Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Shifting Resources

From the NYT:

"When President-elect Barack Obama introduces his national security team on Monday, it will include two veteran cold warriors and a political rival whose records are all more hawkish than that of the new president who will face them in the White House Situation Room.

Yet all three of his choices -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary -- were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military's huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states. (...)

"This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem," Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, said in an interview on Sunday.

"During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned," Mr. McDonough said. "There wasn't a meeting that didn't include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century.""

This would be wonderful. There are a lot of problems that can be addressed either sooner, by preventing them from getting out of hand, or later, once they have turned into crises. We prepare for the crises, and in particular for the possibility of military intervention. But we don't do nearly enough to try to prevent them from becoming crises in the first place. Nor do we have any decent way of trying to help failed states get back on their feet -- which matters, since failed states are the natural homes of terrorists.

We have needed for a long time to have more tools at our disposal for addressing problems abroad. If Obama plans to build up alternatives to military force, that's really, really good news. And if, moreover, Jones and Gates are on board with cutting some defense programs, then I imagine that the odds that they will actually be cut go up considerably. That would also be very good news.

Hilzoy 11:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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By: Hilzoy

Auto Industry Bleg

I've been trying to understand the problems of the auto industry, and on a couple of points I can't quite seem to figure out what's going on. So I thought: why not ask?

(1) A quote from Business Week:

"Everyone knows that GM is over-branded. (...) At the core of GM's problems is that it does not have, and has not had, enough resources to feed eight brands with unique products, and then the resources to feed each brand with unique and competitive brand campaigns."

I assume that having too many brands implies not just a pointless attempt to distinguish them from one another, but separate management and marketing, and to some extent separate manufacturing, that might usefully be consolidated. I imagine that having too many brands would also make it harder to establish any particular brand: when you're trying to make eight separate brands stand out, all of them probably have a harder time.

Question: are there other drawbacks to having too many brands, or is this it?

(2) Business Week again:

"The problem has long been that the company does not want to have to pay dealers to fold the brands it does not need as it did with Oldsmobile in 2001. State franchise laws prevent a car company from simply ending a brand. Closing down Oldsmobile cost the company around $2 billion."

Question: Is there any obvious reason why state laws should be able to prevent a car company from closing down a brand?

(3) The WSJ:

"GM has about 7,000 dealers. Toyota has fewer than 1,500. Honda has about 1,000. These fewer and larger dealers are better able to advertise, stock and service the cars they sell. GM knows it needs fewer brands and dealers, but the dealers are protected from termination by state laws. This makes eliminating them and the brands they sell very expensive. It would cost GM billions of dollars and many years to reduce the number of dealers it has to a number near Toyota's."

What, exactly, does it mean to say that GM "needs fewer dealers"? Dealerships are privately owned. If there are too many of them, does GM incur financial costs, over and above dealers' ability to block things like brand consolidation?

(4) In trying to answer some of these questions, I ended up reading a fair amount about state laws governing auto dealerships. (E.g., here, here, and here.) Short version: selling cars is a very, very heavily regulated activity.

Is there some reason why this makes sense? For instance, is it obvious that automobiles have to be sold in franchises, as opposed to stores in which the storeowner can stock whichever cars seem most likely to sell, the way bookstores do? Does it make any sense for Texas to prohibit this?

"Ford, an automobile manufacturer, operates the Showroom web site. At this site, Ford advertises for sale various used vehicles at set no haggle prices. At the time such advertisements are posted to the Internet, Ford holds title to the advertised vehicles. If a Texas consumer is interested in purchasing one of these vehicles, he can contact and deliver to Ford a refundable deposit. The vehicle will then be transferred to a Texas automobile dealer, who will take title to the vehicle from Ford by assignment. If the consumer, after a test drive, wishes to purchase the vehicle he will enter into a contract with the dealer at the price stated on the Showroom web site. If he elects not to purchase the vehicle, the dealer can either return it to, or purchase it from, Ford."

Aren't there better models for selling cars? Wouldn't it make sense to try some of them?

I honestly don't know the answers to any of these questions. If any of you do, let me know.

Hilzoy 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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SENATORS WHO MOVE TO THE CABINET.... Much has been made of the fact that sitting senators have very rarely won the presidency. Barack Obama is the first since JFK 48 years ago, and only the third in American history, following Kennedy and Warren Harding.

But what about senators becoming cabinet secretaries? Ben Smith had an interesting item this afternoon.

Along with getting emoluments out of the way, Lloyd Bentsen offers a useful guide on another timely question: When will Hillary resign?

Her staff isn't saying, but Bentsen is the most recent sitting senator to join the cabinet, and a likely guide. The Senate Finance committee met and voted the nomination out on January 12. Clinton was sworn in on January 20, and the Senate briefly convened hours later to hear Bentsen's nomination, along with those of Les Aspin and Warren Christopher.

Only then did Bentsen resign.

Which means nearly two more months of obsessing about David Paterson.

Sure, there's going to be ample speculation about who'll fill Clinton's Senate seat. But let's not brush past that first point -- we haven't had any sitting senators move to the cabinet since Lloyd Bentsen? That was 15 years ago, meaning Clinton didn't call on any sitting senators to fill cabinet vacancies after his first year in office, and George W. Bush didn't call on any at any point during his two terms.

I wonder why this is. Part of it, I suspect, is that being a U.S. Senator is a great gig, the job security is generally pretty good, and one would ordinarily be reluctant to give it up for a cabinet post that only lasts a few years.

But I'm still surprised we've seen zero senators move to the cabinet over the last 15 years. There are some pretty talented officials in the chamber; why overlook them?

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MCCAFFREY.... David Barstow had a devastating New York Times piece back in April, documenting the practice of retired U.S. generals appearing on the major cable networks as "independent" media analysts, while they were simultaneously working for defense contractors, and repeating talking points from the Pentagon. The painted picture was a train wreck of conflicts of interest and journalistic ethical malpractice.

Today, Barstow has yet another blockbuster, directing his focus to one of the more prominent retired generals: Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general, military analyst for NBC News, and highly-paid consultant to defense contractors.

It's really worth reading the whole piece, but Spencer Ackerman's take was spot-on.

If this mammoth New York Times piece is wrong, Barry McCaffrey really ought to sue, because if it isn't, he has no reputation for integrity left. [...]

[T]he scope of McCaffrey's hustle is really breathtaking. Barstow demonstrates that many, if not most, of the pronouncements he made on TV about the wars benefited one or another defense contractor who employed him. That's the way the scheme worked: Company hires retired general to use his connections to its benefit. Retired general accepts special grants of access from the office of the secretary of defense that benefit both his TV career and his consulting career. Retired general proclaims on TV things that benefit both the secretary and the company -- or, when circumstances necessitate, the company at the expense of the secretary. TV viewer, looking for informed analysis of confusing wars, is unaware of any of this. Welcome to the new military-media-industrial complex.

It's that bad. As Barstow explained, "On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC's viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television."

After Barstow's report in April, I largely expected the networks to reevaluate their relationships with these "independent" media analysts. That, apparently, hasn't happened, and NBC News, in particular, seems unconcerned about the obvious conflicts of interest, the lack of disclosure, and the textbook ethical lapses.

The network's viewers deserve an explanation.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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REPUBLICANS' 'MCCARTHY GENE'.... The story of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign serving as the catalyst of the modern conservative movement, which reshaped the Republican Party, is well known. But Neal Gabler presents an interesting idea today, arguing that the real father of modern conservatism is Sen. Joe McCarthy. Indeed, as far as Gabler is concerned, "the McCarthy gene" runs deep in the GOP's DNA, "and because it is genetic, it isn't likely to be expunged any time soon."

McCarthy, Wisconsin's junior senator, was the man who first energized conservatism and made it a force to reckon with. When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman's State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as "Mister Conservative." [...]

McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology -- and he was no ideologue at all -- he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

For the polite conservatives, McCarthy was useful. That's because he wasn't only attacking alleged communists and the Democrats whom he accused of shielding them. He was also attacking the entire centrist American establishment, the Eastern intellectuals and the power class, many of whom were Republicans themselves, albeit moderate ones.... McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don't exist.

It does sound pretty familiar, doesn't it?

Gabler's point seems to be a stylistic one, not an ideological one. Goldwater championed a libertarian, anti-government conservatism. McCarthy championed a political blood-lust, premised on scapegoats, cultural resentment, and fear.

In this sense, while the traditional model shows a line from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush, Gabler points to a different line -- McCarthy to Nixon to Bush to Palin. Indeed, if Karl Rove has a godfather, in this model, it's Joe McCarthy.

Gabler concludes, "There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Palin. It's in the genes."

It's a good piece and a compelling case. Take a look.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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JINDAL'S FUTURE.... The Washington Post has an interesting item today on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) recent swing through Iowa, apparently the first step towards the 37-year-old governor's 2012 presidential campaign. As has been apparent for quite a while, the GOP's far-right base has exceedingly high hopes for Jindal, and consider him "the party's own version of Obama."

Like the president-elect, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is young (37), accomplished (a Rhodes scholar) and, as the son of Indian immigrants, someone familiar with breaking racial and cultural barriers. He came to Iowa to deliver a pair of speeches, and his mere presence ignited talk that the 2012 presidential campaign has begun here, if coyly. Already, a fierce fight is looming between him and other Republicans -- former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who arrived in Iowa a couple of days before him, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is said to be coming at some point -- for the hearts of social conservatives. [...]

No less an aspiring kingmaker than Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist of McCain's failed presidential bid, sees Jindal as the Republican Party's destiny. "The question is not whether he'll be president, but when he'll be president, because he will be elected someday." The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist believes, too, that Jindal is a certainty to occupy the White House, and conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has described him as "the next Ronald Reagan."

Jindal is, above all else, a political meteor, sharing Obama's precocious skills for reaching the firmament in a hurry. It was just four years ago, after losing a gubernatorial election, that he won election to Congress, and only this year that he became Louisiana's governor, the first nonwhite to hold the office since Reconstruction. And now, 10 months into his first term, the talk of a presidential bid is getting louder among his boosters.

Earlier this year, Jindal was approached by the McCain campaign about V.P. vetting, but the governor reportedly declined. Chris Cillizza recently reported, "[T]here was also real trepidation within his political inner circle that Jindal might wind up as the pick -- McCain was attracted to his comprehensive health-care knowledge -- and be caught up in what they believed to be a less-than-stellar campaign that could pin a loss on Jindal without much ability to change or control the direction of the contest."

It's obviously way too early to start seriously sizing up future presidential candidates, especially governors. Yglesias had a good item on this a couple of weeks ago: "A governor presiding over an economic boom can cut taxes while increasing spending, and thus develop a reputation as a popular can-do pragmatist. Think of George W. Bush, George Voinovich, Christie Todd Whitman, and other classics of the 1990s.... [R]ight now [Jindal's] looking at the need to cut $1 billion in spending. Not his fault (though the decision to make up the budget shortfall with a mix of 100% service cuts and 0% tax cuts reflects the intellectually and morally bankrupt nature of contemporary conservatism) any more than the 'free money for everyone' governors of the nineties were really geniuses, but it's going to make it difficult for him to rack up the sort of Record Of Accomplishments that you're usually looking for in a presidential candidate."

Steve Benen 11:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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OBAMA AND THE BRASS.... During the last two Democratic administrations, there was obvious tension between the presidents and the military leaders in the Pentagon. As Mark Kleiman noted, "Under Carter and Clinton, not only the military but the civilian bureaucracies in the Pentagon were massively insubordinate, doing their level best to frustrate the purposes of those two Presidents, on topics ranging from weapons systems to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It was a much better career move for a colonel bucking for his first star or a lieutenant general bucking for his fourth to support the culture of the Building rather than the purposes of the Commander in Chief."

Barack Obama is intent on having a stronger, more cooperative relationship with the brass. By all indications, he's off to a good start.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went unarmed into his first meeting with the new commander in chief -- no aides, no PowerPoint presentation, no briefing books. Summoned nine days ago to President-elect Barack Obama's Chicago transition office, Mullen showed up with just a pad, a pen and a desire to take the measure of his incoming boss.

There was little talk of exiting Iraq or beefing up the U.S. force in Afghanistan; the one-on-one, 45-minute conversation ranged from the personal to the philosophical. Mullen came away with what he wanted: a view of the next president as a non-ideological pragmatist who was willing to both listen and lead. After the meeting, the chairman "felt very good, very positive," according to Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that tension is unavoidable. Military leaders are, the theory goes, bound to be skeptical about a young president who didn't serve in the military, and who has articulated a withdrawal policy many in the Pentagon are skeptical of.

But there are at least two key angles to consider here. First, during the ongoing transition, Obama seems to be reassuring military leaders about his plans, and signaling to the brass, through his personnel decisions, that "he will do nothing rash and will seek their advice, even while making clear that he may not always take it."

Second, and just as importantly, Obama has an opportunity, which he plans to fully take advantage of, to make some changes that military leaders and Pentagon officials have wanted for years, but which Bush failed to even consider. Indeed, for all of the perceived conservatism of the military, Obama's vision and agenda for the Pentagon is far more in line with officers' beliefs than the current president's.

As Karen DeYoung explained, there's an expectation among military leaders that there will be "greater realism about U.S. military goals and capabilities," including objectives in Afghanistan, diplomacy with Iran, and increased budget discipline.

"Open and serious debate versus ideological certitude will be a great relief to the military leaders," said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations. Senior officers are aware that few in their ranks voiced misgivings over the Iraq war, but they counter that they were not encouraged to do so by the Bush White House or the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"The joke was that when you leave a meeting, everybody is supposed to drink the Kool-Aid," Nash said. "In the Bush administration, you had to drink the Kool-Aid before you got to go to the meeting."


Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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PARTISAN 'SINS'.... A couple of weeks ago, we learned about the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, a South Carolina Roman Catholic priest who announced that his parishioners who voted for Barack Obama are not eligible for Communion. He was rebuked by the Diocese, who said Newman's statements did not "adequately reflect the Catholic Church's teachings."

A priest in California apparently didn't get the message.

Parishioners of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto have been told they should consider going to confession if they voted for Barack Obama, because of the president-elect's position condoning abortion.

"If you are one of the 54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position and you knew the gravity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving communion. Don't risk losing your state of grace by receiving sacrilegiously," the Rev. Joseph Illo, pastor of St. Joseph's, wrote in a letter dated Nov. 21. [...]

Illo, in an interview Wednesday, explained his reasoning. "In Catholic teaching, you have to go to confession when you have committed a mortal sin," he said. "Now, what is a mortal sin? It's somewhat complex. No one can say, 'You committed a mortal sin.' I can only say, 'It's a grave matter.' It's my job to look after my parishioners.

The Rev. Stephen Blaire, a bishop in Illo's Diocese disagreed, saying Catholic parishioners should not feel compelled to tell their priest how they voted, and that voting for Obama did not necessitate a confession. "Our position on pro-life is very important, but there are other issues," Blaire said. "No one candidate reflects everything that we stand for. I'm sure that most Catholics who voted were voting on economic issues. There were probably many priests, and I suspect many bishops, who voted for Obama."

Of course there were. To reiterate a point from a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement not too long ago telling Catholics that they can't vote "for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter's intent is to support that position." That left voters plenty of wiggle room -- a Catholic voter could back a pro-choice candidate and simply say that it wasn't his or her "intent" to support the candidate's position on abortion. Problem solved.

And yet, here we have another priest going considerably further, saying intent is irrelevant, and he wants to punish those who voted for the "wrong" candidate, regardless of their motivation.

Given that a majority of Catholic voters backed Obama on Election Day, one wonders why a church leader would take such an extreme position.

Steve Benen 9:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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BC HELPS CLEAR THE WAY FOR HRC.... The likely announcement about Hillary Clinton being named the next Secretary of State has reportedly been on track for a while, and it appears one of the final hurdles -- the disclosure of her husband's international fundraising -- has been resolved.

Former President Bill Clinton has agreed to disclose publicly the names of more than 200,000 donors to his foundation as part of an accord with President-elect Barack Obama that clears the way for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to become secretary of state, Democrats close to both sides said on Saturday.

Mr. Clinton has kept his contributor list secret, as permitted under federal law, but he decided to publish it to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest with Mrs. Clinton's duties as the nation's top diplomat, said the Democrats, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the agreement with Mr. Obama's team. Mr. Obama plans to announce Mrs. Clinton's nomination on Monday, according to advisers.

The disclosure of contributors is among nine conditions that Mr. Clinton signed off on during discussions with representatives of Mr. Obama; all go beyond the requirements of law. Among other issues, he agreed to incorporate his Clinton Global Initiative separately from his foundation so that he has less direct involvement. The initiative, which promotes efforts to fight disease, poverty and climate change, would no longer hold annual meetings outside of the United States or accept new contributions from foreign governments.

Mr. Clinton also agreed to submit his future personal speeches and business activities for review by State Department ethics officials and, if necessary, by the White House counsel's office.

The former president's web of business and charitable activities raised questions about how he could continue to travel the world soliciting multimillion-dollar contributions for his foundation and collecting six-figure speaking fees for himself from foreign organizations and individuals while his wife conducted American foreign policy.

Chris Cillizza added, "With that potentially sticky-wicket now a non-issue, the nomination of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State appears to be on a glide path."

Indeed, the speculation will likely end as early as tomorrow, when Obama introduces Clinton as his nominee.

There was a report this morning that Hillary Clinton had been offered the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but Ben Smith noted that Clinton was actually offered a seat on the committee, not its chairmanship.

As for Bill Clinton's fundraising disclosures, a source familiar with the former president's work said the list "may include some embarrassing names, but nothing dramatic enough to scuttle his wife's chances to be Secretary of State. That the nomination is on track to go forward suggests that Obama sees no overly embarrassing revelations in the list either."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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By: Hilzoy

Workplace Safety

From the NYT:

"The Labor Department is racing to complete a new rule, strenuously opposed by President-elect Barack Obama, that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job."

"The rule, which has strong support from business groups, says that in assessing the risk from a particular substance, federal agencies should gather and analyze "industry-by-industry evidence" of employees' exposure to it during their working lives. The proposal would, in many cases, add a step to the lengthy process of developing standards to protect workers' health."

"Public health officials and labor unions said the rule would delay needed protections for workers, resulting in additional deaths and illnesses."

Because regulating hazardous chemicals in the workplace is currently much too easy. For instance, OSHA has been working on a silica standard since 1994 (pdf), and hasn't published it yet:

"OSHA identified silica as a priority for its rulemaking efforts in 1994. Ten years ago OSHA and NIOSH held a National Conference to Eliminate Silicosis. Silica has been on the OSHA regulatory calendar for almost ten years. A draft standard has been developed and was reviewed by SBA in 2003. A peer review of the health effects data was to be completed this month. Yet there is still no date certain for a proposed rule to be published. While we wait for OSHA to move forward, construction workers and others continue to suffer and die from debilitating lung diseases and cancer as a result of this delay."

Nor has OSHA done anything on diacetyl, the flavoring that destroys people's lungs:

"It was nearly 10 years ago when an alert physician in Missouri linked rare cases of the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans to his patients' workplace exposure at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant. Soon after, the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) contacted OSHA and NIOSH. Now, dozens of workers have been identified with the debilitating disease and others diagnosed with other respiratory impairments. OSHA previously told the Senators that it "intends to propose a permanent standard addressing the hazards of flavoring containing diacetyl," but the wait continues."

According to the AFL-CIO's director of occupational safety and health (quoted in the NYT), the Bush administration has "failed to set any new OSHA health rules to protect workers, except for one issued pursuant to a court order." Quite a record!

Spending mere decades deciding how to regulate workplace exposure to chemicals that can kill people is obviously much too hasty. We need to continue to let people die for centuries, if not millenia. And requiring that OSHA consider "industry-by-industry evidence" for each chemical sounds like just the ticket. After all, while mustard gas kills soldiers, do we actually know that it would kill people if we pumped it into an automobile assembly line? Do we have any evidence that cyanide can kill beauticians in particular? Don't we need careful empirical studies before we leap to conclusions?

Come to think of it, do we have any evidence about what sorts of things might harm political appointees in the Labor Department, in particular? Aren't we just getting ahead of the evidence when we assume, say, that they could be harmed by cruise missiles, or large banks of rotating knives deployed in their direction? If so, surely they wouldn't have any objection to our carrying out a few little tests. After all, if it's OK for the workers they are charged to protect, it must surely be OK for them.

Hilzoy 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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November 29, 2008

SANFORD WANTS A SMALLER GOP.... The latest "what do we do now?" piece for the Republican Party comes from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who outlines his approach in a piece for the Politico today.

There's some predictable prescriptions -- Republicans should, apparently, try sticking to their principles -- but this one jumped out at me.

There needs to be a high standard for our franchisees. In other words, I believe Republicans and conservatives must agree on our core principles. St. Augustine called for 'unity in the essentials, diversity in the nonessentials, and charity in all things,' and while I believe there should always be a big GOP tent, there must also be a shared agreement on the essentials — including expanding liberty, encouraging entrepreneurship and limiting the reach of government in people's everyday lives.

In this regard, the tent cannot be so big as to include political franchisees who don't act on the core tenets of conservatism -- and as a consequence harm the brand and undermine others' work on it.

Now, I think I know what Sanford means here, and his point is not, on its face, ridiculous. Political parties have to stand for at least some core tenets, and it makes sense for parties to worry about diluting a party brand to the point that the label becomes meaningless.

There is, however, a context that Sanford seems oblivious to. Right now, fewer Americans identify with the Republican Party than at any point in years. The party has lost the White House; it's a minority in both chambers in Congress by wide margins; and it's a minority among the nation's governorships. Voters say they agree with the Democratic Party on just about every issue under the sun.

Sanford considers this landscape and suggests what Republicans really need to do is make the party even smaller.

If, in context, that means purging, say, convicted felons from the party ranks, it would clearly be sensible. But I don't think that's what Sanford means. If I understand his piece correctly, Sanford wants to see a Republican Party that shed itself of factions that fall short of the "core tenets of conservatism" -- as defined, presumably, by Mark Sanford -- so as to let voters know exactly what they'd get by way of the party label. What the GOP needs now, in other words, is fewer people.

If you say so, gov.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Hilzoy

Krauthammer Annoys My Inner Pedant

I don't normally read Charles Krauthammer, but Heather Hurlburt at Democracy Arsenal does, and she flagged this startling paragraph:

"In the old days -- from the Venetian Republic to, oh, the Bear Stearns rescue -- if you wanted to get rich, you did it the Warren Buffett way: You learned to read balance sheets. Today you learn to read political tea leaves. If you want to make money on Wall Street (or keep from losing your shirt), you do it not by anticipating Intel's third-quarter earnings but by guessing instead what side of the bed Henry Paulson will wake up on tomorrow."

Think about the first sentence. Krauthammer seems to be saying that whereas today we have to pay attention to politicians to get rich, back in the Olden Days people only had to read balance sheets. The whims of political leaders were, apparently, of no concern to them. Let's be nice to Krauthammer and assume that he's talking about the history of the US and Western Europe, and thus that it would not be fair to adduce the USSR or the later Qing dynasty as counterexamples.

Hurlburt notes that what Krauthammer says isn't true of the Venetian Republic. But the thing is: it isn't true of almost anywhere. It's like saying that from the time of the Venetian Republic until a few months ago, people enjoyed religious liberty or complete social mobility: it's not just false, but spectacularly false. I could pick any one of a large number of examples, but let's just stick to France under Louis XIV:

"During the reign of Louis XIV, competition for access to the spoils of government transformed the character of the French aristocracy. The great families of the realm had to establish residences in the capital or the court itself because the political and factional struggles between the king's courtiers often determined both major and minor economic decisions. Because seeking out royal patronage was more highly rewarded than staying in the provinces to oversee the local economy and local affairs, nobles moved to Paris and devoted themselves to competing for the unearned income handed out by the king. However, nobles needed to invest time and money to acquire the political information that would win them sinecures, posts in the Church, access to commercial or industrial patents of monopoly, or shares in tax farms (often using a false name or straw man). Like firms in the highly centralized nations of present-day Latin America, they had to move their offices to the capital at the expense of their provincial activities. Once transformed into courtiers, the nobility directed much of their activities toward gaining shares in short-term loans to the Crown and trying to persuade the government that the projects of their clients were best suited to national priorities. One hidden cost the mercantile economy had to bear was the extravagant court and social life of Paris, which by the time of Louis XVI consumed almost 6 percent of the state's revenues and an equally significant, but difficult to measure, proportion of private revenues. The calculation scarcely captures the full economic costs of the competition for privilege." (pp. 37-38)

An example of just how much control the King and his government exercised:

"Two of the most extreme examples of the suppression of innovation in France occurred shortly after the death of Colbert during the lengthy reign of Louis XIV. Button-making in France had been controlled by various guilds, depending on the material used, the most important part belonging to the cord- and button-makers' guild, who made cord buttons by hand. By the 1690s, tailors and dealers launched the innovation of weaving buttons from the material used in the garment. The outrage of the inefficient hand-button-makers brought the state leaping to their defence. In the late 1690s, fines were imposed on the production, sale, and even the wearing of the new buttons, and the fines were continually increased. The local guild wardens even obtained the right to search people's houses and to arrest anyone in the street who wore the evil and illegal buttons. In a few years, however, the state and the hand-button-makers had to give up the fight, since everyone in France was using the new buttons.

More important in stunting France's industrial growth was the disastrous prohibition of the popular new cloth, printed calicoes. Cotton textiles were not yet of supreme importance in this era, but cottons were to be the spark of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth century England. France's strictly enforced policy made sure that cottons would not be flourishing there.

The new cloth, printed calicoes, began to be imported from India in the 1660s, and became highly popular, useful for an inexpensive mass market, as well as for high fashion. As a result, calico printing was launched in France. By the 1680s, the indignant woollen, cloth, silk and linen industries all complained to the state of 'unfair competition' by the highly popular upstart. The printed colours were readily outcompeting the older cloths. And so the French state responded in 1686 by total prohibition of printed calicoes: their import or their domestic production. In 1700, the French government went all the way: an absolute ban on every aspect of calicoes including their use in consumption. Government spies had a hysterical field day: 'peering into coaches and private houses and reporting that the governess of the Marquis de Cormoy had been seen at her window clothed in calico of a white back ground with big red flowers, almost new, or that the wife of a lemonade-seller had been seen in her shop in a casquin of calico'. Literally thousands of Frenchmen died in the calico struggles, either being executed for wearing calicoes or in armed raids against calico-users."

I don't think that counts as "getting rich the Warren Buffett way".

***

My best guess is that Krauthammer is doing something I recognize from reading undergraduate papers: saying something that he probably not only doesn't believe, but has scarcely even noticed, simply because it's a nice-sounding way to start a column. It's the same lazy mental habit that leads otherwise intelligent students to write opening sentences like: "Throughout history, philosophers have debated the morality of human cloning." Is this true? Obviously not. Does its truth or falsity play any role in their argument? No. Have they bothered to reflect at all on whether or not people were debating human cloning in, say, ancient Greece, or even Victorian England? No. They just need a suitably impressive-sounding opening sentence, and its actual content is of so little concern to them that they don't even notice its evident absurdity.

The thing is, though: they are students. What's Charles Krauthammer's excuse?

Hilzoy 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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OVERRATED LOYALTY.... George W. Bush's fascination with "loyalty" is practically legendary. The president considers it the single most important trait a person in public service can have, far exceeding competence and qualification. Bush, for example, picked Dick Cheney because he knew he'd be loyal (Cheney had no presidential ambitions of his own). Loyalty led to high-ranking posts for all kinds of people who had no business taking on their responsibilities -- Alberto Gonzales, I'm looking in your direction -- but who were rewarded for their personal devotion and fidelity to the man in the Oval Office.

Slate's Jacob Weisberg had a good piece today explaining that loyalty is not only wildly overrated in presidential politics, but that truly successful presidents know that an obsession with loyalty is a waste of time and energy.

...I doubt Obama will have much trouble with disloyalty in his administration, from Clinton or anyone else, for the same reason it wasn't a problem in his campaign: He doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about it.

Loyalty is a wonderful human quality and a necessary political one. No president would think of moving into the White House without known and trusted advisers such as David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. At the same time, the recurrent presidential obsession with forms of disloyalty, including leaks, disobedience, and private agendas, is a marker for executive failure. Those presidents who fixated on personal allegiance, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, tended to perform far worse in office than those, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, who could tolerate strong, independent actors on their teams.

The demand for absolute loyalty is a relic from the age of patronage, when political appointments were tied to the delivery of votes for a sponsor. A modern media politician does not depend on this kind of machine for his existence and has political control over only a thin sliver of top-level government jobs. The vast majority of public employees is protected by the Civil Service and can't be vetted for loyalty. As the complexity of the government has increased, so, too, has the importance of expertise and experience.

This is part of what has made George W. Bush's loyalty obsession such a throwback. Bush's first job in politics was as an "enforcer" for a father he thought was too nice to discipline traitors and freelancers. His own fixation on loyalty was born from the experience of watching top aides to his dad such as James Baker and Richard Darman put their own careers and images first. When his turn came, the younger Bush made personal loyalty a threshold test -- and even seemed to regard private, internal challenge to his ill-considered preferences as an indication of untrustworthiness.

This is an interesting way to look at it. The conventional wisdom has long suggested that Bush has shielded himself from dissent and competing ideas due to a lack of intellectual curiosity and mental acuity. But this underestimates the significance of loyalty in shaping Bush's worldview.

Newsweek had a report a few years ago that noted, "It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States... Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty." (emphasis added)

If one "equates disagreement with disloyalty," he/she necessarily creates an insular bubble where no one is allowed to stray from the party line, and everyone is expected to agree wholeheartedly with the president,regardless of merit. In this sense, Bush's obsession with loyalty not only helps explain why incompetent, partisan hacks were promoted to critical government posts, it also helps highlight why never paid attention to those whose opinions he should have taken seriously.

It's reassuring, then, that Obama expects to earn loyalty, not demand it.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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KRISTOL WANTS REWARDS FOR TORTURERS.... Bill Kristol devotes his new Weekly Standard column to warning Republicans to expect to stay the minority party for a while. As he sees it, the GOP, if history is any guide, won't have a legitimate shot at reclaiming the congressional majority until, at the earliest, 2012, and probably won't be able to reclaim the White House until 2016.

With that in mind, Kristol ponders what Bush might do with his remaining weeks in office to help Republicans "get the credit they deserve for successes in Iraq and the broader war on terror." As part of his list, the conservative pundit wants to see some pardons.

...Bush should consider pardoning -- and should at least be vociferously praising -- everyone who served in good faith in the war on terror, but whose deeds may now be susceptible to demagogic or politically inspired prosecution by some seeking to score political points. The lawyers can work out if such general or specific preemptive pardons are possible; it may be that the best Bush can or should do is to warn publicly against any such harassment or prosecution.

But the idea is this: The CIA agents who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the NSA officials who listened in on phone calls from Pakistan, should not have to worry about legal bills or public defamation. In fact, Bush might want to give some of these public servants the Medal of Freedom at the same time he bestows the honor on Generals Petraeus and Odierno. They deserve it.

I can understand why Kristol might be worried about this. As we discussed last week, Newsweek reported that Obama is considering a 9/11 Commission-style investigation of the administration's crimes torture interrogation practices.

But there are, not surprisingly, a few things wrong with Kristol's request. First, there's Kristol's frightening belief that those who commit acts of torture deserve rewards. It's just, on its face, twisted.

Second, there's the fact that the Bush White House "isn't inclined to grant sweeping pardons for former administration officials involved in harsh interrogations and detentions of terror suspects." Why? Because a) the torture policies are, as far as the president's team is concerned, legal; and b) pardons for those involved might lead some to think the policies weren't legal.

And third, as Faiz Shakir noted, the idea of the Medal of Freedom going to U.S. torturers would be offensive, but it would also be consistent with Bush's use of the honor: "In the Bush era, the Medal of Freedom has come to absurdly represent a reward for those who carried out policy failures at the urging of the Bush administration. By this standard, the implementers of torture and wiretapping certainly qualify for such a medal."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... For readers who haven't been around the past couple of weekends, I have brought back "This Week in God" as a regular Saturday feature. The weekly piece highlights some of the news from the world of religion, most notably instances in which faith intersected with politics and/or public policy. TWIG was on hiatus during the height of the election season, but by popular demand, it's back.

First up from the God Machine, he Rev. Ed Young, pastor of the evangelical Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, recently challenged the married couples in his congregation of 20,000 to have sex on a daily basis. As Young sees it, "congregational copulation" brings people closer to God, closer to their spouse, reduces the likelihood of adultery, and sets a loving example for children.

So, how's it going?

It is not always easy to devote time for your spouse, Pastor Young admitted. Just three days into the sex challenge he said he was so tired after getting up before dawn to talk about the importance of having more sex in marriage that he crashed on the bed around 8 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Mrs. Young tried to shake him awake, telling her husband, "Come on, it's the sex challenge." But Mr. Young murmured, "Let's just double up tomorrow," and went back to sleep.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Remember Ted Haggard, the resident of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals? You know, the one caught up in a sordid scandal involving a male prostitute and methamphetamine? He's apparently trying to make a comeback as a a Christian businessman and insurance salesman.

* Pope Benedict XVI apparently isn't big on interfaith dialogue. According to Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading daily newspaper, the pope will argue in his soon-to-be-published book that "an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible." In theological terms, Benedict argues, "a true dialogue is not possible without putting one's faith in parentheses."

* And in Croatia, government officials have curtailed official Christmas and New Year parties due to a lack of funds. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said the decision was dictated by the need for fiscal prudence. "For that goal we forbid buying of Christmas and New Year's gifts as well as organising of Christmas and New Year's receptions," Sanader said. Here's hoping no one tells O'Reilly about the decision. (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

Steve Benen 10:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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ZAWAHRI STILL DESPERATE.... About two weeks ago, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri looked quite foolish attacking Barack Obama, calling the president-elect a "house negro."

Zawahri drew considerable international ridicule for the video, and it appears his p.r. team decided to make matters worse.

Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader appeared in a new video posted Friday calling on Americans to embrace Islam to overcome the financial meltdown, which he said was a consequence of the Sept. 11 attacks and militant strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. [...]

Appearing in a white turban and robe, Zawahri discussed the roots of the U.S. economic crisis. He said it was a repercussion of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and that the crisis would continue "as long as the foolish American policy of wading in Muslim blood continues."

"The American economy was afflicted by a downturn and loss of investor confidence in the market following the events of Sept. 11," he said.... Zawahri then called on the American people to "embrace Islam to live a life free of greed, exploitation and forbidden wealth."

One wonders if Zawahri realizes how ridiculous he sounds. Either way, it is encouraging to see him becoming increasingly desperate.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THEY'VE GOT THE POWER.... There was a spate of campaign resignations earlier this year related to controversies over intemperate rhetoric. The most unfortunate of these was the departure of Samantha Power, who had served as a top foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama.

I'm delighted to see she will, at a minimum, have a role in the transition.

Samantha Power, the Harvard professor who was forced to resign from Barack Obama's presidential campaign last spring after calling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "a monster," is now advising the president-elect on transition matters relating to the State Department -- which Clinton is slated to head.

Power is listed on Obama's transition Web site as part of the team reviewing national security agencies. Her duties, according to the site, will be to "ensure that senior appointees have the information necessary to complete the confirmation process, lead their departments, and begin implementing signature policy initiatives immediately after they are sworn in."

In short, she is part of a team that is likely to work directly with Clinton, a potentially awkward situation for the two women.

I appreciate that this might appear to be an awkward dynamic, but it's worth remembering that to consider Power's career and accomplishments with only one stray campaign comment in mind is a ridiculous mistake. We're talking about a Pulitzer-prize winning scholar who has spent most of her professional life combating genocide and raising awareness of human rights abuses and global humanitarian issues.

Yes, in March, she said something intemperate. She'd hoped it would be off the record, and when it wasn't, Power apologized immediately and profusely, before resigning a few hours later. But here's the thing to remember: Americans are better off if Power has a role in our government.

The obvious story here is that Power offered a rude comment about Clinton during the heat of the campaign, Clinton is poised become the Secretary of State, and Power will now have a transition role at the State Department. But if I'm not mistaken, this political season is supposed to be about magnanimity and graciousness.

Kevin noted, "If we accept the conventional wisdom that Obama's choice of Clinton as Secretary of State is a generous gesture meant to help unify the party, then there would be few more forthright ways for Clinton to reciprocate than by nominating Power for some kind of meaningful position at Foggy Bottom. It would be a good sign that those hatchets have been well and truly buried."

I couldn't agree more. The nation and the world would be well served by Power's public service. Here's hoping soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton agrees.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Hilzoy

Who's In Charge Here?

From the WSJ:

"Under fire for his role in the near-collapse of Citigroup Inc., Robert Rubin said its problems were due to the buckling financial system, not its own mistakes, and that his role was peripheral to the bank's main operations even though he was one of its highest-paid officials."

""Nobody was prepared for this," Mr. Rubin said in an interview. He cited former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as another example of someone whose reputation has been unfairly damaged by the crisis."

"Mr. Rubin's effort to salvage his reputation comes just after Chief Executive Vikram Pandit appeared on PBS's Charlie Rose show. Mr. Pandit, too, blamed the overall financial crisis, not Citigroup, for the problems that led the government to decide to inject money into the bank for a second time this fall."

""This was something that was bigger than Citi," Mr. Pandit said. "It was about confidence in the financial system. It was about stability of the financial system.""

Of course what's happening to the economy is bigger than Citigroup. And perhaps, if housing prices had continued to go up indefinitely, and we hadn't encountered any other shock, things would be fine. But that's irrelevant. If Mssrs. Rubin and Pandit want to know whether or not they are responsible for Citigroup's troubles, they need to ask: are there choices they could have and should have made differently that would have left Citigroup better off than it is now?

Suppose the answer is 'no'. In that case, there are several possibilities. First, Mssrs. Rubin and Pandit are not capable of making any choices at all, perhaps because they are completely controlled by our robot overlords. Second, they can make choices, but none of the choices they might have made would have left Citi better prepared for the present crisis. If so, that would say something pretty alarming about Citi's corporate governance structure. Third, there are choices they could have made that would have left Citi better prepared, but Mssrs. Rubin and Pandit had no reason to make those choices, since no one could have predicted the problems we now face.

Guess what? None of these things is true. And yet, oddly, Mssrs. Rubin and Pandit seem to think they are not responsible for what's happening to the organization they are allegedly running.

That in itself would explain a lot.

Hilzoy 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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November 28, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Annals Of Self-Deception

From the NYT:

"In an interview conducted earlier this month by his sister, Doro Bush Koch, Mr. Bush said he wanted to be remembered "as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process.""

""I came to Washington with a set of values, and I'm leaving with the same set of values," Mr. Bush said. "And I darn sure wasn't going to sacrifice those values; that I was a President that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them. I surrounded myself with good people. I carefully considered the advice of smart, capable people and made tough decisions.""

"But he said he wanted to be known "as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace; that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor; that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get prescription drugs and Medicare as a part of the basic package; that came to Washington, D.C., with a set of political statements and worked as hard as I possibly could to do what I told the American people I would do.""

Well, I would like to be remembered as a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals. Whose wish is more unlikely, I wonder?

Hilzoy 11:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Hilzoy

Mortgages And Bankruptcy

A bankruptcy judge in the Washington Post:

"Homeowners are the only ones who cannot modify the terms of their secured debts in bankruptcy. Corporate America flocks to bankruptcy courts to do precisely this -- to restructure and reamortize loans whose conditions they find onerous or can no longer meet. Airlines are still flying and auto parts makers still operating because they have used this powerful tool of the bankruptcy process. Lehman Brothers will surely invoke it. But when the bankruptcy code was adopted in 1979, the mortgage industry persuaded Congress that its market was so tightly regulated and conservatively run that it should be exempted from the general bankruptcy rules permitting modification.

How far we have come. (...)

Allowing modifications is a solid solution, as evidenced by my example. This homeowner could have restructured her loan to terms resembling those of a conventional mortgage. If the court found that the market value of her home had fallen below what she owed, the secured portion that must be repaid in full would be reduced to the house's actual value; otherwise, the amount to be repaid would stay the same. The interest rate would be adjusted to reflect the prevailing market. However, because this homeowner is a riskier borrower than most, I would have raised her rate to account for that increased risk, as Supreme Court precedent requires. Instead of 14 percent, the rate would probably have been in the high single digits. This homeowner -- with her steady income -- could have made the reduced payments.

Such a solution would have been better for everyone. Obviously, it would have been good for the homeowner and the community in which she lives. Instead of another abandoned house tied up in foreclosure, her residence would be owned by a taxpaying citizen. More important, it would have been good for the lender. Whatever unknown mortgage syndicates hold pieces of this loan, they are never going to get their 14 percent return. Instead, the total recovery will be limited to the proceeds from a foreclosure sale in a depressed market. Any deficiency owed by the homeowner will be discharged as part of her bankruptcy. No one has been able to explain to me why it is not better for mortgage holders to get a fair return of principal back, albeit at a lower interest rate, than to take a lump sum through foreclosure that is probably much less than the value of the note."

Perhaps it once made sense to think that mortgages should not be restructured in bankruptcy. I don't think it makes sense now. It would be great if a repeal of this provision of the bankruptcy laws were one of the bills that will be waiting for President Obama to sign when he takes office.

Hilzoy 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON.... Good lord. (via Atrios)

A worker died after being trampled and a woman miscarried when hundreds of shoppers smashed through the doors of a Long Island Wal-Mart Friday morning, witnesses said.

The unidentified worker, employed as an overnight stock clerk, tried to hold back the unruly crowds just after the Valley Stream store opened at 5 a.m.

Witnesses said the surging throngs of shoppers knocked the man down. He fell and was stepped on. As he gasped for air, shoppers ran over and around him.

"He was bum-rushed by 200 people," said Jimmy Overby, 43, a co-worker. "They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too...I literally had to fight people off my back."

Apparently, while emergency crews worked furiously to save the store clerk's life, shoppers just kept coming, as if the scene was little more than an inconvenient obstacle between them and low-priced merchandise.

Police eventually shut down the store.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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NOBODY LIKES O'REILLY.... Journalist Michael Wolff has a new biography on Rupert Murdoch that'll be published soon, and Michael Calderone, who got an advance look at "The Man Who Owns The News," reports that the New Corp. CEO isn't fond of his top-rated blowhard.

"It is not just Murdoch (and everybody else at News Corp.'s highest levels) who absolutely despises Bill O'Reilly, the bullying, mean-spirited, and hugely successful evening commentator," Wolff wrote, "but [Fox News chief executive] Roger Ailes himself who loathes him. Success, however, has cemented everyone to each other."

"The embarrassment can no longer be missed," Wolff wrote, in another section of the book. "He mumbles even more than usual when called on to justify it. He barely pretends to hide the way he feels about Bill O'Reilly. And while it is not that he would give Fox up -- because the money is the money; success trumps all -- in the larger sense of who he is, he seems to want to hedge his bets."

Make of that what you will. That Murdoch might find O'Reilly personally offensive, but nevertheless helpful to the network's bottom-line, strikes me as fairly easy to believe, but your mileage may vary.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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EXPECT A STOCKED CABINET BY CHRISTMAS.... Shortly after the election, Obama's transition team indicated that we probably wouldn't hear about any cabinet selections until after Thanksgiving. That changed a bit as the economic crisis worsened, and Obama introduced Tim Geithner as the next Secretary of the Treasury.

But what about the rest of the 15-member cabinet? John Podesta, the head of the transition team, told Bloomberg News that the cabinet selections will be "virtually" complete by Christmas. (via Halperin)

Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, also said Obama would complete "virtually the whole Cabinet" by Christmas, and the new president's team will reach beyond the Democratic Party.

There will be "multiple Republicans" in the administration," Podesta said. "You'll see them spread throughout the administration."

Obama, who is further along in making key appointments than any of his recent predecessors were at this point in the transition period, is expected to announce his national security team next week. It will be led by Senator Hillary Clinton, his erstwhile rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as secretary of state and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Having to wait until Christmas to learn about the cabinet selections may seem like a lengthy delay, but the opposite is true -- we'll know the cabinet members nearly a month before the inauguration, which will be far ahead of the pace set by any recent president.

As for "multiple Republicans," I didn't hear the context of the quote, but it's worth noting that having Republicans in "the administration" is not the same thing as having Republicans in "the cabinet."

If I had to guess, I'd keep an eye on Chuck Hagel, Jim Leach, and Colin Powell as the leading Republican possibilities, who Obama would likely to want to have on his team in some capacity.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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GATES' PENTAGON.... Following up on an item from Wednesday, I've been reading a bit about the various perspectives on whether it's wise for Barack Obama to keep Robert Gates on as the Secretary of Defense. Slate's Fred Kaplan, whose perspective on military and national security issues I regularly enjoy, described Gates as "an excellent choice" and "a stroke of brilliance."

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents.

More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren't suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military's missions, especially those dealing with "nation building," to civilian agencies.

From the start, he knew that he wouldn't have time to make a lot of headway in these campaigns -- which, within the military, represent fairly radical ideas. His intent was to spell out an agenda, and lay the groundwork, for the next administration.

Now it seems he's going to be in the next administration. And it's a good bet that President Barack Obama will be more receptive to Gates' agenda than President George W. Bush ever was. First, Obama is open to new ideas generally. Second, at his Nov. 25 press conference, Obama said he would direct his new budget director to go over every program, every line item, with an eye toward eliminating those that don't work or aren't needed -- and he pointedly included the Department of Defense among the agencies to be audited.

In short, Gates might be able to do many of the things that until now he has managed only to advocate.

