Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2008

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

* Violence in Gaza continued for a fifth straight day, after talks broke down for a possible cease-fire.

* U.S. markets ended the year on an up note, after a disastrous year in which six years of gains were lost.

* Roland Burris and his staff are now referring to him as "Senator Burris." He says he plans to attend the chamber's swearing-in ceremony next week.

* Burris was, apparently, Blagojevich's second choice -- Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) turned the governor down last week.

* Speaking of Blagojevich, Patrick Fitzgerald wants an additional 90 days to bring an indictment against the governor.

* The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a new state law that bans unmarried couples that live together from becoming foster or adoptive parents.

* One of the main problems with the Republicans on the Federal Election Commission is that they don't seem interested in enforcing the law.

* Remember Vikki Iseman? She's suing the New York Times for $27 million.

* I'm sorry to see the Village Voice let go of Nat Hentoff.

* California's budget problems are pretty extraordinary -- and not in a good way.

* I enjoyed Andrew Golis' year-end piece: "The Ten Young Progressive Intellectuals Who Make Me Hopeful."

* Ed Kilgore has a good piece of his own, highlighting various political memes that became conventional wisdom, but which turned out to be completely wrong.

* Congratulations to James Joyner on the birth of his daughter.

* And finally, don't forget that tonight, we gain an extra second. Set your clocks accordingly.

Anything to add? Consider this the very last open thread of 2008.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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GRIFFIN STILL HAS TO GO.... I've heard about plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying for officials looking for top administration jobs, but this is just creepy.

Late on Christmas Eve, one last wish was sent, by e-mail: Please let NASA Administrator Michael Griffin keep his job. It was from his wife.

Rebecca Griffin, who works in marketing, sent her message with the subject line "Campaign for Mike" to friends and family. It asked them to sign an online petition to President-elect Barack Obama "to consider keeping Mike Griffin on as NASA Administrator."

She wrote, "Yes, once again I am embarrassing my husband by reaching out to our friends and 'imposing' on them.... And if this is inappropriate, I'm sorry."

The petition drive, which said the President George W. Bush appointee "has brought a sense of order and purpose to the U.S. space agency," was organized by Scott "Doc" Horowitz of Park City, Utah, an ex-astronaut and former NASA associate administrator.

A cash-strapped NASA last week also sent -- by priority mail costing $6.75 a package -- copies of a new NASA book called "Leadership in Space: Selected Speeches of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, May 2005-October 2008."

Seriously? "Selected speeches"?

Without any lobbying effort at all, Griffin's chances of keeping his job would be minimal, but this campaign on his behalf is a little unseemly.

The truth is, Griffin has no realistic shot. More than anyone else in the Bush administration, he's been surprisingly uncooperative with the Obama transition team, obstinacy that's unlikely to be rewarded. It also doesn't help that Griffin isn't sure if global warming is real, and believes we should ignore the crisis, even if the evidence is accurate.

But the lobbying campaign should seal the deal.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark, who recommended Griffin to the Bush administration, said Griffin and his friends are handling this wrong.

"Mike ought to play it the way (retained Defense Secretary) Bob Gates is playing it, which is to shut up," Mark said.


Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE POINT OF PUNDITS.... Ezra Klein had an interesting item yesterday on the role political pundits play on television.

Political scientists have studied pundit predictions and found them to be, on the overall, inaccurate. Indeed, the effect gets stronger as the pundit becomes more popular: "the better known the pundit, the less accurate his or her forecasts."

But all this suggests that political punditry has something to do with accuracy. It doesn't. It's entertainment. Just like people who like sports want to be able to watch TV shows about sports and people who like women in bikinis want to be able to watch TV shows about women in bikinis, people who like politics want to be able to watch TV shows about politics. The pundits exist to fill that need. Their role is to make those shows entertaining, so the shows have good ratings, so they can sell time for advertisers, so they can make a profit for networks.

That sounds about right. On-air pundits who are always wrong, but also always entertaining, will have lengthy and lucrative careers. That's the reality of the business.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

The way I see it, in a perfect world, political pundits on television would be the on-air equivalents of newspaper columnists. Just as a newspaper has beat reporters to report on events or launch investigations, it also has columnists to help "make sense of it all," not only informing an audience, but giving readers a sense of context and perspective.

Pundits, at least in theory, serve a similar role. Networks have anchors, reporters, and correspondents to tell the viewing audience what happened, and then have pundits to offer insights. These are folks who've looked at the same story the audience has, but they've thought of angles the audience hasn't considered, adding depth to our understanding of the news.

When this dynamic works, pundits' expertise is worth seeking out. When I watch Rachel Maddow or Paul Krugman give their takes on politics, I feel like I'm actually learning something, which is rare when it comes to television news.

Which is why it bugs me that there are no consequences for pundits who are consistently misguided. Using Ezra's analogy, imagine a sports commentator whose predictions are always wrong, whose rumors never pan out, and whose observations aren't based on reality. After a while, one would hope, the audience would stop taking that commentator seriously, and he/she would go away.

But that rarely happens with political pundits. It's annoying.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE YEAR'S WORST AMERICANS.... The Guardian's Michael Tomasky pulled together the Tomasky List of the 19 Worst Americans of 2008, and it's quite a collection.

John Edwards makes the list at #16, in recognition of his awful judgment; Geraldine Ferraro comes in at #14 for her frequently-obnoxious campaign surrogacy; and the EPA's Stephen Johnson finished at #13 for his shameless on-the-job performance.

In the top 10, Eliot Spitzer probably deserves his rank at #9; Dick Cheney came in at #8 ("just because," Tomasky explained); and Joe Lieberman is obviously a fine choice at #6. The top five is very hard to disagree with: Michelle Bachmann, with the "single most appalling political statement of the year," was #5, followed by Rod Blagojevich at #4 for fairly obvious reasons.

George W. Bush was third, followed by Sarah Palin for having "perfectly embodied everything that is malign about my country: the proto-fascist nativism, the know-nothingism, the utterly cavalier lack of knowledge about the actual principles on which the country was founded." Taking the top spot was Bernard Madoff, thanks to his $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

I love Tomasky's list, but I'd just add a few more names for consideration:

* Rudy Giuliani -- His campaign hackery, before and after his own candidacy, continues to offend. His convention speech, accusing Obama of being "cosmopolitan," was so painfully stupid, it's hard to forget.

* Bill Kristol -- Dollar for dollar, the worst newspaper columnist in America was a constant source of predictable drivel and misguided predictions.

* Phil Gramm -- Not only did Gramm's policies help create the financial nightmare, but he mocked Americans' pain, calling us a "nation of whiners." That he was a leading candidate to be the Treasury Secretary in McCain's administration continues to send shivers down my spine.

* Paul Broun -- The Republican congressman from Georgia argued, publicly and on the record, that Barack Obama reminded him of Adolf Hitler. Bachmann's McCarthyism was "single most appalling political statement of the year," but Broun's insanity was second.

* And I think Ashley Todd probably belongs in the mix of the year's worst Americans. Her self-mutilation/racist/sexual-assault story was the year's most offensive stunt.

Are we forgetting anyone?

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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THERE IS NO BULL CONNOR IN THE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS.... One can make a reasonable case that Roland Burris' appointment to the Senate should go through, Rod Blagojevich's scandal notwithstanding. But this is the wrong way to make the argument.

In an interview this morning on the CBS "Early Show," Rep. Bobby Rush compared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's refusal to seat Roland Burris with the actions of leading segregationists from decades past, including George Wallace and Bull Connor.

Seriously, he did. Rush specifically said, "[T]he recent history of our nation has shown us that sometimes there could be individuals and there could be situations where school children -- where you have officials standing in the doorway of school children. You know, I'm talking about all of us back in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm talking about George Wallace, Bull Connors and I'm sure that the U.S. Senate don't want to see themselves placed in the same position."

Burris himself appeared on NBC's "Today" this morning, and raised the same point, though in a more passive way: "Is it racism that is taking place? That's a question that someone may raise."

This strategy is a mistake. Blagojevich almost certainly considered Burris' race before making his announcement, but there's no evidence at all that Senate Democrats or Barack Obama are basing their opposition on anything but the governor's corruption allegations. The comparison of modern-day Senate Democrats to George Wallace and Bull Connor is baseless and irresponsible. For Burris to even raise the possibility that racism is a factor here isn't much better.

Strategically, a race-based strategy isn't just offensive, it's likely to be counter-productive. I seriously doubt Harry Reid is going to respond well to these kinds of accusations, especially when Reid has Barack Obama taking the same position.

Burris and his supporters who want to see him fill the vacancy have a far better option: emphasize the rule of law. Remind the political world, Illinois voters, and reporters that, like him or not, Blagojevich is the duly-elected governor, he has the sole authority to fill this vacancy, and he enjoys the presumption of innocence. Burris is unrelated to the governor's scandal, and he's fully qualified and eligible to serve. The Supreme Court precedent in the Powell case seems to back them up.

What's that old law-school adage? "When you have the facts, argue the facts. When you have the law, argue the law." My advice to Burris and his surrogates: skip the Bull Connor nonsense and go with the more compelling argument.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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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 race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee was crowded enough, but Florida GOP Chair Jim Greer is apparently prepared to throw his hat into the ring.

* Rep. Diana DeGette (D) was a leading contender to fill Colorado's vacancy in the U.S. Senate, but she withdrew from consideration yesterday.

* Kevin Sheekey, a top deputy to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Caroline Kennedy filling the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton, but he's reportedly pulling back now.

* Al Franken believes he's "on track to win" in Minnesota.

* There's been some talk about seating Franken before Norm Coleman's lawsuits have been completed, but NRSC chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) denounced the idea yesterday and vowed to fight any such move.

* In the meantime, Coleman's efforts are becoming increasingly silly, while a growing number of conservatives are coming to terms with the fact that a Franken victory is very likely.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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INDISCRETIONS.... Mike Barnicle had an interesting comment this week on the modern media scrutiny that might discourage people from pursuing a career in politics.

Something has happened slowly of the course of 25-30 years to diminish the industry, if you will, of politics. It's no longer the profession that it used to be. You'd have to be out of your mind to run for public office today. Say you're 32, 35 years of age. Say you were fortunate, you lucked out, you made a little money, or maybe not, but you have this great interest in public service. You want to be able to get a fire hydrant or a crosswalk, or a little league field in your neighborhood. So you run for City Council or State Rep., you know, but then two or three months over the course of your campaign or maybe after you win, someone like me, or someone like you, is going to come knock at your door, and say "James, we heard you smoked a joint when you were 19 years of age down at Duke University. Can you explain that?" And instead of having the wherewithal to tell people like us, "Hey, go f**k yourself, it's none of your business," you know, these poor people stand there and get hounded by us.

So I've got to assume there are a lot of other people out there with reasonable IQs who say, "I don't want any part of that. I don't want my kids reading about me in the front page of the paper that I smoked a joint when I was at Duke University. What has that got to do with anything?"

Thinking back to the 1987 failure of Douglas Ginsburg's nomination to the Supreme Court, Barnicle's observation makes some sense, but I think the political world has matured considerably in the ensuing 20 years.

My impression is that voters simply no longer care, and as a result, there's little incentive for media outlets to pursue these "controversies." Indeed, if and when reporters pursue this, the public tends to collectively roll their eyes. As Jason Zengerle noted, Barack Obama admitted teenaged drug use and it "didn't bring him any grief from reporters," or voters, for that matter.

There's a line for personal indiscretions that's often hard to identify, but it doesn't seem to apply to decisions from one's youth. People out there with reasonable IQs with a great interest in public service should rest easy -- no one cares what they did in college.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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GONZALES FEELS SORRY FOR HIMSELF.... Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left office in disgrace 16 months ago, and has kept a low profile since. His reputation has not improved in the interim -- Gonzales has struggled to find a law firm willing to hire him -- but at least he hasn't said or done anything ridiculous since his departure from public life.

Gonzales, however, is apparently interested in some kind of comeback. The former A.G. is writing a book about his tenure in the Bush administration and chatted with the Wall Street Journal about how mean everyone has been to him.

"What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?" he said during an interview Tuesday, offering his most extensive comments since leaving government.

During a lunch meeting two blocks from the White House, where he served under his longtime friend, President George W. Bush, Mr. Gonzales said that "for some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror."

Is Gonzales really that confused about what he did that was "so fundamentally wrong"? I suppose he proved during multiple congressional hearings that his memory is similar to that of someone who's suffered serious head trauma, but Gonzales' list of scandals is hard to forget.

Just off the top of my head, there was the U.S. Attorney purge scandal, Gonzales signing torture memos, his conduct in John Ashcroft's hospital room, his oversight of a Justice Department that was engaged in widespread employment discrimination, and his gutting of the DoJ's Civil Rights Division. Gonzales was even investigated by the department's Inspector General on allegations of perjury and obstruction.

On warrantless-searches, the Military Commissions Act, policy on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and the Geneva Conventions, Gonzales was a disaster. On managing the Justice Department, he filled his staff with Pat Robertson acolytes, feigned ignorance while structural disasters unfolded, and showed shocking tolerance for corruption and politicization of a department that, for the benefit of the nation and the rule of law, needed to maintain independence.

Andrew Cohen, the editor and chief legal analyst for CBS News, wrote a primer last year that Gonzales may want to reference to help refresh his memory.

By any reasonable standard, the Gonzales Era at the Justice Department is void of almost all redemptive qualities. He brought shame and disgrace to the Department because of his lack of independent judgment on some of the most vital legal issues of our time. And he brought chaos and confusion to the department because of his lack of respectable leadership over a cabinet-level department among the most important in the nation.

He neither served the longstanding role as "the people's attorney" nor fully met and tamed his duties and responsibilities to the constitution. He was a man who got the job not because he was supremely qualified or notably well-respected among the leading legal lights of our time, but because he had faithfully and with blind obedience served President George W. Bush for years in Texas (where he botched clemency memos in death penalty cases) and then as White House counsel (where he botched the nation's legal policy on torture).

That Gonzales feels sorry for himself now seems somehow predictable, but that doesn't make it any less pathetic.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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SHOULD THE SENATE REJECT BURRIS?.... OK, so there's quite a bit of disagreement over whether the Senate has the authority to reject Roland Burris' Senate appointment based on concerns over Rod Blagojevich. But at least there's widespread agreement that Senate Democrats are doing the right thing by taking a stand and rejecting Blagojevich's efforts.

Or, on second thought, maybe there isn't.

At first blush, it seems like a no-brainer. Senate Dems have forcefully opposed Blagojevich, so it stands to reason they would stand up for an ethical process and reject Blagojevich's stunt, Burris' qualifications and record notwithstanding. It's about propriety.

But there's also a flip side. Brian Beutler, who's slammed Blagojevich's corruption repeatedly, argued last night that Barack Obama and Senate Democrats are "doing the wrong thing" by refusing to accept Burris' appointment.

Politically, then, the question is: Would it really look SO bad for Dems to say something like "While we regret that Gov. Blagojevich flouted the will of Senate Democrats, we are chastened by the fact that he's selected a decorated public servant who has no ties to the scandal hanging over the Illinois statehouse. We assume Roland Burris will serve his constituents well, and, if he fails, voters will have the final say in two years."? I don't really think it would. [...]

It's worth pointing out though, that Blago's still an innocent man and as long as he's governor, filling that seat is his prerogative. It would be a much different story if he'd gone ahead and selected somebody widely believed to have entertained the notion of buying the seat. But that's not what happened.

Similarly, John Cole, said he "fundamentally disagrees" with the Democrats' position on this.

We are a nation of rules, after all. How about we follow them rather than creating all this damned drama? Blagojevich will have his day in court, but for now he is legally the governor, he is legally carrying out his duties, and unless and until the Democrats grab the stones to get rid of him, they should suck it up and deal with his pick.

John added, "If Burris is clean and a good pick otherwise, seat him."

I'm hesitant, but I'll concede there's a reasonable argument here. Blagojevich is the duly-elected governor, whether he should be or not. He has the legal authority and responsibility to fill the vacancy, whether he should exercise it or not. He enjoys the presumption of innocence, whether he looks guilty or not. Burris, meanwhile, is not only unrelated to the governor's scandal, but is also otherwise qualified. He would always be known as "Blagojevich's man in the Senate," and there may be a permanent cloud over his office, but that's Burris' problem. If he's willing to accept that burden, that's his decision to make.

Come January, not only will Illinois need both senators, but Democrats in the chamber will need a full caucus to deal with Republican obstructionism in a time of crisis.

It's probably too late for Democratic leaders to change their position, but the notion of accepting this appointment is arguably not as outrageous as it might seem at first glance.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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CAN THE SENATE REJECT BURRIS?.... We know that Rod Blagojevich, corruption allegations notwithstanding, has the legal authority to fill the state's vacant U.S. Senate seat. Whether the Senate has the legal authority to reject his choice is far less clear.

