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Checking Back in on Guns

The good guys' side seems to have lost mo in the last couple of days. Some Republican senators who voted for cloture to permit a vote have now said, much as I anticipated last week, that well, they were willing to vote to allow debate, but once that debate ends, of course they're voting no.

Some control advocates had certain hopes for Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker of Tennessee is not way out there on Mike Lee's planet, to be sure. He actually talks to Democrats about substance. But having done that, he always votes no. And he said the other day that he'll vote no on this.

Now, remember, there's another cloture vote coming, to end debate and proceed to final passage (actually, there could be cloture votes on the amendments, too, but let's not get too bogged down in procedure). So if people like Corker vote for a final vote, so to speak, the thing could actually pass. Sargent:

But all of these details aside, it needs to be restated that these Senators have the option of voting Yes on breaking the filibuster, while voting No on the final vote. In that scenario, the proposal would likely pass with a simple majority. And so, if these Senators continue to hold out, they need to be pressed on whether they really think a proposal that has the support of eight in 10 Americans doesn’t deserve a straight up or down vote, at a time when the Newtown slayings have focused public attention on a problem that continues to claim the lives of thousands of Americans per year. Whatever their final vote, there’s no excuse for them to enable and participate in GOP obstructionism of a proposal with near universal public support.


Austerity Guru Voodoo

Don't know if you know the names Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. A few years ago they wrote a book arguing that countries with a debt to GDP ratio above 90 percent experienced slow growth in recovering from a crisis. Lots of impressive data.

Since Keynesianism means counter-cyclical debt, R & R were really saying that stimulus spending and so forth retarded growth. As such they were constantly cited by both Republicans and centrist deficit hawks. Their influence in the last three years has been pretty enormous.

Well. Now come three economists from UMass who have somehow or another been availed of the opportunity to see R & R's very spreadsheets that they used for their calculations and double-check them. And lo and behold, R & R made some basic computational errors. The economist Dean Baker writes:

The most important of these errors was excluding four years of growth data from New Zealand in which it was above the 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold. When these four years are added in, the average growth rate in New Zealand for its high debt years was 2.6 percent, compared to the -7.6 percent that R&R had entered in their calculation. 

This is from Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, a top expert, writing at

Of the 380 extremists indicted for acts of political violence or for conspiring to carry out such attacks in the U.S. since 9/11, 81 were able to obtain explosives or the components necessary to build a bomb, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

Of those, 51 were right-wing extremists, 23 were militants inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, five have been described as anarchists and one was an environmentalist terrorist.

But in the years since 9/11, actual terrorist bombings in the U.S., like the ones at the Boston Marathon, have been exceedingly rare.

Check this out, from the new WashPost/ABC poll:

Only the barest majority, 51 percent, says Obama is in touch with the concerns of most Americans. That perception drops for the Democratic Party, to 43 percent, and plummets, to 23 percent, for the beleaguered Republican Party. Seventy percent of Americans see the GOP as “out of touch,” including, remarkably, 49 percent of Republicans themselves. Just 21 percent of Democrats, by contrast, see their party as out of touch with most people’s concerns.

That's certainly not a great number for Obama. But the stunning result I'm talking about is, no, not even the 70 percent figure, but the 49 percent one. So half of Republicans think the Republican Party is out of touch. The full results aren't quite full as they don't show what percentage of Republicans think the GOP is in touch, but unless the undecided is 2 percent, i.e. much smaller than undecideds usually are, it seems likely that the plurality of Republicans think their own party is out of it.

As I've said many times but will say many more times because repetition is the only way you get people to remember things, and more importantly because repetition is the only way you get people to remember things (!), it is one of the central problems in our politics, and perhaps the central one that these 49 percent have no one representing them.

It’s interesting to me that some conservatives take umbrage at any speculation that the bombings might have been the work of right-wing fringe groups. Why? What affinity does a rank-and-file conservative feel with a militia type?

I feel no affinity whatsoever with far-left violent radicals who might try to kill innocent people. I make no excuses for them, whether they’re American or Palestinian or whatever they are. I see that I got a little bit flamed on the Twitters last night for saying that we haven’t heard from left-wing fringe groups “in many a year,” but that was just a statement of fact, depending I guess on your definition of many a year. The Weather Underground Brinks Robbery, the last big fringe-violent left-wing attack that I remember, happened 32 years ago. I think it’s fair to call that “many a year.” Others may not, I suppose, but to most of us it's a long time ago.