The takeaway is pretty straightforward -- Obama and Gates are on the same page when it comes to systemic reform, and Obama has come to believe that Gates' presence makes it more likely to see the changes happen. Why? Because, as Kaplan noted, "A fresher face would, first, take a year or so discovering what needs changing and then might get thwarted by bureaucratic and congressional resistance."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MATTHEWS TAKING SENATE RUN SERIOUSLY.... The LA Times reported the other day that Chris Matthews, the MSNBC "Hardball" host and a former Capitol Hill Democratic staffer, sat down with Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania earlier this week to "discuss the prospect" of a Senate campaign.

This has been the subject of speculation for months -- Matthews even conceded interest during a "Colbert Report" appearance a few months ago -- and FiveThirtyEight reports that the MSNBC host appears to be increasingly serious about challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (R) in 2010.

Chris Matthews, it appears, is in.

FiveThirtyEight has been hearing for some time that Matthews is serious about running for the United States Senate, but it took a trip to Georgia among the Georgia-runoff-congregated and well-connected Obama organizer throng to confirm.

According to multiple sources, who confirmed the Tip O'Neill staffer-cum-MSNBC host has negotiated with veteran Obama staffers to enlist in his campaign, Chris Matthews is likely to run for United States Senate in Pennsylvania in 2010. Matthews, 62, would run as a Democrat. Arlen Specter, the aging Republican incumbent, will be 80 if he chooses to run for re-election.

If Matthews runs, it's safe to assume he would have some serious competition for the Democratic Party's nomination. Reps. Allyson Schwartz and Joe Sestak, and state Rep. Josh Shapiro, have all expressed interest in the race, and the field may grow given the fact that Specter is considered one of the Republicans' more vulnerable incumbents.

As for Matthews' chances, your guess is as good as mine. I glanced through Media Matters' recent hits on Matthews' on-air comments, and it's safe to assume the MSNBC host would have a lot of explaining to do before Pennsylvania Democrats gave him the nod.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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LIEBERMAN IN CONTEXT.... We talked yesterday about new reports on Joe Lieberman's financial support for Republican congressional candidates before Election Day, on top of his work on behalf of John McCain and Sarah Palin. I argued that if Senate Democrats had known about this before their recent caucus vote, the outcome probably would have been the same.

Ezra had a different, and thought-provoking, look at the same circumstances.

Take the recent line on Joe Lieberman seriously. Imagine he simply was a Republican. A generic moderate Republican. A Chris Shays Republican. And as a Republican, he voted frequently against Democratic priorities, attacked progressive bills on the cable channels, and endorsed his fellow Republicans for office.

But imagine too that his state was changing, and his party looked unlikely to retake power, and for reasons of opportunism, he began talking with Harry Reid about switching to the Democratic Party. And Reid convinced him, though it took a lot of inducements and a lot of forgiveness, because in the Senate, one more vote can be worth a lot. Would most observers understand that as a coup for the Democrats or a capitulation to the opportunist? Or maybe both?

Interesting; I hadn't thought about it quite this way. If Lieberman was a Republican -- an actual, self-identified, caucusing Republican -- and wanted to switch parties, there probably would be a much stronger willingness to accept and indulge his campaign efforts on behalf of GOP candidates. This was certainly the case seven years ago when Jim Jeffords crossed the aisle. Party-switchers are necessarily coups for the receiving party, even if that means accommodating the partisan work he/she did before the switch.

Indeed, it would have to be a coup precisely because of what party association entails. If Republican Lieberman were approaching Reid right now about a switch, he'd effectively (if not literally) be telling Reid, "I'm going to start voting with Dems on key issues, endorsing Democratic candidates, and contributing financially to Democratic campaigns."

Of course, this helps underscore the one aspect of Lieberman's conduct that offends Democrats most: betrayal. If he was a Republican who's now prepared to join the Democratic caucus, there'd at least be some consistency to his decision making -- he would have spent 2008 doing what other Republicans were doing in support of the GOP ticket and down-ballot candidates. That's irritating, but it's not treachery.

Except, Lieberman wasn't an actual Republican, and the context matters. He led "Democrats for McCain" after promising his own constituents to help elect a Democratic president. Just as importantly, he used his role as a "Democrat" to lend credibility to the Republican message and its candidate slate. Had Lieberman been a genuine Republican, this dynamic wouldn't have existed.

And taking Ezra's thought experiment a little further, suppose Lieberman was now poised to leave the Republican Party, and Democrats were prepared to welcome him with open arms, including "a lot of inducements and a lot of forgiveness." How rational would it be for the Senate caucus to then make Lieberman the chairman of the committee responsible for oversight of a Democratic administration?

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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READY ON DAY ONE.... There have been some reports recently that the transition team would love to have major pieces of legislation sitting on the Oval Office desk, awaiting the president's signature, literally on Barack Obama's first day in office.

Democratic leaders in Congress seem fairly anxious to accommodate.

Democratic Congressional leaders and the nascent Obama administration are moving quickly to assert control over federal policy, aiming to have economic, health and spending legislation waiting on the new president's desk almost the minute he gets back down Pennsylvania Avenue from the inauguration.

Given the severity of the problems facing the nation, officials on Capitol Hill and in the Obama team say Democrats have put their schedule on fast-forward rather than allowing the usual lull between the start of the new Congress, this time on Jan. 6, and President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in two weeks later.

Lawmakers and staff members are already laying the groundwork for a running start, and Congress is scheduled to remain in session once its expanded Democratic majorities are sworn in.

Earlier this week, Congressional Quarterly reported (no link available) that senators have been told they should expect to work throughout January, and the House "hopes to have the stimulus ready for Obama around the time he takes office." One Hill aide said, "We are already tired, and he hasn't even been inaugurated yet."

Expect a fast start come January.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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November 27, 2008

OBAMA'S THANKSGIVING MESSAGE.... I noted yesterday that Barack Obama and his transition team, after seeing the markets reach new lows last Thursday, began a full-court press, emphasizing a new economic message/development every day since. It led, among other things, to three press conferences in three days.

I figured there wasn't too much the president-elect would do Thanksgiving, but lo and behold, the streak continued with a new Obama message this morning, recognizing the holiday, and at the same time, reminding Americans that our economic conditions will improve in time.

"Nearly 150 years ago, in one of the darkest years of our nation's history, President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving," Obama said. "America was split by Civil War. But Lincoln said in his first Thanksgiving decree that difficult times made it even more appropriate for our blessings to be -- and I quote -- 'gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.'

"This week, the American people came together with families and friends to carry on this distinctly American tradition. We gave thanks for loved ones and for our lasting pride in our communities and our country. We took comfort in good memories while looking forward to the promise of change.

"But this Thanksgiving also takes place at a time of great trial for our people.

"Across the country, there were empty seats at the table, as brave Americans continue to serve in harm's way from the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq. We honor and give thanks for their sacrifice, and stand by the families who endure their absence with such dignity and resolve.

"At home, we face an economic crisis of historic proportions. More and more Americans are worried about losing a job or making their mortgage payment. Workers are wondering if next month's paycheck will pay next month's bills. Retirees are watching their savings disappear, and students are struggling with the cost of tuition.

"It's going to take bold and immediate action to confront this crisis. That's why I'm committed to forging a new beginning from the moment I take office as President of the United States. Earlier this week, I announced my economic team. This talented and dedicated group is already hard at work crafting an Economic Recovery Plan that will create or save 2.5 million new jobs, while making the investments we need to fuel long-term economic growth and stability.

"But this Thanksgiving, we are reminded that the renewal of our economy won't come from policies and plans alone -- it will take the hard work, innovation, service, and strength of the American people.

"I have seen this strength firsthand over many months -- in workers who are ready to power new industries, and farmers and scientists who can tap new sources of energy; in teachers who stay late after school, and parents who put in that extra hour reading to their kids; in young Americans enlisting in a time of war, seniors who volunteer their time, and service programs that bring hope to the hopeless.

"It is a testament to our national character that so many Americans took time out this Thanksgiving to help feed the hungry and care for the needy. On Wednesday, I visited a food bank at Saint Columbanus Parish in Chicago. There -- as in so many communities across America -- folks pitched in time and resources to give a lift to their neighbors in need. It is this spirit that binds us together as one American family -- the belief that we rise and fall as one people; that we want that American Dream not just for ourselves, but for each other.

"That's the spirit we must summon as we make a new beginning for our nation. Times are tough. There are difficult months ahead. But we can renew our nation the same way that we have in the many years since Lincoln's first Thanksgiving: by coming together to overcome adversity; by reaching for -- and working for -- new horizons of opportunity for all Americans.

"So this weekend -- with one heart, and one voice, the American people can give thanks that a new and brighter day is yet to come."

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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IRAQI PARLIAMENT APPROVES SOFA.... Just 10 days ago, Iraq's cabinet overwhelmingly approved a security agreement with the U.S. that calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. The measure then went to the Iraqi Parliament for approval, but success was not a given.

As it turns out, it passed rather easily.

Iraq's parliament approved Thursday a security pact with the United States that lets American troops stay in the country for three more years.

The vote in favor of the pact was backed by the ruling coalition's Shiite and Kurdish blocs as well as the largest Sunni Arab bloc, which had demanded concessions for supporting the deal.

The breakdown of the vote was not immediately available. But parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said an "overwhelming majority" of lawmakers who attended the session voted in favor. Parliament's secretariat, which counted lawmakers as they entered the chamber, said 220 out of 275 legislators attended.

An AFP report added:

The vote came after a flurry of last-minute negotiations in which the main Sunni parties secured a package of political reforms from the government and a commitment to hold a referendum on the pact in the middle of next year.

Should the Iraqi government decide to cancel the pact after the referendum it would have to give Washington one year's notice, meaning that troops would be allowed to remain in the country only until the middle of 2010.

It prompted Spencer Ackerman to respond, "That would be ... give or take a few days ... why, sixteen months after Barack Obama takes office! Happy Thanksgiving from Baghdad, Barack!"

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF AUTO BAILOUT.... [Note: this piece prompted some interesting discussion and emails yesterday, so I'm bumping it up for some additional promotion]

Obviously, policy makers have been mulling over what to do, if anything, about the fate of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. The American auto manufacturers are in deep trouble, and determining what kind of rescue package would be most effective has been on the minds of lawmakers, the Bush administration, and the Obama transition team.

But perhaps the political world has been looking at this the wrong way. Jeffrey Leonard, the CEO of Global Environment Fund, has a provocative idea in an online-only piece for the Washington Monthly -- maybe it's car buyers, not car companies, who should get a bailout.

[L]et's get back to basics: what are we trying to accomplish, anyway? Presumably, Washington's primary goals are to save jobs and to jumpstart the economy. Like it or not, getting people to buy cars is one of the most effective ways to get an economy moving. Cars have what economists call a multiplier effect, perhaps the greatest of any product, because every car that's purchased creates a cascade of further stimuli -- not just to those who make the car, but also to those who repair it, fuel it, outfit it, wash it, and so forth.

That's why Washington has a major incentive to use companies like GM, Ford, or Chrysler to help us through the economic crisis. The way to do it is to offer a 50 percent rebate check to every purchaser of a new, American-made car produced by any auto company that signs up for a voluntary restructuring program with the federal government. The rebate would be paid by the Treasury Department, and then exchanged for preferred stock in the company that produced the car.

In essence, this plan would replicate the principles of our banking bailout, in which cash infusions from Uncle Sam into financial institutions have been linked to equity stakes in those institutions. In this case, millions of Americans could get new cars, aiding the economy with every car-related transaction. Detroit could clear out its sizeable unsold inventory and avoid taking on more debt, and Washington could gain a lever with which to change Detroit's behavior. The government could even consider contributing some or all of the stock to the pension and healthcare plans of autoworkers, to help reduce the pressure of these unfunded liabilities on Detroit's bottom line.

Leonard anticipates a heavy price-tag associated with his ambitious proposal, but the costs would be comparable to the $25 billion bailout that the automakers have already put on the table.

Reading the piece, I had a couple of concerns about rewarding a flawed Detroit business model, and adding millions of cars to the road that aren't exactly efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles. But Leonard anticipated these concerns, and tackles them head-on.

It's a really interesting idea. Take a look.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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WOULD IT HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE?.... Senate Democrats knew that Joe Lieberman had endorsed the Republican presidential candidate. And that he'd appeared at the Republican National Convention. And that he'd smeared the Democratic candidate repeatedly throughout the year. They were also well aware of the fact that he publicly endorsed and defended a variety of down-ballot Republicans before Election Day.

But did Senate Democrats realize that Lieberman also financially supported Republican congressional candidates? Apparently not.

When Democrats gathered last week to decide the fate of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a pair of senators-elect, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, stepped up to offer symbolically important speeches.

Having ridden the wave of support for President-elect Barack Obama, Udall and Merkley spoke out in favor of the spirit of reconciliation and moving on from the campaign, in which Lieberman was one of the highest profile supporters of the Republican presidential ticket.

But no one in the room knew, as Merkley spoke, that Lieberman had supported Merkley's opponent, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). Lieberman, through his Reuniting Our Country PAC, gave Smith's reelection bid $5,000 on Oct. 10, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. [...]

Lieberman's support of Smith came the same weekend he wrote an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press defending Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) for his work as chairman of an investigative subcommittee on Lieberman's homeland security committee. The same day he wrote a check to Smith, Lieberman's ROC PAC gave $5,000 to Rep. Peter King, the Long Island Republican.

Call me crazy, but when a senator speaks at the Republican convention, repeats Republican talking points, endorses Republican candidates, and gives thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns, the senator certainly looks like a Republican. But maybe that's just me.

But here's the question to consider this morning: if the Senate Democratic caucus had known about these contributions, would it have made any difference when they were voting to give Lieberman everything he asked for? Would Udall and Merkley have paused before rewarding Lieberman for contributing to the campaigns trying to defeat them?

I kind of doubt it.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THE ATTACKS IN MUMBAI.... Terrorist attacks are not, tragically, entirely uncommon in India, especially this year, but the events in Mumbai have been on another level of magnitude.

Indian police commandos rescued some hostages on Thursday as standoffs continued against heavily armed militants who a day earlier had swept into Mumbai, India's commercial capital, in a shocking series of coordinated and bloody attacks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a televised address that the attackers probably had "external linkages" -- the first official indication that the authorities were likely to blame outsiders.

The hooded gunmen, firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades, attacked at least two luxury hotels, the city's largest train station, a Jewish center, a movie theater and a hospital.

The Mumbai police said Thursday afternoon that the attacks killed at least 101 people and wounded at least 314. It was not immediately clear how many hostages were freed in the commando operation or how many were still being held.

This year, the more routine terrorist attacks in India have featured bombs left in public areas. The coordinated, well-orchestrated attacks that began yesterday were executed by young men with machine guns, who brazenly made no effort to hide their identity. The LA Times speculated that the attacks "required a previously unseen degree of reconnaissance and planning," leading some experts to suspect "the likely involvement of experienced commanders."

A group calling itself the Deccan Mujaheddin sent an email to Indian news outlets claiming responsibility, but it seems no one has heard of the group and it's unclear if their message is legitimate.

There are, not surprisingly, questions about a possible al Qaeda connection, but many are skeptical -- al Qaeda doesn't usually take hostages.

As for the attackers' targets, Brian Genchur, a spokesman for a private intelligence group, noted, "As opposed to trying to rile up extremist elements in India's Hindu and Muslim communities, the attacks in Mumbai are going after the country's tourism industry, spreading fear to Western tourists and businesspeople who frequent India, thereby hitting at India's economic lifelines." Indeed, Christine Fair, a senior political scientist and a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation ,added, "When one thinks of the Indian global elite, one thinks of Mumbai. It's the financial city. It's the entertainment city. It's India's New York."

The most recent report suggests that Indian police had killed six of the suspected attackers and captured nine.

Steve Benen 7:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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November 26, 2008

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Devastating terror attacks in Mumbai: "Several people have been killed in a series of coordinated attacks targeting Mumbai sites popular with tourists and business people, according to police and CNN's sister network in India. Ongoing battles between police and gunmen were reported at two five-star hotels. Gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades attacked targets including the hotels, a cafe, and a train station, police say. Maharashtra state government spokesman Bhushan Gagri said 78 people killed and about 200 wounded, while police confirmed 26 deaths."

* The FBI warned of a "plausible but unsubstantiated" threat of a terrorist bomb attack against the New York train system.

* Obama certainly seems to have restored some confidence among investors.

* New reports today shows unemployment, consumer spending, factory orders, and new-home sales all moving in the wrong direction.

* If I didn't know better, I might think the Bush administration actually likes increased greenhouse gas emissions.

* Good to see the Obamas volunteering at a Chicago food-bank today.

* For the first time on record, fewer Americans are getting cancer. "It is a significant milestone," said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, which produces the report with the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. "It is a really big deal."

* It's great to see the Center for American Progress generating some much-deserved recognition.

* The Franken campaign is having to regroup after a major setback today.

* Obama is bringing his chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, with him to the White House.

* Reading over Sullivan's Von Hoffmann Award Nominees today has been pretty amusing.

* Donald Rumsfeld's revisionism is literally unbelievable.

* The Wall Street Journal reports that "at least 85 of the 135-odd members of President-elect Barack Obama's agency review teams served in the Clinton administration." Since Clinton is the only Democratic president of the last 28 years, that doesn't seem especially surprising.

* National Review really needs to keep up on its slang.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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PUTTING THE LAME IN LAME-DUCK.... Ryan Avent considers what could have been.

[George W. Bush] very easily could have asked Congress to send him a stimulus bill, even a modest one, amid an intensification of what will likely be the worst recession in thirty years, if not longer. It would have made a difference. It would have made the season a little more bearable for the growing numbers of unemployed, and it would have made Obama's task a little less daunting.

Instead, he's spending his waning days weakening environmental rules, helping his cronies get jobs in the professional bureaucracy, and preparing his pardons. What a stupid, despicable man. History can't judge him too cruelly.

I am, not surprisingly, sympathetic to this perspective. But reading it reminded me of something: for all the talk in far-right circles about Bush not being conservative enough, some of his most painful disasters came because he refused to stray from his conservative ideas.

This is probably a little too casual an analysis, but it seems this touches on one of the more glaring differences between Bush and Reagan -- both instinctually backed conservative ideas driven entirely by far-right ideology, but Reagan reversed course when those ideas failed. Bush didn't.

When Reagan's tax cuts didn't work, he reversed course and approved significant tax increases (several times). When Reagan's antagonism towards the Soviets didn't work, he reversed course and compromised on arms control.

But Bush, with very few exceptions, could never own up to his errors.

Right now, he has nothing to lose by accepting a stimulus package, except his ideological pride. So it doesn't happen, no matter how much it might help. His approach to the economy has been a spectacular failure, and when given a chance to go in a different direction, Bush has decided on a legacy of consistency, instead of success.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PRESS-FRIENDLY (FOR A REASON).... The Washington Times reports that Barack Obama has held more press conferences, and answered more press questions, than any modern president-elect.

In the 22 days since winning the White House, President-elect Barack Obama has taken 22 questions from reporters and has done two sit-down television interviews.

The Democrat held his fourth press conference since Nov. 4 in Chicago Wednesday morning -- his third in as many days -- an unprecedented bit of access for reporters who have grown accustomed to President Bush's infrequent moments taking questions and already surpassing the last four presidents-in-waiting.

Mr. Obama has beat his four predecessors in number of post-election, pre-inauguration press conferences, and is inheriting a more troubled nation than any of those men. With one Cabinet post officially named, he is working at a faster clip than former President Bill Clinton.

It wasn't too long ago that reporters traveling with the Obama campaign publicly predicted that, if elected, Obama was likely to severely limit the media's access. At least this week, he's held three press conferences in three days, and chatted at some length with Barbara Walters.

But I can't help but think the context matters here. Is the president-elect proving his commitment to transparency, openness, and media access? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I think it's more likely Obama is filling a leadership void and trying to settle the financial markets and offer investors some reassurance about the future.

Consider the last six days. On Friday, the transition team deliberately leaked Geithner's name for the express purpose of giving Wall Street a boost (it worked). On Saturday, Obama delivered a radio/YouTube address on a massive rescue/stimulus package. On Sunday, Obama aides fanned out on the morning shows to talk up the president-elect's economic plan. On Monday, we were introduced to Obama's economic team. On Tuesday, we were introduced to Obama's budgetary team. On Wednesday, we learned about Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

One day, it's Geithner and Summers. Another day, it's Volcker. Another day, it's Orszag. I can appreciate the criticism about Obama not having named a Labor Secretary yet, but I wonder if the transition team is just looking for an excuse to hold another economic-related press conference next week.

This isn't complicated. Bush is irrelevant and Poulson lacks credibility. It's a crisis, and Obama is filling a void. And at the risk of making a post hoc argument, consider the results -- the Dow closed at 7,552 on Thursday. The next day, Obama's full-court press began. The Dow has since gone up about 1,000 points. (I'm not arguing that Obama is single handedly responsible for improving the stock market, and I realize that a multitude of factors, some unpredictable, have produced the recent rally. I am suggesting, however, that Obama may have contributed some calm to the markets.)

MSNBC had a chyron this morning that read, "Obama will address economic woes today, Pres. Bush to pardon turkey."

Sounds to me like the relevant players now realize their role.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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JUST BELOW GATES.... Following up on this morning's item, one of the key decisions for Barack Obama relating to the Pentagon is not just whether to keep Robert Gates on as Defense Secretary, but also determining who will make up the rest of the senior leadership in the department.

Chris Bowers argued yesterday, "If Gates were kept on as Secretary of Defense, it apparently would also mean that all of his top advisors would also stay on." That, of course, matters quite a bit -- as reasonable as Gates is, his deputies have considerable influence on Pentagon decision-making, and they're not as inclined towards pragmatism as their boss.

It's encouraging, then, that while Gates appears to be staying on, his immediate team is likely to see some significant changes. The Washington Post reported earlier that, whether Gates takes on a short-term or long-term role in the Obama administration, "most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced."

And who are they being replaced with? The news is encouraging on this front, too.

Secretary Gates' deputy at the Pentagon is slated to be Richard Danzig, who was Navy secretary under President Clinton. The #3 (policy) will PROBABLY be Michele Flournoy, a Clinton administration veteran who was dual-hatted as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.

If the report proves accurate, Flournoy will replace Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, who, as Yglesias noted, is "Gates' most pernicious subordinate" and a former aide to Dick Cheney.

For those discouraged by the Gates news, this should at least be mildly reassuring.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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OBAMA'S SHOPPING ADVICE.... The New York Daily News' Tom DeFrank asked Barack Obama at this morning's press conference about the shopping season. "[A] lot of retailers are worrying that this year [that a drop in consumer spending during the holidays] could be a disaster that this economy can ill afford. Do you have any shopping advice for nervous consumers?"

It's a tricky question. The president-elect doesn't want to discourage people from spending money right now. He also doesn't want to look like Bush did in the aftermath of 9/11, suggesting shopping in the midst of a crisis is somehow the right thing -- the only thing -- for Americans to do.

It looked to me like Obama threaded the needle pretty well.

"Look, I think families understandably are nervous and concerned about their economic situation. We've seen job loss. We've seen flatlining wages and incomes. The economic statistics have been bad, and people are watching television and understandably are nervous about their future.

"There is no doubt that during tough economic times family budgets are going to be pinched. I think it is important for the American people, though, to have confidence that we've gone through recessions before, we've gone through difficult times before, that my administration intends to get this economy back on track, that we are going to create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years, that our future is bright if we make good decisions.

"And what we don't want to do is get caught up in a spiral where people pull back from the economy, businesses then pull back, jobs are reduced and we get into a downward spiral.

"What we want to do is to be sober, to be clear, to recognize that we've got some real adjustments that have to be made. That's true in individual businesses, it's true in terms of individual family budgets, it's also true for the economy as a whole.

"But we continue to have the best workers in the world, we continue to have the most innovation in the world, we continue to be in possession of extraordinary resources that if we harness properly will get this economy moving over the next couple of years, but also over the next two decades or three decades.

"So people should understand that help is on the way."

In other words, shop responsibly. Sounds reasonable enough.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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FROM THE TOP.... At his third economic-related press conference in as many days, Barack Obama announced the creation of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, modeled on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board created by President Eisenhower to "provide rigorous analysis and vigorous oversight of our intelligence community by individuals outside of government -- individuals who would be candid and unsparing in their assessment." He introduced former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker as the chairman of the panel, and University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee as its staff director and chief economist.

During the Q&A, CNN's Ed Henry asked if there were enough new faces on his team to fulfill Obama's pledge to bring change to Washington. The president-elect first noted it would be even more jarring if his team didn't include officials with experience from the Clinton administration.

"It would be surprising if I selected a Treasury secretary who had had no connection with the last Democratic administration because that would mean the person had no experience in Washington whatsoever. And I suspect you would be troubled and the American people would be troubled if I selected a Treasury secretary or a chairman of the National Economic Council ... who had no experience whatsoever.... What I don't want to do is to somehow suggest that because you served in the last Democratic administration that you're somehow barred from serving again -- because we need people are going to be able to hit the ground running."

But even more importantly, Obama insisted that it won't be his team that shapes the vision for his administration.

"[U]nderstand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost: it comes from me. That's my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it.

It was the first real inkling that Obama is aware of the media chatter, and he hopes to put some of this to rest, reminding his audience that he plans to "combine experience with fresh thinking." The change, according to his argument, will come from his vision, not his cabinet picks.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* John McCain made it official yesterday, holding a press conference to announce that he will seek re-election to the Senate in 2010.

* Obama probably won't head to down to Georgia personally to campaign for Jim Martin (D) in the state's Senate runoff contest.

* Al Franken experienced a setback this morning when a canvassing board rejected his lawyers' request on a review of thousands of rejected absentee ballots.

* Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) was a leading candidate to replace Barack Obama in the Senate, but he reportedly turned down the offer from Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

* Speaking of replacing senators, who should get Hillary Clinton's seat? Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac make the case today for Sen. Bill Clinton.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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THE DEBATE ON COMMISSIONS.... In his must-read cover story in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Charles Homans argues that relying on commissions instead of subpoenas may produce more answers on what the Bush administration has been up to. Responding indirectly, Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under Bush, argues that neither commissions nor subpoenas are a good idea.

It reminds us that Homans' piece is the subject of a discussion at the TPM Cafe this week. Scott Horton had a very good item on the article, and sides with Homans on the commissions.

Charles Homans' article in the current Washington Monthly is a must-read for those who will be returning to Washington in January. He has catalogued what Donald Rumsfeld would call the "known unknowns" -- the areas where we know something went on that the Bush Administration has struggled to keep in the dark. As he notes, we come to almost identical conclusions after approaching the question from different perspectives. The next step should be to fill in the gaps from the historical narrative. Who did what, when and how. We need to establish the facts and we need to force the publication of the key documents which are still being withheld. That's our right as a democracy.

I believe that the commission approach is the way to go forward. I don't deny that Congressional hearings could make some headway. However, I am not persuaded that the Congressional committees have the stamina, the concentration and the expertise to do what is necessary. Over the last year I attended all but two of the hearings the House Judiciary Committee arranged to dig into the torture issue. Bush Administration witnesses used every evasive maneuver known to a wily lawyer to avoid answering the questions raised. And the members did not for the most part know how to ask questions. When a completely dismissive or evasive answer came, they went on to the next question. Questioning needs to be done by a professional interrogator who is focused on building a complete record, not playing to the cameras and the audience in the constituency back home.

Under President Bush, the Constitution took a shellacking. We had the most devious, secretive government in our nation's history. In the end, it was at war with the rule of law itself. But this isn't the time to be talking about indictments and prosecutions, though that may come in the fullness of time. Now is the time to force those dark secrets from the recesses in which they've been hidden and insure that the public fully understands what was done by the most incompetent, corrupt and lawless government we've ever had. Charting those dealings is the first step. Correcting them is the second.


Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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WHEN IN DOUBT, BLAME DEMS.... Matt Corley found this gem, showing far-right uber-activist Grover Norquist on CNBC yesterday, discussing the economy.

"Well, the economy's in the present state because when the Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006, you knew that those tax increases were going to come in 2010. The stock market began to collapse as soon as you recognized that those old tax rates were coming back. So, we're in the middle of responding to those tax increases."

The substance of such transparent nonsense is easy to ignore. It's hard to imagine even Norquist believing his own ridiculous rhetoric.

What I find harder to believe is why Norquist was invited onto CNBC to discuss these issues anyway. We're talking about a guy who's described the estate tax as the moral equivalent of the Nazi Holocaust. Of course he's going to make stupid arguments, such as blaming the financial crisis on tax increases that haven't happened.

Maybe now would be a good time for television bookers to take Norquist's name out of their rolodexes?

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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A STEP FORWARD ON GAY ADOPTIONS.... A Florida judge ruled yesterday that a state law banning adoption by gay men and lesbians is unconstitutional. "The best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption," said Judge Cindy Lederman, adding that the law violated equal protection rights for children and their prospective parents.

I realize there are conservatives, including the Republicans' most recent presidential nominee, who believe children without parents are better off in orphanages than being adopted by gay people. What's less obvious to me is how they rationalize this position, beyond just blind ignorance and bigotry. "Gays are icky" usually doesn't impress judges in the midst of legal proceedings.

It's why I found this fascinating.

The state presented experts who argued that there was a higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse among same-sex couples, that their relationships were less stable than those of heterosexuals, and that their children suffered a societal stigma.

Obviously, attorneys representing the state of Florida have to go to court with something to argue, but it's telling that these were the best arguments the lawyers could come up with. It's effectively state-sanctioned stereotyping -- a lot of gays are unstable addicts, the argument goes, so no gays should be allowed to adopt.

It's as if Archie Bunker got a law degree. We are in the 21st century, right?

What's especially odd is that the argument is that adopting is actually pretty difficult. Officials from social service agencies go to prospective parents' homes and check to see if, say, they abuse drugs or alcohol. If they do -- here's the kicker -- they don't get to adopt.

In this particular case, Frank Martin Gill and his partner have raised two foster children over the last four years. His Miami home is the only home the two boys have known. The kids, by all available evidence, are "thriving" after having been allegedly abused by their birth parents. Florida officials insisted that the children would have to be taken away. The court said no.

The state attorney general's office is planning to appeal, and the case is likely to end up before the Florida Supreme Court.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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JAMES DOBSON VS. KATHLEEN PARKER.... Last week, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker urged the Republican Party to move away from the "evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP."

Yesterday, James Dobson responded to Parker's advice. As one might imagine, he was less than pleased.

The accuracy of her numbers isn't the point, anyway -- it's the notion that, because there are people of many faiths in the United States, those of the Christian faith must not think or act like Christians when engaging the public square. [...]

[W]e don't need an embossed note from Ms. Parker -- or anyone else -- to take part in the political dialogue -- of either party. Our invitation to engage the process comes straight from our Founders. We will continue to stand up for the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of marriage and the right to have a say in the principles that will continue to guide this nation founded on biblical principles.

The headline on Dobson's piece reads, "We Won't Be Silenced."

I'm certain Kathleen Parker can defend herself, but looking over Dobson's harangue, I think he missed Parker's point. Her column didn't argue that Dobson and the religious right should be silenced, but rather, that the Republican Party would be wise to stop listening to them. Indeed, Parker's piece wasn't really directed at the Dobsons of the world; it was directed at the GOP about the Dobsons of the world.

Dobson seems to have taken all of this quite personally, insisting that politically-active evangelical Republicans must fight back at these efforts to squelch their free speech. As far as I can tell, no one wants to infringe on Dobson's ability to promote his far-right, vaguely theocratic agenda. The point here is whether the Republican Party is going to take Dobson's radical demands seriously, and allow the religious right to dictate the party's policy agenda.

By becoming the party of the religious right, Parker argued, the GOP has alienated "other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle."

Dobson didn't really respond to this. In fact, he didn't even try. His argument is premised on the notion that he deserves to speak his mind. No one disagrees. Whether anyone listens is another matter entirely.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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REPUBLICANS' HURT FEELINGS.... Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) apparently refused to speak to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) because McConnell's feelings were hurt. It seems the Democratic efforts to defeat McConnell's re-election bid had been deemed "overly aggressive."

Likewise, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reportedly told colleagues at a Senate prayer breakfast last week that she feels "lingering resentment toward Democratic senators who campaigned against her." Collins reportedly confessed that that she had "trouble forgiving colleagues" who campaigned against her.

It marks an interesting twist in the tension between the two parties -- now, it appears, Democrats are just too mean.

I'm afraid this is pretty silly. Members of one party, as a rule, want to help defeat members of the other party. This does not make them Big Meanies. If Democratic senators traveled to Maine to smear Collins with sleazy attacks and vicious personal lies, I could understand holding a grudge. But as far as I can tell, Dems primarily accused Collins of voting with Bush too much of the time. This hardly constitutes a cheap shot. Indeed, it happens to be true.

Publius made a compelling case that Collins is "personalizing politics" as an excuse to do what she's been doing.

[T]his "hurt feelings" business is so absurd. Collins will -- as she has always done -- vote with the Republicans virtually all the time. Even better, now she has an excuse to justify doing what she's always done. On those rare instances she doesn't, it will be because there are a handful of votes where the people of Maine (1) are paying attention and (2) actually care. It's hard to get both #1 and #2, which is why she doesn't have to vote with the Dems very often.

Similarly, in the next Congressional session, Republicans like Specter and Snowe and Voinovich and Gregg will vote with Dems only when they feel political pressure to do so from their state constituency. Otherwise, they won't (which will be most of the time).

Personality has nothing to do with it.

Quite right. The Republicans' canard about their bruised sensitivities has quickly become tiresome. When GOP lawmakers opposed the initial Wall Street bailout, they said it was because Nancy Pelosi hurt their feelings. In reality, they just didn't like the bill.

When Mitch McConnell plans to go after Dems in the next Congress, he says it's about Democrats being mean to him during the election. In reality, his tactics would be the same regardless.

And when Susan Collins talks about strained relations with the majority party, she says it's about campaign tactics. In reality, she's a Republican who votes with her party most of the time.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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GATES.... As has been widely reported, Barack Obama will keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his post next year. This is not a surprise -- speculation about Gates staying on was common even before the election -- but it is unprecedented: this will be the "first time a Pentagon chief has been carried over from a president of a different party."

The details of the arrangement, which has not yet been formally confirmed, are still somewhat elusive. The Washington Post reports that Gates' extended tenure will be part of a "'rolling transition,' in which Gates would stay on during a phased changeover of key political appointees at the Pentagon. Others said he could stay in the job indefinitely. Under both scenarios, most of the deputies serving under him would be replaced, the sources said."

So, is this a good move or not? At first blush, it seems more than a little discouraging for Democrats. It's not, for example, "change" if the Defense Secretary under Bush is the same Defense Secretary under Obama. For that matter, the decision doesn't help dispel the notion that Democrats are weak on national security issues if Democratic presidents keep turning to Republicans to lead the Pentagon.

And yet, I'm not at all convinced that Gates is a poor choice. In fact, I've seen ample evidence that Gates is exactly who Obama needs at the Pentagon right now.

Gates may be a leading member of Bush's team, but he represents a complete break from the neo-conservatives who dominated the administration's first term. Gates is considered a non-ideological pragmatist, who's open to competing ideas, and who enjoys broad respect from the brass and lawmakers in both parties. In the midst of two wars, having a competent and qualified Pentagon chief, who has no partisan or ideological axe to grind, will bring a degree of steadiness and consistency that may benefit Obama enormously.

Consider a few perspectives from insightful observers. Spencer Ackerman:

For one thing, the gesture shown to the generals and admirals would be instantly understood and very likely reciprocated. Second, Gates is the sort of public servant who would understand that his duty as secretary is to manage withdrawal, not fight it. Third, bringing a Republican on board with withdrawal is both substantively good for implementing the political consensus that the public tells us already exists; and would make it more complicated for the ultras in the GOP to establish the stab-in-the-back narrative that they'll launch no matter what. And finally, whatever hits the Democratic brand would take by keeping a Republican on board temporarily would be wiped out by the esteem that the Broders of the world would suddenly find for Obama, as well as by the inevitable replacement of Gates by a Democrat.

Scott Horton:

[I]n the annals of the Defense Department, Gates's name will go down as a healer. His quiet professionalism and competence are exactly what is called for right now, and Barack Obama could not find a better secretary of defense.

Our very own Hilzoy:

Basically, I think that there are two main reasons for keeping Gates. The first is that it's very important to get bipartisan cover for the withdrawal from Iraq if we want to avoid some future conservative "if only the Democrats had let us win" story. (Likewise, bipartisan cover would be very useful if Obama decides to cut some weapons systems.) The second is that by all accounts the military have a lot of respect for Gates; keeping him on, therefore, would allow Obama to bypass the need to establish his own credibility and that of his Secretary of Defense with them. (Yes, I know: this shouldn't be necessary. But it is.)

Neither of these reasons would cut any ice with me if Gates had been a bad Secretary of Defense. But he hasn't. He's been very good, under difficult conditions. Moreover, he seems like the sort of person who would either try to implement Obama's policies rather than working to undermine them or turn the job down.

Noah Shachtman:

Obama's defense team certainly has serious beefs with Bush's military and diplomatic decisions -- to launch the war, to take resources from Afghanistan, to refuse serious talks with Iran. But, from my limited discussions with [Obama advisor Richard] Danzig and others, the thing that really pisses them off was the management of the Pentagon during the Bush years. The spiraling budgets, the lack of accountability, the slipped deadlines, the circumventing of the chain of command, the politicization of policy -- to former Defense Department stewards like Danzig, those were the real horror shows.

But since Gates has been brought in, things have started to turn. Budgets have begun to return to reality. People lose their jobs when they can't do them right. Experts in their fields are being heard. Sound policy is often trumping adherence to political orthodoxy. And the Pentagon is slowly, slowly starting to focus on today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's the attraction of Gates.


Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Hilzoy

Hunger

From the Washington Post:

"Fueled by rising unemployment and food prices, the number of Americans on food stamps is poised to exceed 30 million for the first time this month, surpassing the historic high set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

The figures will put the spotlight on hunger when Congress begins deliberations on a new economic stimulus package, said legislators and anti-hunger advocates, predicting that any stimulus bill will include a boost in food stamp benefits. Advocates are also optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama, who made campaign promises to end childhood hunger and whose mother once briefly received food stamps, will make the issue a priority next year.

"We soon will have the most food stamps recipients in the history of our country," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based anti-hunger policy organization. "If the economic forecasts come true, we're likely to see the most hunger that we've seen since the 1981 recession and maybe since the 1960s, when these programs were established." (...)

To qualify for the food stamp program, whose name was officially changed last month to the Simplified Nutrition Assistance Program, recipients must have an income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $27,564 for a family of four. The benefits, which average $109.93 a month per person, are based on a plan set by the government to represent a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet. Participants apply locally to receive an electronic card that is used like an ATM card to buy food at most grocery stores and some farmers markets. The maximum benefit for a household of four is $588 a month."

This might be a good time to point out that charities of all kinds, including food banks, typically get hammered during recessions, since people have less money to give. And, of course, during recessions, they are needed more than ever.

And, as Andrew Sabl pointed out a few days ago, charity isn't just good for your soul and good for other people, it's good for the economy:

"Macroeconomics does funny things to morality. In a recession, saving your pennies harms the economy. Many these days quote Keynes' "paradox of thrift," and rightly so. Each of us, by virtuously delaying gratification, harms the economy as a whole. We'd all do better if we collectively acted worse. (As Keynes once wrote, ineffectively, "the patient does not need rest. He needs exercise.")

So, to promote short-term growth, greedy consumption is good. Sort of. Though universal self-denial is bad, universal charity would, as far as I know, be macroeconomically terrific. If you can spare money for a plasma TV, giving the price of a TV to a food bank instead would create just as much consumption--more, actually, since the government kicks in a subsidy through the tax system."

You can find the American Institute of Philanthropy's top-rated charities for dealing with hunger here, and Charity Navigator's here.

I know I've said this before, but: as we head into tough times, I think we're going to need all the generosity and social solidarity we can manage.

Hilzoy 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Hilzoy

Throw The Bums Out

In a sign that the End Times are upon us, I actually agree with a WSJ Opinion column:

"Another Sunday night, another ad hoc bank rescue rooted in no discernible principle. U.S. taxpayers, who invested $25 billion in Citigroup last month, will now pour in another $20 billion in exchange for preferred shares paying an 8% dividend. (...)

What is missing is a statement that at least some American bankers still have the freedom to fail, an essential ingredient if we hope to restore functioning capital markets. Not a single one of Citigroup's senior managers and directors will be let go as a condition of taxpayer assistance that now totals close to $350 billion. (...)

"Citi never sleeps," says the bank's advertising slogan. But its directors apparently do. While CEO Vikram Pandit can argue that many of Citi's problems were created before he arrived in 2007, most board members have no such excuse. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has served on the Citi board for a decade. For much of that time he was chairman of the executive committee, collecting tens of millions to massage the Beltway crowd, though apparently not for asking tough questions about risk management.

The writers at the Deal Journal blog remind us of one particularly egregious massaging, when Mr. Rubin tried to use political muscle to prop up Enron, a valued Citi client. Mr. Rubin asked a Treasury official to lean on credit-rating agencies to maintain a more positive rating than Enron deserved. What signal will President-elect Barack Obama send if his Administration, populated with Mr. Rubin's protégés, allows this uberfixer to continue flying hither and yon on the corporate jet while taxpayers foot the bill?

Chairman Sir Win Bischoff has held senior positions at Citi since 2000. Six other directors have served for more than 10 years -- including former CIA Director John Deutch, Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons, foundation executive Franklin Thomas, former AT&T CEO C. Michael Armstrong, Alcoa Chairman Alain Belda, and former Chevron Chairman Kenneth Derr.

When taxpayers are being asked to provide the equivalent of $1,000 each in guarantees on Citi's dubious investments, how can these men possibly say they deserve to remain on the board?"

I have no idea. The same goes for a lot of senior management. If some particular division of Citi has done well over the past few years, I can see letting the management of that division stay on. But the people who either ran Citi into the ground or were asleep at the wheel need to go. That should be the condition of a bailout: if you turn out to need public assistance, you lose your job. No golden parachutes either.

As I've said before: we absolutely need to make sure that the people who run these banks do not conclude from our unwillingness to let them take down the entire financial system that it's OK to run these risks. The best way I can think of to do that is to make sure that they, personally, pay.

I don't think I'm saying this out of vengeance. At least, I'm trying not to. I just do not want a system in which private individuals get the rewards of excessive risk-taking and taxpayers pay the price when it all goes wrong; and I do not know how else to avoid one.

Hilzoy 12:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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November 25, 2008

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Wall Street was relatively quiet today, for a change.

* It looks like Robert Gates will stay on as Defense Secretary. More on this tomorrow.

* Karzai wants a timetable on the war in Afghanistan?

* Hank Paulson has used half of the $700 billion bailout package, and is now eyeing the other half.

* Obama will limit contributions to his inaugural committee. While recent presidents have accepted donations as high as $250,000, Obama will cap contributions at $50,000.

* Is it me, or have there been a lot of criminals working in Bush's White House?

* Fox News won't replace Colmes, and Hannity will host the prime-time show by himself.

* Bush granted 14 pardons and commuted two sentences yesterday, but they didn't involve any well-known names. (There was, however, a certain regional imbalance.)

* Obama's healthcare team means business.

* You know, counter-terrorism really can be a law-enforcement issue, Republican talking points notwithstanding.

* The White House has played fast and loose with the list of "the coalition of the willing."

* Great, Glenn Beck is talking about secession.

* Mark Halperin's complaints about the media and Obama are pretty tiresome.

* Does Hillary Clinton have an "emolument" problem relating to the Secretary of State job?

* CNN will have to re-hire 110 workers who were dismissed for being union members.

* Duke Cunningham apparently doesn't have a lot of friends.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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BRENNAN WITHDRAWS FROM CONSIDERATION.... A number of bloggers -- most notably Glenn Greenwald, Digby, and Andrew Sullivan -- have raised serious concerns about intelligence official John Brennan, who's been rumored to be a possible candidate for either the CIA director or the Director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration.

Brennan's critics accused him of supporting some of the Bush administration's most offensive intelligence-gathering policies, including rendition and "enhanced interrogation techniques." Obama, they said, even if he intended to move far away from those policies, should not make room for Brennan in his administration.

The criticism seems to have had the desired effect. Brennan has withdrawn from consideration for any intelligence post in the Obama administration.

Brennan wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to Obama that he did not want to be a distraction. His potential appointment has raised a firestorm in liberal blogs who associate him with the Bush administration's interrogation, detention and rendition policies.

Brennan was a 25-year veteran of the CIA who helped establish the National Counterterrorism Center and was its first director in 2004.

Obama's advisers had grown increasingly concerned in recent days over online blogs that accused Brennan of condoning harsh interrogation tactics on terror suspects, including waterboarding, which critics call torture.

According to the AP report, Brennan opposed waterboarding, and told his CIA colleagues about his concerns privately, while also questioning the legality of several CIA interrogation methods. Indeed, Brennan emphasized that he was twice passed over for intelligence posts in the Bush administration precisely because the White House believed he was too critical of their policies.

In his letter to Obama, Brennan argued, "It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding. The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored."

In response, Glenn Greenwald highlighted Brennan's "lengthy, empathic statements" that made clear he "defended 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and rendition -- grounds enough for making him unacceptable for any top intelligence post -- to say nothing of his strident advocacy for warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty."

As for the broader context, Brennan's withdrawal appears to be the direct result of blog coverage. For those who believe bloggers' concerns are inconsequential, this is clear evidence to the contrary.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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'THE GORE EFFECT'.... The Politico's Erika Lovley has two published pieces today on politics and global warming, and they're both surprisingly bad.

The first appears under the headline, "Scientists urge caution on global warming." Lovley's article reports, "Climate change skeptics on Capitol Hill are quietly watching a growing accumulation of global cooling science and other findings that could signal that the science behind global warming may still be too shaky to warrant cap-and-trade legislation."