The fact that no one seems sure makes a court fight a virtual certainty, but it's a fascinating question to ponder -- can the Senate reject a fully qualified appointee based on concerns over the appointor? The Senate leadership clearly believes it can.

The senators pointed to a provision in the Constitution that states: "Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members." [...]

The Supreme Court has said the Senate and House cannot refuse to seat new members who meet all qualifications for office. In 1969, it rebuked the House for refusing to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Democrat from New York who was reelected despite being accused of ethical lapses.

The constitutional standard for House and Senate "is identical," the court said, but it did not consider whether an appointed senator has different standing than one who is elected.

Of course, in Powell's case, there were allegations against him personally, while Burris hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing. With Powell, the court ruled that if Congress didn't want him to serve, lawmakers had to accept his election and then hold an expulsion vote, which they did. But it would be far trickier to follow a similar course with Burris -- letting him take the oath of office and then expelling him on the basis of Blagojevich's conduct would be, for lack of a better word, problematic.

There's no shortage of opinions, but I've noticed more than a few credible experts who believe the Senate cannot legally reject Burris. Bruce Ackerman, a constitutional law expert at Yale Law School, said, "[T]he fact of the matter is the governor of Illinois is acting under his lawful authority as the governor of Illinois.... It's quite a different thing to say that the lawful governor of a state cannot make an appointment because they don't like what they've heard about him."

Sam Stein spoke to another legal scholar who concluded that the Senate doesn't have a choice here: "Burris has met all of those qualifications: he's over 30, been a US citizen for 9 years, he's an Illinois resident; he was appointed by the executive authority of the state to fill a vacancy, pursuant to Illinois law."

The AP did some research and came to the exact opposite conclusion, insisting that the Senate "has final say over whether a governor's pick should be allowed to serve in the Senate."

There is a possible way out that might sidestep a legal mess. The WaPo noted that the appointment could be referred to the Senate Rules Committee for an investigation. While that was ongoing, state lawmakers could impeach Blagojevich. Robert Walker, the former chief counsel of the Senate ethics committee, said, "The Senate, basically as a practical matter, is going to do what it wants to do."

We'll see.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF A POLITICAL SOAP OPERA.... As absurd as the Rod Blagojevich scandal has been, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The state legislature would impeach the governor, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) would assume the office, and a legitimate senator would fill the state's vacancy. Quinn noted that he believed the process would be complete by early-February.

But, no. As we saw yesterday, Roland Burris seems awfully pleased by the prospect of joining the U.S. Senate, and Blagojevich is just tickled by his ability to stick his thumb in the political world's eye.

Anxious to inject a racial element to the developments, Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Chicago said yesterday that he does not believe any senator "wants to go on record to deny one African American from being seated in the U.S. Senate." But senators are going to get some cover from the African-American president -- Barack Obama issued a statement siding with his Senate Democrats in their decision to reject Blagojevich appointees:

"Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place. While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy."

Illinois' Dick Durbin, the #2 Democrat in the Senate, also didn't seem especially worried about appearances, saying Blagojevich's effort "will lead nowhere."

For his part, during an odd MSNBC interview, Burris believes we'll see "a major outcry from the people of Illinois" if the Senate rejects his appointment. I have no idea what leads Burris to believe this, but I suspect senators aren't going to care.

And what about Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, who said he would refuse to sign Blagojevich paperwork on the appointment? That's unlikely to matter -- the NYT noted, "[A]fter Mr. White's lawyers scanned the legal precedents on the question, there appeared to be no statutory requirement that Mr. White's signature be included, his spokesman said, so the move seemed likely to be mostly symbolic."

Moving forward, there are plenty of questions, but two of the key issues are a) whether the Senate can block Burris' appointment; and b) whether the Senate should block his appointment. I'll be tackling both shortly.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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December 30, 2008

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

* Israel is considering a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. Should Hamas rocket fire disrupt a cease-fire, Israel is threatening a ground offensive.

* Consumer confidence reached an all-time low this month, hitting depths unseen since the Conference Board began keeping track 41 years ago. Nevertheless, the major indexes rallied today, each closing up more than 2%.

* If you missed the wild Blagojevich press conference today, it's online.

* On a related note, the U.S. Senate isn't the embattled governor's only hurdle to filling the Senate vacancy -- Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said today he won't certify Blagojevich's paperwork.

* Also on this story, Jeff Greenfield considers whether the Senate really does have the authority to refuse a legally-appointed U.S. senator.

* The Treasury Department is committing $6 billion to bolster GMAC.

* The International Monetary Fund's top economist believes Obama's approach to economic recovery is the right one.

* Muntazer al-Zaidi, the shoe thrower, is facing up to 15 years in prison. (Update: The trial has been delayed.)

* Naturally, John Bolton looks at the violence in Gaza and believes this is an ideal time for the U.S. to attack Iran.

* Kevin makes a good point about why Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina ruined his presidency.

* Kudos to John Judis for sticking up for Spencer Ackerman, after Martin Peretz described Ackerman's articles as "trash."

* Dennis Prager is back with more sexual advice for married women everywhere. I'm beginning to think there really may be something wrong with that guy.

* Are taxpayers on the hook for Bernard Madoff losses?

* Like Zbigniew Brzezinski, I've long believed that Joe Scarborough has "such a stunningly superficial knowledge" of current events that "it's almost embarrassing to listen" to him.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH.... I've long believed one of the central problems with Sarah Palin, as a candidate for national office, wasn't just her breathtaking disinterest in matters of public policy, but also her similarities to a certain someone who had a comparable distaste for substance, veracity, and details.

Larry Wilkerson, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promoted the notion they were a national security "dream team" to guide the foreign-policy amateur Bush.

"It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin-like President -- because, let's face it, that's what he was -- was going to be protected by this national security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire," said Wilkerson.

Given Wilkerson description, Spencer Ackerman asks, "Is comparing Bush to Sarah Palin more insulting to Bush or to Palin?"

Yglesias seems to believe this isn't even a contest: "Palin's something of a laughingstock, but Bush is a villain. I mean, he wrecked the world economy, he led to millions of Iraqis being forced to flee their homes, he's a total disaster and a disgrace. Palin gave bad answers in TV interviews. There's no real comparison."

I suppose that's right. When it comes to consequences, Bush's presidency has been a nightmare, while Palin was merely a humiliating addition to the national Republican ticket.

But if we put aside the question of corollaries and consider Bush's and Palin's characteristics as politicians and would-be leaders, the comparison isn't too far-fetched. Both were out of their depth seeking national office, both are strikingly uninformed, both suffer from an eerie misguided confidence, and both seem to consider policy details as minor annoyances to be ignored.

Sure, Palin wasn't able to do serious national (and international) damage, but isn't it fair to say both she and Bush are cut from the same cloth?

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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CIRCUS.... I hope I wasn't the only one who watched the Blagojevich/Burris press conference rather gobsmacked. The controversy surrounding Blagojevich was surreal enough before today, but this afternoon's leak, followed by a bizarre press conference, has moved this story from bizarre to farcical.

Blagojevich introduced Burris, Burris offered some boilerplate rhetoric, and largely pretended that the man standing next to him is not scandal-plagued at all. Blagojevich emphasized a few times that the people of Illinois deserve two senators, so he had no choice but to make this decision.

The Q&A portion was a mess, and after several questions, Burris noticed that Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) was in the room. Burris, unexpectedly, invited Rush to say a few words, and the congressman ended up saying more than either Blagojevich or Burris.

It bordered on surreal. Rush said Blagojevich had answered his prayers, and insisted that voters make a distinction between the "designatee" and the "designator." Rush spoke at some length about the lack of African Americans in the Senate -- if seated, Burris would be the only one -- and effectively argued that Senate Democrats couldn't possibly reject Burris' appointment without snubbing African Americans in general. It wasn't just playing the race card, it was playing the race card old school.

Rush said he would personally urge the Senate to seat Burris, vowing to "persuade them, challenge them, beg them, whatever it takes."

The word "lynching" was thrown around a few too many times.

I have to admit, watching the bizarre event unfold, Blagojevich seemed to be having a great time. I got the sense that he thinks, for the first time in weeks, that he's finally on the offense, sticking it to, well, pretty much everyone. He even took a shot at the legislature, saying today's decision is their fault, because they didn't call for the special election he wanted.

It was quite the political circus.

Update: Looking over my notes, I had one other observation to pass along. Burris was asked if he'd seek re-election if he takes office. He said he'd "determine that when we get to that point."

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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DEMS WILL NOT SEAT BURRIS.... Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich thought Senate Democrats wouldn't have the guts to reject Roland Burris' appointment to the Senate. He thought wrong.

The Senate Democratic Leadership issued this statement this afternoon, in advance of the Blagojevich press conference, which is set to begin in a half-hour:

"It is truly regrettable that despite requests from all 50 Democratic Senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety. We say this without prejudice toward Roland Burris's ability, and we respect his years of public service. But this is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.

"Next week we will start one of the most important debates of the year -- outlining an economic recovery plan to create jobs and invest in America. And in the coming weeks, we will be working to protect homeowners and consumers, make America more energy independent, strengthen our national security, and improve health care and educational opportunities. There is much work to do and a lot at stake. It is thus critical that Illinois and every other state have two seated Senators without delay.

"We again urge Gov. Blagojevich to not make this appointment. It is unfair to Mr. Burris, it is unfair to the people of Illinois and it will ultimately not stand. The governor must put the interests of the people of Illinois and all Americans first by stepping aside now and letting his successor appoint someone who we will seat."

Good for them. It might have been tempting for them to seat Burris and end the questions about the vacancy, but Senate Dems did the right thing and followed through on their threat to Blagojevich.

We'll see if and how the governor responds to this in about 30 minutes.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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DOES BURRIS HAVE A CHANCE?.... In the previous post, a reader in Illinois summarizes a point I've heard quite a bit this afternoon about former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich's apparent choice to fill Barack Obama's seat in the Senate.

Taking the appointment at face value, Roland is well known and liked here in Illinois. He built a long career in politics without hint of scandal, which, as has been documented as nauseum, is not an easy thing to do here. He's a great choice.

A TPM reader in Illinois makes a similar point.

My home state's culture of political corruption is well documented. Roland Burris managed to build a career in politics in this state without falling into that muck. He is, to the best of everyone's knowledge, squeaky clean, and he's highly respected. He's 71 years old, so I wonder if he intends to serve as a caretaker. But he's an honorable guy, well liked by people across the state in both parties. It's a stroke of brilliance by Blagojevich in my opinion.

I've seen/heard similar sentiments elsewhere. Indeed, more than a few people have suggested that Blagojevich wanted to find the one person voters in Illinois would approve of, and the one person senators in D.C. would consider actually seating, and Burris was the only name that fit the bill.

It's certainly possible that Harry Reid and other Senate leaders may, in fact, pause before rejecting a respected figure like Burris, who would be the chamber's only African-American member.

But my hunch is that pause won't last long. Senators told Blagojevich, in writing and in no uncertain terms, that his choice wouldn't be seated. Reid & Co. may respect Burris, but this really isn't about him, it's about the governor. What are senators going to say, "We were going to reject Blagojevich's choice, but since he picked a respected black man, we've changed our minds"? I doubt it.

This is hardly a situation in which senators would worry about accusations of racism. It's pretty obvious lawmakers have a problem with Blagojevich's alleged corruption, nothing more.

For what it's worth, while Burris is going to have to explain why he'd even accept this appointment in the first place, Adam Serwer notes that Burris probably won't be labeled a close Blagojevich ally.

Burris announced his interest in the [vacant Senate] seat at a December 13 press conference. And he didn't pull any punches with regards to the governor. He described Blagojevich's alleged efforts to sell the Senate appointment as "pretty appalling" and "just reprehensible." He also endorsed Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan's effort at the time to get the Illinois Supreme Court to remove the governor from office, describing Blagojevich as "incapacitated."

Stay tuned.

Update: A Democratic leadership aide told Ben Smith that Majority Leader Harry Reid views Burris as "unacceptable." Also, in case it matters, Josh Kalvin notes that Burris has said he would not seek another term.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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BLAGOJEVICH TO APPOINT BURRIS.... Well, this is a bit of a surprise.

I've learned that Gov. Blagojevich is poised to name former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace President elect Barack Obama in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon. The embattled Blagojevich, fighting impeachment charges in the Illinois House, just called a press conference for 2 p.m. Chicago time at the Thompson State of Illinois Center.

Burris was the first African American to win statewide office in Illinois when he was elected comptroller, serving from 1983 to 1991. He served as Illinois Attorney General from 1991 to 1995. Burris previously ran and lost bids for the U.S. senate and governor.

If tapped as planned, Burris would be the sole African American in the U.S. Senate.

Burris, who is 71, has sought higher office before, but lost in Democratic primaries in races for Chicago mayor, governor, and U.S. senator. It's unclear whether he would be considered a "place-holder" senator, or whether Burris would plan to seek a full term of his own.

For that matter, there's the not inconsequential issue of whether a Burris announcement will have any practical value at all. Three weeks ago, every member of the Senate Democratic caucus wrote Blagojevich a letter, urging him not to fill the Senate vacancy, and explaining that the chamber would exercise its constitutional authority and refuse to seat any official the governor appointed. (Indeed, two weeks ago, Blagojevich's lawyer said the governor would not even try to fill the vacancy for this reason.)

Does that still stand? Is Burris a respected enough figure that senators may reconsider?

If these reports are accurate, and the governor does make a selection today, does Burris show up to stand with Blagojevich? How does he separate himself from the scandal, and make clear he's not "Blagojevich's man"? What does this do to the drive for a special election? Questions, questions.

What happens now is open to debate, but one thing's for certain: Blagojevich is apparently throwing the chess board in the air. It was obvious from the criminal complaint that the governor has plenty of chutzpah, but I suspect few saw this one coming.

Update: The WSJ has a good piece with more on Burris' background.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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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.

* Rahm Emanuel will formally give up his House seat on Friday. It falls to Rod Blagojevich, of all people, to set a date for a special election. There are as many as 11 Democrats eyeing the race.

* As of right now, Al Franken leads Norm Coleman by 50 votes.

* The Coleman campaign yesterday offered a list of rejected absentee ballots that they say should be counted, but they're all from Republican strongholds. Coleman's team is also gearing up to go after state election officials.

* CNN did a national poll on whether Caroline Kennedy is qualified to serve as a U.S. senator. A 52% majority said she is, while 42% said she isn't. There was a sizable gender gap.

* Candidates vying to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee may engage in a "special forum," in which each contender would outline their visions for the party's future.

* Hopes that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius might run for the Senate in 2010 would be dashed if she becomes the chancellor of the University of Kansas, as is now rumored.

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

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JUST GIVE US THE BIKE.... Earlier this month, Jon Stewart had a great bit on why we should let Barack Obama be president now, instead of making us wait until Jan. 20: "It's like when you were a kid and your parents bought you a bike. You knew it was a bike. It's shaped like a bike; what else could it be? But they wouldn't let you open it until Christmas. I guess what I'm saying is, just give us the bike."

There are plenty of major democracies -- England comes to mind -- that forgo lengthy transition processes. A head of state wins, and almost immediately, takes office. Forget that lame-duck phase -- voters pick a candidate and then get a leader.

How'd we end up with an 11-week transition? Christopher Smith has a piece in The New Republic today, arguing that we shouldn't have to wait so long for the inauguration, and explains a bit about the history.

Thank the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933 -- which actually shortened the transition period from a glacial four months. Beginning in 1793, at the start of George Washington's second term, Inauguration Day was March 4. This made some sense back when the Electoral College had meaning, and when it took weeks for the electors and the new administration to travel by horse and wagon across muddy paths from around the country to Washington.

But a couple of scary transition periods made plain the need to shorten the handover of power. The first was in 1861, when the country was on the verge of civil war; Abraham Lincoln was forced to watch Jefferson Davis inaugurated as president of the Confederacy while he was stuck on the sidelines. The second, eerily familiar, transition of our discontent came in 1933. Herbert Hoover had bungled the country into the beginning of the Great Depression, stoking the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Though FDR was in some ways happy for the lengthy pause, using it to distance himself as far as possible from Hoover's suggestions about how to save the banking industry, he knew that the country's stability was endangered by the delay -- a period historians have labeled, in a deliciously gloomy turn of phrase, "the interregnum of despair." There had been attempts since 1922 to eliminate a four-month lame duck Congressional session. Agreement was finally reached to swear in the new Congress on January 3, just after New Year's parties had ended. The president's arrival also shifted, but the choice of date appears to have been something of an afterthought. "January 20 seemed to be a simple decision based on a rounding notion that the president should follow the new Congress into office within a reasonable amount of time," says NYU professor Paul C. Light. "That's an interesting twist. [Moving the presidential inauguration] had less to do originally with urgency than with the prerogatives of Congress."

75 years ago, we recognized that life had sped up, and that our power structure should adapt accordingly. Why not do it again?

