A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Politics

Peak Nixon

by evanmcmurry

Speaking of Nixon, Bob Woodward spots this gem in John Dean’s new book about his former boss:

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The System Worked

by evanmcmurry

From Frank Rich’s NYT review of Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge, about the conservative movement following Nixon’s resignation:

Once Nixon did make way for Ford, the bipartisan rapture in Washington was off the charts. Of 81 articles in The Times on the day Ford was sworn in, Perlstein writes, two-thirds “resounded with the very same theme: The resignation proved no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself.” The new president was hailed universally as “dependable, solid, uncontroversial — just like the cars Ford built.” But as Perlstein adds, “wasn’t it also the case to partisans of Chevrolets, Fords were controversial indeed? And that Americans, being Americans, had always found things to passionately disagree about, to the point of violent rage — and that when American elites reached most insistently for talismans of national unity, it usually portended further civil wars?” So it was with the euphoric celebration of national unity that greeted Ford’s swearing in: The moment he pardoned Nixon a month later, the country’s civil war resumed just where it had left off. Even the false honeymoon of reconciliation that greeted the election of America’s first black president lasted a little longer than that.

The shorthand version of Nixon’s pardon is that the nation needed to move on, our long national nightmare is finally over, etc. Rich’s counter-gloss suggests that the nation was perfectly capable of moving on with its long national nightmare becoming a specific penal one for Nixon — and that when it didn’t, the specter of Nixon’s individual corruption was revealed, permanently, as the structural corruption of American politics.

Incidentally, “the system worked” is becoming an increasingly common response to the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, in which two rounds of (insufficient) stimulus were passed in a hurry and a wide array of automatic stabilizers kicked in to keep the economy from flying off a cliff, basically as they were intended to do. The dying economy got a huge shot of Keynesian policies, and they worked exactly as Keynes said they would.

I think this is correct, but it bumps right up against the lack of jailed bankers. The above reading of Nixon’s pardon suggests that “the system worked” extends exactly as far as accountability is apportioned out; to the extent that the corruption that led to the catalyzing event is allowed to continue, the system isn’t working — or, in fact, it’s working in conjunction with the original crimes, preserving the conditions that produced them in the first place. John Dean and the rare trader wearing prison stripes isn’t the system working.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Game Change

by evanmcmurry

TNR’s Isaac Chotiner takes a welcome break from the (largely contextless) advance revelations from Double Down to mock the it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night prose:

As the authors write, “The wind and weather of the campaign shifted in something like a heartbeat. The challenger was surging. The polls were tightening.” Nevertheless, they report, Obama had a good day of prep for the second debate. And then:

In Sunday night’s run-through, the president seemed to be relapsing: The disengaged and pedantic Obama of Denver was back. In the staff room, his two closest advisers, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, watched on video monitors with a mounting sense of unease—when, all of a sudden, a practice round that had started out looking merely desultory turned into the Mock From Hell.

There is not just the debate “from Hell.” There is the “metastazing panic” of supporters,  the “absurdity and horror of the circumstances,” the “mortified” advisors, the “creepy” performance at one rehearsal. Some of these descriptions come from Obama’s people but it’s also clear that Heilemann and Halperin believe that the overheated language and sheer panic were justified.

Don’t give me none of this “but it’s just a political page-turner” nonsense. Form and content are related. As Chotiner perfectly points out, the hyperbolic language is one and the same with the hyperbolic analysis.

Nor is this inconsequential. The obsession with “moments,” “narratives,” “pivots,” etc. that floats a good deal of election coverage is inflated by just such hot air. Those who skipped the slavish, personality-based approach to the 2012 race and paid attention to electoral fundamentals—this blog absolutely counts itself among them—produced consistently more accurate analysis. We didn’t chew the scenery, but neither did we have to be talked down from a ledge after the Denver debate. Elections have consequences; so does prose.