David Roberts explained, "The most notable feature of this 'growing accumulation of global cooling science' is that Lovely doesn't cite a single piece of it. Seriously. Not one."

Indeed, the piece focused heavily on the work of Weather Channel founder Joseph D'Aleo, a conservative meteorologist (not a climate scientist) and infamous global warming denier, and quotes a variety of conservatives who are on the same page, including Marc Morano, a notorious far-right Hill staffer for James Inhofe.

How many scientists are quoted defending the global warming consensus of the scientific community? Zero. Lovley's article reads like something one might find on World Net Daily.

The second piece -- same publication, same writer, same topic -- is even more insulting.

For several years now, skeptics have amusedly eyed a phenomenon known as "The Gore Effect" to half-seriously argue their case against global warming.

The so-called Gore Effect happens when a global warming-related event, or appearance by the former vice president and climate change crusader, Al Gore, is marked by exceedingly cold weather or unseasonably winter weather.

For instance, in March, 2007, a Capitol Hill media briefing on the Senate's new climate bill was cancelled due to a snowstorm.

On Oct. 22, Gore's global warming speech at Harvard University coincided with near 125-year record-breaking low temperatures. And less than a week later, on Oct. 28, the British House of Commons held a marathon debate on global warming during London's first October snowfall since 1922.

While there's no scientific proof that The Gore Effect is anything more than a humorous coincidence, some climate skeptics say it may offer a snapshot of proof that the planet isn't warming as quickly as some climate change advocates say.

For crying out loud. A few global warming deniers think cold weather undermines climate change, and the Politico feels comfortable telling readers that snowstorms "may offer a snapshot of proof"? Seriously?

The Politico did some solid campaign reporting this year. Here's hoping Lovley's articles are an aberration, and not the kind of "journalism" readers can expect as the political world transitions from campaign mode to governing.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLI FORGETS HIS RECORD.... One of the single most important quotes about Bush's presidency came six years ago. John J. DiIulio Jr., a domestic policy advisor to George W. Bush, told Ron Suskind, ''There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.''

With DiIulio's perspective in mind, it was jaw-dropping to hear Karl Rove insist last night, on national television, that it was policy, not politics, that won out in the Bush White House.

On "Hannity & Colmes" last night, Alan Colmes noted the criticism of Rove for combining politics and policy. Rove argued, "Well, at least in the White House I was in, policy won out, but you had to be aware of the political fallout of what you were going to do in order to contain it and deal with it. You bet. But to, but first and foremost if the president I worked for, George W. Bush, said, 'You know what, let's do right, and the politics will take care of itself.' It didn't mean you were blind to it, but it didn't mean that you needed to focus first and foremost on what you thought was in the right interest of the country."

I've heard Rove say some extraordinary things over the years -- remember in June when he criticized the New York Times for having "outed a CIA agent"? -- but this might be the most ridiculous.

It's tempting to document every instance in which Rove and Bush put political considerations over the national interest, but one would need a book. OK, a book broken out over multiple volumes. Ali Frick summarized this nicely, noting, "Rove personally oversaw the unprecedented politicization of nearly every aspect of Bush's federal government, from the Justice Department to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Office of National Drug Control Policy." And that, of course, is really only scratching the surface.

DiIulio's quote makes clear that Rove's boast is without foundation in reality. DiIulio, an academic with a strong background in public policy, joined the Bush administration with an expectation that the team would, as Rove put it, pursue specific policy goals and let the politics "take care of itself." He assumed that Bush, like most modern presidents, would naturally "focus first and foremost on what you thought was in the right interest of the country."

But that's not what he found. Surrounded by "Mayberry Machiavellis," DiIulio found a West Wing filled with officials who cared about nothing but politics -- how a policy helped Republicans, rallied the base, embarrassed Democrats, raised money, moved poll numbers, aided vulnerable GOP incumbents, etc.

For Rove to claim now that "policy won out" in the Bush White House is literally laughable.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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CLAIMING A MANDATE.... In the immediate aftermath of the elections, there were a handful of Republicans who wanted to debate the meaning of the word "mandate." Apparently, Barack Obama's impressive victory -- the highest popular vote margin for a non-incumbent in a half-century -- shouldn't compel lawmakers to help him pass the policy agenda he presented the voters during the campaign.

I couldn't hear the wording of the question, but during today's press event in Chicago, Obama said without hesitation that he'd earned "a mandate to move the country in a new direction and not continue the same old practices that have gotten us into the fix we are in." He added, however, that he's anxious to work with Republicans and listen to their ideas. "[W]e enter into the administration with a sense of humility and a recognition that wisdom is not the monopoly of any political party."

Greg Sargent raised a good point.

This is probably too obvious to point out, but the game here is that Obama is working to frame GOP obstructionism in advance. By simultaneously claiming a mandate while approaching Republicans with "humility" and a request for their help, Obama is boxing out Republican opponents in advance, laying the groundwork to cast them as partisan and hostile to the people's will.

That's why it's still lost on yours truly why people are seeing Obama as "centrist" based on his bipartisan gestures and tone or his "pragmatic" staff picks. This stuff is just about positioning in advance, and the real tell will lie in his actual policies.

Sounds right to me. There's already some question about whether Republican moderates are prepared to break party ranks and cooperate with Dems on the votes that really matter, and Obama's reminder was less than subtle: he's reaching out, and he's prepared to work in good faith, but he's also coming into the presidency in the wake of a veritable landslide (365 electoral votes).

Obama has a progressive policy agenda that's been endorsed by the electorate, the pitch goes, and Republican obstructionism -- "the same old practices" -- should not be viewed kindly.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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OBAMA'S BUDGET TEAM.... Yesterday, the president-elect introduced his economic team. This afternoon, Barack Obama returned to the podium to announce his budget team: Peter Orszag as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Robert Nabors as the deputy director. They're pretty impressive folks who'll no doubt serve the nation well.

One thing that came up during the brief event in Chicago is Obama's intention to cut wasteful spending from the budget.

"[I]f we're going to make the investments we need, we must also be willing to shed the spending we don't. In these challenging times, when we are facing both rising deficits and a sinking economy, budget reform is not an option. It is an imperative. We cannot sustain a system that bleeds billions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have outlived their usefulness, or exist solely because of the power of a politician, lobbyist, or interest group. We simply cannot afford it.

"This isn't about big government or small government. It's about building a smarter government that focuses on what works. That is why I will ask my team to think anew and act anew to meet our new challenges. We will go through our federal budget -- page by page, line by line -- eliminating those programs we don't need, and insisting that those we do operate in a sensible cost-effective way."

Given that the times call for increased government spending, what is Obama planning to cut? He offered an example: "There's a report today that from 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies. If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as President."

Responding to some questions from reporters, Obama added that he'd earned "a mandate to move the country in a new direction and not continue the same old practices that have gotten us into the fix we are in." He added, however, that "we enter into the administration with a sense of humility and a recognition that wisdom is not the monopoly of any political party."

Sounding another pragmatic note, Obama also said, "I think what the American people want more than anything is just commonsense, smart government. They don't want ideology, they don't want bickering."

And if an ambitious, progressive policy agenda just happens to look like commonsense, smart, non-ideological government, so be it.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Hilzoy

Supporting Our Troops Yet Again

From the LATimes, another story about the Bush administration deciding to nickel-and-dime wounded veterans:

"Marine Cpl. James Dixon was wounded twice in Iraq -- by a roadside bomb and a land mine. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a concussion, a dislocated hip and hearing loss. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Sgt. Lori Meshell shattered a hip and crushed her back and knees while diving for cover during a mortar attack in Iraq. She has undergone a hip replacement and knee reconstruction and needs at least three more surgeries.

In each case, the Pentagon ruled that their disabilities were not combat-related.

In a little-noticed regulation change in March, the military's definition of combat-related disabilities was narrowed, costing some injured veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits -- and triggering outrage from veterans' advocacy groups.

The Pentagon said the change was consistent with Congress' intent when it passed a "wounded warrior" law in January. Narrowing the combat-related definition was necessary to preserve the "special distinction for those who incur disabilities while participating in the risk of combat, in contrast with those injured otherwise," William J. Carr, deputy undersecretary of Defense, wrote in a letter to the 1.3-million-member Disabled American Veterans."

Because, of course, someone who fractures her hip while diving for cover in a mortar attack has not been disabled while "participating in the risk of combat". Obviously. According to the new policy, "her wounds would be considered combat-related only if she had been struck by shrapnel."

As noted above, the Pentagon is claiming that this change is justified by a law passed last January. And yet:

"Years ago, Congress adopted a detailed definition of combat-related disabilities. It included such criteria as hazardous service, conditions simulating war and disability caused by an "instrumentality of war." Those criteria were not altered in the January legislation.

The Pentagon, in establishing an internal policy based on the legislation, in March unlawfully stripped those criteria from the legislation, the Disabled American Veterans said.

"We do not view this as an oversight," [Kerry Baker of the DAV] testified before Congress in June. "We view this as an intentional effort to conserve monetary resources at the expense of disabled veterans.""

That is just wrong. Moreover, it's also wrong to make disabled vets jump through hoops in order to get the benefits they're entitled to. If you've been blown up by an IED, our government should do you the courtesy of allowing you to concentrate on healing your wounds and moving on, not on arguing with them about whether your disability was "combat-related."

Hilzoy 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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SIMON GETS AN EARFUL.... The Politico's Roger Simon apparently dined with a Republican U.S. senator recently, who gave him an earful about what ails the GOP.

The old labels that the Republicans used to hang on the Democrats did not stick.

"The Democrats talked about middle-class tax cuts! They weren't the party of the poor anymore! They weren't the party of gun control anymore! What did Republicans want? Tax cuts for the rich! And small government," he says.

Small government -- the mantra of the Republican Party ever since Ronald Reagan -- will not work anymore, the senator says.

"We can't revive the ghost of Ronald Reagan," he says. "People want government in times of need."

The Mystery Senator also believes the party needs "someone who speaks from the center," adding, "Sarah Palin is not the voice of our party."

Responding to the piece, Atrios noted, "I appreciate why reporters grant certain people anonymity, but sitting US Senators?"

Quite right. What's the point of making all of these quotes not-for-attribution? If this guy wants to get this message out, he should have the nerve to say so on the record.

It's mildly reassuring to know, I suppose, that there's a sitting Republican senator who believes these things, so to that extent, I at least found Simon's piece interesting. But candid assessments of a troubled party from a member of Congress need not be anonymous.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* After two campaign cycles as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, New York's Chuck Schumer is stepping down. How much credit Schumer deserves is open to some question, but Democrats gained at least 13 seats during his tenure.

* Sen. Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey will replace Schumer at the DSCC. Menendez served as the vice chair of the committee for the last two years.

* A few new polls have been released on the Senate runoff race in Georgia. A new Politico/InsiderAdvantage poll shows Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) leading Jim Martin (D) by three (50% to 47%), while Public Policy Polling shows Chambliss up by six (52% to 46%), and a Mellman Group poll taken for the DSCC shows Chambliss' lead at two (48% to 46%).

* Speaking of the race in Georgia, Rudy Giuliani will campaign in support of Chambliss today, and Sarah Palin will speak at four rallies in Georgia on Monday.

* In case you thought the recount in Minnesota's Senate race couldn't get messier, consider the question of missing ballots.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE 'RIGHROOTS'.... The Washington Post ran an interesting, 2,300-word item today on conservative blogs and their future within (alongside?) the Republican Party. As far as leading conservative activists -- online and off -- are concerned, the right is far behind the left when it comes to online presence, and there's apparently a renewed push to do something about it.

As that process begins in earnest, I'd encourage them to consider this fine post from Outside the Beltway's James Joyner. He argued the other day that, despite his conservative beliefs, he finds "most of the best analytical blogs are on the center-left," and fleshed out his reasoning yesterday.

Part of the reason I'm drawn to the center-left blogs, including those cited above, Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, and others despite disagreeing with them while finding it increasingly difficult to find center-right blogs worth my time is that the former are much more likely to get beyond the debates of the 1980 election. There's almost no serious analysis of health care reform, urban planning, education, and many other issues that regularly crop up on the best lefty blogs on their conservative counterparts. If we read about those issues at all, they're framed as if Ronald Reagan were still aspiring to high office: Say No to socialism! Abolish the Department of Education! Government IS the problem!

While traditionalist grand theory is still valuable and worth discussion, it doesn't work as a blanket response to micro-level issues. And defining conservatism solely by "What would Reagan do?" is a political non-starter in a world that simply looks much different than in did twenty-eight years ago. It would be as if Reagan constantly droned on about the evils of Harry Truman. Time marches on. Debates must, too, in order to be interesting.

So, where are the right-of-center counterparts to Yglesias, Klein, and company?

I've long wondered the same thing. For more than two years, I was the editor for Salon' "Blog Report," featuring posts from the left and right. It led me to read dozens of conservative blogs every day, and I quickly realized that when it came to depth and seriousness of thought, the two sides weren't close. (James Joyner, who is both thoughtful and knowledgeable, is a noticeable exception.)

Indeed, to help drive the point home, earlier this year, Erick Erickson, RedState's editor, acknowledged that the "netroots" have an advantage over the "rightroots," but attributed it to an asymmetry in free time, since conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

This is largely the kind of thinking that dominates on conservative blogs. They can't quite get to policy disputes or serious analysis, because they're too busy mulling over the implications of liberals joining forces with Islamofascists, the United Nations, and Mexican immigrants to execute some kind of nefarious plot.

Worse, Kevin noted that when these blogs do consider key policies, such as global warming and growing income inequality, they tend to believe the problems don't exist.

"Global warming and skyrocketing income inequality are problems that didn't even exist in 1980, which means there is no 'Reaganite' solution to appeal to," Kevin concluded. "There might still be conservative takes on these things, but they won't do any good until conservatives actually accept that these are real problems that people genuinely care about. That day still seems pretty far off."

Republican Party leaders are anxious to take advantage of conservative blogs' dynamism as part of the rehabilitation of the GOP. Maybe these folks should crawl before they walk?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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ALBERTO'S LEGAL BILLS.... As has been well documented, "loyal Bushies" in the Justice Department engaged in systematic discrimination against those they perceived as possible liberals. As part of this record, eight people who were turned down for the Department's Honor Program and Summer Law Intern Program believe ideology drove the decision-making process, and have filed a lawsuit.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is, not surprisingly, a key part of the case, and has hired private counsel to represent him. As it turns out, according to a McClatchy report, the Justice Department -- and by extension, taxpayers -- are paying $24,000 a month for Gonzales' defense. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) yesterday asked Michael Mukasey to describe the expenditures, and explain why the spending has been hidden from public view.

It's a good question. The New York Times had a good editorial on this a few days ago.

We have long wanted Mr. Gonzales to be held accountable for his disastrous tenure as attorney general. His prosecutors brought a series of cases that helped Republicans win elections and hurt Democrats. They put Georgia Thompson, a Wisconsin civil servant, in jail on spurious charges for four months after she refused to implicate her state's Democratic governor in a baseless corruption investigation.

Still, Mr. Gonzales is entitled to appropriate legal representation. According to Stephen Gillers, a New York University Law School ethics expert, there are legitimate reasons the government may want him to have a private lawyer. As the case proceeds, for example, Mr. Gonzales and the government might want to stake out different positions on the law or facts of the case.

That does not absolve the department of its obligation to let the public know whether it is paying for a private lawyer, and if so, why it is making these unusual accommodations. It also should let taxpayers know how much they can expect to spend on the former attorney general's defense.

It's hardly an unreasonable request. It's bad enough Americans are paying for Gonzales' attorneys; to do it in secret adds insult to injury.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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LEADING NEVADA REPUBLICAN TO BE INDICTED.... For most of the last two years, the most embarrassing political scandals in Nevada have revolved around beleaguered Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose personal and professional life have been a bit of a mess.

The good news is, the latest political scandal has nothing to do with Nevada's Republican governor -- this time, it's Nevada's Republican lieutenant governor.

The lieutenant governor of Nevada says the state attorney general's office intends to have him indicted over how he handled a college savings program as state treasurer.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said Monday he believes he is being targeted for political reasons by state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. [...]

The 47-year-old Krolicki says Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen alerted him to a pending indictment by the Clark County grand jury.

A 2007 audit says budget controls were bypassed in the Nevada College Savings Program. Krolicki says auditors were "simply wrong."

Krolicki also told the AP that he is "wholly innocent," and believes the state's attorney general, who is a Democrat, is targeting him for partisan reasons.

Nevertheless, Krolicki has made no secret of his intention to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in 2010, and has been expected to enjoy the support of the Republican establishment in Nevada and D.C. Facing criminal charges may put a crimp in those plans.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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REPLACING BIDEN.... Barack Obama formally resigned his Senate seat about a week ago, which made sense given his transition to the White House. Joe Biden, however, decided not to resign at the same time, and it was unclear what was causing the delay.

ABC News' Rick Klein had a report recently noting that Biden was prepared to formally give up his seat literally the day of his inauguration, after Delaware's incoming governor, Jack Markell, is sworn in shortly after midnight. This, despite the fact that Delaware's current governor, Ruth Ann Minner, is a Democrat, who would no doubt pick a Democrat to fill Biden's seat. Did Biden work out some kind of deal with Merkell? Possibly involving Biden's son? The situation was starting to look a little sketchy.

With this in mind, yesterday's announcement about Biden's replacement seems like the right call.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) announced yesterday that she will appoint Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a friend and former aide to Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., to fill the Senate seat Biden will vacate until a special election can be held in two years.

Kaufman, the president of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm in Wilmington and a lecturer at Duke University's law school, met Biden in the early 1970s, when Biden was a long-shot Senate candidate and Kaufman was a local party operative. Sources close to Biden said Kaufman will act as a place holder until Biden's son, Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, returns from a National Guard tour in Iraq and can run for the remaining four years of his father's term in a 2010 special election.

"There are no illusions here," said one individual familiar with the appointment.

Perhaps not, but if one is going to rig the system with nepotism in mind, this is arguably the least offensive way to do it. Joe Biden was, just this month, re-elected to a seventh term. Real nepotism would be handing Biden's seat over to his son now, but by having a place-holder senator, who understands the chamber and will vote as Biden would have, voters will be able to choose Biden's replacement at the ballot box in 2010. That's likely to be Beau Biden, but he would at least have to earn it through public support, rather than inherit the seat directly through gubernatorial appointment.

As for Kaufman, the soon-to-be temporary appointed senator said yesterday he wanted "to make clear that I am very comfortable with retiring after two years." He added, "I don't think Delaware's appointed senator should spend the next two years running for office."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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FIXING FEMA.... Before George W. Bush took office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a model of efficiency and effectiveness. For reasons that have never made any sense, the president decided to undermine the agency, strip its leadership of cabinet-level status, and stick it with unqualified leadership.

FEMA went from being one of the more impressive federal agencies to a national joke. There was some talk a couple of years ago of Congress scraping the agency altogether and starting over.

The Washington Post reports today that the beleaguered emergency-management department is poised to get "a facelift under the Obama administration."

First off, the likely plan is to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that by itself would help restore the pride that folks at FEMA felt when it was an independent agency.

Second, there's increasing talk that former director James Lee Witt, who took over the then-troubled agency at the start of the Clinton administration and left it eight years later with a much-enhanced reputation, is coming back from retirement to run FEMA for six months to a year, to whip it into shape.

Now, there's some question as to whether Witt's disaster recovery firm overbilled Louisiana as part of its post-Katrina work, which would no doubt be explored in detail during confirmation hearings.

What's beyond question, however, is that an overhaul of FEMA under Obama would be most welcome. A "Human Capital Survey" of federal employees in 2002 found that FEMA ranked dead last -- a key warning, before Hurricane Katrina, that there was a real problem at the agency. Now, of course, FEMA is under the Department of Homeland Security, but in the most recent survey of federal employees, FEMA ranks 211th out of 222 in departmental subunits.

Making the FEMA director cabinet-level again would be a good first step. Giving it real leadership and functionality wouldn't hurt, either.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE RIGHT'S MOVEON NEARLY 'KAPUT'.... Talk about your on-again, off-again operations. Freedom's Watch, the far-right political group, has, at various times, been the Next Big Thing in conservative politics, and a vacuous paper tiger that can't figure what to do with itself. In fact, it's bounced back and forth between these points more than once.

When Freedom's Watch burst upon the political scene in August 2007, it was part of a coordinated effort to rally support for staying the course in Iraq. The group unveiled four slick TV ads, including one featuring a veteran who lost a leg in Iraq who argued that we have to stay in Iraq because "they attacked us." There were reports earlier this year that Freedom's Watch was prepared to amass a quarter-billion dollar budget for the 2008 campaigns, and politicos everywhere thought the outfit was on its way to becoming a powerhouse.

Then, the right-wing group was beset by internal problems, a lack of direction, a serious staff shake-up, and the departure of high-profile staffers, including the group's inaugural president, former Bush aide Bradley Blakeman. Complicating matters, the financial crisis reportedly took a considerable toll on casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the financier bankrolling the group's operations.

And now, it appears that Freedom's Watch is just about finished.

Freedom's Watch, the conservative group backed by Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, is pretty much kaput, sources with knowledge of the organization said.

The group's dozens of staffers have been paid through the end of the year. After that, Freedom's Watch is likely to shut its doors permanently, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Two quick observations. First, this has to be considered one of the more humiliating fiascos in recent history for the conservative movement. Freedom's Watch was sitting pretty -- huge budgets, unmatched connections, a far-right void just waiting to be filled -- and it all fell apart very quickly, and with precious little to show for their efforts.

And second, when Freedom's Watch was first announced, it was billed by conservatives as the right's version of MoveOn.org. It's worth remembering that the right has always been confused about how MoveOn became a success. Conservatives too often think, "We'll get some money together, deliver a right-wing message, hire some Bush hands, and the grassroots will come together. It'll be awesome."

It doesn't work that way. MoveOn doesn't follow a top-down model; it's the other way around. MoveOn drew support because it had a cause (Clinton impeachment). It showed staying power when new causes emerged, and there was a genuine demand for progressive activism.

This wasn't an instance in which a bunch of liberals got together and said, "Wouldn't it be great to form some kind of organization to advance a liberal agenda?" It was a far more natural evolution, a fact that seems to elude those who wish to emulate it.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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TECHNOLOGY AND COLLEGE COSTS.... When education policy would come up during the presidential campaign, the candidates didn't usually turn their attention to No Child Left Behind of pre-kindergarten, they tended to talk about the ever-rising costs of a college education.

That wasn't surprising, given the enormous burdens families take on to pay tuition costs. Even when state and federal governments pour new resources into student aid programs, the effects are limited as universities keep increasing costs.

In the soon-to-be-published December issue of the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, has a fascinating piece on the apparent contradiction between technology driving down teaching costs, and tuition bills soaring.

For years colleges have insisted that rapidly rising prices are unavoidable because higher education is a labor-intensive business that cannot become more efficient. A forty-minute lecture takes just as long to deliver today as it did a hundred years ago, they say; a ten-page paper takes just as long to grade. Because efficiencies in other industries are driving up the overall cost of skilled labor, colleges have to offer salaries to match, which pushes productivity down. (Economists call this "Baumol's cost disease," after the New York University economist who first made the diagnosis.) Regrettable for students, of course, but what can be done?

In fact, this premise is false. Colleges are perfectly capable of becoming more efficient and productive, in the same way that countless other industries have: through technology. And increasingly, they are. One of the untold stories in higher education is that the cost of teaching is starting to decline, but virtually none of those savings are being passed along to students and parents in the form of lower prices. Instead, colleges are pocketing the difference, even as they continue to jack up tuition bills.

This is a classic unsustainable trend. Higher education prices cannot grow faster than inflation and family income forever. If colleges use productivity gains from technology to restrain prices, they'll continue to thrive in a world that values their product more than ever. If they don't, they'll be hammered simultaneously by a frustrated public and new competitors eager to steal their customers. To avoid that fate, colleges will need to do more than just teach better for less. They'll also need to compete in a whole new way.

And what might that include? Read the piece.

What's more, readers in the Washington area may be interested in an upcoming event, hosted by Education Sector, focused on this very issue. The panel will be moderated by Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik, and will feature, among others, Carey and the Monthly's editor in chief, Paul Glastris. The event begins at 9 a.m., on Tuesday, December 2. Here's a link to the details.

Steve Benen 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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November 24, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Poverty

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has a new report on the likely effects of the recession on poverty. As you might expect, they aren't pretty:

"Goldman Sachs projects that the unemployment rate will rise to 9 percent by the fourth quarter of 2009 (the firm has increased its forecast for the unemployment rate a couple of times in the last month). If this holds true and the increase in poverty relative to the increase in unemployment is within the range of the last three recessions, the number of poor Americans will rise by 7.5-10.3 million, the number of poor children will rise by 2.6-3.3 million, and the number of children in deep poverty will climb by 1.5-2.0 million.

Already there are signs that the recession is hitting low-income Americans hard. Between September 2006 and October 2008, the unemployment rate for workers age 25 and over who lack a high school diploma -- a heavily low-income group -- increased from 6.3 percent to 10.3 percent. Yet low-income workers who lose their jobs are less likely to qualify for unemployment benefits than higher-income workers, due to eligibility rules in place in many states that deny benefits to individuals who worked part time or did not earn enough over a "base period" that often excludes workers' most recent employment.

As another sign that poverty is now climbing rapidly, food stamp caseloads have increased dramatically in recent months, rising by 2.6 million people or 9.6 percent between August 2007 and August 2008, the latest month for which data are available. In 25 states, at least one in every five children is receiving food stamps. Because monthly food stamp caseload data are available long before the official Census poverty data for the prior calendar year, rising food stamp caseloads are the best early warning sign of growing poverty.

Furthermore, the nation's basic cash assistance safety net for very poor people who are jobless is much weaker and less well equipped to meet the challenges that a serious economic downturn poses than it was in previous major recessions."

To put this in perspective, the current unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted) is 6.5%; it was under 5% at the beginning of this year. It reached 9% one month in 1975, and was over 9% for about a year and a half in 1982-3; otherwise, it has not come near that level since the BLS' unemployment statistics start, in 1948. In 2007, the poverty level for an individual was $10,590; for a parent and two kids, it was $16,705. People are described as being in "deep poverty" when they make less than half of that amount. The idea that there will be 1.5-2 million kids in families making half the poverty level is horrifying.

The CBPP suggests a number of ways to help: extending unemployment benefits, rental assistance and food stamps, help to state and local governments, changes in the TANF contingency fund. These are all very good steps that have the additional virtue of being very effective economic stimuli.

I'd like to suggest one further measure aimed at the kids: universal school breakfasts. (Why universal? It saves paperwork, removes stigma, and makes the program much easier to administer.) Besides protecting kids from hunger, school breakfasts also make them more likely to learn and less likely to have behavioral problems. They seem to increase school attendance. We spend lots of time and energy trying to figure out ways to improve our schools; if what we're interested in is kids actually learning, making sure that they have eaten recently is a pretty good way to start.

Even if we take all these steps, though, it's going to be a very tough time.

Hilzoy 9:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Dow finished up nearly 400 points today. This, combined with Friday's gains, mark the Dow's biggest two-day percentage gain since October 1987.

* Home prices plunged in October.

* Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), one of Congress' most offensive members, was declared the loser of his competitive House race today. He's demanding a recount.

* I'm not sure if there's any real point to polling voters on Obama's transition, but for what it's worth, 67% approve of the president-elect's efforts thus far.

* Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) will not be the next Secretary of Agriculture.

* Wal-Mart fired Jim Hirni, its top in-house Republican lobbyist, for his ties to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal.

* I really didn't think Dick Morris could get any lower. I stand corrected.

* GM's CEO got the message about traveling to Washington in a private jet.

* A good piece on EFCA from John Blevins.

* Some of the major daily newspapers found a way to make a whole lot of quick, easy money: sell Obama-related stuff.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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SUSAN RICE TO THE U.N.?.... I'd hoped Susan Rice would have a prominent role in the Obama White House, but I'm also quite confident that she would represent the nation well at the United Nations.

ABC News has learned that Dr. Susan Rice has emerged as the leading candidate to be President-elect Obama's nominee as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Neither Dr. Rice nor the Obama Transition Team had any comment. The usual caveats apply -- nothing is yet a done deal, nothing has been officially offered or accepted, national security team announcements will not come until after Thanksgiving.

Dr. Rice, a member of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, was involved in President-elect Obama's campaign as a senior foreign policy adviser.

The former Rhodes Scholar in 2000 received the National Security Council's Samuel Nelson Drew Memorial Award for distinguished contributions to the formation of peaceful, cooperative relationships between nations, and U.S. security policy for global peace.

This is, depending on one's perspective, a good-news/bad-news situation.

The good news is, Susan Rice is brilliant and talented, and will certainly improve our reputation at the U.N. We can use the boost -- America's standing at Turtle Bay has faltered badly under Bush, most notably during John Bolton's tenure. What's more, having a close Obama ally as the ambassador signals to the U.N. a new found respect for the institution's significance. That Rice is an expert on policy towards Africa, and the Security Council spends most of its time addressing issues on the continent, doesn't hurt. Spencer Ackerman noted that Obama would be wise to elevate the U.N. ambassadorship to cabinet-level rank -- as Clinton had done -- which strikes me as a good idea.

So, what's the bad news? If Rice is at the U.N. representing U.S. policy, she isn't in the West Wing or the State Department, shaping U.S. policy.

That said, the U.N. ambassadorship has helped propel the careers of some well-known and well-respected officials. Names such as Adlai Stevenson, George H.W. Bush, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Andrew Young, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Richardson come to mind. They cut their teeth at the U.N. en route to even bigger and better things. Rice will likely do the same.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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FILLING THE VACUUM.... Watching Obama's press conference today, I think I noticed three separate instances in which he mentioned having another press conference tomorrow. I had the same question Kevin did: "I'm not sure why Obama wants to have a whole separate rollout for this -- maybe he just wants more than one day's worth of headlines?"

Maybe. I don't think it's an accident that we're watching something akin to a full-court press. On Friday, the transition team intentionally leaked Tim Geithner's name at the next Treasury secretary. On Sunday, members of Obama's team fanned out over the morning shows to talk about a stimulus package. Today, there was the rollout of Obama's economic team. Tomorrow, Obama will host another event, apparently on the federal budget, hopefully alongside incoming OMB Chief Peter Orszag.

So, what's up? I'm guessing this is Obama's way of improving investor confidence and settling the markets before he can take actual policy steps to improve investor confidence and settle the markets. Axelrod acknowledged yesterday that they leaked Geithner's name for the express purpose of giving Wall Street a boost (it worked). Obama introduced his economic team today, and as I'm typing, the Dow is up over 500 points.

Obama keeps reminding us that the nation only has one president at a time, but he's also subtly reminding us that there's a light at the end of this tunnel. McClatchy reported late yesterday:

Whether by design or necessity, Obama appeared to be using the deepening economic crisis to step to the forefront and seize the stage in order to reassure a nervous nation two months before he takes office. [...]

Paul Light, a government professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, said the rapidly deteriorating economy is forcing Obama to become the nation's Booster-in-Chief before he becomes president.

"The markets are saying that George Bush is irrelevant to the economic future of the country, and they want to hear from Obama," Light said. "Obama doesn't have much choice but to reassure the markets as best he can. The ball is in his court whether he likes it or not."

Rachel Maddow had a very good segment on this on Friday's show, talking about the leadership vacuum that exists -- no one's listening to Bush, who went to Peru over the weekend, and Paulson's credibility is shot -- and Obama is simply stepping to fill the void.

And this, I suspect, is prompting separate roll-outs for all economic-related news.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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HANNITY, WITHOUT THE COLMES.... I was tempted to say that all good things must come to an end, but the truth is, the show really isn't my cup of tea. Regardless, Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" has been a fairly significant media pairing for more than a decade, and it's coming to an end.

Fox News announced that after 12 years, Alan Colmes will be leaving the top-rated "Hannity & Colmes" at the end of the year.

"I approached Bill Shine (FNC's Senior Vice President of Programming) earlier this year about wanting to move on after 12 years to develop new and challenging ways to contribute to the growth of the network," Colmes said in a statement. "Although it's bittersweet to leave one of the longest marriages on cable news, I'm proud that both Sean (Hannity) and I remained unharmed after sitting side by side, night after night for so many years."

Sean Hannity said Colmes was "a remarkable co-host," "great friend," and "skillful debate partner."

Colmes is leaving the prime-time show, but staying with the network. He'll remain one of Fox News' few liberal commentators, he will continue to host his talk-radio show on Fox News Radio, and Colmes is also reportedly working on a possible on-air weekend program.

As for what happens next on the Fox News program, the network hasn't announced whether the show will simply be Sean Hannity flying solo or whether he'll get a new liberal debating partner.

Either way, I'll be watching Maddow.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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ANOTHER SETBACK FOR GOP MINORITY OUTREACH.... Over the weekend, Sophia Nelson, a former congressional staffer and a black Republican, had an op-ed piece lamenting the fact that her party seems wholly disinterested in minority outreach. She acknowledged how difficult it can be to support a party that ignores minority communities altogether.

I thought of Nelson's piece when I saw Greg Sargent's report on Katon Dawson, a leading candidate for the chairmanship of the RNC.

Now here's a good way for the GOP to make the case that it hasn't been reduced to a southern regional rump party that's held hostage by intolerant crackpots: Elect as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee a southerner who just resigned a longtime membership in a whites-only country club.

Katon Dawson, the South Carolina GOP chairman, announced his candidacy for RNC chair yesterday.

And guess what: Back in September, when Dawson was first quietly laying the groundwork for his RNC run, The State newspaper reported that he resigned his membership in the nearly 80-year-old Forest Lake Club. Members told the newspaper at the time that the club's deed has a whites-only restriction and has no black members.

Dawson, upon his recent resignation, said he'd been working to change the club's policy. Given that he was a member for 12 years, he either wasn't working very hard or he wasn't especially effective in his arguments. Whatever the case, Dawson must have been pretty embarrassed, because as soon as his membership was poised to become public, he quickly distanced himself from the country club.

The symbolism in 2009 would be pretty powerful wouldn't it? We could have as chairman of the RNC a former member of a country club that would exclude the president of the United States.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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EAVESDROPPING ON BLAIR.... And to think, some of us nervous nellies were concerned that the NSA might abuse its surveillance powers and listen in on communications it shouldn't have.

A former communications intercept operator says U.S. intelligence snooped on the private lives of two of America's most important allies in fighting al Qaeda: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraq's first interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer.

David Murfee Faulk told ABCNews.com he saw and read a file on Blair's "private life" and heard "pillow talk" phone calls of al-Yawer when he worked as an Army Arab linguist assigned to a secret NSA facility at Fort Gordon, Georgia between 2003 and 2007.

Last month, Faulk and another former military intercept operator assigned to the NSA facility triggered calls for an investigation when they revealed U.S. intelligence intercepted the private phone calls of American journalists, aid workers and soldiers stationed in Iraq.

Faulk says his top secret clearance at Ft. Gordon gave him access to an intelligence data base, called "Anchory," where he says he saw the file on then-British prime minister Tony Blair in 2006.

Faulk declined to provide details other than to say it contained information of a personal nature.

Surveillance on foreign heads of state is not especially uncommon, but as Zachary Roth reminds us, "the U.S. and Britain have pledged not to collect information covertly on each other."

What's more, this is the second report in as many months about wiretap abuses -- ABC News also reported in early October that NSA officials had listened in on calls made by U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, American journalists, and American aid workers overseas.

ABC noted today that the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are already investigating allegations on surveillance abuse. Perhaps it's time to widen the scope of the questions.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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OBAMA INTRODUCES HIS ECONOMIC TEAM.... For all the talk we've heard in recent weeks about possible cabinet selections, today was the first and most meaningful announcement to date about the president-elect's team.

President-elect Barack Obama said Monday that the country is facing an "economic crisis of historic proportions," and unveiled the team he has chosen to help get the economy back on track.

Obama said he sought leaders who share his fundamental belief that "we cannot have a thriving Wall Street without a thriving Main Street." [...]

Details of the plan are still being worked out by his economic team, Obama said, but he hopes to sign the two-year, nationwide plan shortly after taking office January 20.

The president-elect said Monday that he has asked his newly formed economic team to develop recommendations for his plan and to consult with Congress, the current administration and the Federal Reserve on immediate economic developments over the next two months.

To that end, Obama announced his selection of Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury; Lawrence Summers as the Director of our National Economic Council; Christina Romer as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors; and Melody Barnes as Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Geithner and Summers are fairly well established figures and have been slated for these positions since last week, but Romer and Barnes are arguably less well known. Mike Allen and Jackie Calmes had helpful items on Romer's background.

But it's Barnes, moving to the White House by way of the Center for American Progress, who's of particular interest. Yglesias had a good post on Barnes and the Domestic Policy Council.

The DPC is in charge of interagency coordination and policy formation for such topics as education, immigration, criminal justice, and health care -- in short, domestic policy. This hasn't been a very high-profile role under the Bush administration since Bush doesn't really believe in domestic policy aside from tax cuts, but for an administration that's trying to play a constructive role in American life it's a very important job. [...]

Barnes has some of the liberal credentials that people have seen lacking in some other Obama appointments. She served as Chief Counsel to Ted Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2003, was CAP's Executive Vice President for Policy, and then left to join Obama's campaign as policy director.


Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Vote counters in Minnesota took yesterday off. They resumed this morning, with Coleman leading Franken by about 180 votes. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that, according to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the recount is about 65% complete, and "anywhere from 30 to 40 counties still have to finish or even start the recount process."

* Nate Silver believes Franken will eke out a narrow, 27-vote win when all is said and done.

* In the Georgia Senate runoff, the Republican National Committee sent cards to GOP voters, which they could in turn send in for absentee ballots. Thousands took advantage of the opportunity, but neglected to sign the cards before sending them to their local county offices.

* Obama is helping Martin out in Georgia, first with a radio ad, and now with a robocall.

* As expected, South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson will seek the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. He joins Michigan Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, though the field is likely to get even bigger.

* Our Country Deserves Better, a far-right political action committee, has released a minute-long ad thanking Sarah Palin for seeking national office. It's more than a little odd.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THEY BEG HIS PARDON.... This ought to be interesting.

With a backlog of applications piled up at the Justice Department, high-profile criminals and their well-connected lawyers increasingly are appealing directly to President Bush for special consideration on pardons and clemency, according to people involved in the process.

Among those seeking presidential action are former junk-bond salesman Michael Milken, who hired former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, one of the nation's most prominent GOP lawyers, to plead his case for a pardon on 1980s-era securities fraud charges. Two politicians convicted of public corruption, former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and four-term Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards (D), are asking Bush to shorten their prison terms.

It remains to be seen how Bush will respond to these requests as his term ends. The president has used his broad pardon powers rarely during seven years in office, granting 157 pardons out of 2,064 petitions, and only six of 7,707 requests for commutations, according to an analysis by former Justice Department lawyer Margaret C. Love.

Aggressive appeals for clemency at the end of an administration are not unusual, but they can raise concerns about influence peddling and fairness, particularly if the president and his legal advisers are not fully transparent, pardon scholars say.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball recently noted how "stingy" Bush has been on pardons, and highlighted how "tricky" it will be for the president to consider applications regarding members of his own administration -- including Scooter Libby and CIA officers who used Bush-approved "enhanced interrogation" techniques.

ProPublica's Dafna Linzer had a good item the other about what to look out for, breaking down convicts by category and rating the likelihood of presidential clemency on a scale of zero to four "Get of Jail Free" cards. Using Linzer's guide, pay careful attention in the coming weeks to the fate of Texas Border Patrol guards Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, Libby, New England phone-jammer James Tobin, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, and Sen. Ted Stevens.

If Bush family history is any guide, pay particular attention to the president's activities on Christmas Eve.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHETHER THE CABINET IS BIPARTISAN ENOUGH.... A wide variety of media figures have been quite complimentary about the cabinet team Barack Obama has put together so far. George Stephanopoulos told viewers yesterday, "We have not seen this kind of combination of star power, brain power, and political muscle this early in a cabinet in our lifetimes." NBC's Andrea Mitchell added that Obama's "all-star cabinet" is comprised of the "smartest people he can find."

The Politico's Jonathan Martin seems troubled, though, by the lack of Republicans.

The most likely Republican for a top Obama post, based on published speculation and reporting within his transition team this weekend, is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who might keep his job in at least the opening phase of the new administration. Obama has said foreign policy is the area most in need of more bipartisanship, and the likely appointment of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) leaves few other openings.

A Gates reappointment would send a message of caution and continuity within national security circles -- not exactly the message that Obama's most ardent anti-Iraq war supporters are yearning for.

But it would hardly signal a dramatically new style of partisan bridge-building. For one, Gates is not a sharply partisan figure. Before becoming president of Texas A&M, he was a lifelong national security official, spending most of his career in the CIA and heading the spy agency under the first President George Bush. For another, he almost certainly would be a transition figure, rather than one expected by the public or colleagues to stay put or be a decisive policymaking voice for a full term.

So, if Obama keeps Bush's Pentagon chief around, it's not really an example of maintaining a bipartisan cabinet, because Gates isn't Republican enough. It would count, the argument goes, but it wouldn't really count.

Dan Bartlett, George W. Bush's former communications director, supports the idea of keeping Gates around, but told Martin, "Choosing one or two token Republicans in lesser Cabinet positions won't pass the smell test."

I'm curious, how many Republicans would Obama need to avoid the appearance of "tokenism"? There are only 15 slots. If "one or two" is insufficient, would one-third of Obama's cabinet have to be made up of Republicans -- in meaningful positions, not "lesser" roles -- to impress his detractors?

Most of time, the "smartest people he can find" may turn out to be Democrats.

Steve Benen 10:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THE 'OUTRAGEOUS' CITIGROUP BAILOUT.... Following up on Hilzoy's item from late yesterday, Paul Krugman notes this morning that a Citigroup bailout, under the circumstances, may have been worthwhile, but this bailout is outrageous: "a lousy deal for the taxpayers, no accountability for management, and just to make things perfect, quite possibly inadequate, so that Citi will be back for more. Amazing how much damage the lame ducks can do in the time remaining."

Under the plan, Citigroup and the government have identified a pool of about $306 billion in troubled assets. Citigroup will absorb the first $29 billion in losses in that portfolio. After that, three government agencies -- the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. -- will take on any additional losses, though Citigroup could have to share a small portion of additional losses.

The plan would essentially put the government in the position of insuring a slice of Citigroup's balance sheet. That means taxpayers will be on the hook if Citigroup's massive portfolios of mortgage, credit cards, commercial real-estate and big corporate loans continue to sour.

In exchange for that protection, Citigroup will give the government warrants to buy shares in the company.

In addition, the Treasury Department also will inject $20 billion of fresh capital into Citigroup.

The mismanaged company is worth $20.5 billion. It's already received $25 billion from the TARP rescue plan, and the Treasury is poised to inject another $20 billion, on top of generous asset guarantees.

Drum and Yglesias seem to be asking all the right questions.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE NEW DEAL.... A few days ago, Tyler Cowen had an op-ed piece in the New York Times questioning the efficacy of FDR's New Deal policies in addressing the Great Depression. The Heritage Foundation also recently went after the New Deal.

Yesterday, on ABC, George Will summarized the conservative line nicely: "Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn't work?"

Actually, no, we can't. Paul Krugman explained reality a few weeks ago, but since some political observers seem to have missed his piece, it's worth reemphasizing.

The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans. That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the '30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful "not because it does not work, but because it was not tried."

This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll via the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. To this day we drive on W.P.A.-built roads and send our children to W.P.A.-built schools. Didn't all these public works amount to a major fiscal stimulus?

Well, it wasn't as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren't felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level.

And F.D.R. wasn't just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion -- he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy's needs.

This may be difficult for some to wrap their heads around, but FDR's New Deal was less effective when it was too conservative. The lesson to be learned, then, is to be bolder and deliver a more expansive recovery through a more aggressive stimulus.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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WHAT IS JOHN BOEHNER TALKING ABOUT?.... In a time of severe economic crisis, it's important that all of us -- voters, policy makers, investors -- remember to do two key things. First, keep a cool head and avoid panic. Second, pay absolutely no attention to congressional Republicans, who have no idea what they're talking about.

Republicans quickly criticized the idea of such a vast [stimulus] initiative, saying Congress should instead cut taxes to spur economic growth.

"Democrats can't seem to stop trying to outbid each other -- with the taxpayers' money," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. "We're in tough economic times. Folks are hurting. But the American people know that more Washington spending isn't the answer."

I realize that Boehner and congressional Republicans don't want to deliberately hurt the country, so perhaps it's best if they take this opportunity to enjoy a little quiet time.

Fortunately, Democrats apparently seem to both appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the necessary remedy. While Barack Obama, during the campaign, had talked about a $175 billion stimulus program, we're now looking at a package that may be four time as big. Austan Goolsbee, a senior economic advisor to Obama, told CBS News yesterday, "This is as big of an economic crisis as we've faced in 75 years. And we've got to do something that's up to the task of confronting that. I don't know what the exact number is, but it's going to be a big number."

How big? Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told George Stephanopoulos yesterday that the stimulus should be between $500 billion and $700 billion. "It's a little like having a new New Deal, but you have to do it before the Depression. Not after," Schumer added.

Note to policy makers: aim high. "The 1930s recession became the Great Depression because policymakers didn't take the necessary actions. Nobody wants to make that mistake this time around," Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said. "Is there a possibility that we could overshoot? Of course. But from what I've seen, the danger is not doing enough."

As for the implementation, ABC News' Jake Tapper reports that Obama's transition team would like to see the stimulus package pass Congress and in the Oval Office literally the day of the inauguration. There are lingering concerns, though, that a Republican filibuster may scuttle the plan.

It's only the future of the American economy at stake. That's hardly a reason to put GOP obstructionism on hold.