Realistically, the date isn't going to change. It would take a constitutional amendment, and that's highly unlikely. For that matter, the executive branch is awfully big, and transition teams tend to use every last day of the interregnum making staffing decisions. Shortening the period would be, for incoming officials, pretty inconvenient.

But for the rest of us, it's tempting, isn't it?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Hilzoy

Dear Web Advertising People ...

Dear web advertising people,

You know those animated thingos you've recently started putting on pages I visit? The dancing Wii remote that absolutely nothing can turn off, and that consistently blocks content at any number of otherwise wonderful web sites (cough, TPM, cough cough)? The bunch of rockets that just shot themselves across a NYT article I was reading?

They're very annoying. They prevent me from reading what I want to read. Moreover, because they're so hyperactive, it's usually pretty hard to tell what they're an advertisement for. The Wii remote is pretty clear, but only because I already know what a Wii remote looks like. Who sent the rockets streaking across my NYT article? And why? I have no idea.

And that means that they're pretty bad advertising. The fact that they move around on top of my content does get my attention. But if I can't tell what they're supposed to make me buy, they cannot be working as ads, just as total annoyances.

They don't work for me. They don't work for you. Please make them go away. Thanks,

hilzoy

Hilzoy 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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'NOT A BIG READER'.... As part of its end-of-presidency wrap-up, Vanity Fair notes this interesting tidbit from Richard Clarke, the former chief White House counterterrorism adviser.

"We had a couple of meetings with the president, and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed -- I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there -- didn't want them buying the rumor that he wasn't too bright. He was trying -- sort of overly trying -- to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.

"The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don't give the president a lot of long memos, he's not a big reader -- well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?"

Funny, just last week Karl Rove told us the president is a voracious reader, who reads dense texts "to relax and because he's curious," and for 35 years, George W. Bush has "always had a book nearby."

Given Rove's description, I wonder why top administration officials would tell the chief White House counterterrorism adviser that Bush is "not a big reader." It's almost as if Rove's description is some kind of wild exaggeration. That couldn't be, could it?

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE WELL WAS FINE.... I find this very annoying.

Former Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon said the administration was in trouble even before taking office in the aftermath of the 2000 recount in which the Supreme Court effectively ruled that Bush had won Florida.

"The recount poisoned the well from the beginning," McKinnon said.

"A good number of people in this country didn't believe Bush was a legitimate President. And you can't change the tone under those circumstances."

Nonsense. After the recount debacle, Bush, as president-elect, had ample public support, with a 65% approval rating before he took office. His numbers faltered in the spring and summer of 2001, not because of questions about the legitimacy of his presidency, but because of the way Bush governed, which included driving Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party altogether.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush's approval ratings soared to unseen heights, with most of the country not only rallying around their national leader, but hoping, desperately, that the president was a competent, capable man in a time of crisis. When Bush proved otherwise, Americans gave up on him.

The notion of blaming the recount is a cop-out. Bush was given a chance -- to "change the tone," to govern, to lead -- and he blew it. This had nothing to do with the ridiculous circumstances that led Bush into office.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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SALTSMAN GETS A BOOST.... Josh Marshall noted last night, "I think I have this right. The Republican party has decided on the racial joke issue as the vehicle to reintroduce themselves to the American people after the 2008 blowout."

It may sound odd, but that's the situation we're dealing with, after Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, decided to distribute a CD containing "Barack the Magic Negro" as a Christmas greeting to members of the RNC. After Saltsman drew criticism from Mike Duncan and Saul Anuzis, both rivals for the chairmanship, I predicted that Saltsman would likely see conservatives "rally around him, protecting him from those who 'can't take a joke.'"

And with that in mind, the Politico's Andy Barr reports today that the "Magic Negro" flap may have "inadvertently helped" Saltsman's RNC candidacy, with some RNC officials "rallying around" around him.

Alabama Republican committeeman Paul Reynolds said the fact the Saltsman sent him a CD with the song on it "didn't bother me one bit."

"Chip probably could have thought it through a bit more, but he was doing everyone a favor by giving us a gift," he said. "This is just people looking for something to make an issue of."

"I don't think he intended it as any kind of racial slur. I think he intended it as a humor gift," Oklahoma GOP committeewoman Carolyn McClarty added. "I think it was innocently done by Chip."

Indeed, taking this to the next logical step, some RNC members are saying that Duncan and Anuzis may have hurt themselves by criticizing Saltsman's judgment. One RNC member told the Politico, "Those are two guys who just eliminated themselves from this race for jumping all over Chip on this. Mike Duncan is a nice guy, but he screwed up big time by pandering to the national press on this." Several more have "expressed anger toward Duncan and Anuzis 'for throwing a good Republican under the bus.'"

So, to summarize, a leading candidate to lead the Republican National Committee promoted a song calling the next president a "magic negro." This has improved his chances of getting the job.

Got it.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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MCCONNELL, BOEHNER LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN A CRACK.... That congressional Republicans would resist an economic rescue package from Barack Obama was a foregone conclusion. The uncertainty surrounded the intensity of the opposition, whether it would be effective, and what, exactly, the GOP would say.

For Democrats in Congress and the transition team, speed is critical. As they see it, the seriousness of the crisis demands immediate action, and it would be ideal for all of us if a stimulus package is on the Oval Office desk after Obama's inauguration. Yesterday, the Republicans offered an interesting response.

Congressional Republicans objected yesterday to hurried consideration of President-elect Barack Obama's emerging stimulus proposal, questioning the economic value of many of the projects being floated for inclusion and voicing support for a more methodical process that might delay the legislation's passage well into February.

Concerned by Democrats' push to enact the massive bill into law within days of Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R.-Ohio) issued calls for a lengthy vetting of the stimulus proposal, whose price tag could top $850 billion when it is completed next month.

Specifically, GOP leaders would like to see a "week-long cooling-off period" after the legislation is written, so that Republicans can identify spending proposals they deem "irresponsible."

Now, the obvious response here is to note the irony of McConnell and Boehner complaining about bloated spending bills, government waste, and bills that are rammed through Congress, given their own leadership in recent years. But let's put that aside for a moment.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, but looking over the coordinated responses from McConnell and Boehner, I couldn't help but notice that neither of them criticized the idea of massive government spending as a way to stimulate the economy. In other words, neither struck a neo-Hooverite position, which seemed to be the GOP message a couple of weeks ago.

I'm inclined to think this is an encouraging sign. Republican leaders on the Hill -- who've no doubt talked to economists, counted just how small their minorities are, and noticed Obama's 82% approval rating -- implicitly agreed yesterday that a massive rescue package is, in fact, necessary. They want "tough scrutiny and oversight" of the spending, and expect hearings and safeguards, but at no point yesterday did GOP leaders criticize the notion of spending lots of money to help get the economy moving again.

With that in mind, the debate will be over the size and scope of a stimulus package, not whether to have a stimulus package. Given those circumstances, Democrats have reason for at least some optimism.

Steve Benen 8:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Hilzoy

What Do You Mean 'We', White Man?

Robert Samuelson has an infuriating op-ed in today's Washington Post. It's called "Humbled By Our Ignorance":

"It's the end of an era. We know that 2008, much like 1932 or 1980, marks a dividing line for the American economy and society. But what lies on the other side is hazy at best. The great lesson of the past year is how little we understand and can control the economy. This ignorance has bred today's insecurity, which in turn is now a governing reality of the crisis.

The entire column is devoted to explaining all these things that "we" were ignorant of. But who, specifically, are "we"? It's hard to say. Mostly, it seems to be the nameless subject of the passive voice:

"It was once believed that the crisis of "subprime" mortgages -- loans to weaker borrowers -- would be limited, because these loans represent only 12 percent of all home mortgages. (...)

It was once believed that American consumers could borrow and spend more, because higher home values and stock prices substituted for annual savings. [Ed.: Apparently, it was also believed that stocks and home prices always went up.](...)

It was once believed that the rest of the world would "decouple" from the United States.

And so on, and so forth. All these beliefs, and no believers in sight. All this bustle and commotion, and there's nobody around!

The closest Samuelson gets to identifying people who actually believed these things is at the beginning of his piece ("The great lesson of the past year is how little we understand and can control the economy"), and at the end ("Our ignorance is humbling.") Which is to say: it's "us".

And yet, strange to say, I did not believe these things. I'm almost sure I wrote about this in 2006, but I can't recall where, so this from March 2007 will have to do. In it I predict that the mortgage meltdown will knock the legs out from under consumer spending, create a serious credit crunch, and slam the many investors who own CDOs based on mortgages; and that the combination of these three things will be very, very bad, even without taking into account the possibility of systemic risk.

Apparently, I did better than Robert Samuelson. I'm not saying this because I think I deserve credit for that. I don't. That's the point. I'm not especially astute about the housing market, or an expert in economics. I do tend to be common-sensical and cautious about economics -- I do not, for instance, tend to believe such things as: that houses will go up in value indefinitely, or: that we can keep living way beyond our means forever. But that shouldn't exactly set me apart from anyone.

The only reason I saw this one coming was that I read people who know a lot more than I do: people like Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Tanta at Calculated Risk, Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley, and Nouriel Roubini. They all challenged one or another of the myths Samuelson lists, and they did so years ago. Moreover, they had arguments to back up their claims, and I found these arguments much more persuasive than the arguments of the people who disagreed with them.

There were very smart people who did predict this. Their writings were not arcane or hard to find -- I mean, I found them, and this is not my area of expertise. Nor was their basic point that hard to grasp. If I could grasp it, as I'm sure many of our commenters did, then anyone remotely worthy of having an economics column in the Washington Post should have.

Whether or not Samuelson realizes it, I take the point of his op-ed to be that he is not competent in his alleged area of expertise, and moreover lacks one of the basic skills that a PhD in a discipline almost always provides: the ability to spot good arguments in that discipline made by other people, and to decide who is worth listening to and who is not. In his shoes, I would ask myself what, in the absence of competence or the ability to learn from the writings of others, could possibly justify my continuing to take up valuable space in the Post. It's certainly not obvious to me.

Hilzoy 12:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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December 29, 2008

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

* The major indexes on Wall Street dropped a little lower today, and the Dow is now prepared to have its single biggest annual drop since 1931.

* The initial estimate on coal waste in central Tennessee was more than 360 million gallons of sludge. Now, it appears the total will be more than 1 billion gallons. The CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority today pledged to clean up the massive spill.

* The Obama transition office has re-opened its "Open for Questions" feature, and it seems more user-friendly now.

* The war in Iraq may not be over, but the major U.S. television networks have stopped sending full-time correspondents to cover the conflict.

* An upside to the economic crisis that only Tom Tancredo could love: fewer immigrants are trying to sneak into the country now than at any point in 30 years.

* Is the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy staking its claim as a legitimate progressive rival to the Federalist Society? It certainly looks like it.

* It's not at all cool for Anderson Cooper to take not-so-subtle shots at Rachel Maddow.

* What did happen to Bernard Madoff's money?

* Bernie Kerik just can't stay out of trouble. Remember when Bush believed he was the best person in America to lead the Department of Homeland Security? Good times, good times.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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SHAKING UP OBAMA'S TO-DO LIST.... Israeli airstrikes on Hamas institutions continued for a third consecutive day, and the death toll in Gaza is well over 300. There hasn't been this much bloodshed among Israelis and Palestinians, in such a short period of time, in more than 40 years.

As the conflict relates to U.S. politics, the Politico's Ben Smith and Harry Siegel report that Barack Obama probably wasn't planning on dealing with an Israeli crisis immediately upon taking office in three weeks, but the crisis will nevertheless be waiting for him when he gets to the Oval Office.

The incoming administration had planned to focus on the economic crisis and recalibrating U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan in its early months -- but the Israeli assault on Hamas may have instantly changed that calculus.

"For all the talk of putting the [Middle East] conflict on the back burner, it's going force itself onto the front burner," said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the New America Institute. Levy said that if the conflict in Gaza is still ongoing when Obama takes office, he will face regional and international pressure to broker a settlement.

"It could involve the administration very early," Levy said.

I'm not sure just how much "talk" there's been about downplaying U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the point is nevertheless fair -- the violence is likely to be ongoing in mid-January and Obama's administration will likely have to engage quickly. No one's sure, however, what that engagement might look like.

The "only one president at a time" line may seem tired at this point, but Obama's reticence on the crisis is hardly unreasonable. After all, he's not the president, the existing administration is presumably working on addressing the conflict, and the last thing the government needs is two presidents sending different messages to the Middle East right now. The Politico piece noted, "When Obama does speak, his words will be carefully parsed -- particularly by decision makers in Jerusalem weighing how long to continue the offensive in the face of worldwide calls for a ceasefire." Given those circumstances, Obama can and should prepare for a constructive diplomatic role in the new year, while saying very little now.

And what's wrong with that? At face value, nothing, but there are two complicating factors. One, Obama has been critical of Hamas before the election, and Israeli officials are using his previous remarks to justify the aerial assaults now.

And two, Obama expects Bush to take the lead, and Bush is reluctant to interrupt his vacation.

In the meantime, Israeli defense minister has promised Hamas a "war to the bitter end." What the "end" looks like is far from clear.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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CHENEY PONDERS HIS UNPOPULARITY.... Dick Cheney chatted with the Casper Star-Tribune last week, and covered a fair amount of ground. Faiz Shakir highlights the key exchange, which came after the paper asked the vice president, "How do you explain your low approval rating?"

"I don't have any idea. I don't follow the polls.

"My experience has been over the years that if you govern based upon poll numbers, upon trying to improve your overall poll ratings, people I've encountered who do that are people who won't make tough decisions. And the job the president has and those who advise him is to make those basic fundamental decisions for the nation that nobody else is authorized or able to make.

"First and foremost among those is to defend the nation. If you're going to follow the polls, you are going to change your policy every week when the poll comes out. Secondly, I think you're adversely affected by the fact that you can get just about any result you want out of a poll."

There are a few ways to look at this, but two angles jump out at me. First, for someone one who claims to be completely unconcerned about public support, Cheney gives the impression of having given this quite a bit of thought. If I didn't know better, I might think Cheney has spent some time rationalizing his unpopularity, finding a way to wear it as a badge of honor. Of course he has low approval ratings; he makes tough decisions.

Second, my favorite part of the response was that last comment: "[Y]ou can get just about any result you want out of a poll." I think I know what Cheney means -- data can be twisted and manipulated -- but I'm not altogether sure where he's going with this. Is it possible Cheney thinks the polls have been fiddled with and the public isn't disgusted by his conduct?

One can get a variety of results out of a poll, but when it comes to Americans' support for Dick Cheney, the numbers are an accurate reflection of the national sentiment.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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HOW VULNERABLE IS HARRY REID?.... The Wall Street Journal has been pushing a story about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's precarious political future. It is, as Eve Fairbanks noted, the "most read [article] on the WSJ's website right now."

Sen. Harry Reid will command the biggest party majority of any Senate leader in a quarter century when the new Congress convenes in January. But the Nevada Democrat is already worried about his own re-election fight in 2010.

Sen. Reid, perhaps the most-vulnerable Democrat who will face re-election in a midterm race that is likely to favor his party once again, began interviewing campaign managers last week. The Senate majority leader also recently stepped up fund-raising.

The Journal paints quite an unpleasant picture regarding Reid's upcoming race, calling it, among other things, an "uphill" challenge for the Senate leader. The piece also notes a Research 2000 poll in Nevada showing Reid's approval rating down to just 38%.

But I remain skeptical about Reid's vulnerability.

First, the state seems to be getting "bluer," with Obama having won in Nevada by 12 points. Indeed, while that R2K poll showed Reid with weak support, it also showed him leading his likely Republican challengers.

Second, speaking of challengers, Reid's most likely opponent is Nevada's Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who announced his campaign plans a month ago. Unfortunately for Krolicki, he was indicted soon after, a development that would likely give Reid an edge.

And third, there's the matter of the Nevada Republican Party, which is something of a mess. Nevada's Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, has seen his administration rocked by scandal -- both professional and personal -- and will be of little value in rallying opposition to Reid's campaign. Complicating matters, Fairbanks reminds us that the state GOP just closed its headquarters in Las Vegas -- Nevada's largest city -- and its executive director is moving back into his parents' house.

Time will tell, of course, but at this point, I like Reid's chances.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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SYNCHRONICITY.... The Politico's Andie Collier had an interesting item about MoveOn.org over the weekend, noting that the group asked its membership to identity its top four priorities for the organization. The priorities were member-generated, and would help dictate MoveOn's future.

What they chose: universal health care; economic recovery and job creation; building a green economy/stopping climate change; and end the war in Iraq.

What they didn't: holding the Bush administration accountable; fighting for gay rights and LGBT equality; and reforming campaigns and elections.

MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser says that this happy alignment with Barack Obama's agenda -- and fortuitous absence of conflict with same -- comes in part because "the people he's listening to and the people we're listening to are the same people."

But it also may be a sign that MoveOn's members want to move ahead -- and that they're willing to make some ideological sacrifices in exchange for real progress.

