This is what “No enthusiasm for Hillary” looks like

My little corner of Chicago–two wards, with a tiny boost from Evanston–has more than 100 people signed up to go to Wisconsin to knock on doors for Hillary this Saturday.  With less than 10 days’ notice, we’ve turned out enough people to spill over the boundaries of our original target (Kenosha) and conquer Racine as well.

To put that in perspective, that’s a bigger group of volunteers than we sent to Wisconsin at this time during the Obama campaign.   After Labor Day, we’re going to flood the zone in Iowa.

So don’t let anyone tell you there’s no enthusiasm for Hillary.

Semi-closing the private sale loophole in the Brady Law

Update I’ll discuss this with John Hockenberry on The Takeaway (PRI/WNYC) Tuesday morning at 9:15 EST.


BBC5 called me today – instead of calling someone who really understands either law or gun issues – to comment on the President’s about-to-be-issued proposal to make it harder to get a gun without going through a background check. (Clip here, starting about 1:18:30.) After I finished scrambling to figure things out, the story actually looked interesting, so here it is.

1. You can buy a gun in the U.S. unless you’re disqualified: by age, by a felony conviction or a domestic violence restraining order, or by a court commitment for mental incapacity or mental illness.

2. If you’re “engaged in the business” of selling firearms (that’s the statutory language), you need a license fom the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (still referred to as “ATF.” That makes you a “federal firearms licensee,” or FFL.

3. If you’re an FFL, anyone who wants to buy a gun from you must fill out a form and show identification, and you have to run that information through an FBI website called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. If the background check shows that the would-be purchaser is ineligible, you can’t sell him a gun.

4. However, anyone is allowed to sell guns from his or her “private collection” without registering as an FFL. Such “private-party sales” do not require background checks. Many such transactions take place at gun shows; the exemption of private sales from background checks is often, though inaccurately, called the “gun show loophole.”

5. As far as I can tell, there is no published estimate of what fraction of guns used to commit crimes were privately purchased by ineligible buyers (as opposed to being legally purchased, stolen, or bought by an eligible purchaser and then illegally resold to an ineligible one). Data from the crime-gun tracing system would support such an estimate, but Congress has forbidden the Centers for Disease Control from doing such studies. (Phil Cook and colleagues surveyed prisoners in the Cook County jail; gun shows didn’t appear to be a significant source of guns for them.)

6. The statute doesn’t further define what it means to be “engaged in the business.” That definition exrists in ATF regulations, and is far from clear. If you have a storefront or buy at wholesale from manufacturers, you’re clearly “engaged in the business.” Otherwise, there’s no limit on how many guns you can sell or how much money you can earn as an unlicensed private gun seller.

7. The President proposed some time ago to eliminate the private-sale exemption and require that all gun transfers go through background checks (which FFL’s could provide on a fee-for-service basis). That policy, which used to be the official position of the NRA, has massive (approximately 90%) public support. But it now has the fervent opposition of the gun lobby, and is going nowhere in Congress.

8. Now the President plans (as Hillary Clinton had previously proposed) to tighten the definition of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of firearm sales, in order to require those who habitually buy and sell guns to get federal firearms licenses even if they don’t have storefronts. As FFLs, they would have the same obligation to do background checks that gun store owners now have. It’s not clear yet whether the new definition will be based on number of transaction, number of weapons, amount of revenue, duration in business, promotional activity (such as renting space at a gun show or swap meet or putting up an internet posting (e.g., eBay or Craigslist) or some formula involving several of those and perhaps other factors.

9. Since the current definition is a regulation, it can be changed without legislative action, but it still has to go through the process laid out in the Administrative Procedures Act: publication in the Federal Register of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, a sixty-day period for public comment, review of those comments by ATF, publication of a Final Rule, and (inevitably) a series of court challenges.

10. The general rule (laid down in Chevron v. NRDC) is that the courts will defer to administrative discretion as long as the rule embodies “a permissible construction of the statute.” That principle – plus the fact that the DC Circuit is no longer stacked with Republicans – ought to give the rule a good chance of being upheld. Whether the courts will put a hold on implementation of the new definition while the process drags on, or instead allow it to take effect at once, is harder to predict.

11. Congress can try to stymie the change in various ways, including putting a “no-funds” rider on an appropriations bill forbidding ATF to spend money on this specific rulemaking. So expect some political drama.

