Kevin Drum

Real Tyranny

| Sat Sep. 5, 2009 12:25 AM EDT

One of my least favorite abuses of power is the government's use of material witness warrants as all-purpose excuses for detaining people when they have no actual evidence of any wrongdoing.  So I'm very pleased to hear that the 9th Circuit Court has not only ruled that such behavior is reprehensible and obviously unconstitutional, but that former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be held personally responsible for it:

Members of the panel, all appointees of Republican presidents, characterized Ashcroft's detention policy as "repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history."

....[Abdullah] Kidd, a former University of Idaho running back...was handcuffed, strip-searched and shuttled among interrogations in Virginia, Oklahoma and Idaho before being released 16 days later and ordered to surrender his passport and live with his wife and in-laws in Nevada.  The arrest led to Kidd being denied a security clearance and losing his job with a government contractor.

....Georgetown Law professor David Cole said that Ashcroft adopted an aggressive "preventive paradigm" after Sept. 11 designed "to incapacitate people who government officials thought suspicious but lacked evidence of any wrongdoing. They were locked up and then investigated, rather than the other way around." Virtually all of the targets had nothing to do with terrorism, Cole said.

....The judges, alluding to the George W. Bush administration, said that although "some confidently assert that the government has the power to arrest and detain" suspects without evidence of wrongdoing, the panel considered such preemptive detentions "an engine of political tyranny."

Yep, boys and girls, that's what the seeds of real political tyranny look like.  Somebody please tell Glenn Beck and the rest of the fever swamp crowd.

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Kabul Krazytown and Obama's Kid Speech

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 7:08 PM EDT

It's Laura, back with the newest week-in-review podcast with Kevin and David. Kevin's clanging around in the kitchen a bit this week while discussing Obama's forthcoming socialist indoctrination of children everywhere —not sure what he was cooking. Next time maybe he'll give Inkblot a meow cameo instead? I kid. Sort of. Worth a listen.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is an editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 September 2009

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:17 PM EDT

Last week Domino got Friday Catblogging all to herself, so this week it's Inkblot's turn.  Besides, I got lots of good Inkblot pictures this week and none of Domino.  Them's the breaks.

Anyway.  On the left, Inkblot is peering down on all of his loyal subjects in the living room below.  On the right, he's decided to come downstairs to join us and watch some tennis — cat style, of course.  And by "cat style," what I really mean is that his dinner clock had kicked in and he was rolling around on the floor and trying to look cute, which is what he does every night around 6:30 or so.  It's uncanny, really.

It's All About Affordability

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:50 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of what's really important in the healthcare negotiations right now, you might want to check out Jordan Rau's piece at the Kaiser Health Network.  It's all about affordability: regardless of whether or not the final bill includes a public option, health insurance will still be virtually unaffordable for a lot of people.  And the key to fixing that in the real-world depends on the level of federal subsidies provided to low and medium income families who don't have employer insurance and have to buy insurance themselves.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  Those subsidies are where the bulk of the cost of healthcare reform comes from, and figuring out a way to finance it is by far the biggest problem Congress faces.  Go read.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:02 PM EDT

From Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, wondering just what President Obama is going to do with all those letters that schoolkids send him after his classroom speech on Tuesday:

There are going to be questions about — well, what are they are going to do with those names and is that for the purpose of a mailing list?

Sometimes the classics are best, you know?  Fox News prepared the ground for this with its suggestion a couple of weeks ago that Obama was trying to create an enemies list when it asked for examples of healthcare myths, but now the Obama team is apparently creating an enemies list for future Democratic presidents.  Or a true believers list.  Or something.  Clever!