Pariser's right that this is all very beneficial for the left -- that the agenda embraced by progressive activists and a progressive president is practically identical will likely benefit both.

But it's more than just a "fortuitous" accident, and it goes beyond Obama and activists listening to the same people. My hunch is that MoveOn members picked those four priorities precisely because Obama has convinced them that this is what the country needs most.

I was thinking along the same lines as Yglesias: "He's the most admired man in America and particularly among the MoveOn [members] who supported him back in the primaries he's very very admired. There are probably things Obama could do to alienate his base, but there's also a great deal he can do to induce that base to align their ideas with him. Especially about something gentle like the question of priorities, he has an enormous ability to get people to see things his way."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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EMBRACE THE NOTORIETY.... I'm not a Lions fan, and I have no emotional investment in this whatsoever, but I think Detroit can find a silver lining in all of this.

The final two minutes of the Detroit Lions' history-making season had a soundtrack that in no way resembled the stentorian baritone of John Facenda. The voices belonged to the 70,141 fans at Lambeau Field, many of whom serenaded the Lions with the chant "0 and 16."

With a 31-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Lions became the first N.F.L. team to lose 16 regular-season games. Battling back to tie the Packers, 14-14, late in the third quarter, the Lions were outscored by 17-7 in the final 15 minutes.

The Lions' emotions swung from hopefulness to helplessness to humiliation as the fact sank in that they had replaced the 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished 0-14, as the benchmark for badness. Never mind the N.F.L., the Lions are now in the league of Zippy Chippy, a New York-bred gelding who lost all 100 of his races.

Now, if I had a choice, I'd actually prefer that my team go 0-16, as compared to 1-15. I realize this is counterintuitive -- if winning games is the goal, one is better than none.

But here's the thing -- plenty of teams have finished their seasons with just one victory. Sure, it's humiliating, but it's also fairly routine.

If you're going to have a bad year, why not have the worst year? If the Lions had gone 1-15, folks would say, "Wow, Detroit was really awful." But by going without any wins at all, people get to say, "Wow, no one has ever been this awful."

Isn't it better to be memorable? No one cares about those who are merely awful, but everyone cares about those who uniquely dreadful.

I say, embrace the historic nature of unrivaled failure. Take pride in being a part of something truly "special."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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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.

* In the wake of last week's Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, lawyers for Sen. Norm Coleman's (R-Minn.) campaign are threatening a new lawsuit to prevent the state from certifying election results that would make Al Franken the winner.

* Could Franken be seated before his victory is certified? The state's other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, is working on it.

* While the race for the RNC chairmanship heats up, committee members have called for an unprecedented special meeting, working outside the dictates of the national party's leadership.

* It looks like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is moving closer to launching a Senate campaign.

* In what I believe is a reversal, Caroline Kennedy said over the weekend that she will not run for the Senate in 2010 if she's not chosen to fill New York's current vacancy.

* Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) said yesterday that he believes Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) can be removed from office in time for Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday on February 12.

* Terry McAuliffe is moving ahead with his gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, and is planning to raise record amounts of money -- Virginia has "no limits on how much an individual, corporation or union can donate to a candidate running for state office."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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WHEN OSHA GOT BUSH-IFIED.... The Bush gang? Ignoring the public's interests, politicizing a key federal agency, and advancing corporate interests above all else? You don't say.

In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day's exposure at the agency's permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.

After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country's principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again.

"In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay," Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency's director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from "the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues," to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.

In all, under Bush, 86% fewer rules were found economically significant as compared to a similar period during the Clinton years.

By all appearances, this administration barely wants OSHA to even exist, so I suppose it stands to reason that Bush political appointees would gut the agency and turn to lobbyists to help guide OSHA's decision making. Indeed, it's hard to count just how many regulatory agencies have, under this president, effectively been run by the business interests it was supposed to be regulating.

Just another addition to the long list of government departments that Obama is going to have to fix.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WEBB EYES PRISON REFORM.... It's a crowded policy landscape, and it's daunting to consider which challenges to address first, but kudos to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) for raising the importance of an issue that too often goes overlooked.

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

"I enjoy grabbing hold of really complex issues and boiling them down in a way that they can be understood by everyone," Webb told the Washington Post. "I think you can be a law-and-order leader and still understand that the criminal justice system as we understand it today is broken, unfair, locking up the wrong people in many cases and not locking up the right person in many cases."

Maybe it takes a decorated Marine veteran who served as Navy secretary under Reagan to avoid the "soft" label.

In speeches and in a book that devotes a chapter to prison issues, Webb describes a U.S. prison system that is deeply flawed in how it targets, punishes and releases those identified as criminals.

With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, according to the Pew Center on the States and other groups. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says. [...]

Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

It may be a little while until we see progress on this front. This spring, Webb will introduce legislation to create a national panel on criminal justice reform. If a panel is created, it'll take a while for the members to conduct its research, and will take even more time before members of Congress are prepared to write and pass legislation.

But the process notwithstanding, Webb is not only right to tackle the issue, he's showing political courage in addressing a problem most would prefer to ignore. Good for him.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE REPORTS OF OUR 'DISINTEGRATION' HAVE BEEN GREATLY EXAGGERATED.... The Wall Street Journal has an interesting front-page item this morning, on the popularity in Russia of a scholar predicting the collapse of the United States.

For a decade, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting the U.S. will fall apart in 2010. For most of that time, he admits, few took his argument -- that an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S. -- very seriously. Now he's found an eager audience: Russian state media.

In recent weeks, he's been interviewed as much as twice a day about his predictions. "It's a record," says Prof. Panarin. "But I think the attention is going to grow even stronger."

Prof. Panarin, 50 years old, is not a fringe figure. A former KGB analyst, he is dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats. He is invited to Kremlin receptions, lectures students, publishes books, and appears in the media as an expert on U.S.-Russia relations.

But it's his bleak forecast for the U.S. that is music to the ears of the Kremlin, which in recent years has blamed Washington for everything from instability in the Middle East to the global financial crisis. Mr. Panarin's views also fit neatly with the Kremlin's narrative that Russia is returning to its rightful place on the world stage after the weakness of the 1990s.

Panarin believes there's "a 55-45% chance" that the United States will experience "disintegration" in the coming years. He's been making the same predictions since 1998, but given anti-American sentiment in Russia, Panarin's ideas have apparently made him something of a cause celebre.

Here's the thing to keep in mind, though: Igor Panarin's understanding of the modern United States appears to be rather limited.

Slate's Ryan Grim noted a recent report outlining Panarin's vision for the future of the U.S.: "He predicted that the U.S. will break up into six parts -- the Pacific coast, with its growing Chinese population; the South, with its Hispanics; Texas, where independence movements are on the rise; the Atlantic coast, with its distinct and separate mentality; five of the poorer central states with their large Native American populations; and the northern states, where the influence from Canada is strong."

If this reflects Panarin's knowledge of the country, I have a hunch we'll be fine.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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ABSTINENCE PROGRAMS STILL DON'T WORK.... I don't want to alarm anyone, but it appears that teenagers sometimes have sex, even if they "pledge" not to.

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. "But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking."

Got that? The difference between teens who make abstinence "pledges" and teens who don't isn't sexual conduct, it's that those who make the "pledges" engage in more dangerous sexual conduct.

After a while, this just gets repetitious -- the right insists that abstinence programs work, objective research shows they don't. Conservatives, not satisfied, demand more objective research, which further proves abstinence programs don't work. No evidence, no matter how overwhelming, seems to be enough.

But reality just won't budge. The nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that abstinence programs do not affect teenager sexual behavior. A congressionally-mandated study, which was not only comprehensive but also included long-term follow-up, found the exact same thing. Researchers keep conducting studies, and the results are always the same.

This isn't complicated. Simply telling teenagers not to have sex doesn't affect behavior, doesn't prevent unwanted pregnancies, and doesn't stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Teens who receive comprehensive lessons of sexual health, with reliable, accurate information, are more likely to engage in safer, more responsible behavior.

And yet, GOP policy makers in Washington have invested billions over the last eight years in this failed social experiment, and conservatives want taxpayers to throw even more money at programs that don't work.

The Washington Post noted that Congress and the new Obama administration "are about to reconsider the more than $176 million in annual funding for such programs." It should be a no-brainer.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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LETTING HISTORY BE THE JUDGE.... For quite some time, the president, his aides, and his few remaining political allies have expressed confidence about how Bush's presidency will be perceived -- eventually. To hear them tell it, we Americans, with our petty short-term concerns and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitudes, lack the perspective needed to appreciate Bush's greatness. Historians will understand in the future what voters fail to appreciate in the present. The difference between failure and success, when it comes to George W. Bush, is hindsight.

We've heard it enough times for it be quite tiresome, but we nevertheless saw two of the president's biggest supporters pushing this line rather aggressively yesterday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that despite President Bush's low approval ratings, people will soon "start to thank this president for what he's done."

"So we can sit here and talk about the long record, but what I would say to you is that this president has faced tougher circumstances than perhaps at any time since the end of World War II, and he has delivered policies that are going to stand the test of time," Rice said in an interview that aired on CBS' "Sunday Morning."

Rice added that this administration has been concentrating solely on "lay[ing] a foundation for history's judgment," and that if she were giving the administration's foreign policy a letter grade, she'd give "some" of the policy "an A-plus."

First Lady Laura Bush, appearing on Fox News, struck a similar note. She was asked about those who believe her husband's administration is one of the worst in American history. "I know it's not, and so I don't really feel like I need to respond to people that view it that way," she said. "I think history will judge and we'll see later."

The entire defense seems to boil down to two words: "You'll see." We may be inclined to believe our lying eyes, but, the loyal Bushies tell us, "You'll see." Indeed, Rice went so far as to suggest we'll all be "thanking" Bush for all the great things he's done for us.

It must be comforting for Bush, Rice, and other top officials in the administration to think this way. It's no doubt frustrating to wake up every morning, and go to work knowing that you're reviled by most of the public, here and around the world. If you can convince yourself that you'll be appreciated years from now, it probably takes the edge off.

But that doesn't make it true. Indeed, wishful thinking about history's judgment, in the midst of widespread failures in every aspect of government -- foreign policy, economic policy, constitutional policy, domestic policy, environmental policy -- borders on delusional.

As Digby concluded, Bush and his team "need accept that the best they can hope for is to end up among history's inept clowns instead of history's villains. It's not much, but it's all they've got."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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December 28, 2008
By: Hilzoy

An Eye For An Eye Makes The Whole World Blind

From the NYT:

"Israeli aircraft pounded Gaza for a second day on Sunday, increasing the death toll to nearly 300, as Israeli troops and tanks massed along the border and the government said it had called up reserves for a possible ground operation.

The continued strikes, which Israel said were in retaliation for sustained rocket fire from Gaza into its territory, unleashed a furious reaction across the Arab world, raising fears of greater instability in the region. (...)

In Gaza on Sunday, officials said medical services, stretched to the breaking point after 18 months of Israeli sanctions, were on the verge of collapse as they struggled to care for the more than 600 people wounded in two days. (...)

Israel made a strong push to justify the attacks, saying it was forced into military action to defend its citizens. At the same time, heated statements from the supreme religious leader of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah expressed strong support for Hamas."

From an earlier article:

"There was a shocking quality to Saturday's attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city."

One of the many things that makes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict so utterly dispiriting is that it's impossible to think of anything good coming of any of this. Worse than that, it's hard to imagine that even the people involved think anything good will come of it.

What, exactly, do the Palestinians lobbing rockets into Sderot think they will accomplish? That the Israelis will look about them and say: Holy Moly, I had no idea this place was so dangerous!, and leave? Do the Israelis think: even though we've bombed the Palestinians a whole lot, and it's never done much good before, maybe this time it will be different! Maybe Hamas will say: heavens, this is a pretty serious round of attacks; maybe we should just sue for peace -- ? Or what?

I imagine what people on both sides are thinking is something more like: do you expect us to just sit here and take it? Do you expect us to do nothing? To which my answer is: no, I expect you to try to figure out what has some prospect of actually making things better. Killing people out of anger, frustration, and the sense that you have to do something is just wrong. For both sides. And its actual results are numbingly predictable:

Hamas lacks the technology to aim its rockets. They're taking potshots. In response, the Israeli government launched air strikes that have now killed more than 280 Palestinians, injured hundreds beyond that, and further radicalized thousands in the Occupied Territories and millions in the region. The response will not come today, of course. It will come in months, or even in years, when an angry orphan detonates a belt filled with shrapnel, killing himself and 25 Israelis. At which point the Israelis will launch air strikes killing another 70 Palestinians, radicalizing thousands more, leading to more bombings, and so the cycle continues.

Cernig is right:

"Indiscriminate unguided rocket attacks on civilians and indiscriminate but deliberately targeted airstrikes on civilian infrastructure are both wrong. Collective punishment is collective punishment and is morally wrong no matter the relative intensity by which both sides pursue it or what has gone before in the way of provocation. Wrong (Strength 2) + Wrong (Strength 5) cannot ever = Right (Strength 7). All you can say is that one is less wrong but still ultimately morally reprehensible."

As is Spencer:

"Do you believe for a moment that leveling Gaza will stop the rockets? Well, then you've lost your right to call the peaceniks naive. You want the cycle broken? Then you can start by breaking your own."

As was Gandhi, who gave me the title for my post.

Hilzoy 10:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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FDR VS. REAGAN?.... What an odd poll from Rasmussen.

It's a showdown between the two most influential presidents of the 20th Century. Franklin D. Roosevelt versus Ronald W. Reagan.

Forty-five percent (45%) of U.S. voters say FDR, the Democratic father of the big government New Deal who led the country to victory in World War II, was the better president of the two.

But 40% say Reagan, the Republican champion of small-government conservatism and the winner of the Cold War, was a better president. Fifteen percent (15%) aren't sure which of the two they like better in a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

As befits the times, there's a gender gap -- men narrowly preferred Reagan, while women overwhelmingly preferred FDR. Whites were split, while African-American voters backed FDR by more than a two-to-one margin. Dems, liberals, the unmarried, and those who attend worship services less often went with Roosevelt, while Republicans, conservatives, married voters, and evangelicals supported Reagan.

I can appreciate the fact that fawning, sycophantic, and generally embarrassing conservative cheerleading has helped bolster Reagan's image in the wake of his presidency. I also realize that Reagan, more than any modern leader, is the only GOP figure who's claimed by every wing of the Republican Party as their own -- from New England moderates to Deep South far-right conservatives.

But up against FDR, how is this even a contest? Reagan's economic policies were largely unsuccessful; propaganda notwithstanding, he was not responsible for winning the Cold War; his White House traded weapons for hostages in Iran-Contra; and no president before or since oversaw a White House filled with so many officials convicted of felonies (32, not including 30 who resigned in disgrace or were fired following charges of legal or ethical misconduct).

I'm not even sure what the Rasmussen poll means by "influential." JFK inspired millions, Wilson and Truman were extremely consequential, and Nixon and Johnson dominated their political eras.

The poll seems to want to pit Reagan and Roosevelt as some kind of equally-consequential political titans, but I don't see it. FDR vs. Reagan? This one isn't even close.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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A 'WAVE OF RETAILER BANKRUPTCIES'.... We talked the other day about the striking drop in consumer spending over the holidays, with revenue that was "much worse than the already-dire picture painted by industry forecasts." The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that the commercial landscape is likely to deteriorate further in the new year, with a "wave of retailer bankruptcies."

"We will have a lot fewer stores by the middle of 2009," says Nancy Koehn, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. "It's happening very, very quickly because of the financial crisis and the recession." [...]

Corporate-turnaround experts and bankruptcy lawyers are predicting a wave of retailer bankruptcies early next year, after being contacted by big and small retailers either preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or scrambling to avoid that fate.

Analysts estimate that from about 10% to 26% of all retailers are in financial distress and in danger of filing for Chapter 11. AlixPartners LLP, a Michigan-based turnaround consulting firm, estimates that 25.8% of 182 large retailers it tracks are at significant risk of filing for bankruptcy or facing financial distress in 2009 or 2010. In the previous two years, the firm had estimated 4% to 7% of retailers then tracked were at a high risk for filing.

One-fourth of all retailers is a lot of stores. Think about your local mall, and then think about a quarter of the stores disappearing, as compared to a year prior.

The ripple effect will be fairly broad, affecting suppliers and manufacturers, and limiting retail selections for those shoppers who have disposable income, but won't find as much of what they're looking for on store shelves.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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REPUBLICANS WEIGHING IN ON 'MAGIC NEGRO' CD.... After some initial hesitation, Republicans have begun to take sides of Chip Saltsman's decision to distribute a CD containing "Barack the Magic Negro" as a Christmas greeting to members of the RNC

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, 22 hours after the story caused a stir, weighed in with a public statement, noting that he us "shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate." Duncan, of course, wants to keep his job, and has an incentive to go after Saltsman, a rival for the chairmanship. Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and also a candidate for RNC chair, soon joined Duncan, saying Saltsman's attempt at humor was in "bad taste."