Newt Gingrich Giving Voice To Growing Anti-Intervention Right

by bisonmessink

Conservatives from George Will to Michelle Malkin to Donald Rumsfeld are lining up to criticize and condemn Barack Obama’s Syria strategy, and the likelihood of U.S. intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Will used a Washington Post editorial to slam Obama for falling in love with the sound of his own voice, alleging that Obama is “talking America into war” over Red Lines.  Malkin attacked Obama on FOX News for not seeking Congressional approval or international consensus for a potential military strike against Syria, and Rumsfeld criticized the President for not making a full justification to the American people for action against Assad.

Any and every action taken by the President is sure to be answered with Republican opposition, so it’s difficult to tell what is thoughtless obstructionism and what represents actual conviction on the part of conservatives, but in contrast to Will, Malkin, and Rumsfeld, Newt Gingrich is using the Syria episode not merely to make a counter-point to Obama, but to advance a growing right-wing sentiment that the United States should not be using its military to intervene in the affairs of other nations.

Tea Partiers and their sympathizers have previously been the conservative voice in the desert when it comes to military anti-intervention, but Gingrich now represents are more substantial piece of the Republican establishment that is advancing the idea of foreign disentanglement. Gingrich has been vocal on Twitter that military intervention in Syria is a bad idea for the United States.

Gingrich elaborated in an editorial at CNN, writing:

“Both sides in Syria are bad. One side is a brutal dictator, and the other includes Islamists and terrorists who are dangerous already and who would be brutal in power if given the chance.

We will not spend the time, money and blood to create a desirable side in Syria. There is no victory to be had there.”

Of course, Gingrich could also not help himself but to somehow tie Syria to the Keystone Pipeline:

And, lest we think for a moment that Gingrich and his conservative cohort has gotten too dovish, Gingrich also reminds us that he still fully supports aggressive action with Iran:

Apart from Gingrich, there is still the old guard of conservative hawks pressuring Obama from the other side, insisting that whatever the President is about to do against Assad isn’t going to be forceful enough. John McCain told reporters this week, “If the United States stands by and doesn’t take very serious action — not just launching some cruise missiles — then, again, our credibility in the world is diminished even more, if there’s any left.”

Still, Gingrich’s argument is worth noting. It is the obvious move for any Republican to criticize Obama for whatever military action he ends up taking on Syria. Intervention is supported by fewer than 30% of Americans, so conservatives would be foolish not to align themselves with the 70% on this issue. But unlike most Republicans, who are merely grasping at their familiar obstructionist straws, Gingrich is advancing a more substantial conservative platform shift, and one that is becoming more prevalent with mainstream Republicans.

Dog Wags Tail? Obama to Speak on Race, Class as Syria Strikes Loom

by bisonmessink

In what could be an odd reversal of typical wag the dog scenarios, Barack Obama plans to use a Wednesday speech to talk about race and class, a topic that could distract attention from the looming military intervention in Syria, which is supported by fewer than 30% of Americans, according to a poll from Reuters:

Politico reports that Obama plans to use the Wednesday address, given in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, to call attention to MLK’s oft-forgotten economic message, in the hopes of bolstering his own economic policies. It is unlikely that Obama’s MLK speech will be able to stir American hearts and minds enough to turn the tide in his ongoing economic battle with Republicans, but in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and the Christopher Lane murder, race may be the one and only topic that could keep military intervention in Syria from dominating Americans’ TV sets.

It’s a strange climate in American politics when a sitting President would rather focus the public’s attention on the nuances of race and class in America than on the will and might of the American military.

Fox News hosts use ignorance and terrible rap impressions to relate to their viewers

by pdxblake

If you have a minute that you want to spend on something that will make you regret that you will never have that minute back, there’s a video of former Bush press secretary Dana Perino rapping about, well, I don’t know what.  I think she’s trying to start a rap war with Jay Z, which from my perspective sounds about as sensible as North Korea trying to start nuclear war with Russia, China and the United States all at the same time.  But I digress.

More importantly for understanding how hosts and guests like those in the video relate to their viewers over at Fox News, I have a hint.  It’s a one word hint: “ignorance”.  The post mentions her appearance on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (the highest quality of news programming) where she revealed she had to be told what the Cuban Missle Crisis was….while she was working for the Bush Administration (why she never asked Russia expert Condoleeza Rice at the time is beyond me).  Here’s the tale:

Appearing on National Public Radio’s light-hearted quiz show “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me,” which aired over the weekend, Perino got into the spirit of things and told a story about herself that she had previously shared only in private: During a White House briefing, a reporter referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis — and she didn’t know what it was.

