Kevin Drum

Are Liberals Less Liberal Than They Think?

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 2:39 PM EDT

British economist James Rockey suggests that self-identified liberals actually possess more conservative views on issues than their ideological affiliations would suggest. Andrew Sullivan points us to an academic working paper that surveyed some 280,000 people in 84 countries, including Hungary, Vietnam, and China, as well as major Western industrialized countries. One of the paper's most perplexing findings:

It would seem that the better educated, if anything, are less accurate in how they perceive their ideology. Higher levels of education are associated with being less likely to believe oneself to be right-wing, whilst simultaneously associated with being in favour of increased inequality. This result contrasts with those for income: higher levels of income are associated with both believing oneself to be more right-wing as well as considering more inequality to be necessary.

So what's going on here? In the US, for example, there are certainly pockets of wealthy self-identified liberals who are less inclined to support income redistribution—but who support liberals because they’re either willing to overlook some of their differences with the left on economic issues (given their views on social issues), or who ultimately decide it's not worth being as selfish when it comes to actually casting a vote.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 25 June 2010

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

I may be out of town, but thanks to the miracle of scheduled posting and tiltable camera LCDs we have catblogging this week anyway. Today's theme is lap cats. On the left, Domino is in one of her favorite spots, snoozing away in the crook between my legs. On the right, we have a rare shot of Inkblot sitting in my lap, something he doesn't do often — and probably just as well given his impressive geometrodynamic proportions. Believe me, Inkblot can put your legs to sleep pretty quickly. Still, until they wear out their welcome there's nothing quite like a purring cat nestled into your lap. Highly recommended as a stress reliever.

Why the Health Care Repeal Movement Is Failing

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

Jonathan Chait proffers the latest evidence of why the Republican movement to repeal health care reform is doomed. The problem is that even hard-right conservatives admit that there’s something to love in the health care law, as Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio recently told the National Review:

[Rubio] just mentioned that there are two parts within the Obamacare legislation that he doesn’t want repealed*. The first is the ban on insurance companies denying coverage based onpreexisting conditions and the second is that he thinks that children up to age 26 should be allowed to “buy into” their parents’ coverage.

The problem is that you can’t just cherrypick the parts of the health care reform that you want to support and junk the rest, as both the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Chait acknowledge. If you prohibit discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, then you have to find ways to compel both healthy and sick people to get coverage, otherwise costs will skyrocket if only sick people are insured. This is part of the reason why the Affordable Care Act contains an individual mandate to purchase insurance—one of the provisions that’s a frequent conservative target—as well as other ways to expand insurance coverage.

Republicans, as a result, have had to call for an all-out repeal of the bill, with the assumption that they’d pass another health care bill afterwards. This unpalatable option split the GOP from the very moment that health care reform passed. And it appears that even anti-reform Americans aren't buying it.

Jobs: A Silver Lining for Democrats?

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Democrats have been vowing to make the 2010 elections all about jobs, jobs, jobs. And yesterday, the GOP dealt the Democratic Party—as well as the nation's economic recovery—a big blow by voting down the Senate jobs bill. By week’s end, some 1.3 million Americans will lose unemployment benefits, which had been extended by the federal government given the ongoing recession. By the end of the year, many states will begin a painful process of budget bloodletting that’s likely to axe hundreds of thousands of jobs in both the public and private sectors. The bill's failure will make it that much more difficult for Democrats to prevent voters from turning against them out of anger about the sluggish economic recovery.

But the New York Times points to a potential silver lining for jobs in key battleground states that could give Democrats a potential boost this fall. The story notes that the largest number of swing House races are happening in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio—places where jobs are actually bouncing back more quickly than in the rest of the country. And concrete improvements in these districts could end up having more of an effect on voters' mindsets than overall economic trendlines. Michael Luo explains:

All three states, coincidentally, are considered to be on the leading edge of the nation's recovery. Since December, they have added jobs at a faster rate than the country as a whole and even led the country in the total number of jobs added in April. One reason is that manufacturing, a traditional backbone, has been on the rebound; another is that these states generally did not suffer as acutely as other regions from the housing boom and bust.

While much attention has been paid to the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, political scientists have found little correlation between that measure and midterm elections results. Instead, they have found more broad-based indicators, particularly real personal disposable per capita income, which measures the amount of money a household has after taxes and inflation, to be better gauges.