Interestingly enough, Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and candidate for RNC chair, publicly defended Saltsman. Blackwell, who is African American, dismissed media "hypersensitivity" on race.

"Unfortunately, there is hypersensitivity in the press regarding matters of race. This is in large measure due to President-Elect Obama being the first African-American elected president," said Blackwell, who would be the first black RNC chairman, in a statement forwarded to Politico by an aide. "I don't think any of the concerns that have been expressed in the media about any of the other candidates for RNC chairman should disqualify them. When looked at in the proper context, these concerns are minimal. All of my competitors for this leadership post are fine people."

There are competing angles to the responses, and it's certainly possible that Blackwell expects Saltsman's candidacy to falter, and he'd like to pick up Saltsman's supporters.

But it wouldn't surprise me if Blackwell's comments were the beginning of a conservative pushback to these questions even being asked, and possible criticism of Duncan and Anuzis for showing weakness by paying attention to the media and "pc culture."

Jonathan Stein noted yesterday, "[C]onservatives by and large hate political correctness and hate being told by liberals that they stepped over the lines of polite discourse. I've frequently objected to an insensitive joke, only to be admonished, 'Lighten up, it's supposed to be funny.' Because, obviously, the fact that there is humorous intent makes the racism/sexism/homophobia okay."

Exactly. In this case, Saltsman promoted, as a Christmas gift, a song calling Obama a "magic negro," with lyrics from a right-wing activist pretending to be Al Sharpton complaining about "da hood." For many on the right, this is comedy gold. Indeed, Saltsman obviously thought RNC members would find this entertaining, or he wouldn't have sent it out as a gift in the first place.

Blackwell's tack, I suspect, will be the more common response among conservatives. The more Saltsman is criticized, the more many on the right will rally around him, protecting him from those who "can't take a joke." Whether the "joke" relies on ugly racist stereotypes is of no consequence.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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A NATIONAL PARTY NO MORE.... David Broder highlights an increasingly obvious political reality about the regional power of the Republican Party.

Led by Republican senators from Southern states where there are many foreign-owned auto plants, the Senate refused to cut off a filibuster against the bill to provide bridge loans to General Motors and Chrysler. This time, the opposition was led by Bob Corker of Tennessee and Richard Shelby of Alabama. When the Senate failed by eight votes to cut off debate, Southern and border-state Republicans voted 16 to 2 against the measure. On a similar vote on the 2007 immigration bill, the Southerners split 17 to 3 against.

Even though Bush later used his authority to provide the loan, the defeat of this legislation at Republican hands will not be forgotten when GOP senators run for reelection in 2010 in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. It will also echo in industrial states such as Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, New York and New Jersey, when Republicans try to challenge for Senate and House seats.

The Southern domination of the congressional Republican Party has become more complete with each and every election. This year, Republicans suffered a net loss of two Senate and three House seats in the South, but they lost five Senate seats and 18 House seats in other sections. No Republican House members are left in New England, and they have become ever scarcer in New York and Pennsylvania and across the Midwest.

Five years ago, Zell Miller wrote a book called, "National Party No More." If only he'd gotten the party right, he would have been a visionary.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE 'IDEA' OF A CANDIDATE.... I'm still trying to keep an open mind about Caroline Kennedy possibly filling New York's Senate vacancy, left by Hillary Clinton, but she's not giving me a lot to work with. Kennedy sat down for her first interview with the New York Times as a potential Senate appointee, and it didn't go especially well.

Caroline Kennedy, the woman who would be New York's next senator, is sure of one thing. Among all the hopefuls seeking to succeed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, she said on Saturday, there is no better choice.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I would be the best," Ms. Kennedy said, sitting in the back room of an Upper East Side diner around the corner from her home.

After weeks of criticism that she had not opened up to the public or the press, Ms. Kennedy has embarked on a series of interviews. But in an extensive sit-down discussion Saturday morning with The New York Times, she still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way.

Asked how she might improve on Clinton's tenure in the Senate, Kennedy demurred. Asked about how the recession has affected her personally, Kennedy didn't want to talk about her finances. She was similarly vague in response to questions about education policy, healthcare policy, and Democratic Party orthodoxy.

If the tone of the article is accurate, Kennedy didn't even seem particularly interested in the interview itself. She "seemed irritated" when asked to talk about the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat. "Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman's magazine or something?" Kennedy asked the reporters. "I thought you were the crack political team."

As the interview was wrapping up, one NYT reporter tried to pose one last question, but Kennedy interrupted him. "I think we're done," she said.

I know Kennedy has begun hiring some consultants for this process. They may need to redouble their efforts on media prep.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Hilzoy

WaMu

A story about WaMu from the NYT:

"WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers' incomes and assets, according to former employees. The bank set up what insiders described as a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients.

WaMu gave mortgage brokers handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans, which carried higher fees, bolstering profits and ultimately the compensation of the bank's executives. WaMu pressured appraisers to provide inflated property values that made loans appear less risky, enabling Wall Street to bundle them more easily for sale to investors.

"It was the Wild West," said Steven M. Knobel, a founder of an appraisal company, Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, that did business with WaMu until 2007. "If you were alive, they would give you a loan. Actually, I think if you were dead, they would still give you a loan."

Here's a charming anecdote:

On another occasion, Ms. Zaback asked a loan officer for verification of an applicant's assets. The officer sent a letter from a bank showing a balance of about $150,000 in the borrower's account, she recalled. But when Ms. Zaback called the bank to confirm, she was told the balance was only $5,000.

The loan officer yelled at her, Ms. Zaback recalled. "She said, 'We don't call the bank to verify.'" Ms. Zaback said she told Mr. Parsons that she no longer wanted to work with that loan officer, but he replied: "Too bad."

Apparently, WaMu's CEO got $88 million in compensation between 2001 and 2007. The most charitable description of what he did for all that money is: he provided a textbook example of the principal/agent problem -- the kind of problem you get when someone (say, a CEO) who is supposed to be working for someone else (say, shareholders) decides to throw their interests overboard and rob them blind, and the structure within which he's working is not set up well enough to prevent him from doing so. The less charitable description is: he looted the company.

The most ludicrous part of the NYT story involves a guy who set up a program whereby real estate agents got $10,000 fees for selling option ARMs to people who didn't speak English. These fees were eventually banned because WaMu thought they might be found to be illegal. But the NYT quotes the guy who designed the program as saying: "I don’t think the bank would have let us do the program if it was bad."

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Hilzoy 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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December 27, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Factcheck: Mexican Laws Against Incest

Yesterday, the Washington Post had an op-ed on rape which contains the following claim:

"In Mexico, for example, the rape of a teenage girl by her father is defined as voluntary until it is proved otherwise. Under most state criminal codes in Mexico, incest is considered a crime against the family, not against the physical integrity of the victim, and the underage victim is initially considered as much a criminal as the adult perpetrator."

This is appalling, if true. But is it true? It's hard for me to say: my Spanish might charitably be described as rusty, my Mexican legal research skills are nonexistent, and while I suspect that some worthy organization has a good database of international rape statutes, I haven't been able to find it. Still, I've written down what I've found. If I'm wrong, I hope someone will correct me. And if some one knows a good survey of the relevant laws, I'd be interested to read it.

The Mexican federal criminal code is here (pdf, sexual crimes are Articles 259-277). Unless I'm mistaken, the relevant section contains no presumption of consent:

"Articulo 272.- Se impondra la pena de uno a seis anos de prision a los ascendientes que tengan relaciones sexuales con sus descendientes.

La pena aplicable a estos ultimos sera de seis meses a tres anos de prision."

And Article 266bis seems to say that the normal penalties for rape will be raised by half when various conditions obtain, including the rape of a child by his or her father.

As far as Mexican state law is concerned, I've checked the Federal District's (pdf, see Articles 174-182), Durango's (pdf, see articles 323 and 392-8) and Quintana Roo's (see Sec. 1, Title 4 and Sec. 2, Title 1) penal codes. (States chosen more or less at random from those that have their codes online.) In the Federal District, incest is defined as a crime against liberty, sexual security, and normal psychosexual development, not as a crime against the family. In Durango and Quintana Roo, it is considered under two headings: incest, which is a crime against the integrity of the family, and rape, which is a crime against liberty and personal security (Durango) or sexual liberty and its normal development (Quintana Roo). It is not true in any of these jurisdictions that having sex with one's children is defined solely as a crime against the family.

In all three states, incest is defined to include sex with one's parents; therefore, when someone above the age of consent has sex with her father, absent evidence of violence or coercion, she is considered to have committed incest, as is her father. If there is evidence that she did not consent, she is presumably not criminally responsible; if she did consent, however, that does not let her father off the hook for incest, as far as I can see.

Consent would, however, show that she was not raped. In all three states, sex with someone under the age of consent is defined as rape, and in all three states, as in the Federal Code, the penalty for rape is raised by half in the case of parents molesting children, but not for children who rape their parents. In all three states, however, consent by a person who is old enough to give it is a defense against a charge of rape, as one would expect.

The problem is the age of consent, which is twelve to fourteen in most of Mexico. That's why "in Mexico, for example, the rape of a teenage girl by her father is defined as voluntary until it is proved otherwise": because all sex by kids over twelve or fourteen is presumed to be voluntary. When I read the Post's op-ed, I took it to mean that Mexican law presumes that fathers have a right to have sex with their teenage children. In fact, it does not: incest is illegal even if both parties are over eighty, and rape is wrong at any age, though of course it can only be rape if the victim did not consent. What Mexican law does presume is that children of twelve or fourteen are competent to consent to sex. That is wrong, but it's wrong in a different way.

I checked this out because, as I said, I thought that if Mexican law did, indeed, say that teenagers raped by their fathers are presumed to have consented, that would be appalling; but that if it did not say this, it would be worth correcting. Just as people ought not to be accused of certain things without good reason, so (it seems to me) entire countries should not be accused of having grotesque legal systems. (Obviously, though, enforcement is another matter entirely, and one that I have not been able to check.)

Hilzoy 8:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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By: Hilzoy

The Disaster In Tennessee

I'm late to this story, but: what's happening in Tennessee sounds horrific:

"A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority's largest.

Mr. Moulton said Friday that the levels exceeded safety limits for drinking water, but that both metals were filtered out by water treatment processes.

Mercury and arsenic, he said, were "barely detectable" in the samples."

This is much bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. You can see aerial video here. I find it disturbing that the amount of fly ash now thought to have been released is over twice as much as the TVA originally thought was in the entire pond.

Fly ash has a lot of bad stuff in it. Besides this Scientific American article with the comforting title "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste", there's this:

"A draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts "often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed." The study said "risks to human health and ecosystems" might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies."

And guess what? It's headed into the Chatanooga water supply. Oh goody. There are reports of fish kills, though a TVA spokesman claims they are not the result of toxic substances, but of a surge of water beaching a lot of fish. However, I can't imagine a sudden influx of heavy metals and neurotoxins did the fish any good.

As David Roberts at Gristmill says, "There is no clean coal."

Hilzoy 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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RNC CHAIRMAN 'APPALLED' BY 'MAGIC NEGRO' CD.... Yesterday afternoon, The Hill was the first to report that Chip Saltsman distributed a CD containing "Barack the Magic Negro" as a Christmas greeting to members of the Republican National Committee. Saltsman, Mike Huckabee's former campaign manager and former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, used the music as part of his campaign to lead the RNC.

Despite the controversy that ensued in response to Saltsman's offensive choice in music, Republican officials were noticeably silent about the issue. That changed this afternoon, nearly 24 hours after the news broke.

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan issued a statement Saturday distancing the party's leadership from one of the GOP's best-known operatives, Chip Saltsman, who distributed a CD containing "Barack the Magic Negro" as part of his campaign to be elected chairman of the Republican National Committee next month.

Duncan, who has served the campaigns of five presidents dating back to Richard Nixon, is seeking reelection as the party's 60th chairman in a hotly contested race that includes Saltsman and several other viable candidates.

Duncan's statement, in its entirety, read: "The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party. I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate as it clearly does not move us in the right direction."

It's hard to pick the most obvious embarrassment for Republicans here. That the party's favorite right-wing blowhard (Rush Limbaugh) would promote such a song on his radio show? That a candidate for RNC chair would use the song as a Christmas gift? That the candidate for RNC chair would assume that Republican Party leaders would enjoy it?

That Mike Duncan would wait 22 hours before saying anything about this, only denouncing Saltsman -- a rival for his job -- after the Politico noted that party leaders had only offered "odd silence" in response to the story?

Or that Limbaugh began promoting the song in March, the party said nothing, and Republicans continued to appear on his show as if he were a respected conservative leader?

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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GAZA.... On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Hamas that its recent attacks in the Gaza Strip hand to end. "I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it," Olmert said. "We are stronger." Though no Israelis were killed, on Wednesday alone, Hamas fired more than 60 rockets and mortars, hitting houses and factories.

Olmert followed through on his warnings this morning.

The Israeli Air Force on Saturday launched a massive attack on Hamas targets throughout Gaza in retaliation for the recent heavy rocket fire from the area, hitting mostly security headquarters, training compounds and weapons storage facilities, the Israeli military and witnesses said.

Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, the head of emergency services at the Gaza Ministry of Health, said at least 140 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

Most were members of the security forces of Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, but a few civilians were also among the dead, including children. Scores more Palestinians were wounded.

There had been a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas, which expired on Dec. 19. Hamas renewed its rocket fire, and Israel retaliated today.

This may continue for a while -- the Israeli military warned this morning that this operation "will be continued, expanded and intensified as much as will be required."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak added at a press conference, "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting."

This morning's military response came by way of the air, and whether a ground offensive is next remains unclear.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is the question of whether more Americans are attending worship services in light of the economic crisis.

The New York Times recently ran a front-page piece, and concluded that there's a definite trend -- as the recession has worsened, attendance at houses of worship has increased. The Times based this conclusion on a "spot check of large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation," and reported that since September, "[P]astors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions -- deep empathy and quiet excitement -- as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore: Bad times are good for evangelical churches."

Is this true? Slate's Jack Shafer dug a little deeper and has his doubts.

Has today's freshly cratered economy already given bloom to increased church attendance? No, Gallup's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, writes in a Dec. 17 Web posting in reaction to the Times story. He asserts that "a review of almost 300,000 interviews conducted by Gallup so far in 2008 shows no evidence that church attendance in America has been increasing late this year as a result of bad economic times."

About 42 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in September, October, November, and into December said that they had attended church weekly or almost every week, a number unchanged from earlier in the year. Newport also stated these findings in a letter to the Times that the paper published on Dec. 20. Newport allows in his Times letter that attendance may have increased at selected evangelical churches but that such an increase would be too limited to register nationally.

Ordinarily when the Times traffics in a trend story, it indemnifies itself by quoting a skeptic on the other side of the issue or it tosses off a "to be sure" paragraph noting the weakness of its anecdotal evidence. Not here. Given this leap of faith, let's hope the Times isn't looking into the existence of Santa Claus. Imagine the headline: "Despite Naysayers, Hundreds of Millions Believe in St. Nick."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* TV preacher Pat Robertson is "remarkably pleased" with President-elect Barack Obama, but seems to be suffering from some Bush Fatigue. Despite Robertson's role in helping promote and carry water for the president, the televangelist told CNN this week that Bush has not dealt with the nation's economic crisis in a "professional manner," and he feels compelled to acknowledge the "serious goofs" Bush has made in office: "The Katrina matter was terrible. The rebuilding of Iraq has been terrible. The [handling] of the economy right now has been terrible.... I believe I would look at about a C-minus right now if I were grading him." No word on what grade Robertson would give himself for having defended Bush for the last eight years.

* And radical Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake lashed out at Pastor Rick Warren this week, insisting that "God will punish" Warren for appearing at the Obama inauguration. Drake called Obama an "evil illegal alien," and warned Warren, "God will not wink at this.... It's an abomination before God and God's going to deal with that."

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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PRESIDENTS, PARDONS, AND POWER.... Like it or not, presidents have broad authority when it comes to granting pardons. They also, however, have no authority to when it comes to taking pardons back.

Bush's clemency, announced this week, for Isaac Toussie is rather scandalous in its own right, given Toussie's background as a scam artist who got off easy running an illegal mortgage scheme and his father's contributions to Republicans earlier this year. But it's the president's decision to try and change his mind that's especially interesting.

Now, as a legal matter, it appears Bush can't grant a pardon and then rescind it. The process just doesn't work that way. The White House would have us believe, however, that his publicly announced, unconditional pardon for Isaac Toussie didn't really count. Bush was going to grant him clemency, but it hadn't actually happened yet, so the president interrupted the process before it could become official.

There are two arguments at play here. The first is that the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department had yet to "execute and deliver grants of clemency to the named individuals" announced on Tuesday. The White House claims got in touch with the Pardon Attorney before the official action could be taken. Josh Marshall looked into this and found that the Pardon Attorney doesn't actually "execute" anything.