Substantively, making it a little bit harder for people with felony record to illegally arm themselves seems like a good idea, though it’s impossible to say how many shootings it would prevent. It wouldn’t do much about accidents, but you’d expect it to prevent some homicides and suicides. Politically, it seems extremely astute of the President to force the issue on the single gun-related question where the gun-control position enjoys the highest level of public support.

Update Garen Wintemute of UC Davis provides some data and analysis.

Liveblogging the debate

That’s a thirty

Good night, and to hell with Star Wars.

Editorial comment

Three impressive performances. Even O’Malley sounded like someone who could actually be President. I was especially glad to see how calmly and forcefully Clinton handled hectoring questions and Sander’s attacks.

Closing statements

Clinton, having opened, gets to close, which is done in the name of balance but hardly seems fair.

Sanders starts out by praising his rivals, by contrast with the Republicans.  Mentions growing up poor. Promises “a political revolution.” “This great country and our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.”

O’Malley flatters New Hampshire voters. Attacks GOP. “Anger and fear never built America.” Comprehensive immigration reform, debt-free college. Climate change as “the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States in fifty years.” (Only the second mention of climate change in two hours; neither of them was substantive.

Clinton: If a Republican gets sworn is, our rights are at risk. Social Security and the VA health system may face privatization. Planned Parenthood will be defunded. All elections are important, but some are more important than others. Her granddaughter’s future. “Thank you, good night, and may the Force be with you.”

Another break

Chatterers echoing GOP attacks on Clinton for saying “we’re now where we need to be” on ISIS. Apparently if the public disagrees, that settles the question. No analysis

Idiotic question

To Clinton: what sort of First Lady will Bill Clinton make? Follow-ups to others.

All tried their best to answer an undignified question with dignity.



Question to Clinton: Libya is on your account. Do you want to say you’re sorry?

(Howcum none of the Republican questioners were this rude?)

Ans: We needed to overthrow Khaddafi. Libyans wanted it. The other Arabs wanted it. Libyans are now trying to come together to form a national government and get rid of ISIS.

Another nasty follow-up: How much responsibility do you bear? Ans: “We offered more help than the Libyans were willing to take.” “I’m not giving up on Libya.”

Sanders acknowledges complexity, then mentions Mossadegh and Allende. (Neither of them much of a parallel with Khaddafi.) Clinton says again that Sanders voted to dump Khaddafi. O’Malley denounces “lust for regime-toppling,” demands more humint.

Now heroin

Q Forty-something percent in NH know someone with a heroin problem. What you gonna do?

Sanders:  “A tragedy all over the country.” Tell the docs and Big Pharma that they have to get their act together and write fewer prescriptions. Addiction is a disease. Treatment right away. (Doesn’t say how.)

Clinton: She’s heard some great ideas. Five-point plan. $10B in federal money. Come out with a plan. New ideas about policing, but she doesn’t say what they are. Too many opioids being prescribed. (That’s two votes for that, but no mention of how to do it.) First responders should carry naloxone.

O’Malley: A third vote for reining in over-prescribing. Local partnerships. Intervene with “near-miss” overdoses.

No mention of the value of swift-certain-fair community corrections.




Another break, then policing

To Clinton: Do you side with BLM or with the police? Good, textured answer that rejects the false alternative.  Have to deal with racism, but don’t forget the good work the cops do.

O’Malley gives a still more textured answer based on his work as Mayor and Governor. Police transparency.

Sanders agrees with the others, then pivots to mass incarceration. He’s against racism. (I’m glad to hear it.) Thinks cops shouldn’t be shooting unarmed people. (Duhhhhh…) Hates the War on Drugs, will repeal Federal marijuana prohibition. (Which has nothing to do with this problem.) Community policing. Need to end “minimal sentencing.” (I think he means mandatory minimums.)



Third question: higher ed How do you lower the cost? To Sanders: doesn’t making it free just shift the cost to taxpayers? Not much answer on the cost question, which is probably right. Sanders talks free tuition. O’Malley talks income-based repayment. Clinton wants to give states matching-fund incentives to pony up, and focus grants on the poor and the middle class rather than paying for everyone. Unfortunately, Clinton repeats her awful “No tax increases for families under $250k” promise. I can only hope she’s weaseling on this, planning to hide revenue gains in non-income taxes, such as a FTT or a carbon tax. Sanders: Problem is that it’s going to the top tenth of 1%. Paid family and medical leave for $1.61 a week. Clinton: Family and medical leave, sure, but make the rich pay for it. O’Malley: I’ve balanced a budget. (Oh, puh-leeze!) Increase Social Security. (I’m with him on that.) Repeal the “entitlement” to reduced taxes on capital gains. [That is, he doesn’t say it, but he does want to raise taxes on some families below $250k/yr. Good for him!]