The story notes, moreover, that "voters' memories tend to be short,” citing political science research showing that economic conditions between the second and third quarters of an election year (between April and September) matter the most.

Did the Anti-Vaccine Movement Help Create a Whooping Cough Epidemic?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 3:25 PM EDT

A whooping cough epidemic has broken out in California, which is now facing what could be the largest outbreak of the contagious disease since 1958. Over 900 cases have been confirmed in the state—more than four times as many as last year—and 600 suspected cases are being investigated. The highly contagious disease can be deadly to infants—five have already died from the disease this year in California—but it’s eminently preventable through vaccination.

Officials are still investigating the causes of the outbreak, but some have already suggested that the anti-vaccine movement could be at least partly to blame. "California is the epicenter of vaccine refusal" in the United States, said Dr. Blaise Congeni from Ohio’s Akron Children's Hospital, according to an ABC News story. While California requires that children be vaccinated from whooping cough before they attend school, "the requirement is waived if parents file a 'personal belief exemption' (PBE), which need not be based on religion or medical necessity," the story continues. And some parents have been flocking to join the vaccine refusalists. ABC News cites Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health:

He said that the overall rate for PBEs among the state's roughly 7,200 schools is about 2 percent.  But rates are much higher in some schools. Records for 2009 indicated that close to 175 schools had PBE rates of 20 percent or more. A few had rates above 70 percent.

Researchers have found that vaccination rates of at least 93 percent are needed to ensure so-called herd immunity against pertussis, which prevents the disease from spreading quickly to unvaccinated individuals.

Fears about vaccines are nothing new, but they’ve been revived in recent years by anti-vaccine crusaders who’ve junked science in favor of medical myths and conspiracy theories. In the US and abroad, they’ve popularized the notion that vaccines cause autism and that whooping cough is not actually fatal, among other falsehoods. There’s also the tireless conservative argument—promulgated by folks like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly—that government-required vaccines infringe upon individual liberty.

Our Job-Killing Senate

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 1:40 PM EDT

Senate Republicans—with the help of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—are poised to kill an economic benefits package today, delivering what could be a serious blow to the country’s recovery, as Matt Yglesias points out. Known as the "tax-extenders" bill, the legislation would continue unemployment benefits, support certain tax breaks, provide a boost to Medicare payments for doctors, and extend Medicaid funding to collapsing state budgets. Conservatives have raised a predictable hue and cry about increasing the deficit. Democrats, desperate to have the legislation pass, have scaled back the bill over the past weeks "from $190 billion, to $80 billion, to $55 billion, to just over $30 billion," Arthur Delaney reports. But it hasn’t been enough to swing key moderate votes, and the legislation looks like it will fail, 42-58, this afternoon.

What’s the price of this political obstructionism? In addition to the millions of Americans who stand to lose unemployment benefits, a huge number of private and public sector employees will lose their jobs due to state budget cuts. Without federal help, states will have to pour in more money to prop up Medicaid, forcing them to make cutbacks in other parts of the budget. As a result, Moody's chief economist estimates that 200,000 jobs could be axed without federal Medicaid support, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts the number as high as 900,000—jobs belonging to teachers, firemen, police, and social workers, among others.

While federal and state governments both contribute to Medicaid funding, the economic crisis has left the states in a terrible budget crunch. The federal government has tried to step in, devoting over 60 percent of the federal stimulus money to propping up Medicaid so states wouldn’t have to make other cuts. But that money is now set to expire, and the states have yet to recover from the effects of the recession to make up the difference.

On top of unemployment benefit cuts and job losses, the cuts to social services could be brutal. The WonkRoom explains:

Thompson pointed to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report stating that “without the extended Medicaid funding, Pennsylvania plans to cut funding for domestic violence prevention in half, eliminate all state funds for addressing substance abuse and homelessness, cut funding for child welfare by one-quarter, and cut payments to private hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors across the state — among other steps.”…

Arizona would have to cut funding for its state court system, Colorado’s likely cuts “include eliminating state aid for full-day kindergarten for 35,000 children, eliminating preschool aid for 21,000 children, and increasing overcrowding in juvenile detention facilities,” while New Mexico “could eliminate a wide range of Medicaid services, including emergency hospital services, inpatient psychiatric care, personal care assistance for the disabled, prescribed medications, and hospice care.”