The current system of having the Pardon Attorney create certificates of pardon only goes back to the Eisenhower administration, and was then apparently only done to relieve the president of the chore of signing so many pardons and commutations. I spoke to former Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love (1990-1997) who told me that "receiving the president's warrant and sending notifications to the petitioners is purely 'a ministerial act of notification.'" In layman's terms, at this end of the transaction, the Pardon Attorney's role is really just a matter of paperwork. "When we received the Master Warrant from the president," said Love, "what our job was was to notify them, by telephone, and eventually by written notification. The document evidenced the president's action. We never assumed that that document had any necessary legal significance."

So just as a factual matter, the idea that the Pardon Attorney needs to 'execute' the pardons seems to be bogus.

The second argument is that a pardon is a legitimate, genuine pardon only when the petitioner has been notified, stemming from the 1869 Du Puy case. In this matter, it's very likely that Toussie had been notified -- formally (through his attorney) and informally (through the media). Indeed, other petitioners on the same list found out about their clemency through their attorneys, who had been notified about the pardons in advance of the White House announcement. It's likely, though unconfirmed, that Toussie's lawyer received one of these calls, too.

Josh noted that this is bound to end up in court. The Wall Street Journal's Dan Slater spoke to an expert who added that Bush's attempted take-back "could be challenged," and Toussie's lawyers would have a good case: "It should be possible for Toussie's attorneys to go to court for a declaration that the pardon became effective when the warrant was signed and, depending on the facts, when it became communicated to him or when he read it."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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OBAMA'S CHURCH ATTENDANCE REPORTS.... The Politico was on this beat for a while, and now the Chicago Tribune is picking up on the story.

Barack Obama has long stressed the importance of religion in his life.

But as his fellow Christians around the world attended Christmas services on Wednesday and Thursday, the president-elect and his family remained sequestered at their vacation compound on the windward coast of Oahu.

His lack of attendance at formal religious services showcased a dilemma faced by Obama, who is between churches and often expresses concern about bringing the disruption of his security detail into the lives of others.

Still, he has not attended a public church service since before being elected, a departure from the actions of his two immediate predecessors.

This scrutiny of Obama's church attendance strikes me as wildly misplaced. If he'd pledged to attend weekly services during the transition, I could see his Sunday/holiday schedules being of some interest. But since that's clearly not the case, what's with all the reporting? The media's concern for Obama's worship practices reminds me of a nervous grandmother, demanding to know whether the young'uns fulfilled their spiritual obligations on Sunday morning.

On the one hand, there's a reasonable case to be made that reporting like this is an invasion of Obama's privacy. How and where one chooses to worship is a private matter, even for a national leader.

On the other, let's also not overlook the practical hurdle here. The Obama family is between congregations -- they have not yet moved to D.C., where they'll reportedly pick a new spiritual home -- and while they relax in Hawaii, their attendance at a local church would likely cause quite a disruption. Indeed, asked about this issue, an Obama spokesperson told the Trib, "The president-elect didn't want to disrupt a church community on Christmas with the burdens that come with a presidential visit."

Is that not a reasonable explanation? The Obamas can't even stop by a mall without generating a major stir, and they didn't want to subject a church to that on Christmas.

Maybe the media can give this a rest?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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December 26, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Listening To The Voice Of Creation

I see that while I was away celebrating Christmas, Pope Benedict decided, as Time put it, to take "a subtle swipe at those who might undergo sex-change operations or otherwise attempt to alter their God-given gender." Here's what he said:

"What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man, understood in the correct sense. When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term "gender", results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator. Man wishes to act alone and to dispose ever and exclusively of that alone which concerns him. But in this way he is living contrary to the truth, he is living contrary to the Spirit Creator. The tropical forests are deserving, yes, of our protection, but man merits no less than the creature, in which there is written a message which does not mean a contradiction of our liberty, but its condition. The great Scholastic theologians have characterised matrimony, the life-long bond between man and woman, as a sacrament of creation, instituted by the Creator himself and which Christ -- without modifying the message of creation -- has incorporated into the history of his covenant with mankind. This forms part of the message that the Church must recover the witness in favour of the Spirit Creator present in nature in its entirety and in a particular way in the nature of man, created in the image of God. Beginning from this perspective, it would be beneficial to read again the Encyclical Humanae Vitae: the intention of Pope Paul VI was to defend love against sexuality as a consumer entity, the future as opposed to the exclusive pretext of the present, and the nature of man against its manipulation."

The Pope might have based his remarks on revelation alone, presenting them as one of those things -- like baptism -- that aren't supposed to make sense to unbelievers. In that case, I would have found them distasteful, but I wouldn't have questioned his argument. However, he's presenting his claims as something he learns by "listening to the language of creation". And that's just wrong.

It is not true that the natural world teaches us that marriage is between a man and a woman -- it doesn't have teachings on the subject of either human or divine institutions, and it surely does not teach us that homosexuality is unknown in nature. (The Pope is reputedly very smart and intellectually curious; did he somehow miss the stories about gay penguins, fruit flies, bonobos, and even, topically enough, black swans?) Lots of fish change sex, as did this ex-hen. There are male animals who act like females, and vice versa.

More to the point: so what? Lots of things that we find immoral are widespread in nature. Spiders eat their mates, for instance, but that doesn't imply that it's OK for us. Lots of things we think are just fine are unknown in animals -- number theory, for instance, or blogging. If you want to argue about what we learn when we "listen to the language of creation", you need to explain how we distinguish it from, say, the language of prejudice. Does the fact that the purpose of eating seems to be nourishment imply that it is immoral to drink diet soda? Does the fact that we 'naturally' get around using our legs imply that we were wrong to invent the bicycle, or, for that matter, the wheelchair? Does the fact that we are born vulnerable to a whole host of diseases mean that we should not develop vaccines and cures?

Personally, I think that the idea of defining what's "natural" for human beings is generally confused. What's natural is often contrasted to what's cultural, but human beings are social animals. If anything is natural for human beings, it is being raised by other human beings, and learning things from them: if we tried to find out what's 'natural' for human beings by dropping an infant into an unpopulated wilderness, we'd have to conclude that what comes naturally to us is starvation.

Likewise, human beings are generally curious and ingenious. When we invent things that are not found in nature, are we doing something unnatural, or using our natural capacity for problem-solving? If we decided to abjure every attempt to innovate on the grounds that it was unnatural, would there be anything natural about that decision? I don't think so.

That said, I'm sure there must be some discussion in which there would be a point to making claims about what's natural to humans and what's not; and in which it would be interesting to try to listen to the voice of creation. But, as I said, one would need to be very careful not to confuse it with the voice of bigotry or prejudice.

One sign that someone is not so much as trying to listen to the voice of creation is getting obviously relevant facts about nature wrong, say by asserting that animals do not form homosexual relationships or change sex. Another is making claims about what's natural without any apparent awareness that someone might find his life unnatural -- say, if he had taken a vow of celibacy, and lectured other people about the unnaturalness of their sexual lives without any trace of irony.

And one sign that someone might be motivated by something other than his Christian duty would be if he preached about the unnaturalness and sinfulness of a group of people who have suffered a great deal of persecution without taking care to warn his followers that whatever Christ thought about being transgender, He surely frowned on cruelty and injustice, and that violence against people who are gay, bisexual, or transgender is flatly wrong.

Hilzoy 11:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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

* A pretty quiet day on Wall Street, with the major indexes each closing up a little.

* Speaking of Wall Street, the Bush administration hasn't been especially interested in prosecuting fraudulent stock schemes.

* Serious stuff: "Prisoners in a western Iraqi prison staged an armed revolt Friday morning that lasted for at least two hours and left 10 policemen and six prisoners dead. Three al Qaida in Iraq prisoners escaped and are on the loose, Iraqi police said."

* Oh my: "An Iditarod without snow, Florida's coastal towns lost forever to the Gulf of Mexico, wheat farmers in Kansas without crops. What sounds like the climatic end of days could be coming a lot sooner than previously anticipated. A recent report released by the U.S. Geological Survey paints abrupt climactic shifts, including a more rapid climate change with global sea level increases of up to four feet by the year 2100 and arid climatic shifts in the North American Southwest by mid-century."

* Cash-strapped states are making painful cuts to Medicaid.

* What a disaster: "What may be the nation's largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity." (The disaster is even worse than originally feared.)

* Let's add "food safety reform" to Obama very lengthy to-do list.

* Fox News would have us believe that "historians pretty much agree" that FDR prolonged the Great Depression. David Sirota sets the record straight.

* I've had unimpressed over the years with the way the Senate Press Gallery operates, so I'm not especially surprised to learn that it's not at all friendly towards bloggers.

* Democrats in Congress intend to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," they just don't plan to work on it anytime soon.

* R.I.P, Eartha Kitt and Harold Pinter.

* I support people doing pretty much whatever they want with their own bodies, but I think taking prescription medicine to "enhance" one's eyelashes is crazy.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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A PARTING GIFT, A PARTING SHOT.... Hilzoy had a terrific item last week on this last week, and I'm glad to see the NYT editorializing on the subject.

A parting gift to the far right, the [Bush administration] new regulation aims to hinder women's access to abortion, contraceptives and the information necessary to make decisions about their own health. What makes it worse is that the policy is wrapped up in a phony claim to safeguard religious freedom.

The law has long allowed doctors and nurses to refuse to participate in an abortion. Mr. Leavitt's changes elevate the so-called right to refuse beyond reason to an increased number of medical institutions and a broad range of health care workers and services -- including abortion referrals, unbiased counseling and provision of emergency contraception, even to rape victims.

The impact will be hardest on poor women who rely on public programs for their health care.

In July, Barack Obama, still a senator at the time, signed a letter to Mr. Leavitt, along with some of his colleagues, urging Mr. Leavitt to scrap an earlier draft of the regulation. It cited a number of problems that were perpetuated in the final version.

The Health and Human Services regulation is due to become effective on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. By acting right away to suspend its implementation, President-elect Barack Obama and his choice to succeed Mr. Leavitt, Tom Daschle, can block irresponsible changes that threaten people's rights and defy the federal government's duty on public health.

Fortunately, Obama plans to do just that. No one seriously believes it'll still be on the books this time next month, which is probably the only reason this new regulation hasn't drawn more outrage.

Regardless, this doesn't change the odious nature of Bush's effort.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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BUSH LEGACY PROJECT FACES RESISTANCE.... A few years ago, Chris Matthews said, on the air, that "everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left." Three years later, it appears that liberal whack-jobs have somehow brainwashed the vast majority of the electorate.

A new national poll suggests that three out of four Americans feel President Bush's departure from office is coming not a moment too soon.

Seventy-five percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Friday said they're glad Bush is going; 23 percent indicated they'll miss him. [...]

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider added, "As President Bush prepares to leave office, the American public has a parting thought: Good riddance. At least that's the way three-quarters feel."

That "Bush Legacy Project," which has been working lately on improving the president's public standing, doesn't seem to be connecting.

Now, everyone obviously knows that Bush is extremely unpopular, and has been for quite some time, but it's helpful to pause once in a while to appreciate just how despised this president is. We're witnessing something truly historical here.

Consider, for example, the question of post-presidential contributions. Eight years ago, 55% of Americans wanted to see Bill Clinton remain active in public life. For Bush, the number is 33%. The country, in other words, not only wants Bush to go away, but we don't want to see him popping up from time to time, either.

Eric Kleefeld went through some of the internals and found widespread distaste for Bush on every level. Americans don't like him, don't trust him, don't think he cares about them, and don't admire him. The public doesn't think Bush united the country, doesn't think he brought about the change we needed, and believes he failed to manage the government effectively.

The scope of the public's disdain for Bush is almost impressive.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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ANOTHER SETBACK FOR GOP MINORITY OUTREACH.... About a month ago, 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.

Since then, two of leading candidates to lead the Republican National Committee have helped prove Nelson's point.

Last month, we learned that Katon Dawson, a leading candidate for the chairmanship of the RNC, has been a longtime member of a whites-only country club in South Carolina. This month, Chip Saltsman, the former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee, embarrassed himself in a far more obvious way.

RNC candidate Chip Saltsman's Christmas greeting to committee members includes a music CD with lyrics from a song called "Barack the Magic Negro," first played on Rush Limbaugh's popular radio show. [...]

The CD, called "We Hate the USA," lampoons liberals with such songs as "John Edwards' Poverty Tour," "Wright place, wrong pastor," "Love Client #9," "Ivory and Ebony" and "The Star Spanglish banner." Several of the track titles, including "Barack the Magic Negro," are written in bold font.

Apparently, in April, conservative satirist Paul Shanklin introduced the song on Limbaugh's far-right show, featuring Shanklin's impression of Al Sharpton, and singing to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon."

"See, real black men, like Snoop Dog, or me, or Farrakhan, have talked the talk, and walked the walk, not come in late and won," one verse in the song says.

Saltsman defended his gift to RNC members, noting that he's a longtime friend of Shanklin and his songs for Limbaugh's program are meant to be "light-hearted political parodies."

Ta-Nehisi Coates added, "There's also a tune called 'The Star Spanglish Banner.' Get it? Negroes!! Spanglish!! No?? Clearly your too PC. Seriously, where do people get this idea that the GOP is racist? It really is one of the great mysteries of our time. Oh well. Saltsman's got my vote. Even if he believes I shouldn't have one. He's still got it."

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE BOOKWORM IN THE WHITE HOUSE.... Last week, the president addressed the American Enterprise Institute, with some fairly boilerplate rhetoric. During his discussion, Christopher DeMuth, the group's president, mentioned, "Another book that you famously read was Eliot Cohen's 'Supreme Command,' and he later went to work for you." Bush responded, "Yes, he did." DeMuth added, "Do you think he got it right in that book?" The president replied, "I can't even remember the book," before asking DeMuth to hum a few bars.

I mention this because Karl Rove devoted his latest Wall Street Journal column to bragging about George W. Bush's impressive ability to read an enormous number of books very quickly. Rove explained that he and the president have engaged in an annual contest since 2005, in which they see how many books they can finish in a given year.

As Rove tells it, he's defeated the president in each of the years in which they've competed. Nevertheless, Rove paints a picture of the president as a voracious reader, tearing through dense texts at an impressive clip. Bush, Rove says, not only reads the Bible cover to cover every single year, but takes in lengthy books about history, and shorter books about philosophy, including Albert Camus's "The Stranger."

The reading competition reveals Mr. Bush's focus on goals. It's not about winning. A good-natured competition helps keep him centered and makes possible a clear mind and a high level of energy. He reads instead of watching TV. He reads on Air Force One and to relax and because he's curious. He reads about the tasks at hand, often picking volumes because of the relevance to his challenges. [...]

In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader.

Now, I've never met Bush, and can't speak to his personal habits. But I'm pretty confident that either a) Rove is spinning an absurd tale; or b) Bush has wildly exaggerated his reading prowess and Rove has bought the nonsense.

I wrote a piece about the president's alleged reading habits a few years ago, and have been keeping an eye on these reports ever since. I think it's fair to say this notion that Bush is a curious thinker with his nose constantly buried in complex texts is, by all appearances, kind of silly.

Indeed, Bush appeared on C-SPAN a few years ago and chatted with Brian Lamb, the longtime host of Booknotes. When Lamb asked the president how much reading he does on a given day, Bush replied, "I read, oh, gosh, I'd say, 10, maybe, different memoranda prepared by staff." When Lamb clarified that he was asking specifically about books -- the point of Lamb's show -- the president explained, "I'm reading, I think on a good night, maybe 20 to 30 pages," before segueing into an explanation about his rigorous exercise schedule.

Bush also bragged to Fox News' Brit Hume that he doesn't read newspapers, either, explaining, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are [sic] probably read the news themselves."

And we're to believe the president takes in absurdist philosophical parables from Camus in his spare time? Tears through 800-page historical treatises instead of turning on the TV? Seriously? We're talking about a man who, by his own admission, likes to get to bed early and maintains a challenging exercise schedule. He also ostensibly oversees the executive branch of government during two wars and an economic meltdown.

If we expand the definition of "read" to include Cliff's Notes, abridged books on tape, and skimming over a book's jacket, then maybe the claims are plausible. Otherwise, they're demonstrably ridiculous.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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TRYING TO GENERATE GOP OPTIMISM.... The last time Democrats won the White House, Senate, and House, it was 1992, and their majority status was short-lived -- 1994 didn't go well for the party. The National Review's Peter Kirsanow believes there's a similar opportunity awaiting the Republican Party in two years from now.

Rod Blagojevich, $1 trillion "fiscal stimulus", Harry Reid, expiring tax cuts, Nancy Pelosi, socialized health care, Charlie Rangel, reinstitution of the oil drilling ban, Joe Biden, liberal judicial nominees, Al Franken (maybe), nuclear Iran, John Murtha, car czars, Dennis Kucinich, PC culture, Chris Dodd, entitlement explosion, Barney Frank, entitlement implosion, Barbara Boxer, card check, the Clintons, Russian adventurism.