Continue reading “Liveblogging the debate”

Having-a-column-in-the-Times-means-never-having-to-say-you’re-sorry Dep’t

Note to Maureen Dowd: if you hadn’t made up lies about Al Gore, there would have been no Iraq War to vote on.

Do you think that someone might remind Maureen Dowd that neither Hillary Clinton nor anyone else would have needed to decide about backing President G.W. Bush’s insane plan for war with Iraq had Maureen Dowd not helped him get elected by making up the nonsense about Al Gore’s earth-tones in order to question Gore’s masculinity?

Or would that be mean?

The really scary thing isn’t the possibility that Dowd is being paid by the Koch Brothers to sabotage each Democratic Presidential nominee as that person comes along. The really scary thing is that, like Donald Trump, she keeps doing the same tired shtick simply to get attention.


Do Primary Challenges from a Party’s Wings Change How Presidents Govern?

Ryan Cooper wants dovish former Senator Russ Feingold to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary:

Feingold would almost certainly lose….But winning wouldn’t be the point — the point would be to make Clinton worry about her left flank. Though she seems to be a true hawk, she surely realizes that Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War was his most important advantage in 2008. All Feingold would have to do is mount a credible enough challenge to get Clinton to promise not to invade random countries for no reason.

Ryan is invoking a widely-believed theory regarding the value of quixotic primary campaigns: The candidate may lose but his or her ideas will draw support, which will move the eventual President in a desired direction. This is an empirical proposition and I wonder whether or not it has generally proved true in U.S. political history.

Setting aside the cases of strong challenges from the wings (e.g., Reagan versus Ford in 1976, Kennedy versus Carter in 1980) that didn’t influence the expected future president because the candidate who got beat up in the primary went on to lose the general, are there data to support the theory that Ryan articulates so well?

I can think of one imperfectly supporting example, which is Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. He had his own party and so was not truly a primary threat to the other candidates, but he was definitely someone from outside of the political mainstream with whom the other candidates had to grapple. Although Perot never had a chance to win, he did put the growing national debt on the public agenda and Bill Clinton’s subsequent Presidential Administration took up the issue in its fiscal policy. On the other hand, Jerry Brown is an example of someone who challenged from the wings in a party primary (actually, several of them) without seeming to change the winning candidate’s positions. One can imagine an even worse result for an upstart candidate than Brown’s non-impact: A challenge from the wings that makes a future President less likely to adopt the challengers’ views because the primary generates lingering bad blood between party factions. I can’t think of an example where that happened off the top of my head, but I bleg you to put one forward in the comments if you can think of one.

Looking for more systematic data on the impact of challenges from the wings, I contacted two political science experts: Jonathan Bernstein and John Sides. They both kindly got back to me quickly, and what follows is my understanding of what they told me (i.e., all errors mine).

Jonathan pointed out that presidents do generally try to keep their campaign promises, a point which Ryan echoed in his article. This does not necessarily mean however that a primary candidate in a strong position (e.g., Hillary Clinton) would feel the need to make any promises in the face of a challenge from someone (e.g., Russ Feingold) who looked very likely to lose (Ned Reskinoff develops this point at length).

John Sides pointed me to two academic articles. Neither is precisely on point regarding Presidential elections but both nonetheless provide important information using data from Congress. Hirano and colleagues found little evidence that having been challenged in a primary shifts a politician to the wing of his or her party post-election. The authors note that general elections can move politicians back towards the middle even if they had to tack hard right or left to win a primary. A similar conclusion was reached in a different study conducted by Michael Peress.

Though both throw some cold water on it, neither study in my opinion definitively rejects the theory that challenges from the wings can move an ultimate election winner in the challengers’ political direction in an enduring way. It’s definitely a question meriting further study and debate (which I hope everyone will engage in. In aid thereof I have linked to ungated pdfs of both papers). Many campaigns are launched on the assumption that the political influence process Ryan Cooper describes pans out in practice. If it does, people on the wings of a political party may wish to employ quixotic challenges more frequently. On the other hand, if the theory is one of those logical sounding but factually incorrect “rules of politics”, people on the wings of a political party would be wiser to adopt other strategies to push their agenda.