Steve Benen 8:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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LAST SECRETS OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION.... It's hardly a secret that the Bush White House has an inordinate fondness for, well, secrecy. When it comes to what the president, the vice president, and their industrious teams have been up to, images of man-sized safes, shredders, and new and creative classified designations cooked up by Dick Cheney's lawyers keep coming to mind.

Getting a sense of what the nation doesn't know about the Bush administration's secrets is not only daunting, it's hard to know where to start. In the soon-to-be-published December issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Charles Homans has a must-read cover story: "Last Secrets of the Bush Administration: How to find out what we still don't know."

The thought of revisiting this history after living through it for eight years is exhausting, and both President Barack Obama and Congress will have every political reason to just move on. But we can't -- it's too important. Fortunately, an accounting of the Bush years is a less daunting prospect than it seems from the outset. If the new president and leaders on Capitol Hill act shrewdly, they can pull it off while successfully navigating the political realities and expectations they now face. A few key actions will take us much of the distance between what we know and what we need to know.

That these "few key actions" seem necessary is an understatement. Homans' prescription -- treat the Naval Observatory like a crime scene; quickly declassify the Bush administration's deliberations and policy implementations (especially from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel); and use commissions instead of subpoenas -- offers a realistic blueprint to policy makers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Take a look.

Better yet, after you've taken a look, check out TPM Cafe this week, where the Homans article will be the subject of some great discussion.

Steve Benen 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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By: Hilzoy

New Assignments

Note to Barack Obama: there are ways to deal with all those unqualified appointees that Bush has smuggled into the civil service:

"A MAVERICK Thai general who has threatened to bomb anti-government protesters and drop snakes on them from helicopters has been reassigned as an aerobics teacher, the Bangkok Post said on Friday.

Major-general Khattiya Sawasdipol, a Rambo-esque anti-communist fighter more commonly known as Seh Daeng, reacted with disappointment to his new role as a military instructor promoting public fitness at marketplaces.

'It is ridiculous to send me, a warrior, to dance at markets,' he said, before launching an attack on his boss, army chief Anupong Paochinda.

'The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobics dancers. I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'throwing-a-hand-grenade' dance', he said." (h/t)

I can see it now: John Yoo's minions assigned to teach Pilates classes in our nation's federal penitentiaries. Preferably in deeply embarrassing Spandex costumes. "I have prepared one dance", they will say. "It's called the 'indefinite detention without charges' dance." At which point the prisoners will laugh in their faces.

I think the Thai government might be onto something.

Hilzoy 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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November 23, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Citi

From the WSJ:

"Citigroup Inc. is nearing agreement with U.S. government officials to create a structure that would house some of the financial giant's risky assets, according to people familiar with the situation.

While the discussions remain fluid and might not result in an agreement, talks were progressing Sunday toward creation of what would essentially be a "bad bank." That structure would help Citigroup cleanse its balance sheet of billions of dollars in potentially toxic assets, these people said.

The bad bank also might absorb assets from Citigroup's off-balance-sheet entities, which hold $1.23 trillion. Some of those assets are tied to mortgages, and investors have worried such assets could cause heavy losses if they land on the company's balance sheet. Citigroup also has about $2 trillion in loans, securities and other assets on its balance sheet as of Sept. 30. (...)

Under the terms being discussed, Citigroup would agree to absorb losses on assets covered by the agreement up to a certain threshold. The federal government would cover losses beyond that level, people familiar with the matter said. One person said the new entity is expected to hold about $50 billion of assets."

The NYT adds:

"If the government should have to take on the bigger losses, it would receive a stake in Citigroup. The banking giant has been brought to its knees by gaping losses on mortgage-related investments.

Regulators were debating various terms of the arrangement on Sunday, including whether the government would receive preferred stock or warrants, which are instruments that give holders the right to buy stock. Preferred stock would be more beneficial to taxpayers because Citigroup would pay dividends on those shares; warrants would be more attractive to Citigroup’s existing shareholders, since they would not immediately dilute the value of their investments as much as preferred stock."

CNBC reports that the government has cold feet (h/t Calculated Risk). I suppose we'll know sometime before the markets open tomorrow.

Question: is there some reason not to hurt the shareholders? My assumption throughout has been that it's important to try to prevent moral hazard: we do not want people taking risks on the assumption that the government will step in and bail them out. When a bailout is required, we prevent the normal market response to dreadful management, namely bankruptcy or heavy losses. We therefore ought to try to impose costs on the people who could have and should have prevented it. This would include management, the board of directors, and shareholders. (Shareholders could not immediately prevent it, but they should not willingly invest in companies that are taking undue risks. One of Citigroup's problems is that its stock is now below $4 a share; had investors priced its risk accurately to begin with, it might not need a bailout today.)

For this reason, I don't see why hurting the shareholders is something we should be trying to avoid; offhand, I would have thought that mimicking the pain shareholders would feel if Citi went bankrupt was something we should actually aim for in constructing a rescue package. What am I missing?

***

Further reading: This piece from the NYT is a good explanation of how Citi got into trouble (though Brad DeLong disagrees.) This is a good rundown of some of the problems it's facing, as is this. If you're wondering why Citi needs to care about its stock price, here's an answer. (Point worth noting: some institutional investors have to sell when stocks fall below $5. Institutional investors hold 64% of Citi's stock.) Henry Blodget on 'Six Ways Feds Might Bail Out Citigroup'.

And for an unrelated bit of gloom, here's a piece wondering whether GE is in trouble too.

Enjoy!

Hilzoy 5:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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LIEBERMAN'S 'REGRET'.... Before Senate Democrats decided not to punish Joe Lieberman for his betrayals, there was some talk, most notably from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), that the Connecticut independent would have to "apologize" for his behavior during the campaign. We heard Lieberman talk about "regret" earlier this week, but words like "sorry" and "apology" have been noticeably absent.

Tom Brokaw brought up this point with Lieberman on "Meet the Press" this morning, and Lieberman continued to be evasive about his repentance. He twice referenced remarks made in the "heat of the campaign," for which he feels "regret." Brokaw noted, "I hear the word regret, but not the word apologize." Lieberman responded that he's "going forward," adding, "You can take from the word "regret" what you will. I wish I had not said some of the things I've said. But again, we all do it."

In the same interview, Brokaw asked which campaign remarks he regretted most, Lieberman said, "I don't want to go into the details."

I can't imagine why not.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Hilzoy

Shopping For Regulators

Last March, Barack Obama gave a good speech on the subprime crisis in which he made a very important point:

"We need to regulate institutions for what they do, not what they are. Over the last few years, commercial banks and thrift institutions were subject to guidelines on subprime mortgages that did not apply to mortgage brokers and companies. It makes no sense for the Fed to tighten mortgage guidelines for banks when two-thirds of subprime mortgages don't originate from banks. This regulatory framework has failed to protect homeowners, and it is now clear that it made no sense for our financial system. When it comes to protecting the American people, it should make no difference what kind of institution they are dealing with."

There's a story in today's Washington Post that makes it clear why this matters:

"When Countrywide Financial felt pressured by federal agencies charged with overseeing it, executives at the giant mortgage lender simply switched regulators in the spring of 2007.

The benefits were clear: Countrywide's new regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, promised more flexible oversight of issues related to the bank's mortgage lending. For OTS, which depends on fees paid by banks it regulates and competes with other regulators to land the largest financial firms, Countrywide was a lucrative catch.

But OTS was not an effective regulator. This year, the government has seized three of the largest institutions regulated by OTS, including IndyMac Bancorp, Washington Mutual -- the largest bank in U.S. history to go bust -- and on Friday evening, Downey Savings and Loan Association. The total assets of the OTS thrifts to fail this year: $355.7 billion. Three others were forced to sell to avoid failure, including Countrywide.

In the parade of regulators that missed signals or made decisions they came to regret on the road to the current financial crisis, the Office of Thrift Supervision stands out."

Most of the article, which is really worth reading, deals with OTS and its regulatory failures. But beyond that, it should not be possible for banks to go shopping among several different regulators, seeing which would offer them the friendliest and most relaxed oversight. That wouldn't be possible if banks had to make real changes to move from one regulatory body to another: if we regulated institutions for what they do, not what name they choose to call themselves.

But if we must have an enormous mass of regulatory bodies that banks can switch in and out of without major changes in their business models, can we at least not have them funded in ways that give those agencies incentives to try to attract banks by offering more lenient oversight?

"Angelo R. Mozilo, then the chief executive of Countrywide, approached OTS about moving out from under the supervision of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national commercial banks. (...) Senior executives at Countrywide who participated in the meetings said OTS pitched itself as a more natural, less antagonistic regulator than OCC and that Mozilo preferred that. Government officials outside OTS who were familiar with the negotiations provided a similar description.

"The general attitude was they were going to be more lenient," one Countrywide executive said. For example, he said other regulators, specifically OCC and the Federal Reserve, were very demanding that large banks not allow loan officers to participate in the selection of property appraisers. "But the OTS sold themselves on having a more liberal interpretation of it," the executive said.

Winning Countrywide was important for OTS, which is funded by assessments on the roughly 750 banks it regulates, with the largest firms paying much of the freight. Washington Mutual paid 13 percent of the agency's budget in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, according to OTS figures. Countrywide provided 5 percent. Individual firms tend to make a larger difference to OTS finances than other bank regulators because the agency oversees fewer companies with fewer assets."

That's a truly stupid funding mechanism. Personally, I'd prefer that taxpayers pay for government agencies. But if we must fund them by levying fees on industry, we should at least try levying fees on the financial industry as a whole and funding the various regulatory agencies out of one common pool of money. That would remove agencies' incentive to try to attract banks by giving them what they want. And giving banks what they want is not what regulators ought to be doing.

Hilzoy 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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A MESS AT JUSTICE.... Dahlia Lithwick has a new piece exploring the mess Eric Holder is walking into as the next Attorney General. In the process, she summarizes the extent to which the "loyal Bushies" who've run the Justice Department over the last eight years have just trashed the place.

What Holder stands to inherit from Michael Mukasey and his predecessor Alberto Gonzales is not a Justice Department that was slightly confused about where the law began and politics ended. If confirmed, he will take over an institution where, at least in recent years, politics sometimes had no end. The department became fodder for late-night TV monologues in 2007 when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his staff flimflammed their way through congressional hearings about the partisan firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Those independent prosecutors were let go for failing to be -- in the parlance of Gonzales' underage underlings -- "loyal Bushies." More than a dozen officials resigned in the wake of that scandal.

Things at Justice worsened with internal reports finding the department had hired career civil servants, law student interns, assistant U.S. attorneys, and even immigration judges based on their loyalty to the GOP. Secret memos produced by the department's Office of Legal Counsel authorized brutal interrogation techniques and warrantless government eavesdropping. The subordination of law enforcement to politics led to the flight of career attorneys in the department's Civil Rights Division and especially the Voting Section, where by 2007 reportedly between 55 percent to 60 percent had transferred or left the DoJ.

If the rot at Justice could have been cured by simply replacing Gonzales, the appointment of Michael Mukasey, a respected retired federal judge in 2007, might have been enough. It wasn't. To be sure, Mukasey said noble things about the evils of torture and made moves toward disentangling the department from the White House. But more often than not, Mukasey declined to lance the boil. He refused to call water-boarding torture. He insisted no crimes were committed when department officials violated civil service laws. And he criticized those seeking accountability for the architects of the administration's torture policy as "relentless," "hostile," and "unforgiving." Mukasey collapsed while giving a speech this past week, but thankfully the incident seems not to have been serious.

It's fair to say there isn't a single cabinet agency that's better now than when Bush took office -- better managed, better organized, more efficient, more competent -- but to see what the Bush gang has done to the Justice Department is practically a crime in and of itself.

In isolation, each of the controversies Lithwick mentions was an embarrassing scandal. Taken together, it's almost as if Bush and his team were trying to destroy the department.

Given what we know of Holder, he seems to have exactly the right skills and background to make the Justice Department function again. But before his clean-up work begins, let's pause to appreciate just what a fiasco the masters of disasters created here.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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CHEAP SHOTS IN GEORGIA.... The polls must be pretty close in Georgia's runoff election for the U.S. Senate, because the right, true to form, is aiming pretty low.

Over the last few days, both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a far-right group called Freedom's Watch have both launched ads attacking Democrat Jim Martin for being "soft on crime." More specifically, the conservatives insist that Martin has opposed measures that would crack down on criminals who prey on children.

Of all the issues Republicans could have picked, this has to be the most offensive -- Martin's daughter was kidnapped when she was just eight years old. She was, fortunately, returned to the family safely, but Martin has a more personal background when it comes to crimes against children than most of us would even care to imagine.

With that in mind, the Martin campaign released this ad and a fact-sheet documenting Martin's extensive record on penalties for criminals and protections for children.

One wonders if, perhaps, the right-wing attacks on this go a little too far, and might backfire, just as the Liddy Dole "godless" ad had the opposite of the desired effect in North Carolina earlier this month.

Then again, there is a track record to consider. Saxby Chambliss won a first term with an offensive ad smearing Max Cleland on national security; perhaps he'll win a second term thanks to a couple of offensive ads about crime.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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DOLLHOUSE.... It's a pretty slow news day so far, so forgive me for straying from the usual political coverage.

As you've probably noticed, plenty of political bloggers occasionally tackle unrelated subjects. Yglesias writes about basketball; Ezra writes about cooking; Drum writes about cats, football, and his unusual computer problems.

And what do I do when I'm not obsessing over the political news of the day? I'm obsessing over the science fiction news of the day (TV, movies, comics, video games, you name it). With that in mind, John Cole had an item last night about "Dollhouse," a Joss Whedon show set to debut as a mid-season replacement.

Set for February 13, 2009, and I am hoping this is as good as Whedon's other efforts. So help me, if Fox does to Dollhouse what they did to Firefly, I will come after someone.

John, get ready to go after someone.

First, Fox made Whedon scrap the pilot (just as the network did with "Firefly," probably my favorite show of all time). Then, after several episodes had already been shot, Whedon stopped production because the scripts were deemed inadequate. And just to ruin any hopes we had about the show's future, Fox announced earlier this month that "Dollhouse" would air on Friday nights at 9 -- the same slot it gave "Firefly," and a notorious black hole on the schedule where the network dumps shows it doesn't intend to keep.

I'm an embarrassingly big fan of Whedon's work, so months before the first episode even airs, I'm already preparing myself to be disappointed -- not with the show, but with its likely demise.

For what it's worth, Fox is pairing "Dollhouse" with the "Sarah Connor Chronicles," setting up something of Sci-Fi Friday lineup, which presumably could bolster both (they appeal to similar audiences). I'm still not optimistic.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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OBAMA TO CREATE COMMISSION ON TORTURE?.... The AP reported this week that the Obama administration is "unlikely to bring criminal charges against government officials who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush presidency." This was discouraging news, to be sure, though as Hilzoy noted, Obama -- for his sake and the sake of possible prosecutions -- needs to steer clear of what might be perceived as a "partisan witch hunt."

With that in mind, Newsweek reports that Obama aides are considering a 9/11-style commission that would examine Bush administration policies, and "make public as many details as possible."

"At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened," said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved "waterboarding" and other controversial practices.

Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That's one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). "If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you'd instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship," said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 panel was created by Congress. An alternative model, floated by human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, would be a presidential commission similar to the one appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and headed by Nelson Rockefeller that investigated cold-war abuses by the CIA.

The idea of such panels is not universally favored among Obama advisers. Some with ties to the intelligence community fear the demoralizing impact on intelligence officers, said one source who had discussions with Obama aides about the idea. But during the campaign, both Obama and Eric Holder, slated to be nominated as attorney general, sharply criticized the use of torture and the legal rulings that permitted them. Holder called some Bush counterterror policies "excessive and unlawful."

A commission approach would, at a minimum, identify criminal conduct conducted in the name of Bush counter-terrorism policies, and would diffuse charges about "partisan witch hunts." Panelists would get the truth, and report it.

What prosecutors might do with such information is still unclear.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Hilzoy

Desolation

One of the odder things about me is that I'm almost an animist when it comes to houses. It's not that I actually believe they are alive, but I think things like: every house deserves to have someone who loves it. They can't maintain themselves, after all, and if they're doing their best to be good houses, surely we owe it to them to care for them. I am horrified by abandoned houses, and have been known to keep track of them, hoping that if I wait long enough, or drive by often enough, I will find that someone has begun rehab. I have special favorite abandoned houses, for which I hope especially hard. I have to actually talk myself out of buying some of them (they sell for next to nothing), just to fix them up -- not as an investment, and not to live in, but because someone ought to.

It's odd, I know. And I have no idea where it came from. Home repair did not figure in my childhood: I imagine someone must have done work on my parents' house at some point, but I have no memory of it. As far as I can recall, it might as well have been done by elves. And yet, for some reason, here I am.

So I found two stories by Jim at Sweet Juniper almost unbearably tragic. I'd never read Sweet Juniper before; I found it via Bitch Ph.D., who linked to this post about the Detroit bailout. It was so thoughtful and so beautifully written that I read some more posts, which is how I hit on these two, about an abandoned school in Detroit. Here's the school:

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Isn't that a wonderful school? Look how solid and well-constructed it is. Look at its nice architectural details, and its great big windows. Look how, well, schooly it is. Doesn't it look as though someone ought to have taken care of it? Doesn't it look as though it was holding up its end of the bargain, doing its very best to be a really great school?

It's worth clicking through to see all of Jim's photos showing how we held up our end. It's hard to pick just one, but here's the school's auditorium:

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Jim:

"The story I discovered here no longer belongs to the kids, but to those men with minds bent only towards metal. They came in and took everything of worth. They left textbooks, workbooks, chalkboards, maps. Long gone are the lockers, the pipes, the chairs and desks, the electrical wiring, the pencil sharpeners, the metal bookshelves, the aluminum window panes. Perhaps the most shocking of all was finding the once-lovely central auditorium stripped of its antique seating, the chair bases and backs littering the floor like dragon scales, the metal that held the seats together long ago melted down to feed the world's ravenous appetite for steel. It was impossible for me to cross this room without the clatter echoing through the halls like footsteps of an invading army, even though I was quite alone. (...)

Where I live, men like these are a force of nature, like piranhas in the Amazon; like locusts on the plains; like vultures circling above you as you try to make your way across the sands."

It's also worth clicking through to this post to see the neighborhood surrounding this school. Jim has posted an aerial view of it from 1961, showing a normal neighborhood full of houses, and a current satellite photo showing the school surrounded by fields for blocks and blocks.

In Boston, where I grew up, there are neighborhoods where a lot of the houses have come down. But it's rare to find whole vacant blocks. The houses in these neighborhoods are more like teeth that have lost their neighbors: two or three lonely houses poking up where a whole row ought to be. Not whole neighborhoods reverting to prairie.

This is desolation.

Hilzoy 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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November 22, 2008

THE CABINET.... Barack Obama's cabinet will have the heads of 15 executive agencies (Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.) It will also likely feature at least three cabinet-level officers (EPA administrator, OMB director, and U.S. Trade Representative).

This week, we started to get a sense of what Obama's team is going to look like, but only a sense. To date, the transition team has formally announced the name of exactly zero members. That said, we can probably safely predict, given what's been widely reported, the names of five of the 15 cabinet secretaries -- Daschle at HHS, Napolitano at DHS, Holder at Justice, Clinton at State, and Geithner at Treasury. We can also say with some certainty that Orszag is headed to OMB. Gates seems like a likely pick at the Pentagon, and the odds look pretty good for Richardson at Commerce, but that still leaves eight cabinet vacant slots and two vacant cabinet-level slots.

What can we conclude about what we know so far? It's a question open to some interpretation.

Hilzoy mentioned last night she's "quite impressed" with how the cabinet is shaping up, adding that the team features "some very, very impressive people," and noting that it's reassuring to "have a grownup in charge." I agree with all of this wholeheartedly. The team, at this point, features nothing but capable, competent, and experienced officials. They will, without a doubt, serve the nation well.

There are, however, political considerations. Chris Bowers expressed his frustration with the lack of ideological balance.

Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration? Also, why isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left? It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely.

Chris Hayes added, "Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one."

I'm probably not quite as frustrated as Bowers and Hayes, at least not yet, but their point is well taken. Democrats are in ascendance. It's a center-left nation, arguably for the first in many years. Obama is the most progressive president in at least a generation. A cabinet of centrist Democrats and a sane Republican or two seems wholly incomplete.

So why aren't I more frustrated? Several reasons, actually.

First, even with the near-certain names that have been leaked, I don't have the foggiest idea who'll fill more than half of Obama's cabinet. I'm inclined to wait and see. We'll have a much better sense of the rest of the team soon enough.

Second, cabinet secretaries won't be the only ones with access to Obama's ear, and some of the top aides in the White House -- Gaspard, Rouse, Schiliro, Axelrod -- include some great people I do consider pretty liberal.

Third, I'm not especially surprised by any of the choices thus far. The truth is, Obama campaigned as a pragmatist. He seems to like wonks and technocrats, and has always emphasized competence and results while downplaying ideology. That's who he is; it seems to work for him.

And fourth, my goal is to see Obama push progressive policies; whether he uses progressive people to achieve these goals is important but secondary. Is Tom Daschle a dyed-in-the-wool liberal? Probably not. But if his role at HHS helps make a major healthcare reform initiative more likely -- and I believe it does -- his position on the ideological spectrum is less consequential.

Indeed, in the three weeks since the election, I've seen little evidence that Obama's progressive policy agenda has changed in any meaningful way. He still appears committed to a national healthcare push; he gave a video address on climate change last week that sounded very encouraging; and he spoke just this morning about an economic stimulus effort that includes considerable spending on infrastructure. This doesn't sound like a move to the "center"; it sounds like a set of ambitious, progressive ideas.

Yglesias had a good item on this earlier today:

Putting reassuring faces on an agenda of ambitious policy change strikes me as dramatically preferable to appointing a lot of liberals whose job is to sell the progressive base on the need to trim and abandon campaign commitments. [...]

If universal health care, a clean energy economy, withdrawal of troops from Iraq, an end to torture, and massive new infrastructure investments are a "center-right" agenda because Tim Geithner is Secretary of Treausry then I'll take it. The crux of the matter is to keep pressing for the agenda.


Steve Benen 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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THE CENTER-RIGHT MYTH.... And the Observation of the Day award goes to the estimable David Sirota.

As the graph shows, the use of the exact term "center-right nation" spiked [in the major media] immediately after election day (point "0" is the day my column published, point "1" is election day).

While it's true -- this trend study doesn't tell us how many of the "center-right nation" references are saying this is "not a center-right nation." But a look through Lexis-Nexis shows it's safe to assume that the vast majority of these references are asserting this is a "center-right nation."

So we're not talking about theory anymore -- we're talking about empirical fact. The media has exponentially increased the amount of times it claims that this country is a "center-right nation" -- at the very same time public opinion data shows the country is a decidedly center-left nation.

I feel like Newsweek's cover story the week before the election, insisting in advance of the results that no matter what happens when voters actually express a preference, everyone should remember that it's still a "center-right" country.

Keep in mind, this has proven surprisingly pervasive. We've had Republican officials making the claim at every opportunity, and conservative voices like that of Joe Scarborough and Karl Rove, but we've also seen less predictable figures like Tom Brokaw repeating the same claim, without evidence or support.

They have no reason to believe their lying eyes.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF BUSH BURROWING.... PZ Myers explains this morning, "The Bush administration will leave us with another legacy: unqualified Republican ideologues receiving appointments in various institutions, including scientific organizations, as their ship of state sinks. The rats are scuttling overboard, and are being rewarded with captaincies on any available vessel."

He's referring to this.

The president of the nation's largest general science organization yesterday sharply criticized recent cases of Bush administration political appointees gaining permanent federal jobs with responsibility for making or administering scientific policies, saying the result would be "to leave wreckage behind."

"It's ludicrous to have people who do not have a scientific background, who are not trained and skilled in the ways of science, make decisions that involve resources, that involve facilities in the scientific infrastructure," said James McCarthy, a Harvard University oceanographer who is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "You'd just like to think people have more respect for the institution of government than to leave wreckage behind with these appointments."

Well, yes, one would like to think that. But we're talking about the Bush gang here.

The specific examples are absurd to the point of parody.

In one recent example, Todd Harding -- a 30-year-old political appointee at the Energy Department -- applied for and won a post this month at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, he told colleagues in a Nov. 12 e-mail, he will work on "space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data." Harding earned a bachelor's degree in government from Kentucky's Centre College, where he also chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans.

Also this month, Erik Akers, the congressional relations chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration, gained a permanent post at the agency after being denied a lower-level career appointment late last year.

And in mid-July, Jeffrey T. Salmon, who has a doctorate in world politics and was a speechwriter for Vice President Cheney when he served as defense secretary, had been selected as deputy director for resource management in the Energy Department's Office of Science. In that position, he oversees decisions on its grants and budget.

As if Bush weren't making it difficult enough for Obama to govern effectively, he'll also have to deal with the consequences of widespread "burrowing."

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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A NEW 'MIDDLE GROUND' ON GAY RIGHTS?.... Michael Medved, a very conservative voice, believes Elton John has "solved" the gay marriage controversy by endorsing civil unions. (via Sullivan)

One of the world's most prominent gay entertainers offered some rare common sense on the explosive issue of same sex marriage. In New York City for a gala AIDS benefit, rock legend Sir Elton John appeared with his long-time partner, David Furnish. "We're not married," he told the press, "Let's get that straight. We have a civil partnership...I don't want to be married! I'm very happy with a civil partnership. The word 'marriage,' I think, puts a lot of people off. You get the same equal rights that we do when we have a civil partnership. Heterosexual people get married. We can have civil partnerships".

If more people on all sides of this issue embraced the simple, irrefutable logic of this clear-thinking superstar, a vastly divisive, unnecessary controversy could reach a successful and amicable solution.

Now, I happen to think both John and Medved are mistaken, and that there's no reason to deny gay couples the right to get married. In fact, I haven't the foggiest idea what John is talking about.

But it's probably worth noting that, at some point over the last couple of years, civil unions for gay couples stopped being controversial. It's a welcome development. As recently as, say, 2002, the notion that the left and right could agree to support legally-recognized gay partnerships, with all of the rights therein, seemed pretty far-fetched, if not ridiculous.

And yet, here we are. Medved, who probably considered legally-recognized gay unions outrageous a few years ago, now treats the notion of civil partnerships as something of a no-brainer. With nary a complaint, the nation seems to have embraced civil unions as a consensus "middle ground" that even far-right media personalities can endorse.

It doesn't excuse inexplicable setbacks like the vote on California's Prop. 8, but I suppose it's progress.

Steve Benen 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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MOVING UP THE INAUGURATION.... The New York Times' Gail Collins has a good idea in her column this morning: maybe Bush could do us a favor and just wrap things up now.

Thanksgiving is next week, and President Bush could make it a really special holiday by resigning.

Seriously. We have an economy that's crashing and a vacuum at the top. Bush -- who is currently on a trip to Peru to meet with Asian leaders who no longer care what he thinks -- hasn't got the clout, or possibly even the energy, to do anything useful. His most recent contribution to resolving the fiscal crisis was lecturing representatives of the world's most important economies on the glories of free-market capitalism.

Putting Barack Obama in charge immediately isn't impossible. Dick Cheney, obviously, would have to quit as well as Bush. In fact, just to be on the safe side, the vice president ought to turn in his resignation first. (We're desperate, but not crazy.) Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become president until Jan. 20. Obviously, she'd defer to her party's incoming chief executive, and Barack Obama could begin governing.

As a bonus, the Pelosi presidency would put a woman in the White House this year after all. On the downside, a few right-wing talk-show hosts might succumb to apoplexy. That would, of course, be terrible, but I'm afraid we might have to take the risk in the name of a greater good.

Can I see a show of hands? How many people want George W. out and Barack in?

Works for me. I'm not sure Obama would want this -- he'd no doubt like to take the allotted time to complete the transition process -- but these are tough times and we all have to make sacrifices.

In this policy climate, a month is a long time. Just hand Obama the keys already.

Update: Brian Beutler seems to approve of the concept, but has a different idea on the mechanism: "How about this sequence of events instead: 1). Condoleezza Rice resigns as Secretary of State. 2). George Bush appoints Barack Obama in her place. 3). George Bush and Dick Cheney resign their positions (or get kicked out by the Congress). 4). Both Nancy Pelosi and Robert Byrd refuse to adhere to the chain of succession. 5). Obama becomes president. It would all take a couple days, and could go down smoothly so long as Obama and his cabinet picks were ready to hit the ground running."

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... If you weren't around last week, I have brought back "This Week in God" as a regular Saturday feature. The weekly piece highlights some of the news from the world of religion, most notably instances in which faith intersected with politics and/or public policy. TWIG was on hiatus during the height of the election season, but by popular demand, it's back.

First up from the God Machine, one of the nation's more notorious religious colleges is owning up, at least on the surface, to its embarrassing history.

Bob Jones University is apologizing for racist policies that included a one-time ban on interracial dating and its unwillingness to admit black students until 1971.

In a statement posted Thursday on its Web site, the fundamentalist Christian school founded in 1927 in northwestern South Carolina says its rules on race were shaped by culture instead of the Bible. [...]

"BJU's history has been chiefly characterized by striving to achieve those goals; but like any human institution, we have failures as well. For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.

"In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful."

It's a start. Also from the God Machine this week:

* AP: "The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the state's 'In God We Trust' license plate Monday, rejecting a claim that people who buy the plates should have to pay a $15 administrative fee charged for other specialty plates. In its 12-page ruling, the appeals court found that state lawmakers acted correctly in creating a license plate classification system that exempts people who buy the 'In God We Trust' plate from paying the administrative fee."

* The Living Word Christian Center, a Minnesota megachurch, went to court recently so it wouldn't have to disclose the compensation taken by its founder and pastor, James "Mac" Hammond, to the IRS. This week, a U.S. district magistrate judge's recommendation sided with the church. (thanks to Zeitgeist for the tip)

* The German government announced that is no longer trying to ban Scientology, but added that German intelligence agencies would continue to monitor the group. The announcement ends a decade-long investigation.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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ACTING 'SWIFTLY AND BOLDLY'.... Barack Obama's weekly radio/YouTube address was, not surprisingly, focused on the economy, and for those of us anxious to hear about his intentions to help stimulate the economy, the message sounded pretty good.

He didn't go into too much detail -- it's a four-minute clip -- but the president-elect outlined "a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy." This includes investment in "rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead."

Obama added that this spending will help address the immediate crisis and offer "long-term investments in our economic future that have been ignored for far too long."

He also noted the 1.2 million jobs that have already been lost this year, and insisted that we now have to act "swiftly and boldly." He used the word again towards the end, noting that the "American Dream" has endured because, in "our darkest hours," we have "acted boldly,
bravely, and above all, together."

It'd be awfully nice if the nation didn't have to wait until late January for Obama's stimulus package, but I suppose we don't have a choice.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LONG LIVE THE OFFICE OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS.... There's been a fair amount of talk of late, arguing that Barack Obama should dismantle the White House political office altogether. I understand the point -- political operations should be left to the national parties -- and I can appreciate how destructive the office appears given its disproportionate power in the Bush White House, but I'm glad Obama has resisted the push and will the keep the office in place.

Tim Fernholz had a very good item about this a couple of weeks ago.

The Obama team isn't promoting some goo-goo, Carter-esque vision of the innocent country folk coming to D.C. to end all those bad practices put in place by shady influences. That's a recipe for getting rolled, and no one will see any change come of it. To change things, you need to be able to organize coalitions and move political power. The idea that you can do that without people who understand the way politics works being part of the discussion is kind of laughable. It's the same kind of foolishness you get from folks who decry partisanship simply because they don't like conflict. [...]

It's time for real talk, and that means we can't pretend that politics doesn't have anything to do with policymaking, or that America's politician-in-chief shouldn't have political advisers. It would be nice to live in a world where the president could dismantle the political office and not get eaten alive by his political opponents, but we don't.

With this mind, the Obama transition announced yesterday that the Office of Political Affairs will remain in place, and it will be led by Patrick Gaspard, a longtime labor activist with the SEIU and the national political director for the Obama campaign.

An Obama transition spokeswoman said that keeping the office open does not mean the president-elect will default on his campaign promise to change politics-as-usual in Washington, which as a candidate he dubbed the "perpetual campaign."

"An Obama White House will be focused on meeting the next challenge, not winning the next election," transition spokeswoman Jen Psaki wrote in an email Friday evening. "That is what he promised in the campaign and that is how he will govern."

To my mind, there's nothing especially offensive about having a White House office, as Fernholz put it, "considering the political implications of policy choices." The problem with the office over the last eight years is that the line was blurred out of existence -- the political considerations drove and shaped the policy choices. You had partisan operatives making policy and dictating the White House's direction.

The office will remain, but its use will likely become more sensible.

Steve Benen 8:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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THE RIGHT, HEALTHCARE, AND POLITICAL SURVIVAL.... Hilzoy had a great overnight item that I wanted to add one observation to.

U.S. News' James Pethokoukis and Cato's Michael Cannon believe that if Obama is successful in passing a national healthcare plan, Americans will not only like it, but will reward Democrats for having passed it. As a result, Pethokoukis and Cannon conclude, conservatives need to block the reform effort, whether it's a good idea or not.

I'd just add that a certain leading conservative sketched out the exact same position 15 years ago. His name is Bill Kristol.

It's largely faded from memory, but I'd argue one of the more important moments in the debate over the Clinton healthcare plan in the early 1990s came when Kristol distributed a memo to congressional Republicans in December 1993.

Leading conservative operative William Kristol privately circulates a strategy document to Republicans in Congress. Kristol writes that congressional Republicans should work to "kill" -- not amend -- the Clinton plan because it presents a real danger to the Republican future: Its passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party. Nearly a full year before Republicans will unite behind the "Contract With America," Kristol has provided the rationale and the steel for them to achieve their aims of winning control of Congress and becoming America's majority party. Killing health care will serve both ends. The timing of the memo dovetails with a growing private consensus among Republicans that all-out opposition to the Clinton plan is in their best political interest. (emphasis added)

Today, the circumstances are slightly different -- Democrats are in good shape and don't need their reputation "revived" -- but with the Pethokoukis and Cannon analyses in mind, history may repeat itself.

Remember, for Kristol then and Pethokoukis/Cannon now, it's not about the quality of the policy -- it's about political survival. If Democrats deliver, they'll be positioned to win over a generation of voters. Blocking (or "killing") a reform effort may undermine the public's needs, but it would also block Democrats from winning a historic victory.

With that in mind, the right will likely aggressively resist healthcare reform because, as a matter of electoral strategy, conservatives probably don't have a choice.

Steve Benen 8:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Hilzoy

Making It Explicit

James Pethokoukis in US News (h/t Sullivan):

"Recently, I stumbled across this analysis of how nationalized healthcare in Great Britain affected the political environment there. As Norman Markowitz in Political Affairs, a journal of "Marxist thought," puts it: "After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party when health care, social welfare, education and pro-working class policies were enacted by labor-supported governments."

Passing Obamacare would be like performing exactly the opposite function of turning people into investors. Whereas the Investor Class is more conservative than the rest of America, creating the Obamacare Class would pull America to the left. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, who first found that wonderful Markowitz quote, puts it succinctly in a recent blog post: "Blocking Obama's health plan is key to the GOP's survival.""

The Michael Cannon post quoted is on the Cato Institute's blog, here.

Pethokoukis and Cannon claim that if Obama succeeds in passing health care, then people who might have been conservatives will like it, and will be more likely to vote for the people who passed it. This is unexceptional. An honest conservative might accept this claim and say: well, I guess our ideas are unpopular, so we'll just have to make our case more persuasively.

But that's not the conclusion they draw. Pethokoukis and Cannon say: because people will like health care reform, if we do not block it, our party will lose support. So precisely because people would like it if they tried it, we need to make sure that it fails.

At least they're honest about it.

Hilzoy 1:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Hilzoy

The Cabinet Comes Into View

I'm quite impressed by the way Barack Obama's cabinet is shaking out. Eric Holder seems to be a superb choice for Attorney General, as is Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security. I'm really happy about Daschle at HHS -- both because I think it raises the chances that we'll actually get a serious health care plan through Congress, and because Daschle's appointment indicates that that's a serious priority for Obama. I'm still reading up on Timothy Geithner, but so far I'm quite impressed by him as well.

Bob Gates seems to be a serious possibility for Secretary of Defense. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think this would also be a good move, for reasons Spencer Ackerman explained here. Scott Horton wrote a good post about Gates a few days ago, giving additional reasons why Gates might be a good pick. Basically, I think that there are two main reasons for keeping Gates. The first is that it's very important to get bipartisan cover for the withdrawal from Iraq if we want to avoid some future conservative "if only the Democrats had let us win" story. (Likewise, bipartisan cover would be very useful if Obama decides to cut some weapons systems.) The second is that by all accounts the military have a lot of respect for Gates; keeping him on, therefore, would allow Obama to bypass the need to establish his own credibility and that of his Secretary of Defense with them. (Yes, I know: this shouldn't be necessary. But it is.)

Neither of these reasons would cut any ice with me if Gates had been a bad Secretary of Defense. But he hasn't. He's been very good, under difficult conditions. Moreover, he seems like the sort of person who would either try to implement Obama's policies rather than working to undermine them or turn the job down. It would be especially good if Obama were to reach an understanding that he would leave after a few years, allowing Obama to appoint a different Secretary of Defense after the withdrawal from Iraq is complete.

I'm less thrilled with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and watching the daily leaks apparently designed to keep us all on tenterhooks about her decision-making process does not make me like the idea any better. On the other hand, what worried me about her as President was the idea that she would be making the final decisions about whether or not to go to war. Since she made that call wrong the last time around, and has never seemed to regret it, I saw no reason to think I should trust her to get it right in the future. As Secretary of State, however, she will not make that decision. She will be able to use her dedication, command of detail, and star power, but she will not be able to decide whether or not we should invade another country. That sounds OK to me.

But all in all, Obama has chosen some very, very impressive people. Isn't it great to have a grownup in charge?

***

PS: articles about Geithner, in addition to the two Steve cited:

Justin Fox
WSJ, and another
Felix Salmon, and an earlier piece, and one on his role in rescuing Bear Stearns
NYT profile from early 2007
Portfolio.com
Geithner's speeches. This one, from 2006, is quite interesting: it contains the sentence: "The changes that have reduced the vulnerability of the system to smaller shocks may have increased the severity of the large ones." Indeed.

Hilzoy 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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November 21, 2008

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Wall Street loves Tim Geithner.

* Fortunately, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who collapsed last night during a speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, was released from the hospital today and was given "a clean bill of health."

* Clinton aides are still describing reports that she's accepted the Secretary of State job as "premature."

* GM is giving up some of its private jets. Good move.

* The Coleman-Franken race keeps getting closer. The margin is now reportedly in single double digits.

* Joe Scarborough, in the height of media irresponsibility, is raising bogus questions about the legitimacy of the vote in Minnesota.

* Despite what some far-right bloggers may want you to believe, gun owners can and will work in the Obama administration.

* Buried glaciers on Mars? Very cool. (thanks to R.K. for the tip)

* I'm sorry to hear that Salon is cutting its staff.

* The odd indictment against Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales in southern Texas has managed to get a little more unusual, culminating in the local district attorney screaming at the judge in open court.

* Did talk radio kill conservatism? Nate Silver has a fascinating piece on the difference between "stimulating" political discourse and "persuasive" political discourse.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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MEET TIM GEITHNER.... Of the three apparent cabinet moves this afternoon, we know a lot about Hillary Clinton, quite a bit about Bill Richardson, but comparably less about Timothy Geithner. If he's going to be the Secretary of the Treasury in the midst of a historical financial crisis, it's probably worth taking some time to get to know him.

I've read two solid pieces lately on the likely next Treasury Secretary. The first was back in September, when Robert Kuttner wrote a fascinating item on Geithner's background and expertise.

Unlike many senior Treasury and Fed officials, Geithner is not a high roller from a big bank or investment house but a public-minded civil servant. He has neither a doctorate in economics nor an M.B.A. After receiving a master's degree in international economics from Johns Hopkins University, he worked as a research assistant to Henry Kissinger and then joined the Treasury, where he was posted as an assistant attache in Japan. He came to the attention of both Larry Summers and Robert Rubin and quickly moved up the ladder. He was a key player in the containment of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and later went to the International Monetary Fund as a top official. Despite being a Democrat, he was named president of the New York Fed after two stronger and more conservative candidates withdrew.

Geithner's admirers span the spectrum from Republican financial mogul Pete Peterson to liberal Democrat Barney Frank. One can infer from his broad fan base three possible conclusions: Wall Street is so clubby and politically powerful that permissible policy differences just aren't that great; or maybe Geithner is all things to all people; or perhaps, in a deep crisis, truly talented and effective people can earn broad respect.

Perhaps most importantly, Kuttner noted a speech Geithner delivered to the Economic Club of New York last June, calling for a far-tougher regulatory policy to alter "the level and concentration of risk-taking across the financial system." He got quite specific, saying regulators "need to make it much more difficult for institutions with little capital and little supervision to underwrite mortgages." Reassuringly, Kuttner described the remarks as "a blueprint for fundamental overhaul," which is what's necessary given the need for a new financial architecture.

The other piece was Noam Scheiber's recent article, describing Geithner as "the next Larry Summers," and providing some helpful context to Geithner's professional and ideological background. It's well worth reading.

For what it's worth, investors appeared very pleased with word about Geithner's nomination -- the Dow soared nearly 500 points after MSNBC's report made the rounds.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Geithner will not have any confirmation trouble in the Senate.

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STOCKING A CABINET.... A flurry of cabinet news late this Friday afternoon. The New York Times' Peter Baker, for example, reports that the process has ended and Hillary Clinton has agreed to become the next Secretary of State.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to give up her Senate seat and accept the position of secretary of state, making her the public face around the world for the administration of the man who beat her for the Democratic presidential nomination, two confidants said Friday.

Mrs. Clinton came to her decision after additional discussion with President-elect Barack Obama about the nature of her role and his plans for foreign policy, said one of the confidants, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the situation. [...]

"She's ready," said the confidant. Mrs. Clinton was reassured after talking again with Mr. Obama because their first meeting in Chicago last week "was so general," the confidant said. The purpose of the follow-up talk, he added, was not to extract particular concessions but "just getting comfortable" with the idea of working together.

A second Clinton associate confirmed that her camp believes they have a done deal.

Also, MSNBC is reporting that Tim Geithner, New York Federal Reserve Bank president, will be the next Treasury secretary.

NBC News has learned that the president-elect is preparing to roll out his economic team on Monday -- and will personally announce the team and answer questions -- part of an effort to reassure markets.

Barring last minute changes, the nominee for Treasury Secretary will be NY Fed President Tim Geithner -- a career Treasury official under both Bob Rubin and Larry Summers -- who actually had worked at the Treasury in three administrations under five Secretaries -- going back to 1988.



And in still more cabinet news, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reports that Bill Richardson may be headed for Commerce.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has emerged as a "serious contender" to head the Commerce Department under President-elect Barack Obama, according to a Democratic official close to the proceedings.

The Albuquerque Journal had a similar report.

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PLUSES AND MINUSES.... John Heilemann takes a look at Hillary Clinton's possible role as Secretary of State in the new issue of New York, and highlights some of the key reasons why she'd be a strong choice. "Her existing relationships with world leaders and her global star power would allow her to walk into foreign capitals and deal with the president or prime minister on level footing," Heilemann notes. "And in the face of a cratering economy likely to consume the first year (or more) of Obama's term, handing off the foreign-policy legwork to a savvy, tough, high-profile surrogate with roundly acknowledged expertise on the relevant issues holds no small appeal."

Some of Heilemann's observations overlapped nicely with Steve Clemons' sharp analysis of Clinton's possible role as Secretary of State: "If Obama wants to change the strategic game on Iran, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Cuba, Russia and other challenges, he will need partners who are perceived as tough, smart, shrewd and even skeptical of the deals he wants to do. Clinton is all of these. Clinton may be the bad cop to Obama's good cop. Because she is trusted by Pentagon-hugging national security conservatives, she may legitimize his desire to respond to this pivot point in American history with bold strokes rather than incremental ones."

I find all of this pretty compelling. But then, there's the other hand. Spencer Ackerman has a great piece today on one disconcerting aspect of this dynamic that's gone largely overlooked: "Clinton herself isn't so much the problem, [foreign-policy experts in the Obama orbit] say. It's the loyalists and traditional thinkers Clinton is likely to bring into the State Dept. if she becomes secretary."

The dispute is only partly ideological in nature. While the coterie of foreign-policy thinkers around Obama have been more liberal, in an aggregate sense -- on issues like Iraq and negotiations with America's adversaries -- the Obama loyalists question the boldness of the Clintonites. They fear that Obama's apparent embrace of Clinton represents an acquiescence to the conventional Democratic foreign-policy approaches that they once derided as courting disaster. Some wonder whether a Clinton-run State Dept. will hire progressive Obama partisans after an acrimonious primary.

Clinton, assuming she gets the job, would bring more than her own considerable skills and background to the State Department; she would also be responsible for hiring officials to fill key posts throughout Foggy Bottom. It's very unlikely that Clinton would accept this offer if she would face restrictions from the White House on how -- and with whom -- she could shape her own team.

And that, to my mind, is the most credible cause for some concern with Clinton's nomination. As a presidential candidate, Clinton surrounded herself with some capable people, but they and their vision was largely out of step with Obama's more progressive approach to foreign policy and diplomacy. And it would likely be they, not career officials who backed Obama, who Clinton would bring on to do most of the heavy lifting at the cabinet agency.

A dynamic to keep an eye on, to be sure.

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ROADBLOCK REPUBLICANS RETURN.... In the 110th Congress, the Senate Republican minority, with 49 seats, filibustered more legislation than any Senate minority in congressional history. Can the GOP break its own record in the 111th?