If Republicans can't come back in 2010 they should be sued for political malpractice.

Anything's possible, I suppose, but this doesn't strike me as much of a gameplan. Indeed, if these are the variables that are supposed to lead to a GOP "comeback," it's no wonder Republicans are depressed.

Putting aside the sloppiness (Kirsanow mentions "entitlement explosion" twice*) and factual errors (no one is proposing "socialized health care"), one of the problems that jumps out at me from this list is how backwards-looking it is. Kirsanow's list includes people and policies that have already been around for a while -- Harry Reid has been Senate Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi has been Speaker, and Murtha, Kucinich, Frank, and Boxer are not exactly new to the scene. "PC culture" is not exactly a new sociological phenomenon. "The Clintons" have been political powerhouses for quite a while.

If all of these factors were going to help Republicans thrive, wouldn't the GOP have scored major victories the last two cycles, instead of getting trounced?

What's more, some of these issues actually help Democrats -- polls, for example, show Americans supporting a massive rescue package and the expiration of Bush's tax policies.

It's hard to argue that Kirsanow, whose work I'm not especially familiar with, has his pulse on what drives the strategic thinking of the Republican Party, but his list suggests at least some on the right are still thinking small. As Markos noted:

You'd think they would have learned their lesson after their single-minded obsessions with Wright, Ayers, and "socialism" didn't lead to a historic John McCain victory.

Republicans have broken our country, both militarily and economically. If Democrats deliver on their promises and start repairing the damage, the talk of "San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi" will be as effective as it has been the last two election cycles. [...]

If conservatives want to sue anyone for political malpractice, how about the gang that got us into this mess? Not only have they f'd up the world and the country, but they also destroyed their own party.

A laundry list of conservative boogeymen is not a plan.

* Ah, I see that Kirsanow makes a distinction between "entitlement explosion" and "entitlement implosion." Duly noted.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Hilzoy

Idiocy Comes Home To Roost

Bloomberg (h/t Paul Krugman):

"Just $5 million of work is needed to complete a new California Court of Appeals building in Santa Ana. The state may not have the money, and come July judges may be writing opinions in their living rooms.

"I've been on the bench for 23 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said David G. Sills, the presiding justice for the Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division Three, in a telephone interview.

California's worst budget crisis has held up $3.8 billion in spending on public works, possibly including the courthouse adjacent to Santa Ana City Hall. Sills and his seven fellow jurists had planned to move in before the lease on their temporary offices expires June 30.

"Everyone will have to work from home," said Sills, 70, "and we'll have to rent a place for when we hear arguments.""

As Krugman says, this is exactly the opposite of what's needed right now. But the problem isn't just the economy, and California's need to balance its budget. It's Proposition 13. Proposition 13 was cleverly designed to make it virtually impossible for California to raise taxes. Any tax increase requires a supermajority. Property taxes are fixed at 1% of assessed value, and assessments themselves are fixed at the time of purchase, and can rise only very slowly thereafter.

This leads to all sorts of idiotic consequences. Back when I lived in California, one of the few ways of raising taxes available to cities and towns was to increase the sales tax by some fraction of a percent. Result? Cities and towns did this, and then tried desperately to induce people to set up car dealerships and other places where people sell big, expensive things. Did it make sense to have so many car dealerships? Who cares! It's revenue!

Likewise, people in California don't always sell their houses when it would normally make sense to do so, because as long as they stay in their existing house, the assessment will not rise much and their taxes will stay low, whereas if they buy a new house, it will be assessed at its purchase price, and their taxes will go up.

"Free markets", indeed.

My favorite Prop 13 anecdote: while she was alive, my grandmother lived in a wonderful house that she had (I believe) designed herself in the 50s or thereabouts, and built on what was then an undeveloped hillside. As time passed, however, that property became much, much more valuable, which makes sense since it was on the border between LA and Beverly Hills, on a delightful secluded street that ran up the hillside and dead-ended at the top. Phil Spector lived next door, and Eartha Kitt lived up the street.

Meanwhile, I had a good friend who lived in a house in a terrible neighborhood (as in: there were shootings nearby on a fairly regular basis.) The only famous person who lived near her was Rodney King. Her house itself was great, but it was also in a state of considerable decay when she bought it, and needed a whole lot of work.

Guess who paid the least in property taxes, by a considerable margin? My grandmother, of course. Having a cap on property assessments in place for decades will do that.

The result, of course, is that California has been deferring maintenance for a very long time. Now their judges will be working from home, their schools will fall further into decay, and their bridges will continue to crumble. With any luck, Obama's stimulus plan will help out with the worst of it; my only regret about that is that it will postpone the day when Californians have to confront the idiotic tax policies they put in place.

Hilzoy 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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ADMIRATION.... I'm starting to think Americans actually like Barack Obama.

A month before his inauguration, Americans choose Barack Obama as the man they admire most in the world, according to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. It's the first time a president-elect has topped the annual survey in more than a half-century.

President Bush falls to a distant second after seven years as the most-admired man. [...]

The findings, a snapshot of public opinion at the end of a tumultuous year, reflect soaring expectations for an incoming president who will take over daunting economic challenges on Jan. 20.

"Things are down so much at the end of 2008 and the end of Bush's administration ... and Obama represents a new beginning and some hope and anticipation that things can get better," says James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and editor of 'To the Best of My Ability:' The American Presidents.

All told, one-third of Americans listed Obama as their first or second choice for most-admired man. In the history of the survey, which dates back to 1948, the only man to do better was Bush's 39% rating in 2001, just three months after the attacks of Sept. 11.

The last president-elect to top the survey was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

Obama's strong showing also comes the same week as a CNN poll showing his pre-inaugural approval rating at a whopping 82%.

As I said the other day, all of this can change after Obama actually takes office and starts governing. But as Republicans plot strategy on how to oppose and obstruct the next president's policy agenda, they may want to remember that Obama will enter the White House with a very deep well of public support.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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FROM 'HO-HO' TO 'UH-OH' TO 'OH-NO'.... I remember about a year ago, during one of the debates for the Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee was defending the notion of replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. Asked whether that might discourage consumption, Huckabee told Fox News' Chris Wallace, "Chris, you know Americans better than that. Nothing's going to discourage them from spending money." At the time, the audience found that hilarious.

We now know, of course, that something can discourage Americans from spending money: an economic crisis and deep recession.

A decrease in holiday shopping was widely expected this year, and retailers knew the season was going to be rough. But the Wall Street Journal reports that sales were "much worse than the already-dire picture painted by industry forecasts."

[C]onsidering individual sectors, "This will go down as the one of the worst holiday sales seasons on record," said Mary Delk, a director in the retail practice at consulting firm Deloitte LLP. "Retailers went from 'Ho-ho' to 'Uh-oh' to 'Oh-no.'"

The holiday retail-sales decline was much worse than the already-dire picture painted by industry forecasts, which had predicted sales ranging from a 1% drop to a more optimistic increase of 2.2%.

The prediction of a 1% drop wasn't close. Excluding car sales and gasoline, which would otherwise make the numbers look even worse, retail sales dropped 2.5% in November, and 4% through Christmas Eve in December. Widespread bankruptcies among retailers in the new year are likely.

Even the rich aren't spending: "Luxury goods, once considered immune from economic turmoil, were hardest hit, with sales falling 21.2%, compared with a jump of 7.5% a year ago, when the economy had just begun to sputter. Including jewelry sales, the luxury sector plunged by a whopping 34.5%."

Online shopping did better than every other sector of the retail landscape, but it still slipped 2%. Last year, online sales posted a 22.4% gain in the period.

In other words, there was no good news.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MICHAEL CONNELL'S DEATH DRAWS SCRUTINY.... Just a week ago, Michael Connell, a top Internet consultant for the RNC and both the Bush and McCain presidential campaigns, died in a plane crash. He was alone, flying a small, single-engine plane, and the details of what caused the crash have not yet been determined. The FAA is investigating -- as it does whenever any plane crashes -- and has not yet filed a report.

The Huffington Post's Tom Edsall, who notes that there was "no immediate evidence of wrong-doing or sabotage," goes on to call the incident "intriguing," and highlights the fact that Connell's death has "provoked a groundswell of commentary among conspiracy theorists on the web."

The most common unsubstantiated allegation on these sites is that Connell was about to provide crucial information in the case of alleged vote fraud in the 2004 Ohio presidential contest, and that that information would implicate Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration. Just last month, Connell was deposed in the ongoing case, King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell. According to accounts of the November 3rd deposition, Connell denied any knowledge of attempts to fraudulently manipulate 2004 Ohio vote counts.

There is, however, a more immediate and relevant question: How much will Connell's death, even if the accident was entirely without malfeasance, impede congressional committee investigations into the more controversial activities of the Bush administration over the past eight years -- including the ongoing investigation into thousands of missing White House-RNC emails sent and received by some 22 White House political aides, including Rove. These emails are believed likely to shed light on the political firings of U.S. Attorneys, and to show if the White House had any role in controversial decisions to prosecute former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman.

Edsall, who has a reputation for credible, quality journalism, spoke to a "close friend" of Connell, who worked "extensively" with the consultant before his death, and who believes Connell "was more involved in that than a lot of people were let to believe." The friend added that Connell "may have been 'developing second thoughts' after years of being convinced that 'working for the Republican cause was doing God's work.'" Edsall added, "As it stands now, whatever Connell knew about the activities of Karl Rove and other Republican operatives will go with him to his grave."

The implication, I suppose, is that Connell had damaging information, may have been prepared to share it, and his plane crash was the possible result of foul play.

Without tangible evidence, I remain extremely skeptical about all of this. Indeed, it seems to me the political world has already learned volumes of scandalous information about the activities of the Bush White House, and if these guys were in the habit of killing people to cover up wrongdoing, they probably wouldn't have started a month before Bush leaves office for good.

I recall all kinds of truly insane ideas from far-right activists surrounding the deaths of Ron Brown and Vince Foster in the 1990s, so I'm especially reluctant to see a repeat now. That said, Edsall's piece raises the visibility of the story, so expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS.... Conditions in Afghanistan have been deteriorating, and the pressure on U.S. troops and officials is increasing. Apparently, in some cases, there's been a diplomatic breakthrough thanks to a little blue pill.

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

U.S intelligence officials use "novel incentives," but this is not limited to Viagra. Sometimes, "notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains" can be won over with tools, school equipment, and surgical assistance. But it appears the "pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos" can be effective with older tribal officials.

Why not just hand out cash? It doesn't work as well -- Afghan leaders with U.S. dollars are recognized for having cooperated with the unpopular Americans. And with Taliban commanders, drug dealers, and even Iranian agents offering enticements, too, U.S. officials have had to get creative.

The key, one American said, is to "find a way to meet the informant's personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace." Viagra obviously fits the bill.

After a long conversation through an interpreter, the retired operator began to probe for ways to win the man's loyalty. A discussion of the man's family and many wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted.

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.

"He came up to us beaming," the official said. "He said, 'You are a great man.' "

"And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area."

Gotta love outside-the-box thinking.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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NICE CHRISTMAS GIFTS FOR LOYAL BUSHIES.... One might think the Bush gang will finally be gone on or around Jan. 20. Alas, a whole lot of these characters will be hanging around Washington quite a while longer, thanks to rewards from their boss.

As President Bush settles in for his last Christmas in office, he has been busy handing out presents to some of his top aides. And they are not the kind that require wrapping paper or a bow.

The White House announced on Wednesday the appointments of key members of the president's inner circle, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, to high-profile boards and commissions. The Christmas Eve appointments will allow them to serve far beyond Jan. 20, the end of Mr. Bush's term in office.

The White House said that the positions are unpaid, but appointees receive reimbursement for expenses and per diem compensation. They do not require Senate confirmation.

Ms. Rice got a spot on the John F. Kennedy Center's board of trustees until September 2014. The position should guarantee her good seats at the performing arts venue for the next six years; she is currently an ex-officio member of the board.

Mr. Bush's gift to Mr. Gutierrez: membership on the board of trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a research institute in Washington. Joining Mr. Gutierrez as a trustee is Barry Jackson, a former deputy to Karl Rove, who serves as assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and external affairs.

In all, two dozen White House officials were appointed to positions on government committees and councils, with terms lasting up to six years.

They're bound to leave us alone eventually, right?

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ABOUT THAT TOUSSIE PARDON.... A lot of us expected Bush to sign a controversial pardon on Christmas Eve. We didn't expect Bush to undo a controversial pardon on Christmas Eve, and yet, here we are.

President Bush turned Brooklyn's Isaac Toussie into a poster boy for outrageous presidential pardons, granting, then rescinding, the order in 24 hours.

The mystery is how the administration ignored Toussie and his father's background -- a tale of payoff and corruption allegations spanning more than 45 years -- in pardoning the son for a massive housing scam.

Even by the standards of the Bush White House, this entire mess is bizarre. On Tuesday, Bush pardoned Isaac Toussie, who falsified the finances of prospective homebuyers seeking HUD mortgages, and pleaded guilty in 2003 to mail fraud and lying to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The pardon itself was inexplicable -- Toussie scammed hundreds of families, selling overpriced, poorly built homes to minority first-time buyers who couldn't afford them, and was only sentenced to five months in prison. He's been out of jail for several years, working as a real estate and marketing consultant.

Complicating matters, Toussie's father, Robert, who had never made political contributions before, suddenly decided to donate more than $40,000 to Republicans earlier this year. A few months later, Toussie's pardon petition was filed, and five months after that, Toussie's record was made clean by presidential fiat.

That is, until Wednesday night, when the president changed his mind and decided to take back Toussie's pardon.

There are all kinds of questions about what, exactly, transpired here. For example, the president and his spokesperson had pledged publicly, before this week, that all pardons would go through the pardon attorney at the Justice Department. Toussie's application bypassed the DoJ and was taken directly to the White House counsel's office.

Also, Toussie's attorney is none other than Bradford Berenson, who was a top attorney in ... wait for it ... Bush's White House counsel's office from 2001 to 2003. Might he have used his connections to pull a few strings?

Dana Perino told reporters on Wednesday that the president now believes the pardon attorney "should have an opportunity to review this case before a decision on clemency is made." That's fine, but why didn't the president believe that before he agreed to issue the pardon?

Moreover, it's not altogether clear whether the president has the authority to issue a pardon and then take it back before it's literally in the hands of the recipient.

And while we're at it, just how much of this controversy has to do with the Republican drive to scuttle Eric Holder's A.G. nomination?

The NYT noted yesterday, "It was clear from the timing and wording of the announcement that there had been major confusion or miscommunication, or both, within the White House bureaucracy over the Toussie case."

For a White House known for extraordinary incompetence and the politicization of every aspect of government, the Toussie controversy helps put an exclamation point on the Bush presidency.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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December 25, 2008

OPEN THREAD.... So, what'd you find around the Festivus Pole this year?


And if you could, what gifts would you like to give George W. Bush? Barack Obama?

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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HOUSEKEEPING NOTE.... It looks like it's a fairly slow news day, and I don't imagine too many readers will be stopping by, so expect a very light posting schedule today. I'll be around in case something dramatic and/or unexpected happens, but if the political world is quiet today, "Political Animal" will be, too.

Whether you're celebrating a holiday or just a day off of work, have a great one.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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December 24, 2008

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

* Unemployment continues to look brutal.

* New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) believes a stimulus package totaling $1 trillion over two years would be about right.

* Is it too late to send more troops to Afghanistan?

* The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun are going to start sharing some of their local articles and pictures. Expect more deals like these as the strain on newspapers continues to worsen.

* Dennis Prager's piece on marital sex is so offensive, I'm a little surprised Prager published it with his name on it. This is the kind of piece that looks like a career-killer.

* Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox really doesn't want to be blamed for the economic crisis.

* Now I remember why I stopped reading "The Note."

* Where did some of the modern Christian traditions come from? Here's a good piece on holiday history.

* Obama delivered his weekly radio address early, making a worthwhile holiday message: "This season of giving should also be a time to renew a sense of common purpose and shared citizenship. Now more than ever, we must rededicate ourselves to the notion that we share a common destiny as Americans – that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. Now, we must all do our part to serve one another; to seek new ideas and new innovation; and to start a new chapter for our great country."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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SENATOR FRANKEN?.... The Minnesota Supreme Court may have sealed Norm Coleman's fate today.

In a unanimous decision handed down just now, the state Supremes denied Coleman any relief in a lawsuit he was waging to deal with allegations of double-counted absentee ballots, which his campaign says have given an illegitimate edge to Al Franken. The Coleman campaign was seeking to switch 25 selected precincts back to their Election Night totals, which would undo all of Franken's recount gains in those areas and put Coleman back in the lead.

The court, however, sided with the Franken camp's lawyers in saying that a question like this should be reserved for a post-recount election contest proceeding, as the proper forum to discover evidence -- and which also has a burden of proof that heavily favors the certified winner.

