Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has had quite a run lately. She had strong showings at the June 13 CNN debate and the Republican Leadership Conference 10 days ago. Then came this weekend's shocking Des Moines Register poll putting Bachmann in second place with 22 percent, a single percentage point behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

Today a buoyant Bachmann unveiled (again) her presidential campaign, this time in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. But Nate Silver warns against getting too excited amidst all the Michele mania and buzz surrounding her campaign:

Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney—who eventually finished second in Iowa—had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had 4 percent of the vote at this point in time—behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers—and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

Election Day 2012 is 17 months away. The Iowa caucuses are six months out. No poll is all that important right now.

Chevy Volt vs. Zurich

Leading off the New York Times' reimagined "Sunday Review" section (no more Letterman jokes?!) was a 2,380-word, mostly fawning essay by columnist Joe Nocera on the promise of the electric hybrid Chevy Volt, General Motors' great hope for the green car era. Nocera test-drove the car, talked with the sharpest auto analysts and executives, and ultimately declared the car a winner (despite its eye-popping $41,000 price tag).

Nocera contends that the Volt's success is simply a matter of time and getting drivers behind the wheel. (Fewer than 2,500 have been sold so far.) Here he is driving a Volt around Southampton, New York:

Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon—and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.

When I began to describe for [former GM executive Bob] Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. "Yeah," he said, "it's like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score."

Or as Nocera puts it later on, "The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could—others are going to feel that as well." In other words, it's the "enviro-guilt" (his words) brought on by the Volt that will wean American consumers off of gas-guzzling SUVs and, ideally, off of gasoline-powered cars in general.

I don't buy the video-game/enviro-guilt theory. Neither, it seems, do the Swiss.

Today, the Times' Elizabeth Rosenthal reports on how big European cities aren't just demanding more energy efficient cars, but in fact making driving "expensive and just plain miserable" in cities such as Zurich, Munich, and Copenhagen. Their tactics are many: far less street parking, congestion tolls to simply enter cities, more frequent red lights to frustrate drivers, and even outright banning cars on certain city blocks. Said Zurich's chief traffic planner, "Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."

I'm sure many readers—save, perhaps, those hippy-loving liberals out in San Francisco—recoiled in disgust from Rosenthal's article. Force us off the road? That's un-American! It's big government socialism!

But after reading Nocera's column and the today's story, I can't help but think it's the Swiss, the Germans, and the Danes who've got it right. They're not waiting for the pangs of enviro-guilt to kick in; they're pushing consumers in the right direction, like it or not.

Of course, if big US cities took a cue from Zurich and began making commuters' lives even more miserable, the growing pains would be huge. Many cities don't have nearly enough buses, subways, light-rails, trams, etc., to handle a massive influx of riders; some big cities' public transit is downright dismal. (Looking at you, Atlanta.) But you know what would spur rapid expansion of public transportation? Thousands of new users pressuring city officials and lawmakers in Washington for better mass transit as if their livelihood depended on it.

Grappling with climate change—and the extreme weather that comes with it—means serious action, and fast. Waiting and hoping for more efficient lithium batteries and cheaper electric cars isn't enough.

By the time you see this I should be flying across the country, ready for some R&R in New York City. The cats, of course, are ready for R&R at all times, especially on warm summer days like these. As always, let them be your guide to a successfully stress-free weekend.

The New Jersey legislature on Thursday joined Wisconsin, Ohio, and a handful of other states by drastically scaling back pension and health-care benefits for government workers and curbing collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. All told, 750,000 public-sector workers will end up forking over thousands of dollars more each year to fund their pension and health-care benefits—in part to plug a $52 billion hole in New Jersey's state pension fund.

But there's a key distinction between New Jersey and the other states that passed similar bills: Democrats control the legislature.

Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly elected Republican majorities in the legislature and new Republican governors rammed through unpopular bills curbing bargaining and benefits, in New Jersey, Democrats gave a Republican governor, Chris Christie, the votes he needed. The state Senate passed the bill 24 to 15, with 8 Democrats bolting from their party to support Christie. In the Assembly, the vote was 46 to 32 in favor of the measure, and 14 Democrats sided with Republicans.

So what happened? After all, this is New Jersey we're talking about, where public-sector unions are traditionally a pillar of support for Dems in fundraising, get-out-the-vote, and at the ballot box. According to the New York Times, Christie was able to cobble together support for his bill, which he called a model for other state legislatures, by taking advantage of the Garden State's old-school, city-centric political system:

In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey’s unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives, and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor’s push to cut benefits and wages.

There's another intriguing narrative here—namely, how the state Democratic Party functions effectively after a handful of its members backed a bill hugely unpopular with the Democratic base. What we'll likely see, per the Newark Star-Ledger, is a growing schism among New Jersey Democrats:

Today's union protest, like other recent demonstrations, did nothing to stop the bill. But it did highlight the growing fissures in the state Democratic Party. While Sweeney and Oliver were pushing the bill, the chairman of the state party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), was rallying protesters with two-dozen other Democrats. "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he said. Bob Master, a leader in the Communications Workers of America, said Democrats should not be "collaborating" with Christie.