We already know that Republicans aren't shy about throwing around the "f" word. Literally just three days after Barack Obama won the presidential campaign, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second highest ranking Republican in the chamber, publicly vowed to filibuster any prospective Supreme Court nominee he deemed to be too liberal.

Today, the highest ranking Republican in the chamber speculated about another two years of filibusters.

A feisty Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Friday that while he looks forward to working with President-elect Barack Obama in the coming months, Republicans will continue to demand that they be given the ability to amend legislation or will filibuster bills as they move through the Senate.

McConnell released a letter signed by the entire GOP Conference to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) calling on him to use a more open process for advancing legislation in the 111th, a clear warning to Reid that Republicans will be looking to stand together over the next two years.

"The 42 Republican Senators represent 157 million Americans. Their voices are entitled to be heard, and the way to be heard in the Senate is an open amendment process," a clearly rejuvenated McConnell told reporters.

Remember when McConnell opposed an open amendment process when Republicans were in the majority? Remember when McConnell used to believe "up or down vote" were the four most important words in the English language?

Good times, good times.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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JONES FOR NSA?.... There haven't been too many rumors about who's likely to serve as the National Security Advisor in the Obama White House, so it was interesting to see Gen. James Jones' name come up today.

President-elect Barack Obama is close to landing James L. Jones, the well-known retired Marine Corps general, as his national security adviser, sources said.

Jones is a former Marine Corps commandant and was head of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, with the title of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

The national security adviser heads the National Security Council, the part of the White House structure that deals with foreign policy. It varies in influence from presidency to presidency. Befitting his past, Jones would be given a commanding role, the sources said.

Jones also was considered for secretary of state and secretary of energy. He currently is president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy. From his official biography: "At the request of the U.S. Congress, Jones recently chaired the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq."

The rumor is pretty widespread today -- similar reports about Jones as the NSA have appeared on CNN and ABC. (I'd add, by the way, that MSNBC reported in June that Obama's vice presidential vetting team came up with 20 possible names, and Jones, a close friend of John McCain, made the list as a possible running mate.)

So, assuming the reports are accurate, is Jones the right person for the job? By all indications, yes. Spencer Ackerman notes that Jones would be "a good choice," who would be reflective of two huge Obama priorities. First, Afghanistan. As NATO Commander, Jones ceaselessly lobbied the European allies for greater assistance in the Afghanistan war. Second, energy security. Jones is widely known to be an advocate of alternative energy sources, and, as Politico notes, chairs an energy task force for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And of course there's the good optics of such a well-respected general being Obama's closest White House aide on foreign policy."

Joe Klein added that Jones "refused a series of major positions offered by the Bush Administration, presumably because he opposed the policies he would have been expected to implement. He did agree to study the security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Bush Administration, and came back with reports that were embarrassingly candid. If appointed, he -- not David Petraeus -- will be the most important (former) general in the Obama Administration, which will help tilt power back toward the President."

What's more, Adam Serwer reminds us that Jones is an opponent of torture.

Stay tuned.

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* In Minnesota, Norm Coleman's lead over Al Franken is down to just 136 votes. As of last night, about 46% of the 2.9 million ballots had been counted as part of the statewide recount.

* Barack Obama got directly involved in the Senate runoff election in Georgia yesterday, recording a 60-second radio ad in support of Jim Martin. After thanking voters in the state for their support, Obama says, "The elections aren't over.... I want to urge you to turn out one more time and help elect Jim Martin to the United States Senate."

* Fred Thompson was considering a run for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, but has instead decided to return to his acting career.

* In Florida, McCain beat Obama by almost 5 points among those who voted on Election Day, but Obama beat McCain by 11 points among those voted early or by absentee ballot.

* Hillary Clinton still has about $7.5 million in campaign debt -- including $5.4 million to Mark Penn -- but could push off her debt if she becomes Secretary of State.

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AUTOWORKER WAGES.... To help explain the crisis facing the U.S. automotive industry, a growing number of conservatives have begun blaming the Big Three's workers for the companies' financial difficulties. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, recently argued on Fox News, "For years [the companies have] been sick. They have a bad business model. They have contracts negotiated with the United Auto Workers that impose huge costs. The average hourly cost per worker in this country is about $28.48. For these auto makers, it's $73."

Jonathan Cohn explained today that the conservative talking points are "wildly misleading."

Let's start with the fact that it's not $70 per hour in wages. According to Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automative Research -- who was my primary source for the figures you are about to read -- average wages for workers at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors were just $28 per hour as of 2007. That works out to a little less than $60,000 a year in gross income -- hardly outrageous, particularly when you consider the physical demands of automobile assembly work and the skills most workers must acquire over the course of their careers. [...]

[T]hen what's the source of that $70 hourly figure? It didn't come out of thin air. Analysts came up with it by including the cost of all employer-provided benefits -- namely, health insurance and pensions -- and then dividing by the number of workers. The result, they found, was that benefits for Big Three cost about $42 per hour, per employee. Add that to the wages -- again, $24 per hour -- and you get the $70 figure. Voila.

Except ... notice something weird about this calculation? It's not as if each active worker is getting health benefits and pensions worth $42 per hour. That would come to nearly twice his or her wages. (Talk about gold-plated coverage!) Instead, each active worker is getting benefits equal only to a fraction of that -- probably around $10 per hour, according to estimates from the International Motor Vehicle Program. The number only gets to $70 an hour if you include the cost of benefits for retirees -- in other words, the cost of benefits for other people. [...]

Make no mistake: The argument over a proposed rescue package is complicated, in no small part because over the years both management and labor made some truly awful decisions while postponing the inevitable reckoning with economic reality. And even if the government does provide money, it's a tough call whether restructuring should proceed with or without a formal bankruptcy filing. Either way, yet more downsizing is inevitable.

But the next time you hear somebody say the unions have to make serious salary and benefit concessions, keep in mind that they already have -- enough to keep the companies competitive, if only they can survive this crisis.

Something to keep in mind as the debate continues on what to do with Detroit.

Steve Benen 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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THEY JUST CAN'T STOP.... Yesterday, we talked about the fact that there's simply no interest at all in bringing the "fairness doctrine" back, and yet, it's become something of an obsession among conservatives. TNR's Marin Cogan had a great piece, highlighting the campaign against a non-existent initiative, and explaining, "The prospect of being in the opposition often brings out the worst in conservatives -- paranoia and self-pity."

Right on cue, Bill O'Reilly devoted two -- count 'em, two -- parts of his Fox News program last night to denouncing the imaginary effort to bring back to the fairness doctrine. Jason Linkins noted the conversation between O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham on the subject, and on the same program, O'Reilly devoted his "talking points" segment to attacking non-existent Democratic efforts to bring the policy back. (As O'Reilly explains it, Speaker Pelosi wants "total control" over the media. There's that paranoia again.)

I've had a few emails from readers on this, many noting that this shouldn't be especially surprising -- far-right leaders mislead their followers about progressive policy ideas all the time. Fair enough.

But this does seem a little different than the usual palaver. Yglesias noted yesterday:

It's very strange. Political movements mischaracterize the other side's general goals all the time. But I've never heard of anything like the current conservative mania for blocking a particular legislative provision that nobody is trying to enact.

Exactly. Republicans tend to lie about legislation and policy ideas Democrats want to pass, not legislation and policy ideas they don't care about.

That said, as one emailer told me yesterday, when the next two years go by, and there's no activity at all on the fairness doctrine, conservative activists will take credit for having stop this dreaded effort to squelch free speech before it could become law.

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THE HUMAN RIGHTS PRESIDENT.... Way back in 2004, in a piece that is no longer online, George W. Bush told New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, "No President has ever done more for human rights than I have."

The president has said plenty of odd things over the years, but this has always struck me as one of his more unusual boasts. It was especially odd, then, when the State Department repeated the claim yesterday.

[Thursday], Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Libyan leader Moamer Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam. In a press briefing yesterday leading up to the meeting, reporters pressed State Dept. spokesperson Sean McCormack on whether Rice would urge Libya to release Libyan activist Fathi al-Jahmi, a political prisoner who is gravely ill.

McCormack offered a defensive response: "I have to make it very clear we are concerned not only about Mr. al-Jahmi's case, but other human rights cases around the world." McCormack also claimed that President Bush's human rights record could perhaps be the best in American history:

McCORMACK: And -- and one thing I do take exception to is the idea that somehow we are not attentive to pushing the issue of human rights, whether it's in Libya or any place else around the world. I don't think -- I would put the record of this administration up against any American administration or any other government around the world in terms of promoting universal human rights and pushing for human rights.

I'm amazed these officials are able to make this claim with a straight face. We are, after all, talking about the president closely tied to torture, rendition, waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and suspension of habeas corpus.

Bush's human rights record can be safely compared to "any American administration or any other government around the world"? Seriously?

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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DADT ON THE BACKBURNER.... Barack Obama's transition team has been assiduous in its efforts to identify the early mistakes recent presidents have made, and mapping out a strategy to learn from history. It's not a surprise, then, that the President-elect is reluctant to add a "don't ask, don't tell" repeal to his early to-do list.

President-elect Barack Obama will not move for months, and perhaps not until 2010, to ask Congress to end the military's decades-old ban on open homosexuals in the ranks, two people who have advised the Obama transition team on this issue say.

Repealing the ban was an Obama campaign promise. However, Mr. Obama first wants to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus and then present legislation to Congress, the advisers said.

"I think 2009 is about foundation building and reaching consensus," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The group supports military personnel targeted under the ban.

Mr. Sarvis told The Washington Times that he has held "informal discussions" with the Obama transition team on how the new president should proceed on the potentially explosive issue.

Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for American Progress and an adviser to the Obama campaign, said the new administration should set up a Pentagon committee to make recommendations to Congress on a host of manpower issues, including the gay ban.

"If it's part of a larger package, it has a better chance of getting passed," he said.

If Obama wants to put this on the backburner for a little while, that's understandable. There's a financial crisis and national security considerations to tackle first, and voters would no doubt be unhappy if the new president tackled "don't ask, don't tell" early on.

But Obama cannot forget about his campaign pledge altogether. He promised during the campaign to pursue a repeal through a process in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he still appears ready to do so. That Obama aides have been in consultation the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is probably a good sign, but the issue can't be put off indefinitely.

The SLDN's Sarvis told the Washington Times, "What's the reality for the new administration? Financial crisis. Economic upheaval. Health care reform. Environmental challenges. Where does 'don't ask, don't tell' fall in all this? I would say it is not in the top five priorities of national issues."

Nevertheless, Sarvis is optimistic that a repeal of the ban is "likely" during Obama's first term.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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I'M GLAD HE CHANGED HIS MIND.... On Oct. 8, the White House was asked whether the president is willing to extend unemployment benefits. Dana Perino didn't use the word "veto," but she made it quite clear that the administration opposed an extension.

Fortunately, that opposition didn't last. The White House signaled its grudging support for the Democrats' bill a few days ago -- provided it didn't come attached to additional stimulus spending, heaven forbid -- and this morning, Bush signed an extension into law.

The White House says President Bush signed into law a bill that Congress approved to keep unemployment checks flowing to jobless Americans through the holiday season.

Bush signed the bill at the White House just before boarding Marine I Friday morning for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base and a flight to Lima, Peru, to attend the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The Senate approved the bill following an earlier report Thursday saying that new claims by laid-off workers for jobless aid had reached a 16-year high and the number of people looking for work had surged past 10 million.


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MAKING THE SENATE MORE ENTICING TO CLINTON.... If you believe the reports, Hillary Clinton's departure from the Senate to become the Secretary of State is a done deal. I suspect it probably is, but one of the more common questions about the move is why Clinton would want to give up a great, long-term gig in the Senate for a tough, short-term gig in Foggy Bottom.

Part of the problem for Clinton is that her seniority isn't doing her any favors. There's been all kinds of shuffling with the committee chairs since the election, driven in part by Robert Byrd's decision to give up the Appropriations Committee, but Clinton is left without a gavel of her own. It's no one's fault, and she isn't being deliberately slighted, but there hasn't been enough movement on her specific committees to give Clinton a chance to move up. It must be frustrating for someone anxious for a promotion.

So, when the specter of the State Department came up, it no doubt looked pretty compelling. It's interesting, then, that Senate Democratic leaders are reportedly willing to make the chamber a more attractive option for the junior senator from New York.

Democratic leaders in the Senate are prepared to give Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton a still-undefined leadership role there if she does not become Barack Obama's secretary of state, Democratic officials close to the situation said Thursday.

The discussions about an enhanced position for Mrs. Clinton are factoring into her deliberations over joining the cabinet, the officials said. Mrs. Clinton, the junior senator from New York, is wrestling with whether to abandon her independence to become the nation's top diplomat or remain in a chamber where lack of seniority limits her influence. [...]

Senate Democrats gathered Tuesday to re-elect their leadership, including Mr. Dorgan, without offering any of the top slots to Mrs. Clinton. But Mr. Reid told those at the closed-door meeting that he was looking for a way to create a new leadership role for her, two people who were in the room said. The same day, Mr. Kennedy also chose her to head one of three health care working groups looking at legislation.

Mr. Reid wants to come up with some sort of leadership position to recognize Mrs. Clinton's standing as one of the party's most popular figures, and aides said he was confident that he could arrive at something with sufficient muscle to appeal to her.

If the leadership could give Clinton a better role in the chamber, would she be more likely to stick around? I guess we'll see soon enough.

As for her interest in joining the Obama cabinet, the New York Times quoted sources close to the senator saying she was prepared to decline the offer on Wednesday, was back on the fence by midday Thursday, and by last night, was inclined to accept the job.

"At the end of a confused day in which even Mr. Obama's advisers seemed unsure what was happening, a transition official reached out to reporters Thursday night to say that the president-elect's team believed things were on track with Mrs. Clinton and that her nomination could be announced after Thanksgiving," the Times added.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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November 20, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Mukasey Collapses

From TPM:

"Attorney General Michael Mukasey collapsed this evening while giving a speech to Federalist Society in Washington, DC. (...)

As best we can tell no news service has any new substantive information about the AG's health, other than the initial news that he began slurring his speech and then shaking and then collapsed. There seems to be no solid information about whether he regained consciousness."

I hope he's OK; my thoughts are with him and his family.

***

UPDATE: From a DoJ statement (via TPM):

"The Attorney General is conscious, conversant and alert. His vital statistics are strong and he is in good spirits. He is receiving excellent care and appreciates all of the good wishes and prayers he has received. The doctors will keep him overnight for further observations."

TPM also has an eyewitness account of his collapse here.

Hilzoy 11:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Hilzoy

Day Of Remembrance

Today is the Transgender Day Of Remembrance, on which we remember those who were murdered because they were transmen or transwomen. Last year there were thirty such murders that we know of; there were surely many that happened unrecorded. It's worth reading this list, and thinking of them.

Donna Rose:

"These things are deeply personal for many of us. Being transgender is not an easy life even under the best of circumstances but to see our brothers and sisters slaughtered simply for being themselves is something each of us can imagine happening to our friends or ourselves. The entire spiral of not being able to get or keep a job, being forced into situations that are inherently dangerous, and ultimately being murdered viciously and brutally is far too common in our community.

I sometimes don't know which emotion I feel more: sadness or anger. I've personally attended 2 vigils of people honored at TDOR and have seen the anguish of a family who has just had a loving young life brutally taken from them. I've watched as police have turned a blind eye to these brutal murders that all too often go unsolved. I've listened to cold-blooded killers refer to their victim as an "it" as they describe how they took a tender young life by bashing her head in with a fire extinguisher. It infuriates me that people in this world can treat one another like that, where someone's life is somehow less valuable or less important.

The most recent incident occurred just last week when a trans-woman and her gay brother in Syracuse, NY were lured to a party and ambushed. Someone began yelling obscenities at them in their car before going into the house, getting a rifle, and shooting through the driver's side window. Latiesha was struck in the chest and died in a pool of her own blood. Poof. Another young life gone. And for what?"

It's not that hard to be kind, to let people live their lives as they choose, and to try to help them when you can. Why everyone doesn't try to do this is a mystery to me. But even if people can't manage to be kind and decent, it's really, really easy not to be so cruel and intolerant that you kill or beat people just because you don't like the way they choose to live. Honestly: it's a cinch. Takes no effort at all.

If only people would manage just that much, at least thirty people would not have died last year, and many more would not have to look over their shoulder when they walked down the street, wondering.

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THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* It's hard to overstate how scary this is: "Wall Street slumped Thursday afternoon and the S&P 500 closed at an 11-1/2 year low as fears of a prolonged recession sparked a massive selloff.... The Dow Jones industrial average lost 445 points or 5.6%. It closed at the lowest level since March 12, 2003, just above the low of the last bear market. The Nasdaq composite lost 5.1% and also closed at its lowest level since March 12, 2003."

* Democratic leaders in Congress are open to a rescue plan for U.S. automakers, but they're looking for a coherent plan first: "[Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference that the Big Three automakers -- Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- had failed to convince Congress that they had developed a viable plan for the $25 million they are requesting in bailout funds. 'This is an important industry in our country and we intend to save it,' Pelosi said. 'Until they show us a plan we cannot show them the money.'"

* McClatchy reports: "A federal judge ordered the speedy release Thursday of five Algerian men held for nearly seven years in Guantanamo Bay prison in the latest setback for the Bush administration's controversial detention policies."

* Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker, national campaign finance chairwoman for the Obama campaign, has withdrawn from consideration and will not be the next Secretary of Commerce.

* Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) thinks Eric Holder is a great choice for Attorney General.

* Bill Clinton seems to be doing his part to help Hillary Clinton become Secretary of State.

* Minnesota Public Radio posted a terrific feature showing examples of contested ballots in the Coleman-Franken Senate race.

* Now that the election is over, Michele Bachmann can go back to sounding ridiculous again.

* I don't think Dana Perino understands what the Endangered Species Act is.

* Obama really is screwing up al Qaeda's plans.

* And Bill McInturff, the McCain campaign's chief pollster thinks Frank Luntz is a "moron," adding, "I would like to take a hammer and start breaking bones in Frank's arms." Tell us how you really feel, Bill.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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RAHM'S REPUBLICAN OUTREACH.... No one seriously expects congressional Republicans to roll up their sleeves and start working with Democrats on policy solutions. That's just not how this game is played.

The question is how open GOP lawmakers are to outreach. The New York Times reported this morning that the House Republican caucus has "so far balked" at a chance to meet with the incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, but Emanuel spent the day on the Hill anyway, and had some individual meetings with Republicans willing to let him in their offices.

Incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said President-elect Barack Obama wants to work with Republicans, saying the new chief executive will "welcome their ideas" on how to resolve the ongoing financial crisis the country faces.

Emanuel met today with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the entire GOP leadership from that chamber for about 30 minutes, and is currently huddling with House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.). A one-on-one session with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) will follow the Pence meeting.

Emanuel noted that he personally had spoken to almost two dozen Republicans in the last two weeks to tell them that the new administration is serious about bipartisan cooperation.

"We welcome their ideas and their concepts," Emanuel told reporters after his meeting with McConnell and other Senate Republicans. "It's challenging times economically. The middle class is working harder, earning less and paying more. The challenges facing the country require that people of both parties work together to solve those problems."

"I told them that I welcome their ideas, be that in their area of education, health care, taxes, energy policy, national security," Emanuel added. "Give us those ideas, because we are formulating what we're going to do in the Obama administration."

Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said Emanuel demonstrated "a really good attitude about wanting to work with us" in his meeting with Senate Republicans, but noted there were no detailed policy negotiations during their conversation with Obama's new top aide.

Ensign, referring to Emanuel, added, "He gave us all his personal cell phone. He said he promised to get back us on issues within 24 hours."

Incoming NRSC Chair John Cornyn praised Emanuel's outreach. "He thought it was important enough to come over and spend an hour with us," Cornyn said. "[That] speaks volumes, more than just what he said."

Ensign added that that he was "very pleased" with today's conversation, and was optimistic about the future. "His words were basically 'this is not a head-fake on bipartisanship. This is real.' They really want to work in a bipartisan fashion and it's not about just saying it, they actually plan on doing it," Ensign said. "Those are exactly the right words to use."

Will this last? I doubt it. But at least they're getting off on the right foot, right?

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FROM RELIGION TO RECESSION.... Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed castigating Americans for not supporting George W. Bush. The president's low approval rating, the piece insisted, is a reflection of "our failure," our "disloyal" tendencies, and our willingness to strengthen "our enemies." It was, to my mind, one of the stupidest things ever published by a major American newspaper.

And yet, the editors at the WSJ continue to push the envelope in new and mind-numbing directions. The Journal published this piece from Daniel Henninger today, which aims to explain "how we went from Christmas to crisis." I've read the whole piece a few times, trying to understand it. I'm at a loss.

Henninger begins by repeating nonsense about Americans, en masse, being afraid to wish others a "Merry Christmas." This, on its face, is absurd. But he goes much further, connecting this non-existent trend in holiday-related rhetoric to the financial crisis, apparently blaming the prior for the latter: "A nation whose people can't say 'Merry Christmas' is a nation capable of ruining its own economy."

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of "Merry Christmas."

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

Feel free: Banish Merry Christmas. Get ready for Mad Max.

So, let me get this straight. Some unnamed, nefarious forces are "dereligioning" America. This, in turn, has led to immorality. And this, in turn, has led to shady business practices. And this, in turn, led to the ongoing financial crisis.

If there's a coherence to this, it's hiding well. Indeed, each of Henninger's points seems more ridiculous than the last. There is no "dereligioning" of America. "Dereligioning" isn't even a word, but more importantly, the United States is the most religious of any industrialized democracy, and among the most religious countries on the planet. "Happy Christmas" has not been banned. The financial crisis is not the result of secular values. Morality is not being "erased."

Why anyone would attach their name to such transparent foolishness is a mystery to me. Why anyone would publish such inanity is even harder to understand.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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ROVE'S ODD ADVICE.... I'm trying to pick my favorite part of Karl Rove's latest column in the Wall Street Journal. There are so many gems to choose from.

There are ... plans to use the Obama campaign's email list to lobby for Mr. Obama's policies. The Chicago Tribune, reporting comments from Obama spokesman Steve Hildebrand, summed up the plan this way: the email list could be used "to challenge Democratic lawmakers if they don't hew to the Obama agenda."

Just one problem. It's illegal. There are statutory prohibitions on the White House from using tax dollars to directly lobby Congress by unleashing emails, calls and visits. That's up to outside groups to do.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons, both of which Yglesias tackled nicely. First, Rove is confused about the law. Second, it's ironic to hear Rove encouraging Obama to steer clear of White House legal transgressions, given Rove's role in helping Bush ignore legal restrictions they found inconvenient.

The president-elect says his first priority will be a stimulus package. He may get one, but it will consist of tired ideas offered by congressional Democrats: extending unemployment insurance, giving money to states and cities, and increasing spending on infrastructure.... [I]f Democrats pass it, and particularly if they add an auto bailout, there could be a public backlash.

I see. The problem with the ideas underpinning a stimulus package is that the proposals are "tired." Policy makers could pursue a stimulus package that works, but Rove seems to think it's more important to think outside the box.

There is also a thorny local controversy. Should the new president replace U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Mr. Obama's fund-raising patron, Tony Rezko, and is investigating high-profile Democrats?

First, Karl Rove is offering advice about the politics of replacing U.S. Attorneys, which on its face is comical. Second, as I recall, Rove had his own experiences with Patrick Fitzgerald. Funny, he didn't mention it.

So, which is the most entertaining part of the column? It's hard to choose; they're all amusing in their own way.

Steve Benen 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WE'RE HIRING.... In case you missed the ad on the right, you may be interested to know that the Washington Monthly is looking for a full-time business associate to work at our Chevy Chase, Maryland, office.

To learn more about the position, take a look at the online listing.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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THAT'S ONE UNPOPULAR PARTY.... It seemed at least possible that in a post-election environment, the parties would get a honeymoon of sorts, at least until January.

Unfortunately for Republicans, that's not the case. A new Gallup poll shows support for the GOP slipping even further now that the election has come and gone. (via Atrios)

The Republican Party's image has gone from bad to worse over the past month, as only 34% of Americans in a Nov. 13-16 Gallup Poll say they have a favorable view of the party, down from 40% in mid-October. The 61% now holding an unfavorable view of the GOP is the highest Gallup has recorded for that party since the measure was established in 1992. [...]

By contrast, the public's views of the Democratic Party remain as positive after the election as they were just prior to it. More than half of Americans, 55%, currently hold a favorable view of the Democratic Party and only 39% an unfavorable view, highly typical of views toward the Democrats all year.

I thought, at first glance, that deteriorating economic conditions would put the public in such a dour mood that approval numbers would drop pretty much across the board. But that's not the case -- Republicans' support is reaching new lows, while a clear majority continues to have a favorable impression of the Democrats.

Also note, Gallup asked Republicans, "Over the next few years, would you like to see the Republican Party and its candidates move in a more conservative direction, a less conservative direction, or stay about the same?" Nearly six in 10 (59%) want the party to move even further to the right, while 28% prefer to see the party stay right where it is. Only 12% of Republicans want to see their party become more moderate.

With results like that, it's hard not to think the Republican Party will struggle for a long while to get back on track.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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A WORLD-CLASS SNUB.... CNN's Rick Sanchez did a brief segment yesterday, highlighting a video taken at the recent G20 summit. Unless there's some kind of backstory here that I've missed, it seems pretty humiliating.

As the Huffington Post reported, "It appears in this video that President Bush's approval is in a sorrier state than polls indicate. In a video taken at the G20 summit, Bush walks across a line of world leaders without shaking or being asked to shake any of their hands. Whether the President is being rejected by the world leaders or he is rejecting them, CNN's Rick Sanchez aptly says that Bush looks like 'the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked.'"

It is curious. It seemed as if every head of state was anxious to greet and shake hands with every other, except Bush. It wouldn't have been so jarring if Bush wasn't the only one to get the cold shoulder from everyone.

It's possible, I suppose, that there's an explanation for this that isn't humiliating for the president, but here's a question: what do you suppose the chances would be that none of the world leaders would shake hands with Barack Obama, had he represented the United States at the G20 meeting?

Steve Benen 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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STEVENS' SENATORIAL SUPPORT.... The U.S. Senate operates on institutional cordiality. Every member tends to describe his or her colleagues as "friends" and the "distinguished senator" from their given state.

But there's something unseemly about pretending Ted Stevens is ending his career on an honorable note.

ThinkProgress posted this clip from C-SPAN, featuring Stevens' farewell speech to the chamber, the lengthy standing ovation he received from his colleagues, and the glowing praise he received from Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Amanda Terkel noted that the tribute just kept going, with praise from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

I'm not suggesting it's appropriate to kick an old man when he's down, but this is more than a little excessive under the circumstances. Ted Stevens is a convicted felon. He faced seven corruption-related counts, and was found guilty on all of them. Had he won re-election, Stevens was poised to be kicked out of the Republican caucus -- there were reportedly enough votes to make that happen on Tuesday -- and probably expelled from the Senate altogether.

And yet, to watch today's spectacle, Stevens isn't leaving in disgrace at all.

Consider this: if Stevens weren't a convicted felon, and had simply lost a re-election fight to a Democratic rival, would today's tribute and ovation be any different? If the answer is no, and I suspect it is, then senators are collectively pretending the felony convictions simply didn't occur. That's bizarre.

Steve Benen 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* The statewide recount in Minnesota is off to a good start for Al Franken. With 18% of the ballots recounted, Norm Coleman's lead went from 215 to 174, a net gain of 41 for Franken.

* On a related note, a Minnesota judge agreed with Franken's request for access to "rosters of disqualified absentee voters ... to determine if they were properly rejected in the counting of ballots."

* Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) intended to fight to stay on as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, but he withdrew unexpectedly yesterday. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas will replace him.

* Mike Huckabee will be campaigning promoting his new book in Iowa today.

* Delaware's Governor-elect Jack Markell (D) will take the oath of office at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2009, so that he can name Vice President-elect Joe Biden's replacement to the Senate before the Obama/Biden inauguration in D.C.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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WAXMAN EDGES DINGELL FOR GAVEL.... This comes as something of a surprise.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) will become the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee after House Democrats voted to replace current Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

The dramatic intra-party showdown for the coveted position signals a leftward turn for the Democratic agenda. The outcome was a blow to the seniority system and a victory, at least in perception, for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Though her aides denied it, many saw the hand of Pelosi in Waxman's challenge for the post, which conveys great power over how the Democratic agenda of President-elect Barack Obama will be implemented.

Waxman is considered more liberal on issues like climate change, energy and business regulation, and potentially more aggressive on healthcare. Dingell, the longest-serving House lawmaker, is close to the auto industry and autoworkers.

This is a very encouraging development. The Energy and Commerce Committee will be at the heart of the policy making on global warming, environmental, and energy policy, and Waxman will take a far more progressive and ambitious approach than Dingell would have.

According to a report in Roll Call, the final vote among House Democrats was 137 to 122, though the members voted by secret ballot.

I honestly expected Dingell to prevail. He's been in the House for 27 terms, made a lot of friends, and had organized a large whip team to help him keep his gavel. Giving the gavel to Waxman, Dingell kept reminding us, would represent a shift to the left on energy policy.

Good. Just as Daschle and Baucus have made reform of the healthcare system more likely, Waxman's new committee chairmanship makes a meaningful energy bill more likely.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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CHANGE.... We're still quite a ways from knowing what Obama's entire team is going to look like, but this debate seems to be increasingly common.

"I think several individuals are very frustrated to think that President-elect Obama may just cut and paste from some of the Democratic operatives from the Clinton administration and put them into his White House," said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor.

Republicans aren't the only ones who want Obama to branch out. Robert Kuttner, a liberal and author of "Obama's Challenge," says the president-elect should broaden his recruiting efforts.

"It's not as if the only competent people who ever served in government or who are capable are serving in government are veterans of the Clinton administration, so he's got to be careful how many Clintonistas he appoints to top level government posts," Kuttner said. [...]

Lanny Davis, President Clinton's former special council, lobbied publicly for Obama to choose Sen. Hillary Clinton as his running mate during the campaign. Despite what critics say, Davis says real change is about policy, not people.

"What this conversation is about is laughable if you ask people in America what they care about. They care about the economy, jobs, education, health care. They don't care about whether somebody who fills a particular box is from a prior administration," he said.

Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, if Bob Kuttner and Lanny Davis disagree on something, I'm with Kuttner. This is a rare exception.

Look, there's been exactly one Democratic president since 1980. If Obama's team is going to recruit like-minded officials for high-ranking government posts, there's a practical hurdle here that's very hard to ignore. As Kevin noted yesterday, "There are some fresh faces around for Obama to tap, but for the most part, when you're staffing highly visible and responsible positions, you want someone who has at least some experience to fall back on. And since Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to hold the presidency in the past 28 years, that means someone who served in the Clinton administration."

Or, as John Cole put it, "Where, exactly, is Obama supposed to find qualified people with government experience if they did not cut their teeth in the Clinton administration? From the Bush administration? Clearly, Obama is bringing in a lot of new blood, but I have no problem with old hands like Eric Holder being tapped for administration jobs."

Neither do I. I'm looking at qualifications and an ability to help execute Obama's agenda for change. I can't think of a reason why "worked in some capacity in the Clinton administration" should be some kind of disqualifier.

The team is still coming together, so some of this chatter is moot, pending additional announcements. But as far as I can tell, some key posts will be filled by those with Clinton-era experience (Holder, Emanuel, Craig, Sutphen), those who aren't "Clintonistas" (Daschle, Orszag, Axelrod, Gibbs, Jarrett, Schiliro, Rouse), and those who fall somewhere in between (Napolitano was a U.S. Attorney under Clinton; does that count?).

Are these capable, competent officials? If the answer is yes, and I think it is, whether they're affiliated in some way with Clinton strikes me as irrelevant.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE DETERIORATING JOB MARKET.... I don't want to alarm anyone, but the job market appears to be in pretty horrendous shape.

New claims for unemployment benefits jumped last week to a 16-year high, the Labor Department said Thursday, providing more evidence of a rapidly weakening job market expected to get even worse next year.

The government said new applications for jobless benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 542,000 from a downwardly revised figure of 515,000 in the previous week. That's much higher than Wall Street economists' expectations of 505,000, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.

That is also the highest level of claims since July 1992, the department said, when the U.S. economy was coming out of a recession.

The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, was even worse: it rose to 506,500, the highest in more than 25 years.

In addition, the number of people continuing to claim unemployment insurance rose sharply for the third straight week to more than 4 million, the highest since December 1982, when the economy was in a painful recession.

How bad is it? The Bush White House is suddenly willing to sign legislation to extend unemployment benefits. A bill to provide unemployment checks for up to 13 additional weeks for those who've exhausted their unemployment insurance has already passed the House, and the Senate is poised to follow suit as early as tonight.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DEMS HURT MCCONNELL'S FEELINGS?.... I can appreciate the fact that the Senate operates with a certain degree of cordiality, but surely members realize that when the election season comes, party leaders on both sides want to increase the size of their caucuses.

With that in mind, I have no idea why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) feelings are hurt.

[D]espite a previously solid working and personal relationship with his Democratic counterpart, McConnell chose to ignore both the election night call and a subsequent follow-up call from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose party had dumped more than $6 million into Kentucky in an ultimately futile push to knock off the Republican leader.

In fact, according to Democrats and Republicans familiar with the situation, while McConnell and Obama spoke on the Thursday following the election, it took McConnell some nine days to ultimately respond to Reid's overtures.

Republicans warned that Reid should be prepared for a full-court press during his own 2010 re-election bid, and that the sudden deterioration in relations, no matter how short-lived, is a direct result of what they view as an overly aggressive Democratic effort to unseat McConnell.

"The Majority Leader made a tactical error that could potentially cost him his job when he signed off on $6 million of attack ads the last few weeks in Kentucky. McConnell never takes political attacks personally, but he is someone who has never hesitated to repay his opposition for their courtesy," a senior Republican official said, adding that identifying a high-quality opponent to challenge Reid will be a priority for the party in the coming months.

So, let me get this straight. The relationship between the two parties' Senate leaders is in "tatters" because the Republican leader thinks the Democratic leader supported an effort to win a competitive Senate race. The Big Bad Harry Reid was mean in trying to help his party gain another seat.

What, did McConnell think his leadership role left him immune? Funny, I don't remember him encouraging Republicans to scale back their efforts to take down Tom Daschle in 2004.

Steve Benen 9:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE FAIRNESS DOCTRINE, PARANOIA, AND RIGHT-WING SELF-PITY.... I've been fascinated of late with the far-right hysteria about the reemergence of the "fairness doctrine," because conservative activists are gearing up for a knock-down brawl against an enemy that doesn't exist. Everyone from obscure right-wing bloggers to Rush Limbaugh to Washington Post columnists are prepared for a fight that isn't going to happen.

And yet, the nonsense doesn't stop. Perusing the news this morning, there are still more conservative columnists railing against the "plan" to bring back the fairness doctrine, and unhinged propaganda about the "unprecedented government assault upon the First Amendment" that is allegedly on the way.

The New Republic's Marin Cogan asked around, trying to find Democrats who actually support bringing the fairness doctrine back, or media-reform liberals who might push for action on this. Cogan couldn't find any.

Obama opposes it. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, allegedly a supporter, said, "Somebody plucked this out of the clear blue sky. This is a completely made-up issue." Mark Lloyd, co-author of a Center for American Progress media report, said, "I don't think there's any movement [to restore the fairness doctrine] at all.... We don't support it. " Craig Aaron of the media-reform group FreePress says, "[I]n reality, the fairness doctrine as it existed is never ever coming back."

So, what's the point of baseless right-wing hysteria? Cogan makes the case:

Republican paranoia is nothing more than that.

Democrats may scratch their heads over why this has lately become a right-wing obsession, but the paranoia is not without precedent. The prospect of being in the opposition often brings out the worst in conservatives -- paranoia and self-pity. Plus, when the conservative coalition seems threatened, there's no better way to unify the party than scaring up liberal bogeymen.

Quite right. Given the collapse of the Republican Party's electoral fortunes, folks like Limbaugh and Michael Gerson have to create a rallying cry, and there's no better way to whip up the Republican base than to make far-right activists feel like victims. "Liberals are coming to take away your talk radio!" is, obviously, pretty effective.

It's kind of pathetic, actually.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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BRINGING ALL THE HEALTHCARE PIECES TOGETHER.... Following up on Hilzoy's overnight item, momentum for major healthcare reform in the next Congress got a little stronger yesterday, when the health insurance industry said it would support extending coverage to everyone, in exchange for a healthcare mandate for all Americans. Given the insurance industry's role in helping kill the Clinton plan 15 years ago, this is obviously an important development.

Hilzoy noted that the mandate is clearly the right policy, so the insurance industry's demand is arguably a positive development. But then there's the politics -- while the Clinton/Edwards approach included a mandate, Obama's campaign plan didn't. Is this a problem? I doubt it. For one thing, I suspect Obama would be thrilled to have external forces force his hand on this. For another, as Jonathan Cohn noted, this isn't entirely his call.

Congress, not Obama, will end up writing the actual plan. Senator Max Baucus, who will (along with Ted Kennedy) lead his chamber's reform effort, has already indicated he supports an individual mandate. Senator Wyden's bipartisan bill for universal coverage has an individual mandate, as well. The insurance industry's positioning, therefore, is perfectly in line with these efforts. And it sets up a scenario under which Obama could, as a final compromise, "reluctantly" agree to an individual mandate in order to get a package passed.

If anything, this announcement is the latest sign that health care reform has serious political momentum heading into 2009. The insurance industry wouldn't be taking this position if its representatives didn't believe that the odds of universal health care passing are pretty good -- and that they are better off trying to shape the plan from the inside than fight it, unsuccessfully, from the outside.

It's also worth keeping the larger dynamic in mind. The Wall Street Journal has a good piece today, noting that an overhaul appears increasingly likely thanks to the multiple, divergent parties -- some of which were intent on destroying the Clinton plan 15 years ago -- that are finally on board with the same goal in mind.

Motivations vary depending on the interest group. Business groups want to reduce the cost and improve the quality of care. Consumer groups and labor unions want subsidies to help people afford insurance. Doctors and hospitals would benefit if more patients had insurance and could pay their bills.

"You see a range of diverse stakeholders trying to work together to achieve health-care reform," said Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans. "You see it on [Capitol] Hill, off the Hill, in various coalitions. And that's very different than what we saw in the early '90s."

This process will no doubt take some twists and turns, but there's reason for genuine optimism, punctuated by the insurance industry's apparent belief that Obama and congressional Dems are serious about this. Emanuel's remarks this week, the Daschle news, the Baucus and Kennedy work, and word from America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association all point in a very encouraging direction.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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NAPOLITANO TO DHS.... There were widespread hopes that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) would find a role in the Obama administration, so the overnight news was encouraging.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) has been chosen to serve as secretary of the vast and troubled Department of Homeland Security for President-elect Obama, Democratic officials said. Napolitano is a border governor who will now be responsible for immigration policy and border security, which are part of Homeland Security's myriad functions.

Napolitano brings law-and-order experience from her stint as the Grand Canyon State's first female attorney general. One of the nation's most prominent female elected officials, she made frequent appearances on behalf of Barack Obama during the campaign. She was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2006.

Reports about Napolitano's DHS gig have been confirmed by the Washington Post and CNN, with the cable network, I believe, the first to break the news.

Napolitano has long been considered a rising star in Democratic politics, and was named one of America's five best governors by Time a few years ago.

There are, of course, political considerations. With Napolitano joining Obama in Washington, Democrats will lose one governorship -- Arizona is one of only a handful states without a lieutenant governor, so Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer will succeed Napolitano.

Also, Napolitano was considered a leading challenger to John McCain in 2010. It's not impossible to launch Senate campaigns from the cabinet -- Florida's Mel Martinez pulled it off a few years ago -- but it's certainly far more difficult.

But most importantly, there's the DHS job itself. Since its creation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration's management of the newest cabinet agency has been a terrible mess. (A few years ago, House Democrats released a report noting that DHS set 33 clear goals for itself -- and failed to meet all of them.) Obama needed a strong, competent manager to clean up the department, bring some competence to the agency, and reverse some of the dysfunction that has burdened DHS for years.

Given her record, Napolitano is a terrific choice.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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TOO SMALL TO FAIL.... The impact of the financial crisis on the banking industry has been pretty obvious, with most of the financial services industry in turmoil. But there's part of this story that's been largely overlooked: humble local banks are doing quite well, thank you.

In the soon-to-be-released issue of the Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and T. A. Frank, an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation and an editor here at the Monthly, highlight the surprising resilience of smaller, local banks in a terrific piece that is now available online.

Easily overlooked amid the crisis of big banks today, small-scale financial institutions are, for the most part, holding steady -- and sometimes even better than steady. According to FDIC data, the failure rate among big banks (those with assets of $1 billion or more) is seven times greater than among small banks. Moreover, banks with less than $1 billion in assets -- what are typically called community banks -- are outperforming larger banks on most key measures, such as return on assets, charge-offs for bad loans, and net profit margin.

Longman and Frank also explain how smaller community banks and credit unions remained solvent and profitable (and continue to make loans) through old-fashioned "relationship" banking, while the Wall Street behemoths were "efficient" mainly at wasting trillions of dollars in global capital.

Perhaps most importantly, their piece explains what lessons are available to policy makers from these trends, as a new global finance architecture comes together. Take a look.

What's more, Longman and Ellen Seidman, director of financial services policy at New America, who contributed substantially to this article in the Monthly, will participate in a forum tomorrow at the New America Foundation discussing the points raised in the piece, and answering questions on the subject. For readers in the D.C. area, here's a link to the schedule for Thursday's event. If you're outside the beltway and want to tune in, there will be a live webcast. The event begins at 12:15 p.m. eastern.

Steve Benen 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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By: Hilzoy

Don't Throw Me In That Briar Patch!

Well, this is interesting:

"The health insurance industry said Wednesday that it would support a health care overhaul requiring insurers to accept all customers, regardless of illness or disability. But in return, the industry said, Congress should require all Americans to have coverage. (...)

The industry's position differs from that of Mr. Obama in one significant respect. Insurers want the government to require everyone to have and maintain insurance. By contrast, Mr. Obama would, at least initially, apply the requirement only to children."

Several things about this are very significant. First, the insurance industry helped to block Clinton's health care plan. If they are entering the negotiations about what sort of national health care we will end up with, they are a lot less likely to play a completely obstructionist role. And that's very good news.

Second, requiring all Americans to have health insurance is very good policy, at least if it's coupled with some kind of subsidy for people who wouldn't be able to afford insurance otherwise. Obama did not propose to require it, which I very much hoped was because he suspected it would be political poison, not because he was opposed to it in principle. (I don't mean that he was being disingenuous: politicians fail to propose policies that they think would actually be good all the time, and as long as they do not plan to propose those policies, there's nothing disingenuous about it.) This aspect of his policy didn't bother me that much: in practice, if you're going to ban discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, you need to have some sort of penalty to discourage people from signing up for health insurance only after they get sick, and the difference between having such a penalty and having a mandate (which presumably also includes a penalty) seems to come down to whether or not you tell people that they must sign up. Moreover, I thought he was probably right on the politics.

That said, having someone else insist on mandates makes me want to adopt a mock-horrified look and say: oh please don't throw me in that briar patch!

There are, of course, a whole lot of details to be worked out, the kinds of details in which devils are found. For instance:

"The new policy statements are silent on two important issues: how to enforce an individual mandate and how to regulate insurance prices, or premiums.

While insurers would be required to sell insurance to any applicant, nothing would guarantee that consumers could afford it. Rate regulation promises to be a highly contentious issue, since it pits the financial interests of insurers against those of consumers.

At present, insurance premiums are generally regulated by the states and often vary according to a person's age, sex, medical history and place of residence within a state. In the individual market in most states, a person with a history of serious or chronic illness can be charged much more than a healthy person of the same age and sex."

Still, this is really good news.

Hilzoy 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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November 19, 2008

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Another painful day on Wall Street, with the Dow falling 427 points. It closed just below the 8,000 mark, a five-year low.

* On a related note, in October, the Consumer Price Index experienced its steepest single-month drop in the 61-year history of the pricing survey.

* Obama's transition team made a few more announcements official this afternoon. David Axelrod will a senior advisor to the president; Greg Craig will be White House Counsel; Chris Lu will be Cabinet Secretary; and Lisa Brown will be Staff Secretary.

* Henry Waxman took one step closer today to beating out John Dingell for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The House Steering Committee voted 25-22 to approve Waxman for the post. The House Democratic caucus will vote tomorrow.

* Four years ago, Bush won Salt Lake County, Utah, by 20 points. This year, Obama narrowly won the same county.

* Sam Stein has a terrific report on the closed-door Democratic caucus meeting that decided Lieberman's fate.

* Joe Conason argues there's nothing wrong with Obama keeping Robert Gates around as the Defense Secretary.

* The combination of the weak economy and declining violence in Iraq has boosted the number of young people considering military careers.

* Republicans seem to have some grudging respect for Dean's 50-state strategy.

* Nice to see CNN's John King have a little fun with "The Daily Show's" John Oliver.

* Nate Silver has a fascinating chat with right-wing activist John Ziegler.

* Joe Scarborough's judgment is so bad, he can get politics and arithmetic wrong in the same sentence.

* Bill O'Reilly's website promotes a "holiday" reading list, instead of a "Christmas" reading list. One wonders, of course, whether O'Reilly will launch a boycott against himself.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MCCAIN WINS MISSOURI.... It took a little longer than expected, but we now know the results of the presidential race from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Missouri, the lone holdout, was called today for McCain.

With all jurisdictions reporting complete but unofficial results, McCain led Obama by 3,632 votes Wednesday out of more than 2.9 million cast -- a margin of 0.12 percentage points.

Both men spent considerable resources trying to win Missouri, a state that Obama ultimately did not need for his national victory.