“I was panicked a bit because I really don’t know about . . . the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. “It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure.”

So she consulted her best source. “I came home and I asked my husband,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Wasn’t that like the Bay of Pigs thing?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Dana.’ “


Well, what did you expect? (Filibuster edition)

by pdxblake

It truly baffles me that the Democratic Senate leaders can be so naïve by being willing to believe the Republicans in the Senate would be willing to acknowledge they are in the minority and they cannot therefore control every decision made in the Senate after the last few years of slash-and-burn tactics.  They should have listened to the Junior Senator from Oregon, Jeff Merkley, who wanted to take a harder line on changes to the filibuster to stop, well, this (via Talking Points Memo)

Senate Democratic leaders have engaged in preliminary discussions about how to address Republican procedural obstruction, according to a senior Democratic aide, reflecting an awareness that key administration and judicial vacancies might never be filled, and that a watered-down rules reform deal the parties struck early this Congress has failed.

“The general agreement was that Republicans would only filibuster nominees in the case of extraordinary circumstances, and once again Republicans are expanding the definition of that term to make it entirely meaningless,” the aide said.

Black swans, the debt ceiling and Obama’s refusal to #MintTheCoin (June redux)

by pdxblake

The GOP has officially caved in on the debt ceiling debate, supporting a 3-month extension that would require the senate to pass a budget.  Paul Krugman says, “Obama was right” in a blog post:

I’m happy to concede that the president and team called this one right.  And it’s a big deal. Yes, the GOP could come back on the debt ceiling, but that seems unlikely. It could try to make a big deal of the sequester, but that’s a lot more like the fiscal cliff than it is like the debt ceiling: not good, but not potentially catastrophic, and therefore poor terrain for the “we’re crazier than you are” strategy. And while Republicans could shut down the government, my guess is that Democrats would actually be gleeful at that prospect: the PR would be overwhelmingly favorable for Obama, and again, not much risk of blowing up the world.

I think he is being a bit too positive on the outcome because, yes, while the other options to create havoc by the Republicans would not be nearly as catastrophic, they are still terrible, and it doesn’t necessarily provide vindication to Obama that he was right in this case, as the economist Andy Harless notes on Twitter:

– Krugman says Obama “called it right” (i.e. GOP was bluffing on debt limit). Not sure an ex post right call constitutes responsible policy.
– If there was a 20% chance they weren’t bluffing, was it worth taking off the table all options for dealing with that 20% outcome?
– Calling the GOP’s bluff is like owning an asset with a positive median return but a long left tail. Yes, it usually pays off.

The idea he is saying about the asset example can be demonstrated by this terrible thing I just made in MS Paint.  The median return (the size of the area to the right of the black line) is positive.  However, the left tail being much longer than the the right shows that there is a possibility (even if it is small) that a really bad outcome could happen (20% of the space under the curve is to the left of the red line).  This represents the probability that the GOP was not bluffing and was prepared to force a default, which would be really bad, much worse than the median outcome is a good outcome.  Everything else (like letting the sequester kick in, but preventing default lies somewhere between the black line and the red line).

Bad stuff

The principle behind his argument is that just because the expected value of his “call their bluff”  strategy was positive, it was not a good strategy for Obama to rule out his other options (like the platinum coin, or other options).  This question is an example of the difficulty in dealing with Black Swan events (of which the financial crisis is a notable example).   Since this is a blog and not something more formal, I can cheat and cite Wikipedia’s definition of why a Black Swan event is hard to manage:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

For (1), there has not been a US government default, or historical examples of the country coming close to default for the past 150 years, except for the fight in August 2011 over the debt ceiling, which is an awfully small sample to use to develop conclusions for future policy.  As a result of (1) and the limited amount of control that John Boehner has over the extremist elements of the GOP House makes predicting probabilities that the debt ceiling would not be raised very hard.  And for (3), because the US government has never defaulted on its debts on the Federal level, and because US Treasuries are considered a ‘risk-free’ asset in all the models used for pretty much the entire world, it is impossible for anyone to understand how important the ‘risk-free’ nature of US Treasuries is to the global financial system (and thus makes a ‘mistake’ by the House GOP more likely because it creates a psychological bias that blocks the comprehension of how damaging it would be to allow the US government to default).