Opponents of Christie's bill have a nickname for those Democratic "collaborators": Christie Democrats. That will be a damning label to hang around a Democrat's neck when re-election rolls around.

Bombing the Moon

Following up on my GOP mind games post, Ezra Klein makes a smart observation in this morning's Wonkbook on how the GOP transformed tax increases from an important, necessary option in the deficit debate into something evil and extremist. To prove his point, Ezra uses a clever rhetorical trick: he swaps "bomb the moon" for any mention of taxes in Republican statements made after yesterday's deficit talks drama:

"We've known from the beginning that bombing the moon would be a poison pill to any debt-reduction proposal," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. See? Or: "President Obama needs to decide between his goal of bombing the moon, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit," said McConnell and Sen. Jon Kyl in a joint statement. Or: "First of all, bombing the moon is going to destroy jobs," said Speaker John Boehner. "Second, bombing the moon cannot pass the US House of Representatives—it's not just a bad idea, it doesn’t have the votes and it can’t happen. And third, the American people don’t want us to bomb the moon."

"Bombing the moon" would actually make these statements more accurate. A bipartisan deficit-reduction proposal, almost by definition, includes revenue increases. That, along with the spending cuts, is what makes it bipartisan. And unpopular? Tax increases, particularly if targeted at the wealthy, show themselves again and again to be among the most popular ways to reduce the budget deficit. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Americans though the best way to reduce the deficit was "a combination" of tax hikes and spending cuts, and polls that have tested specific policies have found vastly more support for raising taxes on the rich than for GOP mainstays like cutting Medicare and Social Security and discretionary funding that goes to programs like education.

The quotes Ezra uses come after Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl, the number two GOPers in their respective chambers, bailed on the bipartisan deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor went first, saying he wouldn't continue negotiating if any form of a tax increase was on the table, including cutting $21 billion in subsidies for big oil companies. "Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue," Cantor said in a statement. Kyl followed Cantor out the door soon after.

Apparently, Cantor forgot that the US is not under one-party rule, and that his constituents elected him to do what's expected of all politicians: compromise. The Biden-led deficit negotiations are intentionally bipartisan, and to claim that Democrat-backed tax increases are non-negotiable, as Cantor believes, defies logic. It's not negotiating if one side refuses to give any ground whatsoever. Either Cantor is more intransigent and bound to conservative orthodoxy than we thought, or he's setting up House Speaker John Boehner to be the fall guy who cuts a deal with the Democrats on a short-term deficit reduction plan. Or both.

What's clear is that any deficit reduction plan must include new revenue of some kind. After all, it was partly the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that got us into this mess in the first place. Not filling that $2.6-trillion hole with new revenue would be madness.

Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

During the Bush years, America's chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration hasn't added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it's only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP's position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. "Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists," the headline blared.

Some liberals defend the Obama administration's record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they're right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn't have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it's only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

Why shouldn't we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad "unprivileged belligerents" while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

But forget foreigners—they're screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today's fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they're on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can't go home unless they answer the FBI's questions. Americans with dark skin tones and "suspicious" names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don't expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in a bit.

The Washington Post reports on a massive jailbreak of Islamic militants from one of Yemen's largest prisons:

Among the escapees Wednesday were members of an al-Qaeda cell that has killed foreign tourists and tried to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and other Western targets, according to Yemeni officials. [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] was behind the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 and the mailing of bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States....

...The prison break Wednesday, though far from the first in Yemen, came at a moment of political crisis in the country and seemed likely to heighten fears among U.S. counterterrorism officials that AQAP is gathering strength as the authority of the central government weakens.

Even in the best of times, Yemen was not a great place to imprison radical Islamists. The prisons there have always been leaky at best, and the central government's authority didn't extend very far past the capital. Now the country is even more wracked by chaos and intranational violence than usual, and AQAP has scored some successes—the latest being this prison break. The Obama administration has apparently decided, in the wake of the Christmas Day and cargo bomb attacks, that this is a threat worthy of a semi-secret drone war but not, well, an "actual" war.

In a "real" war, we'd go in and detain these guys ourselves, rather than relying on incompetent and potentially backstabbing proxies. That doesn't, thankfully, seem to be on the table right now. (I don't think America can afford another land war in Asia.) But the war on terror does produce some odd paradoxes. In today's world, it's easier, politically and legally, for America to vaporize a foreigner it suspects of terrorism than it is to keep that person in prison. That's pretty weird.

Is there a more terrible idea getting serious play in policy circles than a corporate "tax holiday"? That's when corporations that have put off paying American taxes get a one-shot chance to move that money into the US at the steeply discounted rate of 5 percent. Kevin has dismissed the proposal as a "scam," but I wanted to point out a new Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report thoroughly dismantling the idea.