I see that I was also supposed to know about every plot that didn’t reach fruition, like last year’s attempted bombing of a bridge in Cleveland by anarchists. I actually hadn’t even heard of that. Maybe I should have heard of it, so fine, that’s my lapse. But evidently some people assumed I was covering up for the far left by not mentioning it—the plotters apparently had ties to the Occupy movement and decided it wasn’t getting anything done. So here I am mentioning it. To jail and to hell with those guys. I have no use for them at all and certainly no interest in hiding their crime.

There are some people who think anything remotely resembling speculation is totally irresponsible. I can understand that point of view. But as I watched CNN and MSNBC last night, all the way to Brian Williams going live after midnight, they were constantly asking their terrorism experts about clues and meanings that might suggest this group or that, which is all I tried to do.

The Theories

Boston: So Who Did It?

Let's face it, we all wonder first who did this. It's a good thing that they generally refrain from this kind of speculation on television, because one errantly spoken sentence on television can have vast ramifications and start a panic. But here, as long as we do this carefully, it's not irresponsible.

I do not think it's premature to call this a terrorist attack, but I want to be clear on my definition of "terrorist." I don't mean Muslim fundamentalist at all necessarily. There are homegrown terrorists on the fringe right (and I guess some on the fringe left, though we haven't heard from them in this way for many a year). And anyone who did this is a terrorist, even a solo nut, because this was an act of terror. Ergo committing it makes one a terrorist. I know Obama didn't use the word, and he was right not to. But I'm not the president.

I'm leaning in the direction of thinking that this isn't any kind of Arab terrorist group. Horrific as this obviously was, it doesn't seem big enough. Everything we know about their m.o.—the 1993 WTC bombing, the 2000 LAX plot, and 9-11—suggests that they aim bigger. There was some sophistication here, with the bombs timed to go off in those intervals. But evidently there were a couple of failures too. Of course, 1993 was mostly a failure too, but on a far grander scale.

This doesn't eliminate the possibility that it was such a person or persons, but it seems more likely that if that's the case it's a couple of local actors. An expert named Brian Levin was just on MSNBC, and he was talking about an al-Qaeda handbook that was recently discovered that encourages lone wolves to act.

Abortion Wars

The Gosnell Trial and the ‘Conspiracy’

I will admit that I first heard of Kermit Gosnell this past weekend, reading colleague Megan McArdle’s essay. So that tells you something.

From what I’ve now read, I can sure tell you I don’t want to read any more. The details are just sickening. It should be noted that what he was doing was (presumably) illegal, which is why he is on trial in the first place, so in reasoned debates Gosnell should no more represent “abortion” than Bernie Madoff should represent investment counseling. But abortion is our most emotional issue, as we all know. So has this been a liberal media cover-up so as not to weaken abortion rights in the public mind?

The most convincing thing I’ve read so far on this is by Kevin Drum. He shows that even The Washington Times, a right-wing paper, didn’t cover this. The trial started March 18. The Times ran a piece of wire-service copy that day about the trial’s start. Ever since, according to Drum, it hasn’t run a single news story. It has, however, run a few columns complaining about the blackout in the nation’s news pages—a blackout in which the Times itself has participated since March 19!

In other conservative outlets—the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, and so on—it’s the same story. They’re not really covering it either. Yet they’re all running commentaries on the fact that other people aren’t covering it. This is pretty meta.

The Masters

10 Million Officials? Ridiculous

I was listening to Mike & Mike this morning and one of the Mikes, Golic, made an excellent point about the Tiger Woods business this weekend, one I was kind of feeling but for some reason not quite able to articulate to myself.

As you may know by now, the whole Woods controversy started because a viewer--just a regular guy, or gal, watching at home on TV--called Augusta and said he believed Woods broke a rule. In an interview with Jim Nantz Saturday afternoon, the guy from Augusta said yes, we get plenty of these calls, especially in this age of high-definition television, and we investigate them all.

As Golic said, in essence, wtf is that? That's completely insane. Don't they have officials at every hole at a big golf tournament? I'm pretty sure they do. I think they have them at every hole at all tournaments. Isn't it their job to make sure the players follow the rules?

Meanwhile, imagine this practice transferred to other sports. Hey, on that last play, that Steelers tackle was holding, go check it out! Hey, that was a strike, not a ball! That was definitely goal-tending, I have 74" HDTV that never lies! Give me a break, PGA and Augusta. Get yourselves together. Have actual officials make rulings and stop even taking these calls.

