Kevin Drum

Helping the Prez

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

In case you have better things to do with your life than trying to keep up with every outburst of political hysteria in the Age of Obama, here's the latest: the president announced yesterday that he would be giving a live speech to schoolkids next Monday, wherein he would extol the virtues of hard work, learning to read and cipher, etc. etc.  Teaching materials related to the speech were provided by the Ed Department.  Conservatives went predictably bonkers, accusing Obama of trying to brainwash our nation's youth, push his socialist agenda into the classroom, and create a cult of personality among impressionable children.

Today he backed off slightly:

In a set of bullet points listed under a heading, "Extension of the Speech," one of the points used to say: "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

However, that bullet point now reads as follows: "Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

When conservatives started ranting about death panels, Mickey Kaus suggested that if Dems had any sense they never would have inserted the language about advance directives into their bill in the first place.  They should have known it would cause problems.  I disagreed: if it hadn't been death panels, it just would have been something else.  There's no way to sanitize a bill enough to keep it safe from folks like Betsy McCaughey and Sarah Palin.

But I'm on the other side on this one.  What the hell was Obama's brain trust thinking?  The whole idea of the speech may have been misguided in the first place given the realities of modern hyperpartisan politics (be honest: you wouldn't have been thrilled if George Bush had done something like this), but including a bullet point asking kids "what they can do to help the president"?  A five-year-old could have figured out that might cause a little bit of red-state heartburn.

Obviously the president shouldn't spend all his time worrying about what the lunatic fringe thinks.  Still, the world is what it is.  Why give them obvious ammunition?

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People Don't Have Any Money

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 11:58 AM EDT

Consumer spending continues to suck:

Most stores reported significant declines — with the worst coming from chains that specialize in teenage clothing and gear.

Over all, the industry posted a 2.9 percent sales decline compared with a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters, making August the 12th consecutive month of negative growth. The August decline comes on top of a 5 percent drop in July.

Despite signs that the economy is stabilizing, consumers remain reluctant to spend. That does not augur for a good holiday shopping season, a crucial time for retailers. As analysts at AT Kearney noted in a recent back-to-school report: “thrift is settling in as a habit for consumers across the board.”

Look: thrift is not "settling in as a habit."  People are spending less because they don't have any money.  Some are unemployed.  Some have had their hours cut.  Some are paying down credit card balances.  Some are desperately trying to make ends meet after their ARMs reset.  Some are paying off home equity loans they thought they'd be able to refinance forever.  Habit has nothing to do with it.

Townhalls and the Media

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 1:38 AM EDT

Did the country really explode in anger at townhalls across the country this summer?  Or was it just a tiny fraction of the population that got outsize attention by bored cable nets during the dog days of August?  E.J. Dionne talked to some returning Democratic House members this week and concludes it was more the latter than the former:

"I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you'd think experienced media hands wouldn't fall for: of allowing loud voices to distort the debate," said Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, whose district includes Columbus, Ohio.

....The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham. The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: "Your meeting doesn't get covered unless it blows up." As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No "news" there.

....When I reached Rep. Tom Perriello last week, he divided the crowds at the 17 town halls he had held to that point in his largely rural Virginia district into three groups: conservatives, for whom the health-care battle is "about big government, socialism and all that"; the left, for whom "it's about corporate accountability"; and a "middle" for whom "it's about health care costs" and the problems with their coverage.

But the only citizens who commanded widespread media coverage last month were the right-wingers. And I bet you thought the media were "liberal."

There's unquestionably been a decline in support for healthcare reform in the polls, but is that cause or effect?  If Dionne is right, it's less a reflection of genuine discomfort than it is a reflection of distorted media coverage.  Thanks, cable news!

Mother Jones is a Bimonthly Publication

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 8:12 PM EDT

Dave Schuler, in a post on a different subject entirely, happens to mention this:

An auto-antonym is a word that has two meanings: it means one thing and also its opposite. The perfect example of an auto-antonym is inflammable which means incapable of burning and also capable of burning....Other auto-antonyms include fast, cleave, sanction, and let. The last means either allow or prohibit (mostly in the legal phrase “without let or hindrance”). There’s a sizeable list here.

