislative maneuver to postpone the approval of financial reform legislation by a key House committee.

....The House committee had been set to vote to send the final piece of its regulatory reform package to the House floor after months of debate. That is, until the committee's chairman, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), told a shocked committee room that passage of the bill would be delayed until Dec. 1 because the Congressional Black Caucus wanted the administration to do more to help African American communities suffering in the economic decline.

....Congressional aides said the caucus's concerns are similar to those of the Democratic Party's liberal wing. Caucus members are pushing for legislation that would directly lead to new jobs by providing tax benefits, for example, that would provide incentives for home renovations and funding for new infrastructure projects. They also want to extend health-care and unemployment benefits.

Apparently the White House is well aware of all this, but if "congressional aides" are correctly describing the situation, what exactly is the problem here?  If the CBC wants these pieces of legislation, why not introduce them?  Surely their beef is with their own leadership more than it is with the White House.  Last I heard, Congress is still allowed to originate legislation even if the president isn't enthusiastic about it.

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ACORN Madness

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 3:53 PM EST

I understand that constantly calling the Republican base batshit crazy gets old.  I really do.  Honest.  But via TPM, check out this survey result from Public Policy Polling: 52% of Republicans now think that ACORN stole the 2008 election from John McCain.

There aren't words for this.  Something like 40 million Republicans are now convinced that ACORN (!) somehow managed to steal an election that McCain lost by seven percentage points. Another 20 million think they might have stolen it but aren't sure.  The Fox/Limbaugh/Palin axis, which probably directly reaches maybe 10 million people on a regular basis, has nonetheless convinced six times that number to buy into a conspiracy theory that makes the Area 51 crowd look sane by comparison.

This is craziness.  I could understand 10 or 15% believing this.  That's sort of the base level of people who will believe any nutty idea.  But 52%?  Someone in the GOP needs to take a deep breath and a long look in the mirror, and then try to rescue their party.  Condoning insanity is not a long-term electoral strategy.

California's Choice

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 3:23 PM EST

Here's the latest news from the world's biggest provider of penal services:

Caught between state funding cuts and rowdy student protests, a key committee of the University of California's Board of Regents on Wednesday reluctantly approved a two-step student fee increase that would raise undergraduate education costs more than $2,500, or 32%, by next fall.

...."I hate to say it, but if you have no choice, you have no choice," UC President Mark G. Yudof told reporters after the committee vote. He empathized with student anger, but said it would be better directed toward state lawmakers who have cut education funding.

....The regents' finance committee approved the new fees for UC's undergraduates 10 to 1, with only student Regent Jesse Bernal voting no. The full board is expected to endorse the change today, along with even higher increases for students in professional schools such as law and medicine.

Yudof is right: there's probably not much choice anymore.  Partly this is because of dumb tax and spending decisions in the past.  Partly it's because of the recession.  And partly it's because the prison guards union has spent the last 30 years scaring Californians into fits in order to build up the prison population.  The chart on the right shows an almost ghostly parallel: adjusted for inflation, UC tuition has gone up 5x since 1980.  During the same period, spending on corrections has also gone up 5x.  As we spend ever more on warehousing prisoners, we're forced to make students pay ever more for their education.  The two lines track almost exactly.

We used to have the world's greatest system of higher education and we thrived.  Now we have the world's biggest system of penal institutions and we're broke.  That's the decision Californians have made over the past 30 years: more prisons and better paid prison guards, but lower taxes and less education.  (And not just higher education, either.)  It's hard to think of a stupider allocation of resources.  But hey — at least our property taxes are capped!  Hooray!

The Rest of the World

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 2:20 PM EST

John Judis compares the coverage of Barack Obama's trip to South Korea in three different newspapers today:

Both the Post and the Times focus not on South Korea per se, but on Obama’s taking a “stern tone” toward North Korea in his discussions with the South Koreans.  The Post suggests that the two sides have agreed to a “new approach,” which will reject “endless, inconclusive disarmament negotiations” with the North. OK, pardon me if I yawn.

....Now let’s look at the Financial Times story by Christian Oliver and Edward Luce, which is about one-third the size of the other pieces....Here are the opening paragraphs:

When George Bush senior visited Seoul as US president 20 years ago, things were simple – the US was the undisputed main ally and trade partner. Astonishingly, there was only one weekly flight from South Korea to China, the communist foe. Barack Obama on Wednesday visits a South Korea where the US is no longer the only show in town. China is now the main trade partner, with 642 flights each week.

One flight versus 642 flights — that’s a small detail that tells a large story about South Korea and China....There’s more, too, about Obama making trade promises to South Korea that Congress is unlikely to let him keep. All in all, you get in one-third the length three times more interesting information than in the Times and Post articles, and it’s epitomized in the lead paragraphs comparing the number of flights that now run weekly between China and South Korea.

There are two things going on here.  First, the FT writes for a more sophisticated audience that's been following this story for a while and is actually interested in learning more about it.  Second, and related, the FT doesn't have to pretend that the only news that matters is whatever happens to be the current hot button in the United States.  American audiences tend to believe that pretty much every international issue revolves mainly around how it affect the United States, and that's the only angle they're interested in.

At least, that's what American newspapers assume.  They might find out different if they tried the FT's approach, but honestly, they probably know their audience pretty well.  Even most highly educated Americans just don't care much about the rest of the world except to the extent that it affects us.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 12:41 PM EST

From Jon Stewart, explaining what it's like to listen to Sarah Palin:

It's just a conservative boiler plate mad lib.

I think that nails it.  Yesterday I was thinking about how everything she says sounds like it's just plucked from the tea party talking points of the day, but Stewart comes closer to the truth.  They aren't just talking points, they're sort of bizarrely, syntactically mashed up talking points.

I wonder what really goes on inside her head?  Lots of politicians have mastered the art of speaking in talking points and never going off message, but mostly they at least try to sound like they know what they're talking about.  Palin doesn't.  She just spouts the sixth grade version of the talking points with an apparently total unawareness that she sounds like a child.

Virtually every political commenter — even the ones who like her! — concluded after the presidential campaign that she needed to study up on the issues, maybe pick one to make into her signature, and use that to increase her gravitas.  But obviously she hasn't.  She just doesn't care.  Or, perhaps, doesn't think there's any reason she needs to know about issues.  I mean, she beat that nerdy issue guy in the Alaska governor's race just by making fun of his book learning, didn't she?  Why change a winning game plan?