Why Americans Are Mad

Reflections on Tax Day

Gallup always releases a poll on April 15 that asks people about their tax burden. So I awoke this morning to a Politico headline saying "Poll: shrinking belief taxes are fair." The hed and the accompanying story are presented to make it look as if people are just pissed off about the amount of taxes they're paying, which in turn is supposed to reflect negatively on you-know-who, the big tax and spender (who has actually cut more taxes than he's raised and, after 2009, dramatically reduced spending, but that's another post).

Classic Politico Drudge-bait. So I asks myself, I sez: Okay, but why are people pissed off? Well, I went to this page and clicked on the .pdf of the entire poll. And it seems that yes, to some degree, people in general have a perception that they are paying higher taxes to some small extent; clearly some fraction of Americans saw the headlines about the tax increase in the fiscal cliff deal, which applied only to the top 1 percent, and maybe over-generalized.

But then, there was this other question: As I read off some different groups, please tell me if you think they are paying their FAIR share in federal taxes, paying too MUCH or paying too LITTLE? First, how about -- [ITEMS A-C ROTATED, ITEM D READ LAST]?

And here are the answers. The three numbers after each category represent the responses "fair share," "too much," and "too little."

Chained Chained Chained

A Republican Opera Buffa

Just wrap your head around this: So the guy who has been appointed the general of the Republican Party's reelection campaign for the House in 2014 might now himself face a primary!

Greg Walden is a congressman from Oregon. He is in a pretty safe district, but not overwhelmingly conservative; it's R +10 on the Charlie Cook scale. That means it's pretty reliably Republican but could be captured by the Democrats in a tsumani-type election.

So it wasn't that shocking that Walden criticized Obama's chained CPI Social Security proposal as being anti-old people. But there's another, bigger reason it wasn't surprising, which is that I and others have fully expected that Republicans would run next fall accusing Obama of wanting to cut Social Security. As I've noted earlier, this would constitute some pretty serious hypocrisy on their part, since they want bigger cuts, but that hasn't stopped them before. They proposed big cuts to Medicare in 2010 (Paul Ryan's first "roadmap") and then ran that very fall denouncing Obama's Medicare cuts.

So I'd have thought that Walden was doing the right, cynical thing. But no. John Boehner gave him a little public lashing. And yesterday came the Club for Growth to announce that it's going to try to find someone to run against him in a primary, someone more in line with the Club's priorities of shifting more of national burden from the top 1 percent to old people.


The Gun Lobby’s Dumbest Argument

Of course new gun laws won’t stop all violence, says Michael Tomasky. But they’re still a good idea.

As the Senate gets set to show that you can fight the National Rifle Association, let’s consider what has to be the worst reason ever put forward by anyone to oppose anything in the entire history of the human race: that the actions under consideration “won’t prevent” future tragedies or “wouldn’t have prevented” such-and-such sociopath from unloading hundreds of rounds into the bodies of children. Gun nuts invoke this argument as if it’s some kind of clincher, a discussion-ender. It’s anything but. It shows total ignorance about the reasons that we make laws in the first place. It demands that gun legislation meet a standard of performance that laws in no other arena of public policy are ever held to. It keeps gun-control forces constantly on the defensive because the people who cynically spout this nonsense in public know that many well-meaning but naive folks will buy it. It’s stupid, but for these reasons it is surely more evil than stupid, and it must be stopped.

California Offshore Oil

Cleanup after oil leak near the beach at Santa Barbara Harbor, California, in 1969. This incident helped lead to the Clean Water Act and a moratorium on offshore drilling. (AP)

Let’s take my objections one by one. Why do we make laws? Well, of course, there is an element of prevention in all policymaking. We passed clean-air and clean-water laws in the 1970s in no small part to try to prevent selfish corporations and others from befouling the air and water. But did anyone think that the passage of such laws would prevent all pollution? Despite the kind of palaver politicians unload on us when a major bill is passed, obviously no sentient person thought any such thing. People are people, some of them are chiselers and sociopaths, and if giving a few hundred poor children asthma is going to increase their bottom line by 1 percent, they’ll do it.

Still, we made the laws. Why? For two other reasons. One, to have a ready statutory means by which to punish the chiselers and sociopaths. And two, to make a statement as a society about what sort of society we are. As it happens, we passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 in part simply to say: whatever sort of society we are, we aren’t one in which we will watch as our rivers catch fire and not try to do anything about it.