You know, this whole first-day-of-school-presidential-speech thing might not have been the greatest idea in the world, but the reaction to it makes death panels look practically sane by comparison.  Socialism!  Cult worship!  Jedi mind control!  And the worst part of it, just as it was with the death panels, is how eager party leaders have been to fan the flames of this stuff.  If it was just talk radio, that would be bad enough.  But Tim Pawlenty is a governor.  And he's even reputed to be a fairly boring sort of governor.  But he knows the drill: if you want to survive in the Republican Party today, you have to prove that you can't be out-crazied.  Consequences be damned.

This stuff just has to backfire on them eventually, doesn't it?  Please tell me yes.

Fighting the Power

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:21 PM EDT

For the last couple of weeks Bob Somerby has been complaining that liberals are lousy at message framing.  Conservatives have their big government/low taxes message down to a science, but we just flail around.  Flail, flail, flail.  Finally, today, he offers up his take on what our fundamental message ought to be:

You can’t expect Obama to compensate for the lack of a strong, well-established counter-narrative. But if we ever do build such a narrative, it would probably turn on these points:

First, it would turn on some well-crafted statement of an obvious fact: Big Moneyed Interests will try to loot you. They’ll do it every time — till they’re stopped.

Second, it might turn on a second obvious fact: Big Moneyed Interests will send tribunes out to deceive you. They will lie in your faces — till they’re stopped.

If Democrats and liberals hadn’t dozed all these years, we might have familiar, well-crafted versions of these obvious truths at our disposal. Voters might have heard those well-crafted statements many, many times....But if such messaging pre-existed, Obama could talk about the conduct of the insurance companies — and the things he said would fit into a larger framework, a framework voters pre-understood. But on your side, that larger framework simply doesn’t exist. Your side has slumbered, burbled and dozed. We are simply too lazy and indifferent — and too bought — to spend time on such messaging.

Well, I'm all for this.  Bill Clinton did yeoman work moving the Democratic Party toward the center and helping it regain power, but unfortunately he did it at the expense of also transforming it into a "business friendly" party.  It would be nice to turn that around.

But how?  Unfortunately, even among those of us who aren't bought one way or another, there are an awful lot of people like me: business skeptical, perhaps, but not really business hostile.  I think the business community need to be treated like teenagers on a football team: lots of good energy and good hustle, but they work best when they're guided by a firm hand.  I want corporations regulated fairly strictly, but not because I bear most of them any malice or anything.  I just know that, like any teenager, they'll test their boundaries to the breaking point, so those boundaries need to be clear and well enforced.

That's not a real clean message, though.  Better go with Bob's instead, I guess.

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Zen Koan of the Day

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:45 AM EDT

From Ezra Klein, meditating on what it will take to get Republicans to act like grownups:

The lesson of this process has been that the only path to bipartisanship — if one in fact exists — is effective partisanship.

Indeed.  But he's right.  Call me Pollyanna if you want, but I continue to think that beneath all the hysterical political theater of August, not that much has changed.  Support for healthcare reform has always been broad but shallow, and to the extent that some of that support has turned into opposition, that opposition is also shallow.  Among independents, there's a good chance that a lot of that newfound opposition can be turned around as the stage moves back to Washington DC and the conversation becomes a little quieter.

What's more, I think Republicans know this, which is why they're continuing to bluster so loudly.  For reasons that have always escaped me, the media takes conservative bluster a lot more seriously than liberal bluster, and Republicans are taking advantage of this by trying to win the debate simply by loudly claiming they've won the debate.  But they know they haven't, and if Democrats seriously hold out the threat of passing healthcare reform via reconciliation — which requires only 51 votes and would therefore produce legislation much more liberal than a bill passed via standard order — Republicans are likely to give in and start negotiating in tolerably good faith.  Enough of them, anyway, to pass a bill.

This is the real threat, I think, not all the clamor pro and con over the public option.  The reconciliation process has problems of its own, but in the end Democrats can do whatever they want if Joe Biden is willing to play along and they don't lose their nerve.  Republicans know this.  If it becomes clear that Democrats are serious, they'll cave and Obama will get his bill.