Obama won 365 electoral votes. Missouri's 11 electoral votes will give McCain 173.

McCain's win breaks Missouri's long-standing streak -- in every election since 1956, the winner of Missouri's electoral votes won the presidency. (Before 1956, Missouri had backed the eventual winner in every race dating back to 1904.) So much for that "bellwether" talk.

The best part about today's announcement? Those red and blue maps that have featured a hole right in the middle have finally been completed. It's as if the presidential race is finally over.

Steve Benen 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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AND THEN THERE WERE 58.... I was holding off a bit, waiting to see if there'd be a statewide recount, but thankfully, Senator and convicted felon Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) conceded this afternoon.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Mark Begich in the Alaska Senate race.

Stevens, 85, was the longest serving Republican senator in the chamber's history.

"Given the number of ballots that remain to be counted, it is apparent the election has been decided and Mayor Begich has been elected," Stevens said in a statement."

Stevens' concession officially makes Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich a senator-elect, and officially brings the Senate Democratic caucus to 58. There are, of course, two remaining races that are unresolved: Minnesota (where a statewide recount began today) and Georgia (where there will be a runoff election on Dec. 2).

The resolution in Alaska has, of course, renewed discussion of a possible 60-seat majority -- in theory, filibuster-proof -- pending the last two contests. Just to reiterate a point from last week, it's best not to make too big a deal about this threshold.

Yes, every vote counts, and Republican obstructionist tactics are a given, but every major vote brings it own challenges, and there's never a guarantee that everyone in the Democratic caucus will vote together (Lieberman is, after all, part of the caucus). For that matter, there's no reason to believe that every Republican is necessarily going to back their party on cloture votes.

In fact, the real fun of the next Congress will be how center-right Republicans from "blue" states -- Snowe, Collins, Voinovich, and Specter, I'm looking in your direction -- respond to popular policy proposals launched by a popular Democratic president.

A 60-seat majority would be a milestone for the party, but it's hardly a green light to problem-free governing. Something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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TEAM OF RIVALS.... Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," about Abraham Lincoln stocking his cabinet with his political enemies to help forge political reconciliation, has been getting more than its share of attention. The President-elect has not only talked about how much he enjoyed the book, but as every political commentator with an audience seems to have emphasized, Obama also seems to be following Lincoln's example as something of a template.

Matthew Pinsker, who teaches Civil War history at Dickinson College, had a fascinating opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday, responding to Goodwin's thesis, and noting that Lincoln's "team of rivals" was actually pretty dysfunctional, and not an especially good idea to begin with.

As Pinsker explained, Lincoln ended up ignoring close allies, while promoting enemies, several of whom created practical and political trouble for the president. Most quit during Lincoln's first term.

Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln's Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.

Fair enough. But as tempting as it may be to connect Obama's approach to Lincoln's, and as much as the transition team probably likes the comparison to American hero/icon for public consumption, I'm not sure if the similarities are especially compelling.

At this point, literally zero cabinet announcements have been officially announced, but we're pretty sure about two cabinet spots (Daschle at HHS and Holder at Justice), and equally sure about one cabinet-level spot (Orszag at OMB). All three are highly qualified, and none of the three was ever an Obama "rival."

Now, for Secretary of State, Obama appears to be considering Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson, both of whom challenged Obama for the Democratic nomination. But as Kevin noted today, "[O]ne cabinet spot hardly counts as a team, does it?"

What's more, a team of rivals probably won't come together, in part because there's a limited number of rivals to consider. Biden wasn't a rival for very long, and he's the Vice President. Edwards hasn't quite made a comeback. Clinton or Richardson may get to take the reins at Foggy Bottom, but only one will probably be in the cabinet. Dodd is staying in the Senate, Kucinich is staying in the House, and Gravel is, well, probably wondering around somewhere, but has no shot at a government post.

The team may have a rival or two, but that's it. The Lincoln comparison just doesn't hold up well.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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EVEN THE BUSHIES.... When it comes to the Bush administration's environmental policies, there's a fairly predictable pattern -- scientists will weigh in, career EPA employees will agree with them, and Bush's political appointees will ignore all of them.

This one, though, is a little unusual.

The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, even though half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators formally dissented from the decision and four others criticized the move in writing.

Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the administration's push to weaken Clean Air Act protections for "Class 1 areas" nationwide has sparked fierce resistance from senior agency officials. All but two of the regional administrators objecting to the proposed rule are political appointees.

Got that? Several regional EPA administrators are opposing Bush's new air-quality rules for national parks and wilderness areas, despite having been appointed by Bush.

And how bad are the proposed rules? Pretty bad.

The proposal would change the practice of measuring pollution levels near national parks, which is currently done over three-hour and 24-hour increments to capture emission spikes during periods of peak energy demand; instead, the levels would be averaged over a year. Under this system, spikes in pollution would no longer violate the law.

Obama really will have a lot to do, won't he?

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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BOEHNER'S LUCK.... The result was a foregone conclusion, but the House Republican caucus made it official this afternoon, choosing to keep House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) as their leader. The vote count hasn't been released, but he reportedly "handily defeated" challenger Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.).

This wasn't a surprise, but the decision is nevertheless odd. Indeed, Eve Fairbanks had a good piece this morning, explaining that the GOP support for Boehner "seems nothing short of crazy."

In 1998, Newt Gingrich lost the GOP less than ten House seats and was promptly defenestrated. Boehner has not only presided over the loss of more than fifty seats for the party, but he also suffered a humiliating defection by rank-and-file conservatives on September's bailout bill -- a mutiny that I was certain, then, presaged a bigger challenge to his rule by young right-wingers after the election.

But no, House GOPers are taking Boehner back: It's as though the captain of the Titanic survived and got tapped to run another transatlantic cruise.

I pretty much expected Boehner's leadership role to be over after the October debacle on the Wall Street bailout. He helped negotiate the deal, urged his Republican members to follow his lead, and they blew him off entirely. Afterwards, Boehner blamed Speaker Pelosi for his own failure, saying she hurt GOP lawmakers' feelings.

And yet, Boehner continues to thrive. How? Fairbanks took a closer look at how Boehner handled the bailout mess, and why it's illustrative of his staying power.

Although Boehner technically backed the first, failed bailout bill, he artfully managed to appear to both support and oppose it at the same time. Boehner coined an instant anti-bailout rallying cry when he derided the bill as a "crap sandwich"; then, hours later, he minted himself a pro-bailout hero by hamming it up for the bill on the House floor, weeping and pleading, "What's in the best interest of our country? Vote yes!" The Oscar-worthy performance left both moderates and right-wingers impressed. Pro-bailout pundit Norm Ornstein placed Boehner in the pantheon of politicians who "transcended the partisan divide ... because they believed the country needed it," while anti-bailout agitator Newt Gingrich marveled on cable TV that Boehner had enabled conservative opposition.

It's a nice trick.

I still marvel at the history, though. Boehner was Majority Leader when his caucus lost 30 seats in 2006, and was Minority Leader when his party lost 24 more seats in 2008. When was the last time a party stuck with a leader after such devastating failures?

Steve Benen 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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PRIVATE JETS.... Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford, understands the importance of symbolic gestures and public relations. Yesterday, for example, when he arrived on Capitol Hill, hat in hand, hoping to convince lawmakers to help bail out American auto manufacturers, he arrived in a new Ford Fusion Hybrid. Ford's media team, of course, made sure reporters knew about this.

The goal wasn't necessarily to impress members of Congress, who wouldn't see Mulally's arrival; it was for our benefit. Showing up in a hybrid was supposed to convey to all of us that Ford is thinking ahead and taking innovation seriously.

If only Ford's p.r. team had thought about the other leg of the trip. How one gets to the Hill from the hotel isn't quite as interesting as how one gets from home to D.C.

The CEOs of the big three automakers flew to the nation's capital yesterday in private luxurious jets to make their case to Washington that the auto industry is running out of cash and needs $25 billion in taxpayer money to avoid bankruptcy.

The CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler may have told Congress that they will likely go out of business without a bailout yet that has not stopped them from traveling in style, not even First Class is good enough.

All three CEOs -- Rick Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford, and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler -- exercised their perks Tuesday by flying in corporate jets to DC. Wagoner flew in GM's $36 million luxury aircraft to tell members of Congress that the company is burning through cash, asking for $10-12 billion for GM alone.

GM's Wagoner parked his G4 private jet at a nearby airport. It's one of a fleet of GM-owned luxury jets used to ferry executives around the world. Ford's Mulally has access to a jet as part of his $28 million employment contract; it's one of eight private jets Ford owns for its executives.

If these guys had flown commercial first-class, while their companies are teetering on the brink, it would have been embarrassing. But company-owned private jets?

I've seen some persuasive arguments, most notably from Jonathan Cohn, on government intervention to rescue the auto industry. But a) these CEOs aren't helping; and b) they'll probably have to be replaced as part of any rescue plan.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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DASCHLE TO HEAD HHS?.... Even before the election, drafts of what an Obama cabinet might look like had former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle taking the lead at HHS. If the reports today are accurate, that's exactly what's going to happen.

Three sources close to the transition and in a position to know tell CNN that former Sen. Tom Daschle is President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be Secretary of Health and Human Services and the former Senate Majority Leader has indicated he wants the job.

Most significantly, Daschle negotiated that he will also serve as the White House health "czar" -- or point person -- so that he will report directly to the incoming President. The significance is this guarantees that by wearing two hats Daschle, and not White House staffers, will be writing the health care plan that Obama submits to Congress next year.

The sources said the precise timing of the announcement has not been worked out, but Daschle is likely to officially join the Obama transition team as the lead adviser on health issues in the next few weeks.

Roll Call, I believe, was the first to report the news.

The Daschle announcement reinforces the notion that an Obama administration is going to take the push for healthcare reform very seriously. A senior Democratic official told Mike Allen, "Of all the proposals that Obama wants to enact, health care requires the most input and tough negotiations and shepherding. No one knows the House and Senate like Tom Daschle."

Indeed, the Daschle news makes me even more encouraged about the prospect of a healthcare package actually passing. Emanuel is insisting that an incremental approach won't do; Baucus and Kennedy are laying the groundwork on the Hill; and Daschle has been preparing for this fight for quite a while.

For more on what to expect in terms of the policy debate, you can also check out Daschle's recent book about healthcare policy, and Ezra's interview with him on the subject earlier this year.

Update: Jonathan Cohn has more, including why this is the "perfect role for Daschle," and why this is "good news for health reform."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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EMANUEL VOWS TO 'THROW LONG AND DEEP'.... My biggest concern about Rahm Emanuel becoming the next White House chief of staff is his record of incrementalism.

With that in mind, it was hard not to find his comments yesterday very encouraging. Talking to a group of CEOs and business leaders, Emanuel said incremental changes wouldn't be enough, and urged his audience to work with the Obama administration's push for universal health care.

"When it gets rough out there, a lot of business leaders get out of the car and say, 'We're OK with minor reform.' I'm challenging you today, we're going to have to do big, serious things," Rahm Emanuel said, speaking to The Wall Street Journal's CEO Council, a conference convened to elicit corporate opinion on the challenges facing the new president. [...]

Mr. Emanuel promised that a major economic stimulus would be "the first order of business" for Mr. Obama when he takes office Jan. 20. The focus of spending will be on infrastructure, specifically "green infrastructure," which he said would include mass transit, upgraded electricity transmission lines, "smart" electrical meters that allow consumers to save money by using electricity at off-peak hours, and universal broadband Internet access, which he said would encourage telecommuting.

He stressed that the new administration would "throw long and deep," taking advantage of the economic crisis to push wholesale changes in health care, taxes, financial re-regulation and energy. "The American people in two successive elections have voted for change, and change cannot be allowed to die on the doorsteps of Washington," Mr. Emanuel said.

The Wall Street Journal posted the video of Emanuel's remarks.

Greg Sargent noted, "While the devil will of course be in the details, the fact that Rahm himself is setting the bar very high for the incoming administration's expected health care reform efforts is welcome."

Quite right. This didn't sound like an incrementalist, promising to go slow and work around the edges; it sounded like someone ready to help the president make real changes real soon.

The reports didn't indicate how Emanuel's remarks were received by the business audience, but they have every reason to get onboard with the Obama agenda, especially on health care.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* The recount begins today in Minnesota's closely watched Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Coleman goes into the process with a 0.008% lead. With nearly 3 million votes to review, the process is expected to take several weeks.

* In Georgia, home to the other unresolved Senate race, incumbent Saxby Chambliss is running more attacks ads, this time going after Barack Obama's tax plan. As Eric Kleefeld noted, "To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attack ad out there that has gone after Barack Obama since he won the election (not counting Fox News promos)." The runoff election is on Dec. 2.

* Speaking of the Georgia race, Bill Clinton will be in Georgia campaigning for Jim Martin today.

* Al Gore will be in Georgia in support of Martin on Sunday.

* Michael Steele, hoping to become the next chairman of the Republican National Committee, lashed out yesterday at the party's "country club" mentality.

* Hoping to end speculation about his future, John McCain announced yesterday that he will seek re-election in 2010. If Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) takes him on, as has been rumored, it will certainly be the toughest race McCain has faced in Arizona.

* And Sarah Palin, in the latest sign of her efforts to secure party support for a future campaign, has already agreed to be a featured guest at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). John McCain will reportedly not be invited to the event.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WHEN WAS THE GOP'S FACTIONAL WARFARE?.... The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, writing before yesterday's caucus vote on Joe Lieberman, offered an odd assessment of the political landscape.

Asked what it would mean if Lieberman kept his chairmanship, one Senate Democratic aide said bluntly: "The left has been foiled again. They can rant and rage but they still do not put the fear into folks to actually change their votes. Their influence would be in question."

That's one way to look at it. The other is that the left would be up in arms and far less willing to go along and get along with President-elect Barack Obama's agenda -- particularly if it doesn't contain the appropriate progressive tilt.

These are the problems of power, the same problems that Republican experienced following the 2000 election. The GOP's inability to make peace between its warring ideological factions led to its decline in 2006 and fall in 2008. Can Democrats avoid the same fate?

Now, plenty of my colleagues have talked about the first paragraph, on the netroots' efforts to "put the fear into folks." But that last paragraph that struck me as even more confusing.

As Cillizza sees it, the Republican Party has been burdened by ideological conflicts throughout Bush's presidency, which apparently led to the party's troubles over the last couple of cycles.

I'm afraid Cillizza has it completely backwards. When was it, exactly, that Republican endured "warring ideological factions"? In our reality, GOP policy makers were in line with the Bush White House every step of the way, and voted with the president's wishes throughout the first six years of his presidency.

And that, of course, was the problem. Republican lawmakers latched onto a failed and unpopular president, and endorsed his policies that didn't work. Voters disapproved and voted them out. There were no "warring ideological factions" in the GOP -- the party might have been better off if there were.

I heartily endorse Steve M.'s incredulity: "Is that really why insider journos think the GOP had trouble at the polls in the last two elections? Because the GOP and the right weren't in lockstep enough? Was I smoking crack for the last eight years? Did I imagine the near-total absence of GOP/right-wing dissent on the war, torture, surveillance, the tax cuts, deregulation, social programs, and dozens of other issues?"

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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SORE LOSER WATCH.... I imagine it's traumatic losing a close campaign one expects to win, but Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a very conservative Colorado Republican, seems to be taking her Election Day defeat to Democrat Betsy Markey a little too hard.

Musgrave, a Republican who's been representing Colorado's 4th District since 2002, became part of the Republican Casualty List when she lost in a landslide, even after the National Republican Congressional Committee doled out almost a million bucks (reportedly $900,000) for her campaign.

Two weeks after the brutal loss, Musgrave still hasn't called her opponent to concede or to congratulate the victor, as is not only textbook but also mannerly to do.

Moreover, Musgrave's ill manners bleed into her own team. Rumor has it she still -- 14 days later -- hasn't even thanked her campaign staff. (Again, textbook.)

Musgrave press secretary Joseph Brettell tells us: "It's a campaign matter, and I have no further comment."

Making matters slightly worse, it seems no one has seen or talked to Musgrave since her 12-point defeat. "[S]he's all but disappeared," the Politico's Anne Schroeder Mullins reported.

It sounds rather alarming.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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KATHLEEN PARKER TAKES ON THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT.... In September, Kathleen Parker, a conservative syndicated columnist, raised quite a few eyebrows when she explained that Sarah Palin had no business running for national office. "If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself," Parker said, before urging Palin to quit the Republican ticket. She was rewarded with literally thousands of angry right-wing emails.

Parker, to her enormous credit, continues to push back against conservative orthodoxy. In a Washington Post piece today, she encouraged the Republican Party to realize that its religious-right base is a leading cause for the party's electoral troubles.

[T]he evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn't soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth -- as long as we're setting ourselves free -- is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.

The choir has become absurdly off-key, and many Republicans know it.

But they need those votes! So it has been for the Grand Old Party since the 1980s or so, as it has become increasingly beholden to an element that used to be relegated to wooden crates on street corners.

Parker is surprisingly candid in her assessment, criticizing the Republican Party for having "surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows." By becoming the party of the Dobsons and Robertsons of the world, the GOP, Parker insists, has alienated "other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle."

She concludes that the Republican Party may ultimately "die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one's heart where it belongs."

On the substance, I think the GOP would be wise to take Parker's advice seriously. The party is likely to do the opposite, but presenting itself to a modern, diverse population as the party of religious fundamentalists and, to borrow a phrase, "agents of intolerance," will help Republicans thrive in the Bible Belt -- and nowhere else.

As for Parker, I shudder to think how many emails she'll get once this column makes the rounds. She's offering the GOP some very sound advice, but that won't matter after the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family make her their new Public Enemy #1.

Steve Benen 9:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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AL QAEDA'S ANTI-OBAMA WEDGE POLITICS.... As propaganda goes, al Qaeda seems to be getting a little desperate.

Al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri is criticizing Barack Obama in a new message, calling him a demeaning racial term implying that the president-elect is a black American who does the bidding of whites.

Al-Zawahri says in an audio message, which appeared on militant Web sites Wednesday, that Obama is "the direct opposite of honorable black Americans" like Malcolm X. He calls Obama a "house negro."

The audio plays over still pictures of al-Zawahri, Malcolm X praying, and Obama with Jewish leaders.

In the first public al-Qaida comment about Obama's electoral victory, al-Zawahri adds that Obama's plan to shift troops to Afghanistan is doomed to failure, because Afghans will resist.

It's only a matter of time before al-Zawahri starts demanding that people "respect his authority."

Last month, Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism coordinator for the National Security Council, explained that the last thing al Qaeda would want is an Obama presidency, in part because the terrorist network wouldn't want a U.S. president who enjoys respect and support on the world stage.

But if this is the terrorists' idea of undermining Obama's popularity, they need new p.r. reps. The message from al-Zawahri is kind of pathetic.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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ABOUT THAT CHENEY INDICTMENT.... At first blush, the headline looked pretty extraordinary: "Texas Grand Jury Indicts Cheney, Gonzales on Charges Related to Prisons." Wait, Dick Cheney's been indicted? It sounded too good to be true, in large part because it is.

Vice President Cheney and former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales have been indicted on state charges involving federal prisons in a South Texas county that has been a source of bizarre legal and political battles under the outgoing prosecutor. [...]

Cheney is charged with engaging in an organized criminal activity related to the vice president's investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers. Cheney is accused of a conflict of interest and "at least misdemeanor assaults" on detainees because of his link to the prison companies. [...]

The indictment accuses Gonzales of using his position while in office to stop an investigation in 2006 into abuses at one of the privately run prisons.

The AP report noted that the indictments "have not yet been signed by the presiding judge, and no action can be taken on them until that happens." And that, of course, is unlikely to ever happen.

The prosecutor in question is Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who's apparently developed a reputation for being something of a ... how do I put this gently ... legal eccentric. A lawyer for Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., who is also charged in the Cheney/Gonzales indictment, called Guerra a "one man circus."

The description seems to fit. David Kurtz noted that Guerra even got himself arrested not too long ago.

As it happens, Guerra sought re-election as a district attorney, but lost (badly) in a Democratic primary back in March. With his term nearly complete, it appears that he's scurrying to get some 11th-hour indictments against his enemies off his to-do list.

I don't doubt there are many Bush administration detractors who'd be thrilled to see Cheney and Gonzales get indicted, but this probably isn't a development to get excited about.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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DOES LIEBERMAN OWE OBAMA?.... By most indications, Barack Obama's magnanimity towards Joe Lieberman played a rather direct role in Lieberman keeping his committee chairmanship. It's hard to say with any certainty what would have happened in yesterday's caucus meeting if the president-elect had been less charitable, but if there was any real support for holding Lieberman accountable for his conduct, it dissipated in the wake of Obama's graciousness.

With that in mind, A.L. argued that there may be a silver lining to yesterday's developments.

It's pretty clear from the statements of various parties, including Lieberman himself, that Obama's expressed desire to bury the hatchet was instrumental in allowing Lieberman to retain his chairmanship. Obama didn't have to do this. Lieberman campaigned for his opponent and said a lot of unfair things about Obama during the campaign. If Obama had allowed Lieberman to be stripped of his chairmanship, no one would have blamed him.

Everyone on Capitol Hill and in the press corps knows this. So, in a very real sense, Lieberman is now beholden to Obama. He's owes him one. And there may be times in the next few years when President Obama needs to cash that in, when he needs Lieberman's vote on a key piece of legislation or needs Lieberman's help to convince people like John McCain and Lindsay Graham to break ranks and join the Democrats. And when that happens, President Obama will have an important chip to play. He'll be able to call Lieberman into the Oval Office, sit him down, and say, "Look, Joe, remember when the Senate was voting to remove you from your chairmanship? I stepped up for you then. I need you to step up for me now."

Maybe. The reason I'm skeptical, though, is that Lieberman hasn't demonstrated any loyalty before, and I doubt he will now.

Let's not forget, Lieberman owed Obama and Democrats before. Lieberman begged Obama to come campaign for him in 2006, and he did. Lieberman begged the leadership to let him keep his seniority and committee positions, even after he ran against the Democratic nominee in Connecticut, and they did. He was in their debt for the last two years, and how did he repay them? How much respect did he show? Lieberman's offensive conduct speaks for itself.

And therein lies the rub: Lieberman expected to get away with it, and he did. So, yes, he once again owes Obama and is in the Democratic Party's debt. But he's also seen firsthand that there are no consequences for betrayal. With the vote yesterday, the Senate Democratic caucus gave Lieberman no incentive to be a team player.

I'd like to think Obama may have some leverage with Lieberman in the future, but if Lieberman had a sense of loyalty, he wouldn't have gotten into this position in the first place.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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November 18, 2008
By: Hilzoy

AP Calls It For Begich

In the Alaska Senate race, Mark Begich now leads Ted Stevens by 3724 votes. The AP has called the race for Begich:

"Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history, narrowly lost his re-election bid Tuesday, marking the downfall of a Washington political power and Alaska icon who couldn't survive a conviction on federal corruption charges. His defeat to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich moves Senate Democrats closer to a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

Stevens' ouster on his 85th birthday marks an abrupt realignment in Alaska politics and will alter the power structure in the Senate, where he has served since the days of the Johnson administration while holding seats on some of the most influential committees in Congress."

There are apparently a few overseas absentee ballots left to count, and the Anchorage Daily News says we should expect a recount. But it looks as though the Senate will remain free of convicted felons for the time being.

Hilzoy 9:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Nice to see a positive day on Wall Street for a change.

* Execs from the U.S. auto manufacturers were on the Hill today, with hat in hand. They got an earful from angry lawmakers.

* Howard Dean's all right with the Senate Democrats' decision on Lieberman.

* Even now, the Bush gang is pushing an 11th-hour plan to "grant sweeping new protections to health care providers who oppose abortion and other procedures on religious or moral grounds has provoked a torrent of objections."

* In the latest round of rumors, Hillary Clinton isn't sure if she wants the Secretary of State job.

* If Clinton stays in the Senate, Ted Kennedy has a project for her.

* Given recent history, Obama probably won't tackle this right off the bat, but it's worth remembering that "more than 100 retired U.S. military leaders -- including the former head of the Naval Academy -- have signed a statement calling for an end to the military's 'don't ask-don't tell' policy."

* Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden will not replace his Dad in the Senate.

* Chuck Hagel seems to feel liberated now that he's poised to leave elected office. (Note his comments about Limbaugh.)

* E&P has been chronicling local anti-Obama incidents, "usually involving racist attacks of a verbal, physical or even criminal nature." Some truly chilling reports.

* Prosecuting interrogators who engaged in torture is legally tricky.

* I get the sense E.D. Hill never quite recovered from her bizarre comment about the Obamas' "terrorist fist-bump." Even Fox News doesn't want her anymore.

* For the first time in a long while, Texas finds itself left out of the leadership in D.C.

* And finally, the trailer for the new J.J. Abrams-led "Star Trek" movie is finally out. My friend and fellow sci-fi geek Bill Simmon takes a closer look at the two-minute trailer and has an interesting take.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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POTENTIALLY STRONG CABINET MOVES.... All of the usual caveats apply, most notably the fact that rumors about cabinet moves do not constitute reliable pieces of information. All of this is subject to change, and none of this has been confirmed by the transition team. Grains of salt for everyone.

That said, if these credible reports are accurate, I'm very encouraged by some of the names who may be joining Barack Obama's cabinet. Here's the latest report on the would-be Attorney General.

President-elect Obama has decided to tap Eric Holder as his attorney general, putting the veteran Washington lawyer in place to become the first African-American to head the Justice Department, according to two legal sources close to the presidential transition.

Holder, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, still has to undergo a formal "vetting" review by the Obama transition team before the selection is final and is publicly announced, said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified talking about the transition process. But in the discussions over the past few days, Obama offered Holder the job and he accepted, the source said. [...]

Holder, 57, has been on Obama's "short list" for attorney general from the outset. A partner at the D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling, Holder served as co-chief (along with Caroline Kennedy) of Obama's vice-presidential selection process.... A New York City native who graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School, Holder spent years as a federal prosecutor—a job in which he earned a reputation as tough and aggressive foe of public corruption. After serving in the public integrity section of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and later a District of Columbia Superior Court judge, Holder was named by President Clinton as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He became deputy attorney general in 1997 under Janet Reno and was viewed as a centrist on most law enforcement issues, though he has sharply criticized the secrecy and the expansive views of executive power advanced by the Bush Justice Department.

The AP reports that Obama aides have already reached out to Senate offices about whether Holder's confirmation would go smoothly.

Everything I know of Holder is positive (check out this speech he delivered to the American Constitution Society a few years ago). He's universally respected and as a former deputy AG, knows a bit about how the Justice Department is supposed to work. And after eight years of Bushies trashing the joint, that's an important skill to bring to the table. (No, don't pay any mind to that Marc Rich issue.)

Moreover, while the OMB is technically not part of the cabinet, its director is considered cabinet level, and Peter Orszag would be a fine choice.

President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to tap Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag, once a veteran economic adviser in the Clinton White House, to become his budget director, according to several National Journal sources. The Office of Management and Budget job -- seen as a key post to help Obama deliver on his domestic policy agenda amidst the gloom of a $700 billion federal financial rescue, a recession and the prospects of a $1 trillion deficit next year -- carries Cabinet rank. [...]

Orszag, who will turn 40 on Dec. 16, has been praised by lawmakers from both parties as an objective analyst with deep knowledge of the most pressing fiscal issues of the day, including health care policy, Social Security, pensions, and global climate change. He is the unusual economist who blends an understanding of politics, policy and communications in ways that wrap zesty quotes around complex ideas.

I'm a big Orszag fan, and I'd be thrilled to see him at OMB.

Here's hoping today's rumors are true.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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KRISTOL'S FUTURE.... I've been working under the assumption that Bill Kristol would lose his New York Times column as soon as his contract is up. It's never occurred to me that any other outcome is even possible. Kristol has not only been a breathtakingly bad columnist, but he's bashed his own employer on national television.

But at this point, we don't really know with any certainty whether Kristol will stick around or not. George Packer has some words of advice for the paper of record. (via Christopher Orr)

It's not just that Kristol isn't another Safire (although an absence of verbal playfulness and wit is a consistent hallmark of the Kristol prose style). It's not just that his views are utterly predictable (if that were firing grounds, close to half the Times columnists would lose their jobs). It's not just that he was fundamentally wrong at least every other week throughout the year (misattributing a quote in his first column, counting Clinton out after Iowa, placing Obama at a Jeremiah Wright sermon that Obama didn't attend, predicting the imminent return of a McCain adviser named Mike Murphy who ended up staying off the campaign, all but predicting a McCain victory, sort of predicting that McCain would oppose the bailout, praising McCain's "suspension" of his campaign as a smart move, preferring fake populism to professional excellence and Joe the Plumber to Horace the Poet, urging Ayers-Wright attack tactics as the way for McCain to win, basically telling McCain to ignore all the advice Kristol had given him throughout the year, but above all, vouching again and again and again, privately and publicly, for Palin as an excellent Vice-Presidential choice). What the hell -- it was an unpredictable year.

The real grounds for firing Kristol are that he didn't take his column seriously. In his year on the Op-Ed page, not one memorable sentence, not one provocative thought, not one valuable piece of information appeared under his name. The prose was so limp ("Who, inquiring minds want to know, is going to spare us a first Obama term?") that you had the sense Kristol wrote his column during the commercial breaks of his gig on Fox News Sunday and gave it about the same amount of thought....

Kristol's performance on the Op-Ed page during the most interesting election in a generation is a historical symptom, not merely a personal failure. He wrote badly because his world view had become problematic at best, untenable at worst, and he had spent too many years turning out Party propaganda to summon the intellectual resources that a difficult situation required. Now the Times owes it to its readers to find someone better.

Kevin noted that he gave up on even reading Kristol's columns a while ago, not because of Kristol's conservatism, but because Kristol is just boring, offering little more than "the tritest conservative conventional wisdom on the subject at hand."

I wish I could give up on Kristol's misguided missives as easily, but like a car crash, I find it difficult to look away. Besides, most of the time, they make for entertaining targets for blog posts.

But that's not a good reason to give Kristol one of the premier pieces of real estate in American media. He's embarrassed the paper with his predictable sophistry, and one can hope the Times will put an end to the farce fairly soon.

Steve Benen 3:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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BUSH BURROWING.... Michelle Cottle noted this morning, "Jeez. Looks like it's going to take a Brill-O pad and a round of antibiotics to rid ourselves of the Bushies." It's true; we're dealing with a team anxious to leave its mark for a very long time.

Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.

The transfer of political appointees into permanent federal positions, called "burrowing" by career officials, creates security for those employees, and at least initially will deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.

Similar efforts are taking place at other agencies. Two political hires at the Labor Department have already secured career posts there, and one at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to make the switch.

Between March 1 and Nov. 3, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Bush administration allowed 20 political appointees to become career civil servants. Six political appointees to the Senior Executive Service, the government's most prestigious and highly paid employees, have received approval to take career jobs at the same level. Fourteen other political, or "Schedule C," appointees have also been approved to take career jobs. One candidate was turned down by OPM and two were withdrawn by the submitting agency.

The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits.

If you read one newspaper article today, read this one. It's the kind of piece that highlights a policy of lasting significance.

It wasn't a surprise when the Bush administration placed a bunch of industry lobbyists in political offices throughout the government, but there's an expectation that new political appointees would replace them once there's a new president. Lots of Bushies, however, are "burrowing" -- becoming career employees, who are very hard to replace, giving them a chance to keep up their work well into the future.

To be fair, Bush isn't the first president to pursue a burrowing strategy; eight years ago, Clinton was making similar moves.

But as Yglesias noted, "[A]s with all bad aspects of the American political system, George W. Bush seems determined to make things worse.... [B]asically we'll have the top layer of the civil service filled with industry shills."

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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NO 'PUNISHMENT' WHATSOEVER.... Following up on the last item, at first blush, it seems Senate Democrats chose a minor and inconsequential punishment for Joe Lieberman, instead of a credible and reasonable one. But a closer look suggests Lieberman literally wasn't "punished" at all.

Going into today, Lieberman chaired the Homeland Security Committee, and chaired subcommittees on the Environment and Public Works Committee and Armed Services Committee. Democrats decided to strip Lieberman of his EPW subcommittee chairmanship.

Sounds like a slap on the wrist, right? As it happens, it wasn't even that -- Lieberman told reporters this afternoon that the caucus changed the rules this morning so that no member can be chair a committee and two subcommittees at the same time. Lieberman keeps the two gavels he wanted, and loses the one he didn't.

A few months ago, it seemed Lieberman's role in the caucus was in jeopardy. After Lieberman dictated what he wanted, Senate Democrats decided not to "punish" him for his betrayals in any way.

I'm trying to get additional information about which Dems voted which way, but for now, the AP reports that Sens. Leahy (Vt.), Sanders (Vt.), and Merkeley (Ore.) spoke up against Lieberman during the closed-door meeting. Sens. Reid (Nev.), Durbin (Ill.), and Kerry (Mass.) were among Lieberman's vocal supporters.

Kevin hit the note that's been bugging me.

I guess they really showed him, didn't they? No Democrat will ever dare to support a Republican candidate for president, speak at the Republican national convention in prime time, and bad mouth the Democratic Party's candidate ever again.

If we put everything else aside, the precedent here really is startling. As I reported last week, in 1964, Rep. John Bell Williams (D) of Mississippi and Rep. Albert Watson (D) of South Carolina both endorsed Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, and both were punished by losing their seniority. Four years later, Rep. John Rarick (D) of Louisiana endorsed George Wallace's presidential campaign, and the party stripped him of his committee seniority, too.

Now, Lieberman endorsed McCain, spoke at the GOP convention, helped down-ballot Republicans, and smeared the Democratic nominee at every available opportunity, and the caucus decided to let him off the hook entirely.

Steve Benen 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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OBAMA SENDS CLEAR MESSAGE ON GLOBAL WARMING.... A two-day gathering called the Bi-Partisan Governors Global Climate Summit convened this morning in Los Angeles, and Barack Obama made an unexpected video presentation, vowing a "new chapter in American leadership on climate change."

If you can't watch clips online, the Washington Post has a full transcript of the text, but I'd note that Obama offered unambiguous remarks on the issue, criticizing the federal government's recent failures, touting a federal cap and trade system, promising to "invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future," and citing specific annual targets on emission reductions.

Obama also spoke to the international delegations (12 counties sent representatives to this week's event) on hand in L.A. "Let me also say a special word to the delegates from around the world who will gather in Poland next month: your work is vital to the planet," Obama said. "While I won't be President at the time of your meeting and while the United States has only one President at a time, I've asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there. And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change."

In other words, don't worry about that Bush guy; hope is on the way.

As Greg Sargent noted, "Pretty refreshing to have an adult as incoming president."

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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LIEBERMAN GETS A SLAP ON THE WRIST.... Regrettably, the Senate Democratic caucus meeting went exactly as expected this morning.

Senate Democrats refused Tuesday to strip Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) of his prized chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

After months of acrimony between him and his former party, Democrats ultimately decided that taking away Lieberman's gavel would give Republicans an extra vote next Congress.

Lieberman instead will lose chairmanship of a global warming subcommittee on the Environment and Public Works Commission as a rebuke for supporting John McCain and attacking Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.

Roll Call added, "Senators approved the motion by a resounding vote of 42-13." Because the vote was held by secret ballot, we don't know which Democrats were part of the 13.

There will no doubt be plenty of discussion about how and why Lieberman got away with his offensive conduct with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, but I think there are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First, in retrospect, as soon as the option of kicking Lieberman out of the Democratic caucus was taken off the table, the center of gravity shifted. Initially, taking away Lieberman's committee chairmanship was the compromise/middle-ground between two extremes (giving him the boot and doing nothing). Once Democrats agreed that they preferred to keep Lieberman in the caucus, all of a sudden, stripping him of his gavel became the new extreme position, and the EPW subcommittee became the new "compromise." The shift obviously benefited Lieberman.

Second, let's pause to appreciate just how smart Lieberman is. In this case, I don't mean that as a compliment. It was inconceivable that if Obama won in a veritable landslide, while the Senate Democratic caucus grew by (at least) six seats, that Lieberman would not only get off scot-free, but would also be in a position to dictate to Democrats, without any leverage at all, which outcomes he found "unacceptable." If someone had predicted this scenario to me a month ago, I could have found it ridiculous. And yet, here we are.

Josh Marshall had a post back in June explaining, even before some of Lieberman's most outrageous conduct, that Lieberman was burning bridges that couldn't be rebuilt. "My assumption is that after the November election, regardless of the outcome of the presidential campaign, Joe will be stripped of his chairmanship," Josh said. I agreed wholeheartedly at the time. It was a no-brainer.

Except, it wasn't. Lieberman knows Senate Democrats better than Democratic voters do. My friend Matt told me via email yesterday, "If Lieberman ends up keeping his gavel on Homeland Security, I think we need to stop for a moment and recognize him as the smartest politician in Washington. He will have correctly made a bet about the fortitude of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and he will have been right, against all apparent odds."

This is a decision, I suspect, that the caucus will regret in the not-too-distant future. It's predicated on the assumption that Lieberman really is a Democrat at heart.

He's not.

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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A TEAM PLAYER.... I haven't had too much to say about the prospect of Hillary Clinton joining the Obama administration as Secretary of State, in part because I'm inclined to take a wait-and-see attitude. We know the president-elect has met with the New York senator, we're pretty sure they discussed the job at Foggy Bottom, and we're kinda sorta sure she has been or will be offered the job.

We don't know, however, whether Clinton wants or will accept the gig, or whether she might run into confirmation trouble. (Yes, I know what the Guardian reported late yesterday, but I tend to be skeptical about British newspaper reporting on U.S. political developments.)

Working under the assumption that Clinton is at least on the short list to be the next Secretary of State, I've heard a few arguments why her selection would be problematic. Some are clearly more compelling than others. Yglesias noted, for example, the extensive money Bill Clinton has raised from foreign governments for his philanthropic work. "I don't really see how you could have a Secretary of State whose husband was engaged in that kind of fundraising," Matt said. That's a fair point.

What seems far less fair to me is to think Hillary Clinton would be some kind of rogue player in an Obama administration, using her power to further her own goals. Greg Sargent noted:

My own sense from talking to foreign policy types in touch with Obama's people is that Obamaland thinks Hillary has the requisite global stature for the gig and also is enough of a genuine team player to function well in Obama's cabinet -- a view that's markedly at odds with the "Clintons will undermine Obama from within" type commentary we keep hearing.

Of course she's a team player. Didn't she prove that to the party over the last three months of the campaign, when she hit the trail in support of the Democratic ticket she wasn't on?

Clinton wouldn't accept the opportunity if she weren't prepared to help execute Obama's foreign policy and diplomatic goals. It's as simple as that.

As Atrios concluded, "I don't think I'm going to be able to worked up about Obama's personnel decisions generally, but I agree that the idea that Hillary Clinton might go 'rogue' or need to be fired is just absurd. The Clintons just drive the media insane."

Steve Benen 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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STEVENS LIVES TO SEE ANOTHER DAY -- FOR NOW.... Both Senate caucuses got together this morning for meetings that would help decide the fate of two long-time senators. For Democrats, that meant voting on Joe Lieberman's future and his committee chairmanship. For Republicans, it was a scheduled vote on whether convicted felon Ted Stevens remained in the GOP caucus.

The good news for Stevens is that vote has been postponed. The bad news for Stevens is that the reprieve is temporary.

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) said Tuesday he will hold off on pushing to expel embattled Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) from the GOP Conference until after the outcome of his colleague's re-election to another Senate term is known.

But DeMint said he has the support to boot Stevens -- recently convicted on seven felony counts -- from the Republican ranks.

"After talking with many of my colleagues, it's clear there are sufficient votes to pass the resolution regarding Senator Stevens. The question now is timing," DeMint said. "Some who support the resolution believe we should address this after the results of his election are confirmed in Alaska. For this reason, I will ask the Conference to postpone the vote on Senator Stevens until Thursday."

This isn't much of a victory for Stevens. Sure, if DeMint's motion had passed, and Stevens were booted from the Republican ranks, it would have been humiliating. But the vote was delayed because everyone believes Stevens is going to lose his re-election bid anyway, making the vote pointless.

Either way, Stevens has no future. Either he loses in Alaska -- where Stevens currently trails by 1,022 votes -- or he loses in the Senate.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NOW THEY TELL US.... For several years now, leading Democrats -- some of whom support abortion rights, some of whom don't -- have made a good-faith effort to find some common ground with conservatives on preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing the number of abortions. Democrats, through efforts endorsed by NARAL, have proposed a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy education and prevention programs. There was, Dems said, nothing inconsistent about being pro-choice and working to reduce the number of abortions.

Republicans and the conservative base balked. Dobson famously said "there is no middle ground" on abortion, and congressional Republicans refused to even consider prevention-focused legislation.

Apparently, though, some conservatives are reconsidering.

Frustrated by the failure to overturn Roe v. Wade, a growing number of antiabortion pastors, conservative academics and activists are setting aside efforts to outlaw abortion and instead are focusing on building social programs and developing other assistance for pregnant women to reduce the number of abortions.

Some of the activists are actually working with abortion rights advocates to push for legislation in Congress that would provide pregnant women with health care, child care and money for education -- services that could encourage them to continue their pregnancies.

Their efforts, they said, reflect the political reality that legal challenges to abortion rights will not be successful, especially after Barack Obama's victory this month in the presidential election and the defeat of several ballot measures that would have restricted access to abortions. Although the activists insist that they are not retreating from their belief that abortion is immoral and should be outlawed, they argue that a more practical alternative is to try to reduce abortions through other means.

The far-right isn't happy. "It's a sellout, as far as we are concerned," said Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League. "We don't think it's really genuine. You don't have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions."

And while it's tempting to think that if extremists in the Republican base are unhappy than this must be an encouraging development, the devil will be in the details.

If Republicans are willing to work with Democrats on programs involving family-planning, health care, and access to contraception, there's room for real progress. But that won't be easy. For one thing, Republicans tend to hate family-planning, health care, and access to contraception. For another, as Scott Lemieux reminded us the other day, the right can use the debate to create "justifications that can pretty quickly end up in arguments for burdensome abortion regulations."

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 10:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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NEWSWEEK CONSIDERS ANTICHRIST TALK.... When bizarre, fringe publications speculate openly about who may or may not be the Antichrist, it's easy to dismiss. When Newsweek publishes a 600-word piece on those who wonder about Obama being the Antichrist, one really has to wonder what on earth the editors were thinking.

On Nov. 5, Todd Strandberg was at his desk, fielding E-mails from around the world. As the editor and founder of RaptureReady.com, his job is to track current events and link them to biblical prophecy in hopes of maintaining his status as "the eBay of prophecy," the best source online for predictions and calculations concerning the end of the world. Already Barack Obama had drawn the attention of apocalypse watchers after an anonymous e-mail circulated among conservative Christians in October implying that he was the Antichrist. Former "Saturday Night Live" ingenue Victoria Jackson fueled the fire when, according to news reports, she wrote on her Web site that Obama "bears traits that resemble the anti-Christ." Now Strandberg was receiving up-to-the-minute news from his constituents in Illinois. One of the winning lottery numbers in the president-elect's home state was 666 -- which, as everyone knows, is the sign of the Beast (also known as the Antichrist). "It is very eerie, and I take it for a sign as to who he really is," wrote one of Strandberg's correspondents.

First, from a theological perspective, the whole thing about "666" being a "mark of the beast" is inherently suspect, and dismissed as nonsense by most scholars. Second, and more importantly, what is the purpose of Newsweek running a story about those who wonder if Obama is the Antichrist?

Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University's law school, says he does not believe Obama is the Antichrist, but he can see how others might. Obama's own use of religious rhetoric belies his liberal positions on abortion and traditional marriage, Staver says, positions that "religious conservatives believe will threaten their freedom." The people who believe Obama is the Antichrist are perhaps jumping to conclusions, but they're not nuts: "They are expressing a concern and a fear that is widely shared," Staver says.

Um, Newsweek? "Widely shared" fears can most definitely be "nuts."

Strandberg says Obama probably isn't the Antichrist, but he's watching the president-elect carefully. On his Web site, he has something called the Rapture Index, a calculation based on signs and prophecy of the proximity of the end. According to Strandberg, any number over 160 means "fasten your seat belts." Obama's win pushed the index to 161.

Keep in mind, this isn't just some bizarre online-only piece -- Newsweek decided this was worthy of publication in the print edition of its weekly news magazine.

I can appreciate the fact that there are a handful of very odd people in the world, some of whom believe the Book of Revelation foretold Obama's election. Strange people can be led to believe strange things. That's not a reason for Newsweek to publish articles about their inanity.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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DOBSON'S PYRRHIC VICTORY.... James Dobson and his far-right Focus on the Family empire invested $539,000 in cash and another $83,000 worth of non-monetary support into making sure same-sex couples in California can't get married. The efforts, at least in the short term, paid off, and the infamous Prop. 8 narrowly won at the ballot box.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory. Dobson's group was spending money it could ill afford to lose.

Because of a weak economy and cash-strapped donors, Focus on the Family said it is eliminating 202 jobs, the deepest cuts in the 32-year history of the Colorado Springs-based Christian nonprofit. The ministry laid off 149 workers, and cut another 53 vacant positions.

The cuts announced Monday slash Focus' local workforce by nearly 18 percent -- from about 1,150 to 950. Twenty percent of the cuts are in management.

The layoffs come just weeks after Focus announced it was outsourcing 46 jobs from its distribution department.

The word "schadenfreude" keeps coming to mind.

Wonkette added a brief message to those Focus employees who've suddenly lost their jobs: "Sure, you have no income now because James Dobson burnt all of your company's money on a state ballot proposition. But imagine the alternative! Would you want to be employed knowing that several hundred miles away, in another state, pairs of consenting adults that already have been living together, people whom you've never met and will never meet, were applying for state licenses (pieces of paper, really) that offered them some new tax and medical options??"