Not Impossible

The Senate's Immigration Deal

So the Gang of Eight in the Senate has a deal on immigration. The border security issue, which conservatives want, is handled thusly:

During the first decade after passage, the bill sets ambitious goals for border authorities — including continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the United States border and 90 percent effectiveness of enforcement in several high-risk sectors — and for other workplace and visa enforcement measures. It provides at least $3 billion for Homeland Security officials to meet those goals during the first five years, with a possibility of additional financing.

The bill includes provisions, or “triggers,” during that decade that allow Congress at different points to ensure the enforcement goals are being met.

That sounds to me like an easy way out. D'oh, triggers not being met, kill the rest of the bill! But wait:

Please Run!

The Weirdness That Is Rand Paul

I'm not of the "I give him props for even going" school. These people are Americans, he wants to be the president of America, so why the f--- shouldn't he go speak to them? I would say the same, by the way, about a liberal politician appearing before a group of white gun-toters in Idaho, which I personally think they ought to do a lot more than they do.

So, grading not on a curve, how'd he do? Adele Stan has the right take, sez I:

He explained black history to black people. He suggested that he was brave to have shown up. He quoted a  poem that is said to be the lament of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man.

Paul went on to deny killing budget autonomy for the District of Columbia, despite the three poison-pill amendments he added to the bill. During the question-and-answer period, he chided a young voting rights activist for comparing voter ID laws to the obstructions African Americans faced at the polls during Jim Crow. And he said he had nothing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- despite being on record as opposing the provision that desegregated the lunch counters that were occupied at great peril by the Freedom Riders who fought the South's Jim Crow laws. 

After the Budget

Mr. Reasonable's Last Stand

Assuming there’s no big budget deal, says Michael Tomasky, Obama has to stop trying to meet maniacs halfway—and instead spend his waning days in office giving America some serious truth medicine.

With the release of the Obama budget, coming into view now just on the far horizon is an image of how the rest of his time in office might play out. Right now Obama is making what I think and hope is his final offer to Republicans. He has put changes to entitlement programs on the table in a big and visible way. Once they refuse this deal, as I and most people expect they will, then what happens? Right now we’re seeing Obama being moderate, cautious; trying to seem reasonable. But after the rejectionists reject him yet again, I want to see a president who turns the tables on these jokers and uses his remaining time not aiming to meet a group of maniacs halfway, but trying to reframe these conversations entirely for the sake of his legacy and for the sake of future presidents and battles.


President Obama delivers a speech on gun control April 8 at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

What’s going to happen here is the following bleak sequence of events. First the GOP is going to say no no no no no, because Obama’s budget calls for $580 billion in revenue (by the way, it proposes $2 in cuts for every $1 in revenue, for a total of $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction). The sequestration cuts are going to continue. Then will come mid-May, when Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling again. The Republicans will probably extract more cuts there. But as they will never accept more revenue or do anything to give Obama a political victory, we will just keep limping along through this year and into next with Congress funding the operations of government on an ad hoc basis.

Then the election will come. Obama will campaign saying, folks, I’ve tried everything I could to reason with these people, but they won’t settle for half a loaf, or even two thirds of a loaf; they want the whole loaf, and nobody in life gets the whole loaf. They are the problem, and you must throw them out. Give me a Democratic House—it’s the only way we’ll get anything done in the next two years.


Obama and the Nihilists

The details of the budget are important, of course, for their own sake. There's this great quote from this fellow named Rudolf Goldschied, a sociologist, who said: "The budget is the skeleton of the state, stripped of all misleading ideologies." Fantastic.

But in this case, not necessarily true. People toward the left end of the spectrum will look at the entitlement cuts and say "Aha! I knew it all along about this guy." People on the center-right will be disappointed that the entitlement cuts are fairly token from their point of view. People on the loony right, which is to say the GOP, will say it's socialism.

More than all that, however, is the fact that Obama and his people apparently know that this whole thing is smoke and mirrors. As I wrote the other day in a column that apparently and disappointingly (and uncharacteristically, I might add) didn't get much traction), it really doesn't much matter what Obama proposes because as long as it includes revenues, which it always will, nothing is going to happen.

So this budget doesn't really represent what Obama believes. It represents the position that he thinks gives him the most leverage in 2014 and beyond as voters decide whose fault the mess is. Greg Sargent wrote this morning:

About the Author

Author headshot

Michael Tomasky

The Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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