Yet More Airstrikes in Afghanistan

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:10 AM EDT

Another NATO attack, this time on a pair of trucks hijacked by the Taliban, another public relations disaster:

The Taliban had stolen the trucks and were driving them across Char Dara district, an insurgent stronghold, when the vehicles got stuck on a bridge, officials and locals said.

....Local Afghan security forces alerted the international NATO-led command, known as the International Security Assistance Force, who then called in an airstrike. The bomb struck the tankers, causing a huge blast that immediately killed those in the vicinity and burned many others in the area, locals said.

The NATO-led command, in a statement, said it had "observed insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area" before ordering the strike.

Unfortunately, it turned out the when the truck got stuck on the bridge, villagers flocked out to start siphoning fuel away.  So when the trucks were attacked and exploded, lots of villagers were killed along with lots of insurgents.

And our man Hamid Karzai?  Naturally he stepped right up and thundered that "targeting civilian men and women is not acceptable."  Thanks, Hamid.  That should help keep things calm.

More troops aren't likely to help with this sort of thing.  Maybe there was an Afghan screwup, maybe there was a NATO screwup, maybe no one screwed up and it's just impossible to ever be 100% sure that civilians aren't around.  So it's going to happen again.  And apparently, when it does, Karzai will make our position even worse and more dangerous than it already is by making the most inflammatory possible suggestion about how it happened.  Does this really sound like a country we should be sending more troops to?

The Geithner Plan

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:16 AM EDT

Via Felix Salmon, I see that Tim Geithner has unveiled his plan — or, more accurately, his guiding principles — for regulating leverage more effectively in the financial industry.  And it's not bad.  Basically it requires (a) stronger capital requirements across the board; (b) higher capital requirements for bigger firms, which would make larger firms somewhat less profitable; (c) an emphasis on real capital, not shell games; (d) higher capital requirements in good times and lower requirements in bad times; (e) a simple leverage constraint as sort of a backup to the more complex main capital rules; (f) stronger regulation of off-balance-sheet vehicles; (g) some kind of minimum liquidity requirement so that banks can't be wiped out in just a matter of days by a bank run; and (h) extension of all these rules to big non-banking entities (the "shadow banking" system).

All of these are described in general terms, and I note that (h) is described in especially dodgy terms.  So we won't know how serious Geithner is about this stuff until he rolls out the details.  But at least he seems to singing the right songs.

Pulling the Trigger

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:53 AM EDT

Let's check out the news on the healthcare front today.  In the New York Times, we have David Brooks suggesting that Obama throw out all the work of the past six months and start completely from scratch on a wonky curve-bending plan that would have approximately zero support in any known galaxy.  Sounds great.  In the Washington Post, we have GOP Senator Bob Corker telling us that if Democrats would just get rid of that mean old public option, Republicans will flock to support healthcare reform.  You betcha.  And in the LA Times, we're told that a public option might be politically acceptable after all as long as it goes into effect only after something "triggers" it.  What that something might be is still unclear, but basically insurance companies would have to reduce costs somehow, and if they don't do it then the public option would be triggered and they'd all have to start competing with the feds.

In other words, things are all over the map.  The trigger idea is sort of interesting, though.  Not because it's new and innovative, but because it's the kind of thing that seems to pop up as a compromise proposal pretty frequently and to no avail.  Alan Greenspan and Paul O'Neill tried to sell the idea of a trigger for the 2001 tax cuts, but nobody bought it.  The Baker Commission basically proposed triggers for withdrawing from Iraq, but that turned out to be DOA.  And here in California, when higher car registration fees got automatically triggered by a growing budget deficit, it caused such hysteria that we ended up tossing out our governor and electing an action star in his place.  Didn't work out so well.

So triggers don't have a really illustrious history.  But maybe it'll work this time.  Anybody know of any examples of successful triggers?  That is, triggers that actually produced a successful compromise at the time of legislation and didn't cause all hell to break loose when they took effect?  We need some data, people.