Why rehash the theory behind whether Obama was playing with fire with the House GOP?  Why not move beyond banging ourselves in the head with a hammer and start thinking about more positive policies that could help the economy?  Well, because it’s not necessarily over.  Business Insider quotes a GOP aide in the House with three possible outcomes during the 3-month break from the current crisis:

1. Dems decide to make their stand here and refuse to pass anything that is short term or tied to the requirement for the Senate to pass a budget.  If this happens, things get ugly fast.  You get the same war all over again and Republicans will likely feel more righteous about their resistance given the Dems unwillingness to take on what (the GOP sees as) very moderate reforms.

2.  Dems agree to pass a budget and the three month extension kick the debt ceiling to around June.  That means the hard line anti-spending guys can make their stand on both the CR in March and all the FY14 appropriations bills between now and June.  That should function as a great pressure release valve for leadership to force through what will likely be a less-than-palatable long-term debt ceiling extension.

3. We get a short term, but without the budget reform or the Senate never actually passes a budget.  CR becomes extra contentious, approps bills turn into the same type of go around as HR 1 and then the debt ceiling arrives with a unified, very angry right wing of the party. Back to  things getting ugly, only worse.

The short-term increase is contingent upon the Senate passing a budget, upon threat of having their paychecks withheld, which might be unconstitutional (according to House member Daryll Issa earlier this afternoon before his party got to him and he changed his mind).  That’s not hard, the Democrats control the Senate, you say.  But wait, the Republicans filibuster everything they don’t like and the Senate still has not yet made any changes to the filibuster.

So, for as relieved as everyone is today that the era of crisis is over, it might not be. If everything falls apart, we’re back to square one with the debt ceiling in May or June instead of February or March and, if things move along the lines of Scenario 3, Obama may be wishing he had not said he won’t #MintTheCoin or use the 14th Amendment to bypass the debt ceiling (or may try to wiggle out of his pre-commitment not to use them.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come out this way.

Obama just caved on the debt ceiling, won’t #MintTheCoin

by pdxblake

Word out of the Treasury (ht Ezra Klein) is that the White House/Treasury have given up the platinum coin option to mitigate the damage that a default would cause.  The key part:

The White House seems to agree [that there is nothing they can do to sidestep the debt ceiling]. This is, in fact, the second time that the Obama administration has ruled out a possible end run on the debt ceiling. In December, Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “This administration does not believe the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling — period.”

The administration’s position is that raising the debt limit is Congress’s responsibility until the day that Congress votes to make it the White House’s responsibility, which is a resolution the Obama administration would happily accept. Until then, White House officials say, they will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, and if congressional Republicans attempt to use it as leverage, then the consequences will be theirs to bear.

The last paragraph is a farce, as Obama has shown multiple times that he  is unwilling or unable to use leverage and force the other side to really give up what they want.  In the debt ceiling, despite having the leverage of allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire and then proposing a bill reinstating them for people earning under $250,000, Obama caved and raised the limit to $450,000 in order to get some Republican support.  Obama still apparently believes that there is value in pandering to a Republican party led by extremists, and eventually the party may split between the quasi-moderates and the fanatics, but it does not need any help from Obama for this to happen.  It either will or it won’t and any accommodation by Obama will only result in worse legislation.

Having refused to use the 14th Amendment option (which disallows the government questioning its obligation to repay creditors who are banking on the ‘full faith and credit’ of the US government) and the platinum coin option (which would circumvent the debt ceiling and allow already appropriated spending to continue until the technical legislation is passed to allow the issuance of new debt, Obama’s promise to not negotiate has zero credibility.