HRC talks to CNN about MJ

Reasonable answers, calling for follow-up questions the CNN interviewer was too incompetent to ask.

A CNN interviewer asked Hillary Clinton about cannabis policy.

On medical use, she replied that we need more research, including research about drug interactions, but in the meantime people with serious medical conditions where there’s “anecdotal evidence” of efficacy ought to have access.

On non-medical (“recreational”) use, she said that the states are the laboratories of democracy, that two states are trying legalization, and that we should wait and see how that goes.

Perfectly reasonable answers, as far as they went, and perhaps a little bit more pro-cannabis than I might have expected from such a cautious candidate.

But they cried out for follow-up questions:

1. As President, what would you do to promote medical research on cannabis and cannabinoids? Would you tear down the barriers to research now created by federal policy: in particular, the UMiss monopoly on cannabis for research purposes and the requirement that every study receive a “grant” of cannabis from a special committee within HHS?

2. While the states are doing their experiments, to what extent should the federal government help, or at least get out of the way? Colorado and Washington are now issuing state licenses to commit federal felonies. Current banking regulations make it difficult-to-impossible for cannabis stores to have bank accounts or to take credit cards, creating a huge all-cash business that is therefore an attractive robbery target. A state that wanted to experiment with state-monopoly retailing (arguably the best approach) would currently be barred from doing so by federal law. As President, would you propose changes in the Controlled Substances Act to make state-level experiments legal?

Instead, of course, the CNN interviewer asked her whether she intended to inhale. Arrrgggghhhhhh!

How long is it going to take for the press corps to stop giggling about cannabis policy and start reporting on it?

Playing the race card

Bill Clinton plays it, hard and crudely.

Well, this one wasn’t hard to call, though I’d expected a little bit more subtlety:

Bill Clinton: Race, gender key in S.C.

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer

DILLON, S.C. – Bill Clinton said Wednesday he expects blacks to vote for Barack Obama and women to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the dynamic may cause his wife to lose the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary Saturday.

Racist? You tell me. The message is clear: Obama is going to win South Carolina, but that won’t really count, because he’ll be doing it with the votes of black folks. (Maybe those ballots ought to count only as 3/5ths of a vote each?)

The basic fact of the contest is that if it becomes racial, Obama loses, while if it becomes gendered, HRC wins. It would have required patriotism, decency, and attention to the paramount goal of beating the Republicans for the Clintons to refrain from playing the race card. Apparently those qualities are in short supply.

Update A pro-Clinton reader furiously accuses me of inventing the racist edge to Bill Clinton’s remarks. So let’s hear from his old adviser (and Trent Lott’s), Dick Morris, who is surely an expert on the workings of Bill Clinton’s mind and on the political uses of racial prejudice:

How Clinton Will Win The Nomination by Losing South Carolina

Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly lose the South Carolina primary as African-Americans line up to vote for Barack Obama. And that defeat will power her drive to the nomination.

The Clintons are encouraging the national media to disregard the whites who vote in South Carolina’s Democratic primary and focus on the black turnout, which is expected to be quite large. They have transformed South Carolina into Washington, D.C. — an all-black primary that tells us how the African-American vote is going to go.

By saying he will go door to door in black neighborhoods in South Carolina matching his civil rights record against Obama’s, Bill Clinton emphasizes the pivotal role the black vote will play in the contest. And by openly matching his record on race with that of the black candidate, he invites more and more scrutiny focused on the race issue.

Of course, Clinton is going to lose that battle. Blacks in Nevada overwhelmingly backed Obama and will obviously do so again in South Carolina, no matter how loudly former President Clinton protests. So why is he making such a fuss over a contest he knows he’s going to lose? Precisely because he is going to lose it. If Hillary loses South Carolina and the defeat serves to demonstrate Obama’s ability to attract a bloc vote among black Democrats, the message will go out loud and clear to white voters that this is a racial fight. It’s one thing for polls to show, as they now do, that Obama beats Hillary among African-Americans by better than 4-to-1 and Hillary carries whites by almost 2-to-1. But most people don’t read the fine print on the polls. But if blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That will trigger a massive white backlash against Obama and will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton.

(Emphasis added.)