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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LIEBERMAN LOOKING LIKE A 'SURE BET'.... The Senate Democratic caucus will meet in about an hour and a half, and at the top of the agenda is Joe Lieberman's fate. For those hoping to see Lieberman face consequences for his betrayals, it's probably best to start lowering expectations.

Sen. Joe Lieberman appears likely to hold onto his prized chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee despite lingering hard feelings over his vocal support for GOP nominee John McCain during this year's presidential campaign. [...]

According to Democratic aides who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, it appears Lieberman will receive a lesser sanction, such as losing a subcommittee chairmanship on the Environment and Public Works Committee. That move would come as other top Democratic chairmen may lose subcommittee gavels anyway, to bring them in line with long-standing Democratic caucus rules limiting the number of such lesser chairmanships.

But while he appears likely to emerge without harsh sanction, Lieberman's presentation in the closed-door session with Democrats and their reaction could affect the outcome.

Or maybe, it couldn't. At this point, the fix appears to be in. The Politico reported last night that a top aide to a Senate Democrat close to the issue said that it was "becoming a sure bet" that Lieberman would keep his committee chairmanship. The report added that Lieberman would likely lose his seniority on either an Environment and Public Works subcommittee or Armed Services subcommittee. CNN, The Hill, and TPM had similar reports.

Roll Call added that a subcommittee punishment for Lieberman "may be seen as a stinging rebuke." A Senate Democratic aide said, "I don't know if it's enough for the net roots, but it's enough to say we stood up as Democrats" against Lieberman's actions.

Can we please cut the nonsense?

Lieberman demanded that he keep his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairmanship, and the party is poised to give him precisely what he requested. Losing the leadership of an inconsequential subcommittee is not a "stinging rebuke," and giving into Lieberman's leverage-less demands is not "standing up as Democrats."

As Markos concluded, "The only thing that matters, the only thing that Lieberman wants, and the only thing we don't want him to have -- is the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. If this is the 'starting point', and given the Senate Democrats' history of capitulations, expect Lieberman to come out of that meeting as majority leader."

Steve Benen 7:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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November 17, 2008
By: Hilzoy

The Rule Of Law

From the AP:

"Barack Obama's incoming administration is unlikely to bring criminal charges against government officials who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush presidency. Obama, who has criticized the use of torture, is being urged by some constitutional scholars and human rights groups to investigate possible war crimes by the Bush administration.

Two Obama advisers said there's little -- if any -- chance that the incoming president's Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage.

The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are still tentative. A spokesman for Obama's transition team did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Additionally, the question of whether to prosecute may never become an issue if Bush issues pre-emptive pardons to protect those involved."

This is a big mistake. It is enormously important that we establish the principle that members of the government cannot break the law with impunity, and we cannot do that without being willing to prosecute them when, as in this case, there is overwhelming evidence that they violated the law. This is especially true of the most senior members of government, like the Vice President.

That said, I can easily see why Obama might not want to do this. The problem isn't just that it would be bad for him to be seen as carrying out a partisan witch hunt; it would also be bad for the law, and for these prosecutions, if they were seen as a partisan witch hunt.

Luckily, there's a fairly obvious solution to this problem. Obama should appoint a special prosecutor. (If current laws do not allow for this, they should be changed.) This prosecutor should be someone with an unimpeachable reputation for wisdom, rectitude, and non-partisanship. (Think Archibald Cox.) He or she should be given complete independence, and should decide, without any interference from anyone in government, whether or not to bring charges. That would allow charges to be brought if they are merited, while minimizing the chances that they would be seen as partisan.

Altogether too many people believe that the laws do not apply to people in power. This is always a dangerous thing for people to think in a democracy; it is especially dangerous since some of the people who believe this are in power now, and others might attain power in the future. It is very, very important that this belief be wrong. And whether or not it is wrong depends on President-elect Obama. I hope he chooses wisely.

Hilzoy 11:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Yet another rough day on Wall Street, with the Dow closing down another 223 points.

* According to a late-breaking report from Roll Call, Senate Democratic leaders are expected to propose that Joe Lieberman "keep his gavel at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee but lose his Environment and Public Works subcommittee chairmanship." In other words, a meaningless slap on the wrist.

* Obama and McCain spoke for 90 minutes this afternoon in Chicago. Asked whether he would help the president in the future, McCain responded, "Obviously."

* A whole lot of people tuned in to see Obama on "60 Minutes."

* Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), I do believe your pants are on fire. (thanks to B.B. for the tip)

* It was good to see Teddy Kennedy return to the Hill today, looking and sound energetic and excited about working on a national health care bill.

* Voter turnout in Alaska may not have been suspiciously low after all.

* Have I mentioned lately how great Burlington, Vt., is?

* Is the Franken camp losing confidence in Minnesota?

* A.L. is more or less on board with my Spitzer idea.

* With Huckabee and Romney feuding again, November 2008 sounds a lot like November 2007.

* Right-wing media personality Glenn Beck claims to have been accosted by a liberal truck driver at a Wendy's.

* I love it when there's a convergence like this: just as we learn that Barack Obama collects Spiderman comics, Stan Lee is awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal at the White House today.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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BEWARE OF 'GAY AND SECULAR FASCISM'.... Remember, this guy is supposed to be one of the Republican Party's most dynamic thinkers.

On the November 14 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, in reference to actions by individual protesters of Proposition 8, the recently passed California ballot initiative amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich stated: "I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion."

A few things to keep in mind here. First, let's not forget that according to David Broder, Gingrich has "earned the label 'visionary.'"

Second, let's also not forget that according to Bob Novak, Gingrich should be the next president of the United States.

And third, as Yglesias noted, "I suppose if Liberal Fascism can be a best-seller, more and more conservatives are going to hop on the 'let's call everyone fascists' bandwagon."

True, and none of them deserves to be taken even remotely seriously.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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NATIONAL REVIEW'S SHAKE-UPS CONTINUE.... Christopher Buckley was pushed out for praising Barack Obama; Kathleen Parker is persona non grata for failing to praise Sarah Palin, and the shake-ups at the National Review continue with David Frum's resignation.

...David Frum, a prominent conservative writer who enmeshed himself in a minor dustup during the campaign by turning negative on Governor Palin, is leaving, too. In an interview, he said he planned to leave the magazine, where he writes a popular blog, to strike out on his own on the Web. [...]

Mr. Frum said deciding to leave was amicable, but distancing himself from the magazine founded by his idol, Mr. Buckley, was not a hard decision. He said the controversy over Governor Palin's nomination for vice president was "symbolic of a lot of differences" between his views and those of National Review's.

"I am really and truly frightened by the collapse of support for the Republican Party by the young and the educated," he said.

I can't honestly say I've found Frum's perspective compelling, but I can acknowledge that he's been one of the magazine's better writers, and has been willing to at least question the party line from time to time.

Noting the recent departures, Andrew Sullivan added:

"[W]e are left with adolescent bilge from Kathryn-Jean Lopez and spittle-flecked postings from Mark Levin and Andy McCarthy and Mark Krikorian and Mark Steyn, it may indeed be time to call the era of National Review as a repository for intellectual debate over."

This has almost certainly been the case for quite a while, but if one were inclined to note the day and time the notion of intellectual debate at the National Review ended, I'd say it was around noon on Oct. 3, when Rich Lowry, an NR editor, explained that he sat "a little straighter" when Sarah Palin winked at the camera during a nationally televised debate, because it was "so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing." Lowry concluded, "It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America."

I'd stopped taking the magazine seriously long before then, but this was the proverbial nail in the coffin.

The New York Times noted the magazine "may" have lost its "reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals." You don't say.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IT DEPENDS ON THE MEANING OF 'ASPIRATIONAL'.... By any reasonable measure, the SOFA-related developments in Iraq are encouraging.

Iraq's cabinet on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement that calls for a full withdrawal of American forces from the country by the end of 2011. The cabinet's decision brings a final date for the departure of American troops a significant step closer after more than five and a half years of war.

The proposed pact must still be approved by Iraq's Parliament, in a vote scheduled to take place in a week. But leaders of some of the largest parliamentary blocs expressed confidence that with the backing of most Shiites and Kurds they had enough support to ensure its approval.

Twenty-seven of the 28 cabinet ministers who were present at the two-and-a-half-hour session voted in favor of the pact.

If it's approved by the Parliament -- success is not a given -- the security agreement would then go to Iraq's three-member presidential council.

At this point, the developments clearly represent good news. As Kevin noted yesterday, "This is good for the Iraqis, who really do need the U.S. presence for a little while longer; good for George Bush, who's getting a slightly longer timetable than Barack Obama would have negotiated; and good for Obama, since this essentially makes his decision to withdraw into a bipartisan agreement. After all, conservatives can hardly complain about Obama following a timetable that was negotiated and approved by Bush."

And speaking of Bush, all of this must be slightly embarrassing for him, given the years he spent railing against withdrawal timelines ("cut and run," "artificial deadline for defeat," etc.). Here's a presidential gem from just last year: "I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

With that in mind, Ryan Powers noted today's White House press briefing, where Press Secretary Dana Perino said the administration conceded to "these aspirational dates."

"Aspirational"? That's not the Iraqis' understanding. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters yesterday, "This withdrawal date is firm and holy and will not be changed according to conditions on the ground."

Now, to be fair, the Iraqi government can decide later whether it wants U.S. troops to stick around after 2011 with a new agreement. (For that matter, Iraqi officials can also tell us to leave before the end of 2010.)

Either way, to call the withdrawal timeline "aspirational" just isn't true.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR?.... The Senate Democratic caucus will meet tomorrow to decide, among other things, what to do with Joe Lieberman. After a couple of weeks in which no one from the caucus was willing to say publicly that Lieberman should lose his committee chairmanship, all of a sudden, we have some significant movement in that direction.

First, Vermont's Pat Leahy said he'd vote to take Lieberman's gavel away. Soon after, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said the same. Yesterday, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said Lieberman's conduct during the campaign was not "acceptable."

This one, however, was unexpected.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close ally of Sen. Joe Lieberman, said the Connecticut Independent should pay a price for his campaign attacks against President-elect Barack Obama.

"There need to be consequences, and they cannot be insignificant," Carper said in a Monday interview with The Hill. [...]

Carper did not rule out stripping Lieberman of his coveted gavel running the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, or imposing other sanctions like taking away seniority on other committees or a subcommittee on Armed Services.

Carper also noted that many of his Democratic colleagues are "very angry" with Lieberman for his behavior, adding, "I'm very disappointed as a friend and a colleague."

This is something of a surprise because Carper was identified last week as one of four Senate Democrats who were a practical whip team for Lieberman, calling caucus members to urge other Democrats to support Lieberman's request for keeping his committee chairmanship. The goal of Carper's work, the Politico reported, was to "try to ensure Lieberman survives a secret ballot vote."

It's possible the Politico got the original report wrong. It's also possible Carper's attitude shifted in response to pressure from voters in Delaware. For that matter, maybe Carper wants there to be "significant" punishment, and for him, that constitutes a good, stern lecture for Lieberman about how betrayals aren't nice.

But if Carper has switched from trying to help Lieberman avoid consequences to demanding that Lieberman face "significant" consequences, it seems like the "momentum" Lieberman had may be waning.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CANTOR ON GOP'S 'RELEVANCE'.... Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia is poised to become the House Minority Whip, the second-highest rank in the chamber for the GOP, and as part of his new leadership position, Cantor has a vision for the party's future.

[Cantor] said the Republican Party in Washington is no longer "relevant" to voters and must stop simply espousing principles. Instead, it must craft real solutions to health care and the economy.

"Where we have really fallen down is, we have lacked the ability to be relevant to people's lives. Let's set aside the last eight years, and our falling down in living up to expectations of what we said we were going to do," Mr. Cantor told The Washington Times in his district office outside of Richmond. "It's the relevancy question." [...]

"It's the roads, it's going to the gas station, that's still there when the price will bump back up. It's education, it's health care. These are the issues, frankly, that we have not been on offense with," he said.

Cantor added that the nation is "desperate" for Republicans to use conservative principles to "fashion solutions to everyday challenges."

All of this sounds very nice. Cantor is presenting a practical approach to the party's political problem -- he's suggesting Republicans try to address policy challenges through conservative policy ideas. Why didn't someone think of that sooner?

Here's the rub: none of this is new. Republicans were plenty "relevant" from 2001 to 2006, when they ran the show and did pretty much whatever they wanted.

And why weren't the Republicans "on offense" when it comes to education, health care, the economy, and issues "relevant to people's lives"? Because their ideas are really awful. They're so terrible, in fact, that Republicans have been reluctant to even present them earnestly, for fear of scaring voters away.

Privatizing public schools through vouchers, "reforming" health care by operating under the assumption that Americans have too much insurance already, "fixing" the economy by removing safeguards and regulations -- these are the Republican ideas to "everyday challenges."

Cantor makes it seem as if Republican policymakers have simply been asleep at the switch for the past several years, unaware of what "governing" means. This is silly. If Bush and congressional Republicans wanted to go on "offense" on domestic policy issues, they had a chance. They balked because they knew no one likes their ideas.

Steve Benen 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HUCKABEE REFLECTS, PICKS HIS TARGETS.... After relative silence for the past several months, former Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is releasing his new book, "Do The Right Thing: Inside the Movement That's Bringing Common Sense Back to America." Time's Michael Scherer got an advance look, and notes, "[I]n terms of payback, it will not disappoint."

Based on Scherer's report, some familiar Huckabee rivals are painted in a negative light, most notably Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Huckabee also reportedly lambastes the libertarian wing of the GOP, a long-time source of frustration for him.

But it's Huckabee's criticism of some religious right leaders that stood out for me.

He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee speaks to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement, while the former Arkansas governor is preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. "I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do," Huckabee writes of his conversation with Hagee. "I didn't get a straight answer." Months later, McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement because of controversial remarks the pastor had made about biblical interpretations.

I can understand Huckabee expecting to pick up Hagee's support during the GOP primaries; Huckabee was the right-wing evangelical candidate of choice.

But isn't it strange to still be bitter about it now, especially given the fact that McCain had to scramble after we learned more about Hagee's anti-Catholic, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic sermons?

As Kyle at Right Wing Watch put it, "So Huckabee is calling Hagee a sell-out for backing McCain instead of him, even knowing that McCain was eventually forced to disassociate himself from him because of Hagee's outrageous views? Doesn't it seem odd that instead of thinking that maybe he dodged a bullet by not getting Hagee's support, Huckabee is still mad about it?"

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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KEEPING THE HEAT ON IN GEORGIA.... They're still counting the votes in Alaska, and headed towards a recount in Minnesota, but there's still one more important statewide race left before we close the book on the 2008 election cycle: the run-off contest in Georgia.

For Democrats, this is an uphill challenge. Incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) received more than 49% of the vote on Election Day, coming just short of avoiding the runoff. What's more, this is a state John McCain won by five points, and where turnout is expected to be far less than it was on Nov. 4. For Democrat Jim Martin, it's a tough hurdle to clear.

It's what makes this ad so interesting. Georgia may be a conservative "red" state, but Martin's new ad emphasizes Chambliss' opposition to Obama's economic plan -- twice. As Eric Kleefeld noted, "The rub here is that this runoff is similar in many ways to a special election, which is all about mobilizing the base. And Martin sees here an opportunity to capitalize on Obama's honeymoon period in order to get Democratic voters out to the polls for a second time."

For their part, Republicans are investing heavily in this contest -- it may be the only thing stopping Dems from having a 60-seat majority -- and everyone from McCain to Palin to Romney to Huckabee has been anxious to help rally the Republican troops in support of Chambliss.

Does Martin have a realistic shot? Don't rule him out just yet. Markos reported yesterday on a new Research 2000 poll showing Chambliss with a three-point lead, 49% to 46%, which makes the race "winnable" for Democrats. Meanwhile, Obama is unlikely to campaign in Georgia before the run-off, but the president-elect has reportedly dispatched his Ohio field team to Georgia to give Martin a hand, and the DSCC is making its move, as well.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Hilzoy

I Am Baffled

Over the weekend, I wrote that Will Wilkinson was wrong to think that a general recitation of the virtues of free markets was sufficient to show that bailing out Detroit was a bad idea, and that in order to make his case, he needed to consider the specifics of this situation. Now Jonah Goldberg weighs in, using the dazzling exegetical skills that gave us Liberal Fascism:

"The position Hilzoy seems to be taking is simply this: experts -- by which he means liberal experts -- can always make the right call. Sometimes liberals decide to let markets work, sometimes they don't. But the ideological principle is hiding in plain sight: liberal experts are always qualified to make these decisions."

It's a bit puzzling to read about what I mean by "experts", since I do not use the word, or refer to the concept, anywhere in my original post. If Jonah Goldberg can explain why she takes what I say to have anything to do with expertise, let alone to endorse the idea that "liberal experts are always qualified to make these decisions", I'd be fascinated to read it. I thought I was just making the point that most people who favor things like the bailout do so not because they are unaware of the virtues of markets, but because they think that there are cases in which these virtues are outweighed by some feature of the specific case at hand, and therefore that arguments that simply recite the general reasons why markets are good, rather than engaging with the details of the case at hand, are directed against straw men. But I could be wrong. I'd certainly love to know what part of my argument led Jonah Goldberg to think that I was actually saying anything about deference to experts, liberal or otherwise.

Hilzoy 11:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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REMEMBER ELIOT SPITZER?.... We're all well aware of the former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's (D) sex scandal. We're also aware of the criminal investigation, his resignation, and his unmet promise as a potential political heavyweight.

But over the weekend, I read a very sharp piece he wrote for the Washington Post, and I'm reminded that the nation could use someone who knows a little something about cleaning up Wall Street and combating its excesses, and Spitzer seems to be ready and willing to make a contribution.

First, we must confront head-on the pervasive misunderstanding of what constitutes a "free market." For long stretches of the past 30 years, too many Americans fell prey to the ideology that a free market requires nearly complete deregulation of banks and other financial institutions and a government with a hands-off approach to enforcement. "We can regulate ourselves," the mantra went.

Those of us who raised red flags about this were scoffed at for failing to understand or even believe in "the market." During my tenure as New York state attorney general, my colleagues and I sought to require investment banking analysts to provide their clients with unbiased recommendations, devoid of undisclosed and structural conflicts. But powerful voices with heavily vested interests accused us of meddling in the market.

When my office, along with the Department of Justice, warned that some of American International Group's reinsurance transactions were little more than efforts to create the false impression of extra capital on the company's balance sheet, we were jeered at for attacking one of the nation's great insurance companies, which surely knew how to balance risk and reward.

And when the attorneys general of all 50 states sought to investigate subprime lending, believing that some lending practices might be toxic, we were blocked by a coalition of the major banks and the Bush administration, which invoked a rarely used statute to preempt the states' ability to probe. The administration claimed that it had the situation under control and that our inquiry was unnecessary.

The piece concluded, "Although mistakes I made in my private life now prevent me from participating in these issues as I have in the past, I very much hope and expect that President Obama and his new administration will have the strength and wisdom to do again what FDR did."

Reading this, I couldn't help but wonder if Spitzer's personal mistakes really should prevent him from participating in these issues as he has in the past.

Yes, he hired a call girl, but so did Sen. David Vitter (La.), and he's still a sitting Republican senator in good standing, who apparently plans to seek re-election. Yes, he committed adultery, but so did Newt Gingrich (thinking about running for president), Rudy Giuliani (thinking about running for governor), and John McCain (the most recent Republican presidential nominee).

Do we have to exclude Spitzer from addressing the issues on which he has considerable expertise? Issues that have nothing to do with an unrelated sex scandal?

Ben Smith suggested the other day that Spitzer might be a good replacement from Hillary Clinton, should she become Secretary of State. If that's not a realistic option, how about a role in the Obama administration? Is there a better pick in mind for the next chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission?

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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GOP MODERATES 'WILL BE CHEERFULLY IGNORED'.... If the Republican Party hopes to compete in the coming years, Christine Todd Whitman argued the other day, it's going to have to move away from the far-right cliff. Tod Lindberg, a fellow at Stanford's conservative Hoover Institution and an informal foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign, said it's time Republicans realize that it's become a center-left nation. Even conservative Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman said issues such as abortion and gay rights should no longer be at the core of the party.

Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) went so far as to say it's time for Republicans to reevaluate its priorities, downplaying social issues. "Those issues are very important, but there's a lot of issues that people care deeply about, that affect their lives in a real way, every single day," Crist said. "If you're going to be successful in this business, you have to win a majority. It's not just a majority of Republicans, it's not just a majority of Democrats, it's a majority of the people."

And then there's the other side.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, scoffed at calls for the Republicans to move left, which he said had followed Republican defeats in 1964, 1976 and 1992. And he suggested that some calls to update conservatism -- by taking global warming more seriously, for instance -- were essentially disguised calls to move the party to the left.

"They will be cheerfully ignored," Mr. Norquist said.

This follows Rep. Mike Pence, the #3 person in the House Republican caucus, who recently told Fox News that the way to revitalize the party is to promote "a belief in free markets, in the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage," and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins insisting, "Moderates never beat conservatives.... What Tuesday was, was a fact that people wanted change, and it's a rejection of a moderate view."

The post-election "bloodbath" between the various wings of the party hasn't really come to fruition. Those who popped popcorn, waiting to see intra-party warfare among Republicans are probably disappointed.

I'd just add this: it's still early. The Republicans have not yet decided which lessons are the right ones to be learned from the 2008 cycle, so the fight for the future has not yet begun.

Steve Benen 10:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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GINGRIGH HOLDS BACK ON PALIN PRAISE.... If there's a push in some conservative circles to consider Sarah Palin the future of the GOP, and I believe there is, some high-profile Republicans aren't exactly on board. Last week, members of the Republican Governors Association were less than pleased with a Palin-centered focus, and yesterday, Newt Gingrich resisted the idea of Palin leadership.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is batting down the hype that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin heads into 2012 as the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.

...Gingrich, an architect of the Republican revolution of 1994, took Palin down a notch, asserting that she would not become the party's leader, as some have predicted.

"I think that she is going to be a significant player," said Gingrich during an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation". "But she's going to be one of 20 or 30 significant players. She's not going to be the de facto leader."

Since the defeat of the GOP ticket, Palin has pursued an aggressive media strategy, scheduling a full slate of interviews to keep her face on television.... But Gingrich on Sunday sought to divert some media attention away from Palin and to other governors such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Utah Gov. John Huntsman (R).

"She's going to be a much bigger story in the short run," said Gingrich, explaining Palin's higher media profile compared to other GOP governors. "But, I think, as she goes back to being governor and as she works in Alaska, you're going to see a group of governors emerge, not just Sarah Palin."

Palin may want to the ostensible leader of the party, but those with similar ambitions aren't going to just hand her the reins.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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OBAMA SPEAKS.... Barack Obama's first interview since the election aired last night on "60 Minutes," with a three-segment piece from Steve Croft (who insisted, inexplicably and hilariously, on comparing Obama's mother in law to the family dog).

There probably wasn't a lot in the way of news, but a few things jumped out at me. For example, when asked about his principal focus lately, Obama talked about the economy, but it wasn't the first issue he mentioned.

Kroft: What have you been concentrating on this week?

Obama: Couple of things. Number one, I think it's important to get a national security team in place because transition periods are potentially times of vulnerability to a terrorist attack. We want to make sure that there is as seamless a transition on national security as possible. Obviously the economy. Talking to top economic advisors about how we're gonna create jobs, how we get the economy back on track and what do we do in terms of some long-term issues like energy and healthcare. And how do we sequence those things in a way that we can actually get things through Congress?

Also, I found this very encouraging, especially in light of some of the recent rumors about how seriously the Obama administration might, or might not, take interrogation issues.

Kroft: There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders. One of them is to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by U.S. troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?

Obama: Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm gonna make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.

And finally, I couldn't help but note that Kroft's very last question was about Obama's support for a national college football playoff system. Obama not only explained why it's a good idea, but he suggested -- I think only half-kiddingly -- that he's prepared to throw his "weight around" a bit to make this happen.

If he's successful in this endeavor, I suspect it'd be worth at least a few points in his approval rating.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR CONSERVATIVES.... Last week, Deborah Howell, the Washington Post's ombudsman, had an item scrutinizing the paper's coverage of the presidential campaign. She concluded that the Post had an "Obama tilt" over the course of the year, but her criticisms did not stand up well to scrutiny.

Yesterday, Howell returned to the subject, and suggested her newspaper start considering ideology when making staff decisions.

The opinion pages have strong conservative voices; the editorial board includes centrists and conservatives; and there were editorials critical of Obama. Yet opinion was still weighted toward Obama. It's not hard to see why conservatives feel disrespected.

Are there ways to tackle this? More conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two. The first is not easy: Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done.

[Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism] said, "There should be more intellectual diversity among journalists. More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism."

This strikes me as an unusually bad idea. Worse, it's an unworkable solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

First, as Michael Calderone noted, "I don't know any newspaper editor who would be comfortable asking reporters their political views and then using that information to help determine whether they should be hired or not." Indeed, I'm not even sure if that's legal.

Second, as Eric Boehlert noted, "Who's stopping conservatives from being hired in newsrooms? Honestly. If Newsbusters can document how scores of qualified College Republican grads were passed over by local newspapers to poorly paying jobs to cover local zoning commission jobs simply because the applicants were conservative, we'd love to hear about it. Because right now there's nothing stopping young conservatives from joining newsrooms and working their way up from the bottom just like everybody else in media does. They just don't want to do it."

I'd just add that Howell may not appreciate the larger political dynamic, but the truth is conservative critics won't be satisfied anyway. CNN political team now features Stephen Hayes, David Brody, Alex Castellanos, Tara Wall, Frances Fragos Townsend, J.C. Watts, and William Bennett. The right still doesn't think CNN is nearly conservative enough.

Those whose whines Howell is taking seriously won't be satisfied, because they're really looking for a quality national newspaper; they're looking for Fox News in print form. Affirmative action in the newsroom won't help.

Steve Benen 8:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Hilzoy

Faith And Works

An awful story from the Washington Post:

"Rob Foster was 16 when his family unraveled.

He had told his parents that he wanted to leave Calvary Temple, the Pentecostal church in Sterling the family had attended for decades. But church leaders were blunt with his parents: Throw your son out of the house, or you will be excommunicated. And so that December two years ago, Gary and Marsha Foster told Rob that he had to leave. They would not see him or talk to him.

"I was devastated," he said. (...)

Under the leadership of longtime pastor Star R. Scott, Calvary opened a school, television and radio ministries, and satellite churches around the globe. The local congregation at one point numbered 2,000.

Scott's followers see him as an inspiring interpreter of God's word. Members pack the church most nights, united in their desire to live as the Bible intended and reject what they view as society's moral ambivalence. (...)

In his sermons, Scott teaches that his church is scripturally superior to others and views keeping people in the fold as a matter of their salvation. "Anything that's other than a member in harmony has to be identified and expelled," Scott preached in May 2007.

Don't be afraid of "social services" if you throw rebellious children out of the house, he told the congregation in an earlier sermon, because "you obeyed God." In an interview, he cited scriptures: "Deuteronomy says if your kid doesn't follow your God, kill 'em. That's what we do, but not physically. To us, you're dead if you're not serving our God," he said.

Scott describes those who decide to leave the church as "depraved," and Calvary's practice is to cut them off. When parents have left the church, some young children have been urged to stay; a few have been taken in by pastors. Scott's family has been divided, too: Scott is estranged from his 36-year-old son, Star Scott Jr.

"Jesus said, 'I didn't come to bring peace, I came to bring a sword,' " the elder Scott said about the divided families."

He also said: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Also: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." And: "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth."

And that's one of the things that puzzles me about this story. This sort of thing doesn't happen only in religious groups; really bad therapists can do similar kinds of damage. But Christianity has texts, and those texts speak of love, and of justice, and of compassion. How could you be told that Christ required you to throw your child out onto the street and not know that whoever told you this was not speaking for God?

More puzzling still is this quote from the pastor who told these families to throw their kids out:

"I'm the one who is in authority, and I'll have to answer to God for that."

In his position, that thought would terrify me. Suppose you believed in a just and loving God, a God who had said the things I quoted above. And suppose you had taken it upon yourself to tell parents to throw their kids out onto the street, children to stop speaking to their "apostate" parents, and the various other things detailed in the Post story. The thought that you might be wrong might not worry you much if you didn't take God seriously -- if you just took Him to be a name you could toss around at will. But if you imagined that He was real -- a real other person who might or might not approve of the things you had done in His name -- then how could you not lie awake at night, wondering whether you had somehow mistaken His will?

And if this thought did trouble you, how could you go on to do what this pastor did?

(And yes: I know about Abraham. But read the story and tell me whether you think it covers this case -- whether, for instance, you really think that it was God that inspired his racing ministry -- apparently, church funds paid for all those cool cars -- not to mention the instruction to take a "virgin bride" 35 years his junior less than a month after the death of his wife. Again: taking God's name to justify all this wouldn't worry you if you didn't believe in God. But if you did, it would be terrifying. This is one of those cases in which I think that the actions of a religious person, though justified entirely in the language of faith, can best be understood on the assumption that the person in question does not really believe in God at all, in any serious sense.)

Hilzoy 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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November 16, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Lieberman

From the Hartford Courant:

"Senate Democrats will decide by secret ballot Tuesday whether to take away Sen. Joe Lieberman's chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- a post from which he oversees U.S. security issues, as well as the operations of a wide segment of the federal government."

To my mind, the crucial issue here is whether or not Lieberman has done a good job as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. If a good chair had done what he did -- if, say, Henry Waxman had unaccountably spent the summer and fall campaigning against Democratic nominees for President and the Senate -- I'd be torn. But Lieberman has not been a good chair:

"A Senate hearing Friday took aim at former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, whose contract work was blamed by witnesses for the electrocution of up to 13 Americans. But the heated hearing also offered ammunition against another frequent target of the left: Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

The hearing was held by the Democratic Policy Committee -- the seventh DPC has held on profiteering and waste in Iraq since Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006.

Senate Democrats began the hearings in 2004 to highlight what they called a failure by the Republican-led Senate to oversee war spending. That the partisan panel continues despite Democratic control of the chamber strikes some lawmakers, aides and watchdog groups as a sign of Lieberman's failure to aggressively oversee the Bush administration.

"The reason the DPC is doing this is because Lieberman isn't," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think it would just kill him to say anything negative about the Bush administration," Sloan said.

Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he is "not critical of anyone" but called the DPC hearings "the only way for Americans to hear about these issues.""

Lieberman, whose committee is responsible for investigating government, declined to hold hearings on the response to Katrina, saying he didn't want to "play gotcha". Likewise, he didn't want to investigate Blackwater or other Iraq contractors. As far as the oversight part of his committee chairmanship, he was missing in action.

Oversight matters. It mattered during the Bush administration, and it will matter during an Obama administration. (Naturally, I'd be happier if Obama simply never made any mistakes, but I'm not counting on it, and so I want to have a backup plan.) Since Lieberman has shown no signs of wanting to exercise this function, he should not chair the committee responsible for it. Democrats should not be agonizing over this choice; they should be delighted that they have an excuse to remove a dysfunctional chair from an important committee.

There are two more reasons to remove Lieberman from this position. First, suppose Lieberman did decide to get serious about investigating the Obama administration. Given both his complete failure to exercise oversight over the Bush administration and his opposition to Obama's candidacy, it would be very hard to have confidence in his fairness, and very easy for liberals to dismiss anything he said against an Obama administration. And this matters: precisely because I want Obama to be held accountable for any mistakes he makes, I want to make sure that whoever runs this committee is actually fair and credible. I think that one lesson we can draw from the Republicans' time in control of the Congress is that you do your party, your President, and your country no favors at all by supporting them blindly. I therefore think that it would be a huge mistake to put someone whose impartiality is open to serious question in charge of this committee.

Second, Lieberman lent his name to The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision For America., a paranoid film about Islamists' attempt to destroy America from within. From its 'About' page:

"There's a war going on and the major battles take place right here in America. It's a hidden war against the freedom and values we all take for granted. The enemy is taking advantage of our country's democratic process, and using it to further its own aims.

Most people, busy with their daily struggles don't even realize there's a war.

And that's just the way the Radical Islamists would like things to remain.

The Third Jihad is the ground breaking film that reveals the truth. It exposes the destructive aims of Radical Islam and its mounting threat for America and the world. It covers all the major players-- the radical extremists and the leaders trying to stop them. The Third Jihad will update you on the most urgent issue of our time in ways you can't find in the media."

I've watched the clips available on the film's web page. They are full of alarmist accusations against a lot of Muslims and Muslim groups, backed up by things that it would be a real stretch to call "evidence". I therefore agree with Adam Serwer on this one: if Lieberman believes this stuff, he is incapable of telling the difference between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. And that should be an absolute disqualification for a chair of the committee that oversees homeland security, since both our security and the rights of American Muslims depend on our getting this distinction right.

I would not support naming someone who had lent his name to the Council of Conservative Citizens to a committee that oversaw the enforcement of civil rights law. I would not put Lt. Gen. Boykin ("I knew that my God was a real god, and his was an idol") in charge of a committee on religious toleration. This case does not seem to me to be appreciably different, and so I think the same principles apply.

Hilzoy 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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KRUGMAN SCHOOLS WILL.... On ABC's "This Week" earlier, George Will explained his belief that FDR financial/regulatory policies discouraged investment and created an environment in which the "depression became the Great Depression."

Fortunately, Will was sitting next to Paul Krugman.

To hear Will tell it, the Roosevelt administration stood in the way of investors. In a fairly devastating 45 seconds, Krugman not only set the record straight, but explained that it was FDR's desire to balance the budget and cut federal spending that contributed to a decline in 1937.

My antipathy towards Will has lessened this year, after he had some genuinely sharp criticism of the McCain/Palin ticket, but he's still spouting conservative nonsense on economic issues, and it was highly entertaining to see him receive some well-earned comeuppance from the Nobel laureate to his left.

Thanks to our friends at Firedoglake for posting the clip to YouTube.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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TACKLING THE CENTER-RIGHT MYTH.... Regular readers know that I've been annoyed by the constant refrain from Republicans and mainstream media figures that the United States, even now, is a "center-right nation." I'd hoped the cold, hard facts of the election results would have proven otherwise, but many conservatives prefer not to believe their lying eyes.

Today, Policy Review editor Tod Lindberg, a fellow at Stanford's conservative Hoover Institution and an informal foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign, explains that it's time for the right to realize that the electorate has shifted and the "country's political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left."

Here's the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, "The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats." This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.

Some analysts like to explain this shift by pointing to Democratic gains and Republican losses among particular regions and demographic groups, arguing that the GOP has growing problems winning over such areas as the Southwest and such groups as Latinos, educated professionals, Catholics and single women. There's something to this, but the Republican problem is actually larger and more categorical. In 2004, Republicans and Democrats each constituted 37 percent of the electorate. In the 2006 congressional election, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 38 percent to 36 and won big. This year, the Democrats made up a stunning 39 percent of the electorate, compared with just 32 percent for the Republicans. Add the painful fact that Obama outpolled McCain among independents, 52 percent to 48, and you have a picture of a Republican Party that has lost its connection to the center of the electorate. [...]

Perhaps, as Rove says, Obama was running to the center. But can anybody make a serious case that people were mistaking him for a center-right politician? Or even a "New Democrat" such as former president Bill Clinton? The McCain campaign was not shy about letting voters know about the elements of Obama's record that marked him as a man of the left. Perhaps voters simply didn't believe a word of it, but a better explanation is that a majority of them heard McCain's warnings and just didn't mind. Center-left nation, anyone?

Just to reemphasize, Lindberg clearly wishes he were wrong. He's a conservative who, among other things, was the editor of the far-right Washington Times's editorial page. He's not Christy Todd Whitman, urging the Republican Party to move to the center; he's a conservative urging the Republican Party to acknowledge reality.

I suspect, however, that the party and its base will ignore this kind of analysis, and Democrats everywhere are probably hoping that they do. The longer the GOP is convinced it's a center-right country, the longer it will take the party to adjust to the new political landscape.

Steve Benen 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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GIULIANI STILL FINDS HIMSELF CREDIBLE.... By any reasonable measure, Rudy Giuliani was one of the worst presidential candidates in a generation. Despite near-universal name recognition, early poll support, and media buzz about being the "frontrunner" for a while, Giuliani lost every contest in which he competed, usually by enormous margins. He invested millions and ended up without a single delegate.

The former mayor, however, still considers himself a credible political figure.

Rudy Giuliani said Sunday he will consider running for governor of New York and isn't ruling out a second attempt at the U.S. presidency.

A one-time presidential front-runner and former mayor of New York City, Giuliani dropped out of the race for Republican nominee in January after losing the primary in Florida, where he had poured the bulk of his campaign resources.

"No one knows whether you'll do something again until you come to the point of: 'Is it possible to do it again? Would you have a chance of winning?'" he said of a second White House bid following a speech in Dubai. "I mean those are just things you can't evaluate right now." [...]

In response to a question, Giuliani did not rule out running for governor of New York. "I don't know if I'd be interested in it, but I'll think about it when the right time comes along," Giuliani said.

I suspect Giuliani's confused. Some people run for president, come up short, but nevertheless see their stature rise. For Giuliani, it was the opposite -- his fairly ridiculous campaign diminished his reputation and turned him into something of a joke. Indeed, Giuliani entered the 2008 presidential campaign with a 9/11 halo and widespread admiration, and quickly found he had nowhere to go but down. The more Americans saw of Giuliani, the less they liked him.

And now he's mulling over additional campaigns? Good luck with that, Rudy.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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WHITE HOUSE STAFF TAKES SHAPE.... We may not learn about Obama's cabinet choices until after Thanksgiving, but in the interim, the White House staff is clearly taking shape.

Up until a few days ago, the list was fairly brief: Rahm Emanuel will be chief of staff, Robert Gibbs will be press secretary, and David Axelrod will be a senior advisor to the president. Yesterday, the Obama/Biden team formally added two more members: Ron Klain will become Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, while Valerie Jarrett will serve as Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison. (As Karen Tumulty noted, Jarrett's title suggests a "very broad troubleshooting portfolio.")

We've since learned of a few other officials in key White House posts. Phil Schiliro, a long-time aide to Henry Waxman and Tom Daschle, will be Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. Peter Rouse, a long-time aide to Daschle and Dick Durbin, will be a senior advisor to the President. Mona Sutphen, a U.S. foreign service officer and member of Bill Clinton's National Security Council, will be a deputy chief of staff. And Jim Messina, a former aide to Sens. Max Baucus and Byron Dorgan, will also be a deputy chief of staff.

Ezra made an important point about what most of these people have in common.

One of the themes I've been trying to push lately is that the success of Obama's presidency is dependent on his ability to navigate an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, and that the ability to pass bills through the institution requires pretty fair knowledge of how it works and pretty good relationships with the key players. Clinton didn't have that. He entered office and showed very little respect for congressional expertise, surrounding himself with trusted associates from Arkansas and young hotshots from his campaign.

Obama is not making the same mistake. He's surrounded himself with Gephardt and Daschle advisers, elevated Rahm Emanuel to chief of staff, and just named Phil Schiliro to be the administration's point person on legislative affairs. Schirilo was previously Henry Waxman's chief of staff, and as Marc Ambinder says, was "known as one of the savviest, smartest chiefs of staffs in DC." He also served as policy director to Tom Daschle, which only furthers the odd rebirth of the Daschle team within the Obama administration.

And Schirilo's Hill expertise is rivaled by that of Rouse, Messina, and, of course, that Emanuel guy.

I don't doubt that there will be some who argue that this team does not reflect enough "change." They're a group of highly-competent professionals who bring extensive experience in policy making and the political process, but they're "insiders" who've worked for powerhouse Democrats like Clinton, Daschle, and Gephardt.

I'm afraid I'm unsympathetic to these concerns. "Change" will come in the form of policy, and Obama is in the process of assembling a team that will help him deliver on a "change" agenda. As far I can tell, that's a good thing.

Steve Benen 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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LIEBERMAN'S 'UNACCEPTABLE' BEHAVIOR.... Sens. Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders, both of Vermont, announced the other day that they oppose Joe Lieberman keeping his committee chairmanship. Today, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) came close.

Ali Frick noted Dorgan's appearance on Fox News this morning, where Dorgan responded to questions about what the Democratic caucus is prepared to do. While Dorgan was reluctant to say how he would vote on Tuesday, he said, "As a chairman of one of our significant committees in the Senate, not just going off and supporting a presidential candidate of the other side but also criticizing the candidate on our side, and also involving himself in a couple of Senate races on the other side. The question is, is that acceptable? And the answer is no."

He added, however, that he doesn't want to "pre-judge what might or might not happen," and concluded that the notion of voting Lieberman out of the caucus altogether is "not on the table."

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, said on the same program that Republicans would welcome Lieberman into their caucus "with open arms."

Stay tuned.

Update: I should note, by the way, that the vote on Lieberman's fate will be by secret-ballot. Democrats, in other words, will be free to go with their conscience. Unless it's a unanimous vote, which is extremely unlikely, caucus members need not fear reprisals.

Steve Benen 11:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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KRISTOL PREDICTS CHEERFULNESS.... The last eight years have been abysmal for most of the country, but they've been a boon for far-right journalists. George W. Bush never got around to doing an interview with the New York Times, but Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh have had the West Wing on speed-dial. Indeed, Dick Cheney's office is reluctant to answer even mundane questions from reporters, but the V.P. extended exclusive access to the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes.

And now, all of that access is poised to disappear.

Since the Weekly Standard launched in 1995, there's one scenario the conservative magazine hasn't yet faced: Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress.

But that's what lies ahead in just two months, leaving staffers there and at other media outlets on the right bracing for a period on the outside looking in.

The Weekly Standard has long supported the national ambitions of John McCain, going back to the 2000 primary race, and boosted Sarah Palin a year before she was well known to the Lower 48. Nevertheless, editor William Kristol, speaking from the Republican Governors Association meeting, seemed to be taking the loss in stride.

"We're not going to sit around sniping and wailing and wish, 'if only things had gone differently,'" Kristol said. "We'll try to be cheerful."

Actually, I really doubt that. Kristol and the far-right media will be many things next year, but "cheerful" isn't one of them.

I'm guessing outlets like the Weekly Standard, National Review, Fox News, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal will pick up where conservatives left off eight years ago, and begin every day with a straightforward maxim: What can we do to undermine Democrats today?

Indeed, the audience for this will probably be enormous. Rich Lowry told the Politico, "People get ginned up when the other side is in power," noting that the National Review's circulation increased to 280,000 during the first two years of the Clinton administration, up from 150,000.

I suspect all of the major conservative media outlets will see a similar trend. There's a sizable group of people out there who are saying, "Tell us why Obama's wrong." These folks need a cable network and print publications to answer the question, and there's a far-right establishment ready to meet the demand. What conservatives will lack in access they'll compensate for in partisan attacks.

Maybe that's why Kristol expects to be "cheerful."

Steve Benen 10:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN.... Dan Shelley was the news director of a radio station in Wisconsin, featuring a few popular right-wing talk-show hosts, who generated large audiences by doing what right-wing talk-show hosts do. Shelley, in a fascinating piece for Milwaukee Magazine, reflected on his work and how far-right blowhards "work to get us angry." It's a fascinating peek behind the curtain. (via Digby)

[W]hile talk show audiences aren't being led like lemmings to a certain conclusion, they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They're not called talking points, but that's what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

Charlie and Jeff would also check what other conservative talk show hosts around the country were saying. Rush Limbaugh's Web site was checked at least once daily. Atlanta-based nationally syndicated talker Neal Boortz was another popular choice. Select conservative blogs were also perused.

A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush's disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don't genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

Steve Benen 9:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... Josh Marshall noted the other day, "The bookers and producers of the Sunday shows are committed to the continuing dominance of conservative/Republican marquee guests. No question about it." The proof is fairly obvious. Josh noted this email from a reader:

On Sunday morning political shows, three Democrats are confirmed as guests: Carl Levin, Barney Frank, and Charlie Rangel. It's as if Democrats didn't just win huge electoral advances in the Presidential, House, and Senate elections. So we get the same thing we've had the past 8 years--republican hegemony on Sunday. Kyl? Check. Gingrich? Check. Steele? Check. Jindal and Shelby? Check and check.

Atrios offered a helpful numeric count on the guests on today's public affairs shows:

7 Appearances by Republican current elected officeholders
3 Appearances by Democratic current elected officeholders.
2 Appearances by Republican former elected officeholders.
1 Appearance by a Bush Cabinet Secretary.
T. Boone Pickens
Ted Turner.

In February 2006, Media Matters released a fascinating report called, "If It's Sunday, It's Conservative." The reserch found that the Sunday-morning talk shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, which play a huge role in shaping the conventional wisdom and prevailing political opinions, feature more conservative voices than liberal, "in some cases, dramatically so." What's more, MM found that it was a trend that was getting worse -- a slight Republican/conservative advantage in the Clinton years had grown considerably worse under Bush.

As a practical matter, from 2001 to 2006, Democrats were largely locked out of the power structure. If the Sunday-morning shows wanted to hear from political figures who would shape policy, and political pundits with insights into what was going to happen next, it meant stacking the deck in the GOP's favor.

The problem, of course, is that the political winds shifted but the shows haven't changed. The Sunday after the midterm elections, for example, when Democrats swept back into power, "Meet the Press" had two guests: John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Today's guest list is only marginally better, despite Democrats' ascension.