Proponents—like the WIN America campaign, a group backed by major pharmaceutical, energy, and technology corporations—claim a new tax holiday will "strengthen our economy, pay down our debt, put people back to work, and invest up to $1 trillion in America." But the last tax holiday, in 2004, did nothing of the sort, CBPP says. "The evidence shows that firms mostly used the repatriated earnings not to invest in US jobs or growth but for purposes that Congress sought to prohibit, such as repurchasing their own stock and paying bigger dividends to their shareholders," the report's authors write. "Moreover, many firms actually laid off large numbers of US workers even as they reaped multi-billion-dollar benefits from the tax holiday and passed them on to shareholders."

Here are three more solid reasons why tax holidays are a dumb idea, per CBPP:

  • Repeating the tax holiday would increase incentives to shift income overseas. If Congress enacts a second tax holiday, rational corporate executives will conclude that more tax holidays are likely in the future. That will make corporations more inclined to shift income into tax havens and less likely to make investments in the United States.
  • The claim that a tax holiday would increase domestic investment by freeing multinationals from cash restraints is extremely dubious. U.S. non-financial corporations currently have $1.9 trillion in cash and other liquid assets, the highest level as a share of total corporate assets since 1959. The ten companies lobbying hardest for a new tax holiday alone have at least $47 billion in cash and other liquid assets that could be used for domestic investments—without triggering additional tax liability.
  • Some of the biggest beneficiaries of a tax holiday would be firms that have aggressively shifted income overseas. Companies in the technology and pharmaceutical industries have been particularly aggressive in shifting income abroad because they rely on intellectual property, which is relatively easy to shift to other countries as a tax avoidance strategy. Half of all repatriations from the 2004 tax holiday came from companies in these two sectors alone. The same corporations and sectors would stand to benefit disproportionately—and enormously—from a second tax holiday."

It seems that a tax holiday would have, in the long term, the opposite of its intended effect: it would encourage companies to shift cash out of the US. It's hard to see any upside whatsoever for American workers—or the American economy at all, really—from another tax holiday. That is, unless you're a member of Congress who depends on hefty campaign donations to stay in Washington. In that case, a tax holiday is exactly what the doctor ordered. I've even drafted a working title for such a piece of legislation: "The Keeping Corporations Happy and the Contributions Rolling In Act of 2011."

A mouthful, yes. Anyone else have a better name?

From House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, explaining why he's bailing out of budget negotiations with the Obama administration:

I believe that we have identified trillions in spending cuts, and to date, we have established a blueprint that could institute the fiscal reforms needed to start getting our fiscal house in order. That said....Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases....Given this impasse, I will not be participating in today’s meeting and I believe it is time for the President to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue.

Roger that. Trillions in spending cuts already agreed to, but there can't be one dime in tax increases of any kind. Would any conservative apologists like to continue pretending that Democratic aversion to spending cuts is pretty much the same kind of thing as the Republican jihad against tax increases? Anyone? Ross?

It's an article of faith among congressional Republicans that, if you repeat a talking point often enough, no matter how inaccurate it is, it will eventually take root in the minds of Americans. Case in point: A new Bloomberg poll finds that 55 percent of Americans believe spending and tax cuts are the best way to lift the US labor market and lower unemployment, now at 9.1 percent, as opposed to more government spending.

That's straight out of House Republicans' "cut-and-grow" playbook, in which the road to economic prosperity entails slashing corporate tax rates and billion-dollar cuts to "job-killing government spending."

Except that's not true.

Alan Blinder, a Princeton economics professor and former Fed vice president, thoroughly debunked the GOP's claims on Tuesday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "The GOP Myth of 'Job-Killing' Spending." Blinder writes:

The generic conservative view that government is "too big" in some abstract sense leads to a strong predisposition against spending. OK. But the question remains: How can the government destroy jobs by either hiring people directly or buying things from private companies? For example, how is it that public purchases of computers destroy jobs but private purchases of computers create them?

Blinder easily knocks down claims that the 2009 federal stimulus—roughly $600 billion in spending and $200 billion in tax cuts—failed to create jobs, pointing to Congressional Budget Office data that shows the net job gain was at least 1.3 million and perhaps as high as 3.3 million. What's more, Blinder debunks the idea that the federal deficit and the uncertainty that comes with it has caused companies to scale back business investments, which in turn impacts hiring and economic growth. Except such investment soared in the past year, increasing 14.7 percent. Ultimately, Blinder argues for another round of stimulus—specifically, giving businesses that grow their payrolls a tax credit—while calling for a serious long-term deficit reduction package.

And Blinder isn't the only expert to dismantle the GOP's economic position. In an interview with Yahoo News' Lookout blog, a former top economic aide to George W. Bush said the GOP's cut-and-grow agenda doesn't make any sense. "That wouldn't square with the way we normally think about economic activity in a depressed economy," said Andrew Samwick, now an economics professor at Dartmouth. Samwick, like so many other economists, points out that increased spending is a proven way to ramp up hiring and spark economic growth. Slashing spending does the opposite.

Yet Republicans have hammered away with their cut-and-grow mantra so much that they've convinced a majority of Americans to believe the unbelievable. You've got to hand it to Republicans: They may be wrong, but they are convincing.