After all, the last time he had leverage and could allow to have the full Bush tax cuts ended if the Republicans didn’t pass a law along the lines that he wanted, Obama caved in to some of their demands.  The consequences of “going over the cliff” for several weeks or even a month were real, but relatively minor.  Certainly compared with the debt ceiling where not having an increase passed before “X” day (sometime between February 15 and March 1) will lead to the default by the US government, something with far worse consequences.  His threat to not negotiate is now just talk.  Unless…

There are still two options that would allow the country to pass the ‘X’ day without defaulting on its debt.  Obama shows no willingness to use these workarounds, but they haven’t been ruled out yet.  First, the Federal Reserve (which sends all its profits back to the US Treasury, since it is a quasi-governmental body) could make a ‘dividend’ payment to the Treasury in the form of some of the government bonds it holds.  If these bonds were returned to the Treasury, the Treasury could cancel the Treasuries (it would after all, just owe itself money) and then issue new bonds to investors in an equal amount.  The end result would be funds with which the government could make the payments it is legally obligated to make (interest payments on the debt, Social Security and Medicare payments and Congressionally authorized spening).

Or, it could issue what Paul Krugman calls “Moral Obligation Coupons”, which are essentially IOUs that the US government is not legally obligated to pay, but which it will say it will pay (and for now, that promise would probably be viewed as solid).  California did a similar thing in 2009, when it issued IOUs.  These IOUs (technically Registered Warrants) were issued in lieu of payment for tax refunds and for companies that did business for the State of California when the state government was unable to agree to a budget.  If you got one, you could take it to the bank and exchange it for cash (and the bank held it until the budget was passed and it could be exchanged with the state for cash).  However, some of the big banks started to not accept the IOUs, so it is only a stopgap solution.  Presumably IOUs from the US government would be accepted more broadly and for longer since the US government will most certainly get past the political issue with the debt ceiling and then redeem the IOUs.

There’s no indication that Obama would be open to either of these ideas, and history suggests that if he had a choice between giving into the Republican demands for some entitlement cuts and using unorthodox means to prevent a government default, he would choose the former.  He already, after all, offered to modify the calculation of social security benefits (switching to chained CPI), which would have amounted to a benefit cut in his negotiation to have the debt ceiling limit raised in the fiscal cliff bill (I thought he said he wasn’t going to negotiate over the debt ceiling).  So, we are now entering the territory where the GOP has seen success in holding the creditworthiness of the US hostage over their demands to cut entitlements (that’s right, cut your Social Security and Medicare) and there’s no reason why they are going to stop now.  It’s a sad day to see Democrats allow hostage-taking by the Republicans to become an effective political technique.

That Congress Is Less Popular Than Lice Is Our Fault

by evanmcmurry

You gotta love Public Policy Polling’s sense of humor:

When asked if they have a higher opinion of either Congress or a series of unpleasant or disliked things, voters said they had a higher opinion of root canals (32 for Congress and 56 for the dental procedure), NFL replacement refs (29-56), head lice (19-67), the rock band Nickelback (32-39), colonoscopies (31-58), Washington DC political pundits (34-37), carnies (31-39), traffic jams (34-56), cockroaches (43-45), Donald Trump (42-44), France (37-46), Genghis Khan (37-41), used-car salesmen (32-57), and Brussels sprouts (23-69) than Congress.

Congress did manage to beat out telemarketers (45-35), John Edwards (45-29), the Kardashians (49-36), lobbyists (48-30), North Korea (61-26), the ebola virus (53-25), Lindsay Lohan (45-41), Fidel Castro (54-32), playground bullies (43-38), meth labs (60-21), communism (57-23), and gonorrhea (53-28).

This would be a lot funnier, however, if Congress weren’t an elected body chosen by the people. We have, after all, just gone through two elections in which the category “incumbent” has been considered a negative. Might Congress’ historically low approval rating have something to do with the fact that we elected a bunch of novices to it—novices who, in many cases, were chosen on a platform that governing in and of itself is evil? If you elect candidates who consider competency to be aiding the enemy, this is what you get.

P.S. You will note from the above figures that John Edwards is only one percentage point more popular than gonorrhea.