Buried in the mess is a larger argument for federalizing Medicaid, which would free up state budgets and prevent these kinds of excruciating budget cuts every time state governments hit a rough economic patch. (Kevin brought up this point just last week.) But this is the system that we’re stuck with for now. The federal government needs to support it, and it’s unfortunate that our deadlocked Senate is about to deliver a painful setback to our economic recovery.

Update: As predicted, the tax extenders bill has failed in the Senate. Sigh.

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Just How Unpopular Is BP?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

According to a new NBC News/Journal poll, BP is one of the biggest villains that the organization has ever surveyed:

[O]nly 6 percent have a favorable rating of BP. In the history of the NBC News/Journal poll, Saddam Hussein (3 percent), Fidel Castro (3 percent) and Yasser Arafat (4 percent) have had lower favorable scores, and O.J. Simpson (11 percent) and tobacco-maker Philip Morris (15 percent) have had higher ratings.

BP execs do have a bit of breathing room: Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street greed, still ranks even lower than the oil company in the Least Popular Corporate Brands contest, as my colleague Andy points out

That being said, the spill has pulled down Obama's popularity as well, with his approval rating dropping five points to 45 percent--the first time it's gone below 50 percent since the NBC News/Journal began polling. But the public still believes the president doing a better job than BP or Congress in terms of handling the spill, and Obama's personal popularity remains high. While such trends are unlikely to help endangered Democratic members of Congress in 2010, they don't yet spell doom for the future of Obama's presidency.

Leveling the Campaign Finance Playing Field

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

A campaign finance reform bill meant to curb the excesses of the Citizens United decision is scheduled for a vote in the House today. The Supreme Court ruling lifted spending restrictions for unions and corporations, allowing them to spend freely on campaign ads that explicitly advocated for or against candidates. The DISCLOSE Act is intended to help level the playing field by requiring all groups to reveal the donors behind such ads, preventing corporations from hiding behind third parties—as they’ve often done in the past—to avoid having to reveal their identities.

The argument is that such measures could have a cooling effect on unfettered corporate spending on elections, as companies might be reluctant to risk tainting their brands by supporting or opposing a candidate. I suspect that this might be true: in the months since the Citizens United decision, there have been very few reports of corporations taking advantage of the ruling by directly funding campaign ads themselves.

But the bill set off a firestorm last week after the National Rifle Association scored a big carveout for itself that would exempt it from the legislation's disclosure rules—most importantly, it wouldn’t have to reveal its closely held list of donors. This bout of political horsetrading caused both conservative and liberal advocates to cry foul, and the measure's chances of passage—in either the House or the Senate—are now uncertain. 

David Broder suggests an alternative reform proposal today (found via Ezra’s Wonkbook) that would forgo disclosure requirements in favor of empowering small donors, citing an idea promoted by Michael Malbin, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute:

Malbin's model is the New York City system, with a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of any contribution, making it worth $1,225 to the candidate.

With that kind of payoff, he says, candidates would have every reason to go after small contributors—and pay less attention to the fat cats. And with a flood of such "clean" money, the dollars that corporations and unions decide to spend in the game would become relatively less important.

It’s an interesting idea—and could certainly be an incentive for candidates to seek out small donors, even if they don’t have that same Obama magic. But while it does make small donors more competitive, it wouldn’t eliminate the need for the disclosure requirements in the current bill. And New York City itself is a good example of why.

NYC’s campaign finance rules certainly haven’t deterred Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the eighth richest person in the US, from forgoing public financing so he could dip into his billions without restriction to back his campaigns. But at least the public is quite aware that his own corporate fortune has backed his bid—and Bloomberg's rightfully had to weather the criticism that comes along with it. Similarly, if corporations want to underwrite federal campaign expenditures, they should at least be required to do so in public view. As it stands, we have no way of knowing whether Citizens United has yet unleashed a wave of corporate election spending, as deep-pocketed groups are still allowed to hide behind third parties who can do their bidding.