Most of these auto-antonyms are actually kind of questionable, more examples of words with different senses than they are literal antonyms.  And in that spirit, one of the best examples of this kind of thing is biweekly (or monthly or yearly), which can mean either twice a week or every other week.  This came up yesterday in response to this post, and what makes it so special is that unlike most of these word pairs, this one is pretty much impossible to tease out via context.  If I say that David Brooks is a biweekly columnist, you have no idea which sense of the word I mean.

How does this happen?  Different senses of a word that are near opposites but pretty easy to distinguish via context are easy to understand.  That kind of thing happens all the time.  But how does a word evolve into total confusion like this?  A brief bit of googling doesn't turn up anything very helpful, but it seems like there ought to be an interesting story behind this.

(And Mother Jones?  We're the kind of bimonthly publication that comes out six times a year.)

Optimistic About Healthcare

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

So why do I remain fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass?  Sometimes I wonder myself.  But here are three reasons.  First, Jon Chait, who thinks getting bipartisan support for a bill was always a chimera:

The ultimate endgame entailed getting all the Democrats to pull together and pass something.

Of course, Democrats didn’t want to do this. They wanted bipartisan support, mainly for political cover. Moderate Democrats won’t do this until it becomes clear that the Republican Party is dead set against reform, completely in hoc to its right-wing base, and not negotiating seriously....In that sense, August moved the ball pretty far down the field.

Second, Carl Hulse of the New York Times, reports that conservative Democrats haven't been too fazed by the August freak show:

Even after the tough town-hall-style meetings, unrelenting Republican assaults and a steady stream of questions from anxious voters, interviews with more than a dozen Blue Dogs and their top aides indicate that many of the lawmakers still believe approval of some form of health care plan is achievable and far preferable to not acting at all.

....The political temperature of the Blue Dogs — and their ideological counterparts in the Senate — after the five-week recess is crucial. As representatives of some of the nation’s most conservative territory represented by Democrats, they potentially have the most to lose if a Democratic bill spurs a backlash....One lawmaker in the group, Representative David Scott of Georgia, said his determination to enact a health care overhaul had been increased over the recess because of what he called the spread of misinformation and other unfair tactics engaged in by the opposition.

And third, there's the fact that conventional wisdom places Dems in a very, very deep hole right now:

Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House — not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.

Top political analyst Charlie Cook, in a special August 20 update to subscribers, wrote that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats.”

Now, put all this together and look at it from the Democrats' perspective.  Republicans have been given every chance and have obviously decided to obstruct rather then work on a bipartisan compromise.  So the Blue Dogs and centrist Dems feel like they're covered on that angle.  What's more, the townhalls have shown them what they're up against: if they don't pass a bill — if they cave in to the loons and demonstrate that their convictions were weak all along — they're probably doomed next year.  Their only hope is to pass a bill and look like winners who get things done.

When you're up against a wall, you do what you have to do.  Politically, Dems have to succeed, and at this point they've all had their noses rubbed in the fact that the only way to succeed is to stick together.  What's more, Barack Obama has a pretty good knack for coming in after everyone else has talked themselves out and cutting through the haze to remind people of what's fundamentally at stake.  If he can do that again, and if he has the entire Democratic caucus supporting him, they can win this battle.

Nearly every Democrat now has a stake in seeing healthcare reform pass.  The devil, of course, is in the word "nearly," but at this point even Ben Nelson probably doesn't want to be the guy to sink a deal if he's literally the 60th vote to get something done.  It's usually possible to pass a bill when everyone's incentives are aligned, and right now they're about as aligned as they can be.  That's why, on most days, I remain optimistic.

UPDATE: A commenter at James Joyner's site describes Obama's style this way: “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.”  At his best, I think that gets it about right.

And when is Obama going to do this?  Next Wednesday in an address to a joint session of Congress.  Nice symbolism there.  I hope it works.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

From David Axelrod, commenting on how his boss plans to knock some heads and get engaged in the healthcare debate any day now:

It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done.