Democrats have had two incredibly successful election cycles in a row, and are now poised to control the White House, the Senate, the House, and a majority of governorships. Will bookers on the Sunday shows ever notice?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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November 15, 2008
By: Hilzoy

by hilzoy

My co-blogger publius wrote a post on this piece by Will Wilkinson, on bailing out Detroit, which publius finds callous. But what bothers me about what Wilkinson wrote is not exactly its callousness so much as the sense I have that he is arguing with people who do not exist. Specifically:

"There is nothing that helps people more than high rates of economic growth, compounding, compounding. But everyone is not helped equally. Economic growth requires dynamism, requires "creative destruction," and some people get trapped in the wreckage, become wreckage. Not everyone is hurt equally. That irks. We should do what we can to limit downside risk consistent with the goal of producing broad prosperity. And we should feel a pang for those whose expectations are disappointed, whose lives turn out harder than they'd hoped. But the impulse to freeze the system, to try to tape all the cracks and staple all the cleavages, to ensure that nobody has to explain to their kid why Christmas this year is going to be a lousy Christmas, that is one of our greatest dangers. Our sympathy, untutored by a grasp of the larger scheme, can perversely make itself ever more necessary. When we feel compelled to act on our uncoached fellow-feeling, next year's Christmas is likely to turn a bit worse for everybody. And then somebody has to explain to the kids that they can't find a job at all. Businesses that would get started don't get started, wealth that would be created isn't. And in just a few decades, the prevailing standard of living is much, much lower than it could have been had our sympathy been more far-seeing. There is no justice, and great harm, in diminishing the whole array of future opportunity to save a few people now from a regrettable fate."

This is an argument about why, in general, market economies are better than planned economies, or why, in general, the US economy does better for its people than the Soviet economy did. There was a time when it was worth having this argument. That time was the late 70s and the 80s. During the 1970s, a Republican President instituted wage and price controls to try to stop inflation. Until Jimmy Carter's administration deregulated the airline industry, it was so tightly regulated that most discounts were illegal. Large chunks of the British economy were nationalized.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were, therefore, arguing against real people who really did favor massive regulation of the economy, regulation of a sort that would now be unthinkable in the US. But who now favors wage and price controls, or the re-regulation of the airlines? No one that I know. Many of us were in favor of market economics, in general, before the fall of the USSR; most of those who were not were convinced by the discovery of just how badly that economy had failed its people. We do not need to be told that a centrally planned economy is a bad idea.

I'm sure that there are some devotees of central planning out there somewhere. But for the most part, those of us who reject free market fundamentalism do so not because we fail to recognize that market economies are generally best, but because we think that this, like most general principles, has exceptions.

There are market failures of various kinds: for instance, externalities that are not captured by normal market mechanisms. There are ineliminable agency problems. There are collective action problems, in which we require government intervention to achieve some outcome that is preferable to everyone, but not individually rational. There are functions that, for various reasons, we do not think should be privatized -- for instance, the military.

Moreover, there are cases in which we need to regulate something because while a market mechanism does exist for solving some problem, we find it unacceptable. For instance, there is a market mechanism for dealing with the problem of melamine contamination of milk in China: some kids die, people stop buying milk, eventually, I imagine, someone will come up with a way of letting people distinguish between tainted and untainted milk; in the meantime, creative destruction will sweep up the just and the unjust alike. But we might prefer to prohibit adding melamine to milk, and to inspect dairy facilities, on the grounds that this is better than a market mechanism involving dead kids. (Note: this does not imply that a market mechanism that predictably leads to dead kids is never preferable. The alternatives might be worse, e.g. if they involved more dead kids. The point is just that in this specific case, in which we have a choice between inspecting dairy facilities or testing milk for melamine on the one hand, and dead kids on the other, we might rightly choose the former.)

I'm a pragmatist about these things. Like Matt Yglesias, I think that there are a number of licensing requirements that we might usefully get rid of. I also think it's always worth asking whether any government solution would be worse than the problem it purports to solve. On the other hand, I think that sometimes, as in the melamine case, the answer to that question is 'no'.

That said, I find myself arguing in favor of more regulation more often than not. This is not because I favor it in general, though; it's because, as I said, the playing field has shifted since the '70s and '80s. Back then, there were arguments between people who were generally for regulation and people who were generally opposed to it, and I normally found myself in the middle, asking for details of particular cases. Now, however, the pro-regulation camp has more or less vanished, leaving mostly people (like me) who think these questions should be decided on a case-by-case basis, and that there is no general reason for favoring regulation over its absence, arguing against free market fundamentalists who often write as though all regulation were presumptively bad. (I assume they don't actually believe this -- e.g., that most of them do not favor abolishing all food safety requirements -- but they sometimes write as though they do. I assume it's just a habit that conservatism got into back when such arguments needed to be made. But it's a bad habit nonetheless.)

In Wilkinson's piece, this bad habit shows up as an assumption that people who support the bailout need a lecture on the general virtues of the free market, and on why the fact that some business goes under is not, in general, an argument that the state should have intervened. It shows up more specifically here:

"If employees of the Big Three deserve to have taxpayers pay part of their relatively lavish salaries, then employees at thousands of failing businesses deserved the same. They had no chance of getting it, though, simply because they don't have the right history with Washington. There is no other reason."

Really? No other reason? Offhand, I can think of several other reasons, most of which are included in the Jon Cohn article publius cited. (Ezra Klein posted a shorter version here.) I have no idea whether Cohn's arguments are right, though he's generally very trustworthy. However, he claims that the Big Three have reformed a lot of the management practices that got them into trouble, that a lot of those reforms involve serious cash up front, and that this leaves them without the deep reserves they'd need to weather this crisis. If so, the case for intervention is a lot stronger, and a bailout looks less like throwing money into a bottomless pit and more like solving a temporary, albeit severe, liquidity problem.

He also argues that for reasons specific to this case, the Big Three would be forced into Chapter Seven bankruptcy rather than Chapter Eleven; that is, into forced liquidation rather than reorganization. As Cohn notes, in this case "the company's institutional knowledge would end up on the proverbial shop floor." Moreover, the economic dislocation would be huge:

"Letting GM fail would have potentially catastrophic effects on the economy. It probably couldn't reorganize under Chapter 11, so it'd have to liquidate. That would take down most of the suppliers, potentially sinking the rest of Detroit with it. Realistic estimates of new unemployment range from 1 to 3 million, once you include the ripple effects in communities with shuttered suppliers, dealers, etc."

The suffering this would produce is not the suffering of one unemployed person multiplied by 1-3 million. It's an absolutely enormous dislocation, the kind that sinks entire regions. Moreover, while I have precisely no ability to assess this claim, some people argue that letting GM fail would cost the government more than bailing it out. This would alter the cost-benefit calculus considerably.

In general, if we do bail out the automakers, we plainly ought to do so in a way that penalizes its shareholders and management. (Avoiding moral hazard matters.) Moreover, if there are any tough choices that they have been resisting, we should insist that they make them. We should not bail them out if that just means keeping zombie companies alive. But if, in this case, it makes sense to do so, given the enormity of the dislocation, the losses (economic and the loss of institutional knowledge) that would follow from the destruction of these companies, the costs of not bailing them out, etc., then we ought to bail them out in some way that causes the people responsible for their predicament sufficient pain to avoid moral hazard.

***

To me, what makes Wilkinson's piece callous is not that he tells us that there might be benefits that outweigh the costs of letting the automakers fail. Obviously there could. It's that he did not bother to argue the specifics: to explain why, in this case, the costs of a bailout really do outweigh the benefits. Instead, he took the invocation of a piece of economic dogma as sufficient to make his case.

It would be callous were I to react to the Chinese melamine contamination by saying: we can't have government inspections of milk producers; that's government interference, and as the experience of Stalinist Russia shows us, government interference is always counterproductive. If I take those dead kids seriously, I ought to ask myself: is it really obvious that just having people test milk for melamine will lead to the institution of gulags, the killing of kulaks, and so forth? If not, don't I need some more fine-grained argument to deal with this case?

Likewise here: it is wrong to suppose that just invoking the general virtues of free markets is sufficient to deal with this case. The dislocations caused by any of the Big Three going under would be immense. It is different from the bankruptcy of individuals or small businesses, precisely because of its scale (and because there might be specific reasons, in this case, to think that the remedies available in the normal cases are not available in this one.) It's not at all obvious that there is no way to prevent this dislocation that's consistent with avoiding moral hazard. One might therefore think that some more specific argument might be required; that using a one-size-fits-all argument, in this case, is enough.

At least, one might think this if one took the costs of letting the automakers go under seriously, or even if one had noticed that while virtually no one questions the general point Wilkinson makes, a lot of people question his conclusion. That Wilkinson does not see the need for anything more than an invocation of the general virtues of free markets, and an account of why we should not in general intervene when firms go under, shows that he is not thinking seriously about this case. And that, to me, is the real problem with what he wrote.

Hilzoy 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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HOWARD DEAN'S FUTURE.... The only thing we know for sure about Howard Dean's career plans is that he will no longer be chairman of the DNC. From there, it's anybody's guess.

My personal preference would be to see him return to Vermont and run for governor again, but the more common rumor in the wake of the elections is that he'd be a strong candidate to run the Department of Health and Human Services. It makes sense -- Dean, a medical doctor, has executive experience and expanded healthcare access in his home state.

While keeping in mind that cabinet scuttlebutt often turns out to be wrong, the Politico's Jeanne Cummings reports that Dean is "not a serious contender" for the HHS gig.

Dean's name has appeared on short lists for the Cabinet post circulating throughout Washington, based largely on his party chairmanship and career as a doctor. Dean also passed health care reforms while governor of Vermont. And his allies said the Obama transition team has had some informal discussions with him about the job.

But the chief attributes President-elect Barack Obama is seeking in his HHS secretary will be an ability to work with members of Congress and shepherd reform legislation through the House and Senate.

That job description has turned out to be a particularly ill-suited one for Dean, given his partisan background and lack of congressional experience, sources inside and outside the transition offices say.

Dean never served in Congress and spent his Washington career trying to thin the ranks of congressional Republicans that the Obama White House will need to court during the expected debate on health care reform.

Without inside information, it's very hard to know if this is true. We don't even know if Dean wants a cabinet spot, or whether he would accept it if offered.

But the notion that "partisanship" should disqualify Dean is foolish. Jim Nicholson ran the RNC, and he joined Bush's cabinet without controversy. Ed Gillespie ran the RNC, and he became a top aide in the Bush White House. Rahm Emanuel ran the DCCC, and now he's poised to be the White House of Chief of Staff. Dean has a "partisan background"? Please.

If experience working with Congress is a sticking point, that's obviously legitimate. I would add, however, that if working with lawmakers from both parties to get a healthcare plan through a legislature is important, Dean, unlike most policy makers in America, has actually done it.

As Markos concluded, "I really hope the report isn't true." Agreed.

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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DEMINT TARGETS MCCAIN.... As Republicans continue to search for answers to explain what happened in this year's elections, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) stepped up to become the first high-profile Republican official to blame John McCain for his defeat.

That, in and of itself, is not a bad idea, but DeMint's reasoning was all wrong.

"McCain, who is proponent of campaign finance reform that weakened party organizations and basically put George Soros in the driver's seat," DeMint said. "His proposal for amnesty for illegals. His support of global warming, cap-and-trade programs that will put another burden on our economy. And of course, his embrace of the bailout right before the election was probably the nail in our coffin this last election. And he has been an opponent of drilling in ANWR, at a time when energy is so important. It really didn't fit the label, but he was our package." [...]

"Americans do prefer a traditional conservative government," he said. "They just did not believe Republicans were going to give it to them."

I don't think so. First, what did George Soros have to do with the election? Second, McCain gave up on his own immigration policy long before voters went to the polls. Third, McCain's cap-and-trade proposal didn't include a cap. McCain supported the bailout and opposed ANWR drilling, but so did his Democratic opponent.

I'm curious, how many voters does DeMint think wanted to vote for McCain/Palin but decided, "He's just not right-wing enough"? Indeed, on most, if not all, of the issues DeMint mentioned, it's Democrats who are part of the mainstream, not the GOP.

Regardless, I suspect we'll hear quite a bit more of this as far-right post-mortems are written. And if Republicans decide that the lesson to be learned is that McCain/Palin was excessively "moderate," they can wander in the political wilderness quite a bit longer.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... At my old site, I did a weekly item called "This Week in God" -- yes, I blatantly stole borrowed the name from "The Daily Show" -- highlighting some of the news from the world of religion, most notably instances in which faith intersected with politics and/or public policy. TWIG was on hiatus during the height of the election season, but this week, it makes its return.

First up from the God Machine, the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, a South Carolina Roman Catholic priest, generated some attention this week by announcing that parishioners who voted for Barack Obama are not eligible for Communion. Yesterday, his diocese announced that Newman had gone too far.

South Carolina's Charleston-based Roman Catholic Diocese said Friday that it doesn't believe parishioners who voted for Barack Obama should have to seek penance before partaking Holy Communion, a condition a Greenville priest suggested this week because of Obama's stance on abortion. [...]

"As administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, let me state with clarity that Father Newman's statements do not adequately reflect the Catholic Church's teachings," Monsignor Martin T. Laughlin said Friday in a posting on the diocese's Web site. "Any comments or statements to the contrary are repudiated."

No word on whether Newman will face any kind of punishment or formal rebuke.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Bush isn't quite done blurring the church-state line: "Employing unusually vivid religious imagery for the secular United Nations, President Bush on Thursday praised the 'transformative and uplifting power of faith' and said religious belief 'leads us to common values.' Addressing a two-day interfaith conference that has prompted mixed reactions from other leaders, Bush said religious belief 'changed my life' and 'sustained me through the challenges and joys of my presidency.' He also suggested faith can transform relations between nations and cultures."

* Buses in Washington, D.C. will feature ads proclaiming, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," starting next week and running through December. The ads are part of a new campaign being launched by the American Humanist Association. "We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you," said Fred Edwords, spokesman for the humanist group. "Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."

* And finally, there's some question as to where the Obama family will worship after they move into the White House in January. The United Church of Christ (UCC), the Obamas' denomination, hand-delivered an invitation to Obama's Senate office to join one of their many parishes in the area (the UCC has four congregations relatively close to the White House). Among the considerations: Secret Service protection and whether the church pastor has ever, or might in the future, say something controversial.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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SUPPORTING LIEBERMAN FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS.... This morning, The New Republic published, "The case for allowing [Joe Lieberman] to keep his committee chairmanship." It was written by James Kirchick. I tried to keep an open mind.

Indeed, I've actually looked around, hoping to find a compelling argument for giving Lieberman exactly what he wants, and so I was anxious to see what Kirchick came up with. Unfortunately, he missed the mark.

Kirchick's piece makes a few basic arguments, before taking a few cheap shots at liberal bloggers. He insists that Lieberman "has been a reliable Democrat," despite evidence to the contrary. Kirchick also argues that Lieberman has been "a fine chairman of the Homeland Security Committee," despite evidence to the contrary.

But the crux of Kirchick's case is that Lieberman is a "moderate," and it would be a terrible mistake to "punish" Lieberman for his centrist ideology.

[A] political party that seeks to represent a broad swathe of the country should be able to accommodate someone (even a committee chairman) who holds slightly divergent views from the congressional leadership. For an example of what happens when a political party imposes ideological purity tests, Democrats need only cast their gaze across the aisle. The GOP is currently enmeshed in a civil war, where the conservative wing has all but destroyed the party's moderate faction. [...]

There's also the strategic case for keeping Lieberman on: Just because the Republican brand has lost some its luster doesn't mean that the Democratic Party now has the leverage to excommunicate its centrists. For the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has been most successful when it has governed from the center -- when it has governed at all. Its 2006 congressional takeover, engineered by incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, wouldn't have happened if the party didn't run centrist and conservative Democrats in traditionally red states. Were the Democrats to punish their former vice presidential nominee, it could weaken the position of these legislators by making the party seem too liberal and intolerant of moderates.

Kirchick seems to have no idea why Lieberman is facing scrutiny. It has nothing to do with having "slightly divergent views," imposing "ideological purity tests," or "excommunicating" centrists. Indeed, Kirchick appears fundamentally confused about the debate itself.

The Democratic caucuses in both chambers have plenty of "centrists" whose ideologies are far from the party's base and/or leadership. Nebraska's Ben Nelson is arguably the Senate's most conservative Democrat, and he remains a member in good standing. There's a sizable "Blue Dog" caucus in the House, and none of them has faced any retribution for "divergent views." If the party was interested in "ideological purity tests," Lieberman wouldn't be the only one with a precarious future.

But he is. And why is that? Because he endorsed the Republican presidential nominee, spoke at the Republican national convention, defended down-ticket Republicans, and spent several months engaged in a smear campaign against the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee.

How does Kirchick respond to these concerns? He doesn't. He wrote a piece for publication about the Lieberman debate without addressing what prompted the debate in the first place.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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ROVE ISN'T IMPRESSED.... Karl Rove chatted with the New York Times' Deborah Solomon, and the man the president affectionately called "Turd Blossom" still seems underwhelmed by Barack Obama's victory last week.

DS: Do you see the election results as a repudiation of your politics?

KR: Our new president-elect won one and a half points more than George W. Bush won in 2004, and he did so, in great respect, by adopting the methods of the Bush campaign and conducting a vast army of persuasion to identify and get out the vote.

DS: But what about your great dream of creating a permanent Republican governing majority in Washington?

KR: I never said permanent. Durable.

I get the sense that Rove might be ... what's the word ... jealous. Obama managed to get 365 electoral votes, 79 more than Bush got in 2004. What's more, Obama's 52.6% of the popular vote is the highest of any candidate of either party in 20 years, and the highest for a non-incumbent in 56 years. It's a little tough to downplay.

As for Rove's vision for the Republican governing majority, it was neither "permanent" nor "durable." Republicans controlled everything, executed their policy agenda, failed miserably, and got crushed in successive elections -- one of which featured Rove's guarantee of GOP gains.

Don't go away mad, Karl, just go away.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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November 14, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Iceland

Via Paul Kedrofsky, here's a gorgeous and heartbreaking account of economic collapse in Iceland:

"Trust in the banks had evaporated and people were trying to find a safe haven for their cash. One man had waited for six hours in a bank while his life savings, more than 1m pounds in kronur (at IKr200 to the pound), were counted out in cash in front of him. "I feel like an innocent man dragged from his bed, put in a barrel and hurled over Gullfoss!" wrote one journalist that morning. "We have been brought down by a handful of men who bet our nation's wealth, fame and prosperity on a throw of the dice." Gullfoss is one of Iceland's tourist attractions -- a majestic 100ft waterfall.

On collecting our daughter from her handball practice, I learnt the news that her club could not obtain the foreign currency it needed to release their new team shirts from customs. The city's myriad sports teams rely on local sponsors and our daughter also brought the news that this source of funding for her team was likely to dry up in the months to come. Later that evening, Skype, our communications lifeline, would not renew our credits with an Icelandic credit card. E-mails began to arrive from friends overseas, alarmed by news reports and asking if we were all right.

But all this was trivial compared with the financial distress, in some cases ruin, that now faces a significant proportion of the population."

The crisis in context:

"For Icelanders, the golden years were the early years, shortly after the land was settled in the ninth century. The Viking tradition, the Althing -- the legislative assembly dating to 930 -- and the literary canon of Sagas and Eddas are the nation's cultural bedrock. But after that, Iceland almost disappears from the history books. While the agricultural revolution, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution came and went, while the fine cities of Europe were being built, while artists from Michelangelo to Mozart were pouring forth their creations, while the great inventions and discoveries were being invented and discovered, Icelanders were hunkering down in their turf houses, meeting the hardest challenge of all -- survival.

They survived plague, famine, earthquakes and volcanoes. There were times when some even considered abandoning the island. But they stayed on. They stayed and survived. Icelanders will tell you that only the fittest survived, but that is only half the story, because survival requires another key attribute: stubbornness. And Icelanders have it in spades. It is a national trait, and they view it not as a weakness but as a virtue. It comes from experiencing hardship and enduring it. It means finding satisfaction in a simple task done well and sticking to it; finding comfort and solace in family and kinship and being bound by those familial bonds and duties. And perhaps most important of all, it means believing in the independence of the individual as part of the fabric of nationhood, and fighting for that independence. Put simply, the country has values.

And this is what sets this catastrophe apart from the earthquakes and plagues of former years. This is a man-made disaster and worse still, one made by a small group of Icelanders who set off to conquer the financial world, only to return defeated and humiliated. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy and, even more important for those of Viking stock, its international reputation is in tatters. It hurts. (...)

We live now in a foreign-currency lockdown, and although the government has assured everyone that there are sufficient reserves to buy essentials such as oil, grain and medical supplies for the winter, such assurances only serve to create a further sense of unease in a people who have learnt to take such commodities for granted."

It's the best explanation I've seen of how it feels to live in a country whose first-world economy has completely melted down. Willem Buiter and Anne Sibert have a good account of what led up to it here. Buiter also has a scary piece about the possible relevance of Iceland's story to the UK here.

To judge by the stock market, a lot of people seem to think that we are at, or past, the worst of this crisis. I don't think so.

Hilzoy 7:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Yesterday was nice, but today was yet another ugly day on Wall Street, with the Dow closing down over 330 points.

* Speaking of ugly economic news, consumer spending completely collapsed last month.

* And then there were two: Bernie Sanders will vote against Lieberman keeeping his committee chairmanship.

* Two senior Democratic officials told Nico Pitney that Hillary Clinton really has been offered the Secretary of State job.

* If only Senate Democrats understood the Lieberman situation as well as Rachel Maddow does.

* Barack Obama will record the weekly Democratic radio address today, but this time, he'll also offer a video version that will be posted on YouTube -- a first for the medium.

* Slowly but sure, the national Democrats are taking the run-off race in Georgia seriously.

* Obama really did win that extra electoral vote in Nebraska. With Missouri's vote still unresolved, Obama won 365 electoral votes.

* One of the year's most important, and most fascinating, House races was in Virginia's 5th. Adam Serwer spent some time down there in October, and has a great article on the contest between Tom Perriello and the loathsome Virgil Goode.

* It's a little unusual, but the Obama campaign rewarded its hard-working staffers with post-election bonuses -- extra paychecks worth one month's salary.

* I haven't the foggiest idea why Barbara Walters would find Rush Limbaugh "fascinating."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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PALIN LEFT OUT OF RGA LEADERSHIP.... The Republican Governors Association announced the members of its new leadership team today. One name was noticeably absent.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was voted RGA chairman, taking over the top job from Texas Gov. Rick Perry who will now serve as finance chairman. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is vice-chairman, while Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will serve as chair for the annual RGA gala, and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue will head up the recruitment effort.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will also sit on the RGA's executive committee.

"Republican Governors are natural leaders who will find solutions to our nation's challenges and bring back the Party," Sanford said in a statement.

Not on the list? Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who also attended the Miami meeting.

There are only 21 Republican governors in the country, and 19 attended the meeting. There are eight leadership posts, so if you're a Republican governor and you showed up for the gathering, you had about a 42% shot at getting some kind of position in the RGA's leadership.

It's interesting, then, that Sarah Palin didn't get anything.

Now, keep in mind, it's not yet clear if Palin was asked by her colleagues to accept a leadership post and turned it down. That's certainly possible.

But it seems equally likely that the rest of the Republican governors weren't at all happy with Palin's press conference yesterday.

I think my friend Adam Serwer got this just right: "The choice of Palin was made for transparently political reasons, undermined somewhat by her lack of qualifications but mostly by her manifest ignorance about issues facing the country. High profile Republicans went along with the farce because they were trying to win an election. Now that it's over, their contempt for her is showing."

Update: ThinkProgress had the same headline as mine earlier. Sorry 'bout that, TP gang.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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TED STEVENS' CHANCES DETERIORATE.... The Anchorage Daily News took a closer look at the remaining ballots in the state's closely-watched U.S. Senate race. Republicans aren't going to like what the paper found.

More than half the absentee and questioned ballots still to be counted in Alaska's U.S. Senate race come from areas of the state that backed Democrat Mark Begich on Election Day.

That's not a good sign for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens as he seeks to overcome Begich's 814-vote lead when counting resumes today of just over 41,000 remaining ballots. A Daily News analysis, based on data provided by the state Division of Elections, shows that 56 percent of those ballots come from districts that favored Begich on Nov. 4.

The state will count about 40 percent of remaining ballots today and the rest early next week. Democrats like the trend but are wary of expressing too much confidence in a state that for decades has proven a graveyard for their hopes.

"I'll celebrate when I hear the words ... 'and the winner is,' " Begich said.

The Stevens campaign has fallen silent, offering no comment on the ballot count.

Just as importantly, Eric Kleefeld noted that Begich's vote totals may likely give him a lead of around 4,000 votes, which would be "enough to put him beyond the margin that would require a recount.'

One other side note to consider: a member of the now-infamous Alaskan Independence Party was also on the ballot in this race, and won over 11,000 votes (about 4% of the total). Given the margins between Stevens and Begich, I suspect there are a lot of Alaskan Republicans looking at the AIP as their own local Naderites right about now.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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BOEHNER TO FACE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE.... House Republicans have lost a combined 52 seats over the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, so it wasn't too surprising when the party overhauled its leadership team last week. Starting next year, the House GOP will have a new Minority Whip, new chairman of the Republican Conference, and probably a new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

For reasons that have never made any sense to me, though, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has faced very little pressure. He over saw a debacle, and has no vision whatsoever for the party's future, but Boehner isn't quitting, and no one else wanted his job.

Today, that changed.

A conservative California congressman announced Friday that he's mounting a leadership challenge to House Minority Leader John Boehner, as the GOP continues to assess the fallout from last week's election losses.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., becomes the first rank-and-file House member to announce his intent to challenge the top House Republican in next week's leadership elections.... "I am embarking on this effort because I think our Party is in trouble," Lungren wrote in a letter to colleagues Friday afternoon. "If we don't admit our difficulties and address them aggressively, we not only run the risk of becoming a permanent Congressional Minority but we will do a disservice to our nation."

The Hill noted that successful leadership bids "are usually announced right after an election. Lungren waited 10 days to make his announcement, which he made in a 'Dear Colleague' letter."

ABC News' report described Lungren's bid as "a conservative challenge to Boehner." I suppose that's largely true -- Lungren is very conservative -- but no one can seriously suggest Boehner is some kind of moderate. We're talking about two wings of the Republican Party here - the far-right and the even-further right.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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A LIEBERMAN CRITIC EMERGES.... It's easy to think of Democratic senators who've expressed support, to one degree or another, for Joe Lieberman keeping his coveted committee chairmanship, despite his recent betrayals. We have not, however, seen Democratic senators step up on the other side -- no one in the caucus has publicly announced that he/she supports taking Lieberman's gavel away.

Today, that changed.

Terjeanderson, a Daily Kos diarist, caught Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) addressing the controversy during an interview on Vermont Public Radio. ThinkProgress has the audio and provided this transcript.

"I'm one who does not feel that somebody should be rewarded with a major chairmanship after doing what he did.... I felt that some of the attacks that he was involved in against Sen. Obama, whom I did support -- I was one of the first in the Congress to support him -- I thought they went way beyond the pale. I thought that they were not fair. I thought they were not legitimate. I thought that they perpetuated some of these horrible myths that were being run about Sen. Obama.

"I would feel that, had I done something similar, I would not be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress."

Kudos to Leahy. We'll learn on Tuesday how many other members of the caucus agree.

In related news, a Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos asked Connecticut voters for their opinions on their independent senator. Lieberman's approval ratings have dropped to an embarrassing 36% among his own constituents, and a 48% plurality want to vote against him in the next election. That number grows if Lieberman loses his committee chairmanship and begins caucusing with the Republican Party.

Also, Evan Bayh, among others, seems to like the idea of letting Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship on something akin to probation -- if Democrats believe he's acting up again, they'll take his gavel away. As it happens, there's reason to believe that's far more procedurally difficult that some senators seem to believe.

Update: Greg Sargent has more on the Leahy announcement, including an explanation on why this "could prove a blow to Liebrman."

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.... ABC News' "The Note" wants drama and is willing to manufacture it if necessary.

So much for no drama. Surely a certain soon-to-be-ex-senator knows this by now, but here's the thing about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: She tends to steal the scenes she's playing in. [...]

The Hillary [Secretary of State] rumors are the first potential stumbling block for the smooth machine that is President-elect Barack Obama's transition efforts -- and it revolves around a storyline that seems never to get old.

I had the same reaction as Tim Fernholz.

No, it does get old! It's old right now!

Quite right. Is there some great hunger out there for this "storyline" about Clinton and Obama?

I mean, really. Clinton "tends to steal the scenes"? Her discussion with Obama represents a "potential stumbling block"? The non-existent feud "never gets old"? I'd hoped we were past this.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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USING BUSH AS A MOTIVATING TOOL.... And here I thought George W. Bush couldn't possibly be a positive, productive role model on the international stage. I stand corrected.

Nicolas Sarkozy saved the President of Georgia from being hanged "by the balls" -- a threat made last summer by Vladimir Putin, according to an account that emerged yesterday from the Elysee Palace.

The Russian Prime Minister had revealed his plans for disposing of Mr Saakashvili when Mr Sarkozy was in Moscow in August to broker a ceasefire in Georgia.

Jean-David Levitte, Mr Sarkozy's chief diplomatic adviser, reported the exchange in a news magazine before an EU-Russia summit today. The meeting will be chaired by the French leader and President Medvedev.

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia's Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls," Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. "Hang him?" -- he asked. "Why not?" Mr Putin replied. "The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein."

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: "Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?" Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: "Ah -- you have scored a point there."

Noting the report, Glenn Greenwald added an excellent suggestion: "Diplomats and human rights activists could use that tactic for all sorts of noble purposes: 'You shouldn't detain people without trials; you don't want to end up like Bush.' 'You shouldn't torture; you don't want to end up like Bush.' 'You shouldn't use secret prisons or invade countries that haven't attacked anyone or spy on your own citizens in secret; you don't want to end up like Bush,' etc. This would be the positive converse of the recent trend whereby thugs like Robert Mugabe and even Putin justify their internal repression by pointing to the use of such measures by the Bush administration."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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OBAMA, MCCAIN TO MEET IN CHICAGO.... ABC News' Jake Tapper reported this morning that John McCain, accompanied by Lindsey Graham, will travel to the President-elect's transition headquarters in Chicago on Monday.

Tapper added that there's "no indication Obama intends to offer McCain a position in his Cabinet, or that McCain would accept."

I suppose, given the circumstances, cabinet speculation is inevitable. One of the TNR blogs, noting McCain's trip to Chicago, asked, "Bombshell cabinet appointment in the making? Maybe."

I really doubt it. I know how much Obama appreciates the whole "Team of Rivals" dynamic, and I'm confident that Obama values magnanimity in victory, but I strongly suspect Monday's get-together is about building bridges, not exploring cabinet possibilities.

Where, pray tell, would Obama put him? Defense Secretary? Not in a million years -- they fundamentally disagree about the role of the military in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Department of Veterans Affairs? It's unlikely given that McCain's record on veterans' issues is actually really awful, including his inexplicable opposition to a bipartisan expansion of the GI Bill.

I guess one could make a case that McCain might consider a post at the Department of Homeland Security, but the truth is, Bush created and staffed the entire agency. Putting another conservative Republican in charge seems like a very bad idea.

So, if it's not about the cabinet, what's the point of the meeting? I think Jonathan Martin is on the right track:

It's ... in both their interests to be seen letting the past be but the past. For Obama, the meeting ideally underscores his post-partisan mantra and shows to some still-skeptical voters that he really is committed to working with Republicans for the good of the country. For McCain, it's an important step in his rehabilitation effort. Americans, as the Arizonan himself often says, don't like sore losers. What's more, McCain wants to continue to be a player in the capital. With Democrats in charge of the White House and Senate, he needs such public displays of hatchet-burying to win back his pre-presidential role as congressional dealmaker. [...]

It's smart politics on both sides. Obama and Emanuel can get on the good side of two Republican senators who have shown a willingness to break with their party and could provide key votes in the years ahead. And McCain and Graham can start to reposition themselves as the mavericks of yore, playing for history but also maintaining relevance at a time when Republicans have little influence.

Sounds about right.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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COMMUNION IS NOT A POLITICAL WEAPON.... There's been plenty of debate in recent years about Roman Catholic churches denying communion to pro-choice policy makers -- bishops are divided on the subject -- but here's a priest taking this idea one step further. (thanks to reader M.G. for the tip)

A South Carolina Roman Catholic priest has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil."

The Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote.

Newman's letter, which made careful note of Obama's middle name, told parishioners, "Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ's Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation."

To be sure, the Catholic Church is free to come up with its own rules. I'm neither a Catholic nor a theologian, so this doesn't apply to me anyway. Who does or does not get Communion is the business of the church and its hierarchy.

But it does strike me as odd to think of priests using Communion as some kind of political weapon in a culture war.

In general, it seems to me that it's a mistake to deny Communion to public officials who, in their official capacity as policy makers, stray from the church's doctrines. But this is adding insult to injury -- punishing loyal Catholic congregants based on their votes, rather than their beliefs and conduct.

Not too long ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement telling Catholics that they can't vote "for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter's intent is to support that position." That left voters plenty of wiggle room -- a Catholic voter could back a pro-choice candidate and simply say that it wasn't his or her "intent" to support the candidate's position on abortion. Problem solved.

And yet, here we have a priest going considerably further, saying intent is irrelevant, and he wants to punish those who voted for the "wrong" candidate, regardless of their motivation.

Given that a majority of Catholic voters backed Obama on Election Day, one wonders why a church leader would take such an extreme position.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF THE SIEGELMAN CASE.... What do you know, the Bush administration's handling of the Don Siegelman case can get even more controversial.

[N]ew documents highlight alleged misconduct by the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney and other prosecutors in the [Siegelman] case, including what appears to be extensive and unusual contact between the prosecution and the jury.

The documents, obtained by TIME, include internal prosecution e-mails given to the Justice Department and Congress by a whistle-blower during the last 18 months. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which investigated the Siegelman case as part of a broader inquiry into alleged political interference in the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys by the Bush Justice Department, last week sent an eight-page letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey citing the new material.

Conyers says the evidence raises "serious questions" about the U.S. Attorney in the Siegelman case, who, documents show, continued to involve herself in the politically charged prosecution long after she had publicly withdrawn to avoid an alleged conflict of interest relating to her husband, a top GOP operative and close associate of Bush adviser Karl Rove. Conyers' letter also cites evidence of numerous contacts between jurors and members of the Siegelman prosecution team that were never disclosed to the trial judge or defense counsel.

The Time report is worth reading, but pay particular attention to emails written by U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, who claimed to recuse herself from the case -- her husband is a Republican activist with close ties to Karl Rove -- but nevertheless continued to advise prosecutors.

A federal court will hear the former Alabama governor's appeal in Atlanta next month. I'll keep you posted on developments.

Update: Christy Hardin Smith also notes prosecutors' ex parte communications with jurors in the case, "which were never disclosed to either the judge or opposing counsel."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 60 (OR LACK THEREOF).... Jeff Merkley's win in Oregon brought the Democratic caucus in the Senate to 57 seats. Things look pretty good for Democrats in Alaska, and Begich would make 58. The recount in Minnesota offers the party some hope, and Franken would make 59. Georgia's recount is unpredictable, and Martin would make 60. The number, of course, has some significance.

In a strange turn of events, the Democrats' pursuit of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate -- left for dead after last week's election results -- is now back on course.

The road to 60 seats will now go through an Anchorage election office, the Minnesota state courts, a runoff in Georgia next month and, ultimately, a tense caucus meeting next week in which Democrats must deal with a renegade lawmaker who is making noise about crossing the aisle to join Republicans.

"Let me beat you to the punch: Will we get 60 seats?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cutting off reporters yesterday before they could ask the question everyone wants answered. "It's possible, but unlikely."

Whether the caucus has 57 seats, 60, or somewhere in between, matters -- every vote counts, and Republican obstructionist tactics are a given -- but now's probably a good time to reemphasize that 60 is not exactly a Holy Grail here.

Every vote on major initiatives brings it own challenges, and there's never a guarantee that everyone in the Democratic caucus will vote together -- Lieberman is, after all, part of the caucus. For that matter, there's no reason to believe that every Republican is necessarily going to back their party on cloture votes.

In fact, the real fun of the next Congress will be how center-right Republicans from "blue" states -- Snowe, Collins, Voinovich, and Specter, I'm looking in your direction -- respond to popular policy proposals launched by a popular Democratic president.

A 60-seat majority would be a milestone for the party, but it's hardly a green light to problem-free governing. Something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 10:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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GERSON FEARS FAIRNESS DOCTRINE.... We talked the other day about far-right bloggers' irrational fear of the re-emergence of the Fairness Doctrine. Apparently, the same paranoia has reached Washington Post columnists. Here's Michael Gerson, warning the President-elect about moves he might make that would "trigger explosive controversy."

The second tripwire concerns the Fairness Doctrine -- a federal regulation (overturned by the Reagan administration in 1987) requiring broadcast outlets to give equal time to opposing political viewpoints. Under this doctrine, three hours of Rush Limbaugh on a radio station would have to be balanced by three hours of his liberal equivalent. This may sound fair and balanced. But it is a classic case where the "unintended consequences" are so obvious that those consequences must be intended. It would destroy the profitability of conservative talk radio and lead other outlets to avoid political issues entirely -- actually reducing the public discussion of controversial issues. This kind of heavy-handed approach is a remnant of a time when public sources of information -- mainly the three networks and large radio stations -- were so limited that government felt compelled to guarantee balance. Given today's proliferation of media outlets, such regulation of speech is both unnecessary and Orwellian.

During the campaign, Obama signaled that he did not support the reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are big fans of this regulation. And talk radio is already preparing for a showdown. If Obama were to endorse this doctrine, even reluctantly, the resulting fireworks would obscure every other topic.

Gerson's work is a constant source of disappointment, but this is quite odd. He's warning Obama not to embrace a policy that he already opposes, and which Democrats have no apparent interest in pursuing.

Indeed, the timing of Gerson's column makes it look especially foolish -- today, the LA Times ran a detailed piece explaining that no one is seriously pushing the Fairness Doctrine, it has no realistic chance of passing, and "right-wing radio" is sounding a "false alarm."

Why would a Washington Post columnist take his cues from far-right blogs and radio shock-jocks? Why lead readers to think the Fairness Doctrine is a legitimate concern when there's no real push for the policy in the first place?

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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STEELE EYES RNC CHAIRMANSHIP.... The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reported that former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) is "mulling a bid for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee." The date on Cillizza's report? November 8, 2006.

Two years and one week later, here's yet another Cillizza report on the exact same person seeking the exact same gig.

Former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele said yesterday that he will seek the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, a move sure to shake up the race for control of a party demoralized by losses in last week's elections.

When Steele first sought the gig, the Bush White House was unimpressed with him -- Karl Rove, in particular, was reportedly opposed to the idea of Steele taking the lead at the RNC -- and instead chose Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) for the chairmanship. This time, the Bush gang won't make the decision; RNC members will. And Steele appears to be a leading contender for the post.

I can appreciate the racial component to this. Republicans want to appear more inclusive, and Steele, who is African American, would presumably help the GOP's image. That said, it's hard to imagine why Republican insiders would want Steele to help lead the party. We are, after all, talking about a man who got caught hiring homeless people to lie to voters. (On second thought, RNC members might find that impressive.)

Indeed, whenever I see Steele, I immediately think of the editorial the Washington Post ran on his U.S. Senate candidacy in 2006, which described Steele as a man of "no achievement, no record, no evidence and certainly no command of the issues." Noting his four-year tenure as Maryland's lieutenant governor, the Post added, "Steele had at best a marginal impact, even on his handpicked projects."

My hunch is, a lot of Democrats are watching the race for the RNC chairmanship and hoping that Steele gets the nod.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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SECRETARY OF STATE CLINTON?.... In general, there's no real point in chasing down every rumor about who is or isn't going to be in Barack Obama's cabinet. Most of the scuttlebutt is baseless. That said, some reports are more credible, and more important, than others.

The Washington Post's Al Kamen noted this morning that there's "increasing chatter" that Obama's team "is not overly happy with the usual suspects for secretary of state these days and that the field may be expanding." And who's emerging as a top contender? The name is kind of familiar.

Several Obama transition advisers are strongly advocating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for secretary of State, a move that would create the ultimate "Team of Rivals" cabinet, according to officials involved in the discussions.

President-elect Obama has narrowed the possibilities for secretary of State and Clinton is among those being strongly considered, the officials said. Some even call her the favorite.

It is not known what Obama himself thinks of the idea. But the fact that it is being entertained within his camp shows how much things have changed in the months since he defeated her for the Democratic nomination in a protracted primary marathon.

By all appearances, this is not just idle chatter. Reports about Clinton being considered for the post have run on NBC, ABC, and CNN, and there's an AP wire story on the possibility this morning.

How likely is this? Ben Smith reported that "Obama has, himself, recently discussed the possibility with advisors." Even more importantly, Marc Ambinder reports that Hillary Clinton spent the day in Chicago yesterday, adding that a Democrat privy to Sen. Clinton's schedule said that "the speculation that she was under consideration should be taken seriously."

There are no doubt plenty of competing arguments on the merit of the idea. From where I sit, Hillary Clinton would be a fine choice. Between her Senate work and time as First Lady, Clinton has established international respect and credibility, and she's on a first-name basis with leaders around the world. She's arguably more hawkish than the President-elect, but when it comes to global diplomacy, there's no reason to think Clinton and Obama aren't on the same page.

If Clinton is nominated, the pick is not without risk. Bill Clinton's private business work with other countries may become problematic, and one assumes the Obama team would want to review the former president's dealings with a fine-tooth comb.

That said, I'm also a little surprised Hillary Clinton would even want the job (if she wants the job). Right now, she has one of the safest seats in the Senate, and I expected her to have a leading role in the upcoming healthcare debate. Indeed, were she to give up her seat, it's unlikely she'd get it back. Then again, it's hard to beat the prestige of being the Secretary of State.

As for Obama, that he'd consider his former rival for one of the top positions in his cabinet speaks highly of him. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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November 13, 2008

THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Dow quickly dipped below 8,000 earlier today before surging in the opposite direction, finishing up over 550 points.

* While the markets had a good day for a change, the unemployment picture looks even worse than expected.

* Obama wants to save Detroit: "President-elect Barack Obama is pushing Congress this year to approve as much as $50 billion to save cash-starved U.S. automakers and appoint a czar or board to oversee the companies, a move that would require President George W. Bush's support, people familiar with the matter said."

* Oddly enough, it looks like scandal-plagued Rep. Don Young (R) managed to win re-election in Alaska.

* Ron Klain, Al Gore's former chief of staff, will join Joe Biden, serving in the exact same job. (If you saw HBO's "Recount," and I hope you have, Klain was played by Kevin Spacey.)

* Obama's first post-election interview goes to "60 Minutes."

* China's growth carries a severe cost: "A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations."

* On a related note, could dirty air in California really kill more people than car crashes? (thanks, R.K.)

* Sens. Leahy and Whitehouse reminded the White House on the importance of preserving internal records -- especially Dick Cheney's.

* For the record, I think Hillary Clinton would make an excellent choice for Secretary of State.

* Al Gore isn't going to join the Obama administration.

* The Republican governors not named Sarah Palin were less than pleased with her press conference today.

* Be on the lookout for a nasty new email virus. (thanks, BG)

* And finally, Barack Obama collects comics? I knew I liked him.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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STEVENS' POLLSTER SEES BEGICH WIN.... As Hilzoy noted overnight, Mark Begich (D) has surged past convicted felon Ted Stevens (R) in Alaska's Senate race, with a current lead of 814 votes. How good are the odds that Begich will push the Democratic majority to 58 seats? Republican pollster David Dittman, who worked for Stevens during the GOP primary in Alaska this year, thinks the race is effectively over.

"I don't think Stevens can come back," Dittman said, noting that he thinks the remaining trove of uncounted ballots will help Begich "increase his lead."

Even if Begich's advantage grows, however, Dittman believes it's highly unlikely that Stevens will concede the race until every last ballot is counted. "He's probably waiting in Washington," Dittman said. "I haven't talked to him since the evening of the election, when I called and just told him I was sorry for the way it turned out."

Dittman believes early and absentee ballots, which compromise the approximately 40,000 votes left to count, will likely reflect Begichs' overall advantage so far among those who took advantage of either process. Heavy early voting occurred in the period that directly followed Stevens' conviction on seven felony counts of making false statements on his Senate financial disclosure forms.

This follows Sean Quinn's analysis: "The remaining votes come from Begich-friendly districts. Mark Begich is now an overwhelming favorite to win the Alaska Senate seat."

Much of the political speculation of late has focused on what Senate Republicans would do with the convicted fellow in their midst, and what Sarah Palin would do in the event of Stevens' expulsion.

A Begich victory would obviously make all of this moot.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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OBAMA TO GIVE UP SENATE SEAT ON SUNDAY.... It seems strange, but technically, Barack Obama is still a sitting senator. In fact, in an odd twist, when Congress reconvenes for a lame-duck session, Obama and Joe Biden can still vote on legislation while working on their transition in a competing branch of government.

Obama has indicated that he's not quite comfortable with this arrangement, which seems to touch on some serious separation-of-powers issues. With that in mind, Obama will officially give up his Senate seat on Sunday. Subscription-only Roll Call reported:

"It has been one of the highest honors and privileges of my life to have served the people of Illinois in the United States Senate," Obama said in a statement on Thursday. "In a state that represents the crossroads of a nation, I have met so many men and women who've taken different journeys, but hold common hopes for their children's future. It is these Illinois families and their stories that will stay with me as I leave the United States Senate and begin the hard task of fulfilling the simple hopes and common dreams of all Americans as our nation's next President."

It is unclear when Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, who was elected in Delaware to a seventh Senate term last week, will resign from his seat.

Obama's resignation will take effect just as Congress is returning for a weeklong lame-duck session.

And speaking of Obama's departure from the Senate, what's the latest on the search for his replacement? Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has created a committee to vet possible replacements. Roll Call noted several of the likely candidates, including Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, state Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, f