The Petraeus Effect

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:44 PM EDT

I asked earlier today whether the McChrystal controversy might ignite a serious debate or even reappraisal of the merits of Obama's Afghanistan strategy. With McChrystal now gone and Petraeus stepping into the breach, some have suggested that the public will be even less likely to question and scrutinize the war than before, given the near-mythical aura surrounding Petraeus and his purported accomplishments. After all, McChrystal may eat only one meal a day and sleep four hours a night, but Petraeus--well, he's the "King David" who did 50 push-ups only days after getting shot in the chest.

Here's Adam Serwer's take:

The appointment of General Petraeus is likely to squelch any such discussion before it gets started. The near superhero status Petraeus enjoys isn't simply due to his intelligence or capability as a leader -- its also the result of media mythmaking about the Iraq War. Despite the ease with which the country has come to adopt the narrative that the 2007 troop escalation and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy singlehandedly turned the Iraq War around, it remains untrue. As Michael Cohen helpfully continues to remind us, there were a number of factors involved, including ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, the Sunni tribes turning on al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq and the Sadr ceasefire.

My colleague David Corn has a similar write-up, offering multiple takedowns of the "surge hype."

One additional note: The Petraeus pick re-affirms and arguably intensifies Obama's commitment to pursuing the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But there's at least one new message that Obama seems to be sending, regarding the deadline he's set for US troop withdrawal. Spencer explains:

Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. 

Why Demography Is Destiny

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 2:27 PM EDT

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Tom Schaller flags a new study by Ruy Teixeira explaining how the Republican Party will be doomed in the long run unless it can accommodate emerging constituencies that are less white and more educated. While the GOP might gain some benefit in 2010 from embracing ideological purism and reactionary views, impending demographic shifts make this approach unsustainable long-term. Via Schaller, here are some of Teixeira's, err, recommendations for the GOP:

*Move to the center on social issues. The culture wars may have worked for a while, but shifting demographics make them a loser for the party today and going forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics, and that won’t happen unless it shifts its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.

*Pay attention to whites with some college education and to young white working-class voters in general. The GOP’s hold on the white working class is not secure, and if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. That probably also means offering these voters something more than culture war nostrums and antitax jeremiads.

*Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four-year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic is key to taking back the suburbs. White college graduates increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch.

Essentially, Teixeira writes, the GOP must "move toward the center to compete for these constituencies," which proved critical to Obama's victory in 2008. And even in the current election cycle, there are signs that Republicans could pay the price for extremism—particularly in parts of the country where these big demographic changes are taking hold.

In Texas, for example, recent poll numbers suggest that Gov. Rick Perry could end up suffering from the GOP's rightward shift on immigration. A poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling shows Perry tied with his Democratic challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who had been trailing in earlier polls. PPP explains that Perry's flagging numbers are entirely because of Hispanic voters who've defected to White:

When we polled the race in February Rick Perry led Bill White by 6 points. The race is tied now, and the movement since the previous poll has come completely with Hispanic voters. With white voters Perry led 54-35 then and leads 55-35 now. With black voters White led 81-12 then and leads 70-7 now. But with Hispanics Perry has gone from leading 53-41 in February to now trailing 55-21. And it’s not that the sample of Hispanic voters we interviewed for this poll was somehow fundamentally different from the previous one—Barack Obama’s approval with them on this poll was 49% compared to 47% on the previous Texas poll.

PPP suggests that the shift could be directly tied to fallout from the Arizona immigration law, noting that Hispanic voters had also defected to Democrats in states like Arizona and Colorado. As the Washington Independent notes, the Texas Republican Party has made it clear where they stand: they recently passed a party platform that barred illegal immigrants from "intentionally or knowingly” living in Texas, as a well as an Arizona-like proposal that required local police to verify citizenship when making arrests. Perry, to his credit, opposed these measures—and has been openly critical of the Arizona law. But Perry will have tough time distancing himself from the state and national party given the GOP's increasingly hardline views.

That's not to say that Democrats can simply sit back and reap the rewards of these demographic shifts, even in places like Texas. These newly emerging groups of voters—young people, Hispanics, etc.—also tend to have lower turnout at the polls. But compared to where the GOP is right now, the Democrats definitely have a head start. Will Republicans take this reality to heart and make more than just cosmetic changes to the face of the party?