Well, that's either cunningly brilliant or terminally vapid.  I'm not sure which.  I guess it depends on whether Obama ends up passing a healthcare bill or not.  If he doesn't, his decision to keep his distance from the fight until the very end will be judged as harshly as Clinton's decision to write a 1000-page bill and dump it on Congress.  If he does, that same decision will be judged a brilliant coup.  Personally, I think it has a pretty good chance to be the latter.  We'll see.   More here.

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Simple Reform

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

Andrew Samwick thinks Democrats have done a lousy job of selling healthcare reform, and it's hard to argue with that.  But then he goes on to ask for evidence that any of the bills currently moving through Congress are better than a simple reform consisting only of:

1. Community rating
2. Guaranteed issue
3. Ex post risk adjustment
4. An individual mandate, with Medicaid for a fee as the backup option

I've seen a bunch of criticisms along these same lines, and I don't really get them. Granted, the bills now on the table have more to them than just these points, but not a lot more.  The core of all of them is insurance industry reform (#1-3) combined with subsidies for low-income families (#4).  With the exception of the much-debated public option, the additional stuff lies in the details (the subsidies aren't all Medicaid, children get treated differently than adults) or in modest expansions of Samwick's list (out-of-pocket caps, tax credits for small businesses).  The fact is that current reform efforts are already fairly modest.

Unless, of course, I'm misunderstanding Samwick and he means "Medicaid for a fee" literally.  That is, no subsidies and no attempt to expand coverage to the currently uninsured at all.  If that's the case, then the answer to his question is "Because they expand decent health coverage to millions of poor people."  If it's not, then I'm not quite sure what the problem is.  Putting the public option aside for the moment, are the additional details in the House and Senate bills really so abominable that he thinks they should torpedo the whole project?  Why?

The Latest on Sarah P.

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Just the other day I was thinking, "I wonder what's up with Sarah Palin? I haven't heard any good Palin gossip lately."

Well, Vanity Fair to the rescue.  In "Me and Mrs. Palin," Levi Johnston unburdens himself and tells his version of what life was like in the Palin household after the election:

Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.” She started to say it frequently, but she didn’t know how to do it. When she came home from work, it seemed like she was more and more stressed out.

Does this sound believable?  I'm not sure.  But it does sort of sync up with this report from Politico a couple of days ago:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin this week will begin accepting and rejecting the more than 1,070 invitations she has received for paid speeches and political appearances since she resigned from office, aides said.

....She’s about 85 percent finished with her book, due out this spring from HarperCollins. Then she’ll begin looking through the inch-and-a-half thick file her lawyer, Robert Barnett, has built of offers for network and cable pundit gigs, documentaries and business opportunities.

Levi also says that when Palin first heard Bristol was pregnant, she insisted over and over that they keep it a secret and then allow her and Todd to adopt the baby when it was born.  I confess that I'm not sure this passes the credibility test either.  But he's pretty clear about it.

A Stealth Troop Increase

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:37 AM EDT

Julian Barnes reports in the LA Times that the Army is planning a stealth increase in troop strength in Afghanistan:

U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," defense officials say.

The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops — a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proven a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.

....The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said....Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.

McChrystal is definitely showing off that "political savvy" his bosses have been looking for.  Still, an increase in combat troops is an increase in combat troops.  It doesn't really matter how you get there.  Just keep this in mind and add it to the total when McChrystal finally unveils his official request a few weeks from now.

Workers are Getting Screwed, Part MDCCXII

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:05 AM EDT

In a new study, 68% of the workers who were interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.  You heard that right.  In the previous week alone:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

The researchers said one of the most surprising findings was how successful low-wage employers were in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation. Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

“The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants,” said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

They were surprised by this?  Seriously?  Sure, I suppose 68% is higher than I would have guessed, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that this kind of thing was confined to a "few rogue employers" either.  How many reports of mistreatment do we have to get before we finally figure out that labor violations are rampant in this country?