Simply put, Coleman is in very big trouble right now. With Al Franken leading by 47 votes, this lawsuit was Coleman's best shot at coming from behind. And it just failed, making a Franken win nearly a foregone conclusion when this recount finishes up in early January.

The Star Tribune has more, but Josh Marshall seems to summarize the result: "Looks like it's gonna be Sen. Franken (D-MN). Not a 100% yet. But the state Supreme Court just put the kibosh on Coleman's last credible legal angle. Bye, Norm."

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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GETTING STEM-CELL RESEARCH BACK ON TRACK.... Scientists who were optimistic about the potential breakthroughs from stem-cell research have been stymied for nearly eight years by Bush administration restrictions. With Obama poised to take office, the scientific community is fired up and ready to go.

Once [Obama] has acted to ease the restriction on federal funding, researchers across the United States will be free to request funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to collaborate with colleagues conducting experiments with private or state-government money and those working abroad.

"Just with the stroke of a pen, the new president could open up new avenues of research," said Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), the lead Democratic sponsor of legislation that would broaden funding for embryonic stem cell research.... "He would really be signaling that we really are moving in a new direction," DeGette said.

"The research facilities in America ... are by and large prepared to move forward with the research. I don't think there'd be much delay," said Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), the lead Republican sponsor of the bill.

Congress twice passed measures to undo Bush's restrictions, but despite bipartisan support, the president vetoed both. Come 2009, lawmakers probably won't have to bother with legislation -- Obama can correct Bush's mistake through executive order.

"It could change things pretty much right away," said Terry Devitt, the director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin, which runs the U.W. Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

Devitt added, though, that the progress won't be immediate. "There's still a lot of basic science to be done.... The [Bush] policy has set research back five to six to seven years in this country."

It's painful to think about what kind of advancements could have been made if Bush had embraced a coherent policy.

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A VERY GOOD START.... I guess the media drive to connect the president-elect to the Blagojevich controversy isn't swaying public opinion -- support for Obama continues to soar.

Eighty-two percent of those questioned in a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Wednesday morning approve of the way the Obama is handling his presidential transition. That's up 3 points from when we asked this question at the beginning of December. Fifteen percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way Obama's handling his transition, down 3 points from our last poll.

The 82 percent approval is higher than then President-elect George W. Bush 8 years ago, who had a 65 percent transition approval rating, and Bill Clinton, at 67 percent in 1992. [...]

"Obama walks in with nearly twice the support on the economy that President-elect Clinton had in January, 1993, and he beats Ronald Reagan as well," adds Holland.

What's more, a third of those polled said their opinion of Obama has improved since the election.

As I've noted before, I don't take these pre-inauguration polls too seriously. The transition period offers potential pitfalls, and by large, Obama has avoided them, which contributes to poll results like this one.

But I still didn't think 82% was a realistic number. Frankly, 82% of Americans don't agree on much. A couple of weeks ago, Bill Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst, said, "An Obama job approval rating of 79 percent! That's the sort of rating you see when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster." Of course, the rating has gone up even further since.

All of this is likely to change once Obama starts, you know, governing. But as Republicans plot strategy on how to oppose and obstruct the next president's policy agenda, they may want to remember that Obama will enter the White House with a very deep well of public support.

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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.

* Norm Coleman and Al Franken have reached a deal on disputed absentee ballots -- the votes will only be counted if both sides agree they were wrongly cast aside.

* The Minnesota canvassing board will meet on January 5, possibly to certify a winner in the lingering Senate race, but the board's process may go beyond January 6, the day the 111th Congress convenes.

* For the first time since the election, Coleman spoke publicly yesterday about the possibility of losing: "Life goes on, regardless of what your job is. I certainly love what I do. If I can keep doing it, I'll be thrilled, and if not, I'm sure we'll do something else."

* A growing number of New York Democrats are raising concerns about Caroline Kennedy replacing Hillary Clinton in the Senate.

* We don't yet know who Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is likely to appoint to fill Ken Salazar's Senate seat, but there's some buzz about Democratic state Senate President Peter Groff, the highest-ranking African-American elected official in Colorado history.

* Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, meanwhile, doesn't mind admitting that he'd like to be appointed to the vacant seat.

* And speaking of interest in vacancies, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) admitted yesterday that he wouldn't mind being considered for Clinton's seat, either. Nadler, who represents most of Manhattan, is not considered a leading candidate.

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

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OBAMA'S PENTAGON.... When word first leaked that Robert Gates was likely to stay on as Barack Obama's Defense Secretary, one of the principal concerns on the left was over Gates' deputies -- Gates may be sensible, but deputies will have considerable influence on Pentagon decision-making, and they're not as inclined towards pragmatism as their boss.

It was a relief to many, then, that the Pentagon's deputy secretaries would be replaced by Obama's team. This week, however, this story took a turn when Bill Gertz at the Washington Times, an unabashed far-right newspaper, reported that Obama wants the "Bush war team" to stay in place after the inauguration.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is asking many of the Bush administration's 250 Pentagon political appointees to remain on the job until the incoming Obama administration finds replacements -- a move designed to prevent a leadership vacuum with U.S. troops engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unusual request by Mr. Gates, whom President-elect Barack Obama has asked to continue in his Cabinet post, ensures that key policy positions will not be left to "acting" subordinates as typically occurs when political appointees are directed to resign during a presidential transition.

The Washington Times treated this as some kind of major news story, and I saw some on the left expressing real concerns about this, but I think there's less here than meets the eye.

As John Cole put it, "Unless someone can explain to me how it is responsible for us to run two wars while hundreds of key personnel positions remain vacant, I am going to say this is a responsible thing to do, and will not partake in this round of the vapors."

Indeed, the vapors are unnecessary. While the Washington Times emphasized how "unusual" the move is, it's really actually fairly routine. Spencer Ackerman noted, for example, that Clinton's assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Ned Walker, was a very forceful critic of neoconservatism, but nevertheless stayed at his post for eight months into Bush's presidency -- not because of some bipartisan outreach, but because it took some time for the new administration to find a suitable replacement. No big deal.

The key to remember here is timing. If we'd learned that Obama and Gates expected to keep Bush's Pentagon political appointees on the job indefinitely, that would be cause for concern. But while the Washington Times glosses over the timeline, we're talking about a short-term process -- Obama and his team will replace these appointees gradually over the course of the year.

I know it's easy to look for evidence that somehow Obama is betraying the Democratic Party and failing to deliver "change," and I don't doubt the Washington Times wants to exacerbate these feelings as much as possible. But this "revelation" isn't evidence of much.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE RIGHT'S PROBLEM IN A NUTSHELL.... The other day, my friend Ron Chusid had an item arguing that Ann Coulter's piece on Sarah Palin was clear evidence of "the wrong direction the conservative movement is moving in" and the dominance of "anti-intellectualism" on the right.

I finally read Coulter's piece, and I have to admit, it's even more inane than I expected. Coulter, heralded Palin's selection as "Conservative of the Year" and applauded the Alaska governor's role in politics. To hear Coulter tell it, Palin is a hero because she sent "the left into a tailspin of wanton despair."

Who cares if Palin was qualified to be President? She was running with John McCain! There was no chance that ticket was going to place her anywhere near the presidency. In fact, I can't think of a better place to put someone you wanted to keep away from the White House than on a ticket with McCain.

Palin was a kick in the pants, she energized conservatives, and she made liberal heads explode.

Got that? Palin is necessarily wonderful because liberals didn't like her. (That plenty of independents and Republicans found the thought of her vice presidency horrifying is irrelevant.)

Now, I realize that Coulter is a circus clown, and quite possibly a liberal plant meant to make conservatives look ridiculous as part of some kind of satirical performance art, but over the course of nearly 2,000 words, Coulter couldn't actually point to any of Palin's genuine strengths. Coulter blasted the media, Democrats, women she finds insufficiently attractive, and John McCain, but in applauding the greatness of Sarah Palin, she neglected to mention anything that makes Sarah Palin great, outside of Coulter's disdain for Palin's detractors.

Ezra noted that Coulter's bizarre missive will one day offer historians evidence of "the death of America's conservative majority."

Palin is the year's most important conservative not because she won, or because she came close, but because she provoked the most outrage among liberals. And Coulter's column presents all of this as triumph. There's no sorrow over Palin's loss. Rather, the column is suffused with glee for the lark of it all. Remember that time Palin made that joke about lipstick?

This is not the metric of anything so fearsome as a bully. It's the measure of a mere pest. And the hard question for conservatives is, what if Coulter is right? What if Palin really is the leader of modern conservatism, the best representative of its modern mission? "Palin was a kick in the pants," Coulter says. And right now, that's enough.


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A BRIEF HONEYMOON.... The NYT's Adam Nagourney reported today that the Republican Party, about a month shy of Barack Obama's inauguration, haven't quite figured out how best to play the role of the loyal opposition.

The president-elect is proving to be an elusive and frustrating target. He has defied attempts to be framed ideologically. His cabinet picks have won wide praise. An effort by the Republican National Committee to link Mr. Obama to the unfolding scandal involving Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois and the accusations that he tried to sell Mr. Obama's Senate seat was dismissed by no less a figure than Senator John McCain, the Republican whom Mr. Obama beat for the presidency. [...]

[T]his image of Republican uncertainty is a testimony to the political skills of the incoming president, and a reminder of just how difficult a situation the Republican Party is in. More than that, though, Republicans and Democrats say, it is evidence of the unusual place the country is in now: buoyed by prospect of an inauguration while at the same time deeply worried about the country's future. It is going to be complicated making a case against Mr. Obama, many Republicans said, in an environment where people simply want him to succeed and may not have much of an appetite for partisan politics.

Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, a leading candidate to lead the RNC, told the Times, "What you don't want to be is the party that's always attacking or being negative with no alternatives." On his blog, Anuzis added, "Where necessary, we should stand for what is right and forcefully be the loyal opposition. But partisan politics in times like these for the sake of politics is not healthy."

I have a strong hunch that Republicans will get over this feeling very quickly, sometime around mid-January.

Look, it's exceedingly easy for Republican officials to say, the week of Christmas and a month before Obama takes the oath of office, they're committed to playing a productive role in the future. But to think general comity will last is to ignore the warning signs that are already on the horizon, including petty wrangling over Eric Holder's nomination and John Boehner's online search for economists who might help provide a justification for opposition to Obama's economic rescue plan.

Just as importantly, it also ignores everything we've seen from the party for about a generation. The modern Republican Party, shaped by Rove, Gingrich, Atwater, and DeLay, relies on a playbook with one page: attack. Even when it doesn't serve the nation well, even when it doesn't serve Republicans well, today's GOP can't seem to help itself.

"It is going to be complicated making a case against Mr. Obama"? Perhaps, but I'm sure they'll think of something.

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MEET ISAAC TOUSSIE.... Yesterday, the Bush White House released a list of 19 presidential pardons and one commuted prison sentence. The new batch didn't include any of the "famous" people seeking clemency, but there was one name that warrants a closer look.

President Bush pardoned a Brooklyn real estate developer accused of scamming hundreds of poor, minority homebuyers -- and whose father donated $28,500 to the Republican Party this year.

Bush pardoned Isaac Toussie, 36, two days before Christmas in a gesture of mercy that outraged ex-customers who said they were duped into buying overpriced, defective homes.

"We're in the middle of a mortgage crisis [and] this is somebody who was alleged to have participated in predatory lending practices," said Peter Seidman, a lawyer who represents 460 people who say they were fleeced.

"To pardon Isaac Toussie is a kick in the teeth to homeowners struggling with mortgages they can't afford."

Toussie, who falsified the finances of prospective homebuyers seeking HUD mortgages, pleaded guilty in 2003 to mail fraud and lying to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite having scammed hundreds of families -- selling overpriced, poorly built homes to minority first-time buyers who couldn't afford them -- Toussie was sentenced to only five months in prison and five months house arrest, and has been out of jail for several years now, working as a real estate and marketing consultant.

So why on earth give this guy a pardon now? Given the economic circumstances of the day, is now really a good time for the president to pardon a scam artist who got off easy running an illegal mortgage scheme?

Making matters worse, Toussie's father, Robert, made his first political donation in April, giving the Republican National Committee $28,500. Four months later, the U.S. Pardon Attorney received Toussie's pardon petition, and five months after that, Toussie's record is suddenly clean by presidential fiat.

Toussie's victims, as one might imagine, are not at all happy about Bush's decision.

Without additional information, it's hard to know whether Toussie's father effectively bought a presidential pardon for $28,500. But given the Republicans' new-found interest in revisiting the Marc Rich controversy, this is a pardon that seems to deserve a lot more scrutiny.

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December 23, 2008

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

* Another bad day on Wall Street, with the three biggest indexes falling about 1% each.

* The housing market continues to look bleak, and may not have reached the bottom yet.

* The Bernard Madoff fiasco gets even more tragic: Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, who founded an investment fund that lost millions with Madooff, apparently committed suicide overnight.

* Obama/Biden doesn't want to see Congress load up a stimulus package with a lot of earmarks. Good luck with that.

* The LA Times forgets the importance of disclosure.

* More members of Obama's national security team were announced today.

* Howard Wolfson isn't headed to the State Department, but he is going to Michael Bloomberg's re-election campaign.

* Some of Obama's detractors need geography lessons.

* Federal prosecutors seem to have seriously mishandled the Ted Stevens prosecution.

* I had no idea so many presidents had been photographed without their shirts on.

* I guess Rick Warren is embarrassed about some of his church's anti-gay messages?

* Even now, Fox News personalities are still repeating nonsense about the Community Reinvestment Act.

* Congrats to Dan Drezner on his new blogging gig.

* There's been some good discussion around the 'sphere today about the structural problems facing the newspaper industry. I found Kevin's thinking very much in line with my own.

* Bret Baier will replace Brit Hume as Fox News' "Special Report" anchor.

* The "War on Christmas" nonsense is definitely muted this year, but some conservatives just can't help themselves.

* I really do think Festivus is a great holiday.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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TRANSITION OFFICE RELEASES BLAGOJEVICH REPORT.... There's a very good reason the president-elect and the Obama team seemed completely unconcerned about any connection to the Blagojevich controversy -- they weren't connected to the Blagojevich controversy.

An internal review prepared for President-elect Barack Obama says his incoming chief of staff had multiple conversations with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office, but no one close to Obama suspected that the governor might be trying to sell Obama's Senate seat as prosecutors allege.

The report was released Tuesday as an Obama transition official confirmed that Obama and two of his top aides, Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett, have been interviewed in connection with the federal investigation into Blagojevich.

Incoming White House attorney Greg Craig, who conducted the internal review at Obama's request, found that the president-elect had no contact with Blagojevich or any of his staff about the Senate seat he vacated to take over the presidency.

One imagines that Obama detractors might not believe these conclusions -- "the transition team can't clear itself of wrongdoing!" -- but the review was done with the knowledge that Blagojevich and his office was the subject of FBI wiretaps. The transition team, in other words, knew in advance that any false claims would be easily exposed, so they had a very strong incentive to be completely honest.

And as expected, there was nothing to hide. The entire Craig memo is online (.pdf), and after reading it, everything we'd heard from Obama and his team was completely true. Obama never spoke to Blagojevich or his office about the Senate vacancy; no one on Obama's staff ever had any inappropriate discussions with the governor or his office; and no one Obama's staff ever had any indication that Blagojevich was engaged in alleged corruption.

A Democratic official told CNN this morning, "You're going to see this is a lot about nothing." That turned out to be completely right.

I hesitate to use the word "exonerate," since it implies that one is accused of wrongdoing, but the evidence didn't support the accusation. This is far less than that -- no one on the transition team was ever even accused of misconduct, and a review helps prove that the baseless speculation was without foundation.

The phrase "nothing to see here" keeps coming to mind.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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'DARK DAYS AHEAD' FOR GOP.... By now, the list of problems -- structural, practical, ideological, historical -- facing the Republican Party is pretty familiar. Time's Michael Scherer makes the compelling case today that the economic crisis, in addition to contributing to the GOP's electoral defeats, presents the party with a perilous future and threatens the Republicans' fundamental identity.

Liquidity traps are fought with government interventions. They are fought successfully with big ones. Republicans now face the real possibility of a generation of American voters who will see government not as the problem, but as the solution.

The last time America faced such a major economic retrenchment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded with a massive expansion of government spending and regulation, new programs like Social Security and new protections for unions and workers, which were controversial at the time, but which proved to be popular over the long haul. It took leaders like Goldwater more than two decades to gain some significant popular traction in opposition to Roosevelt's vision. Conservative economic ideas did not really impose themselves on the White House until 1981, more than 40 years after the bulk of the New Deal era had been established.

In the face of this peril, conservatives find themselves without leadership, direction, or even a cogent ideological response to the crisis. Conservative lodestars, like Dick Cheney, are warning of Herbert Hoover times if Republicans don't open up the federal pocketbooks. Even President Bush has admitted that he "abandoned free market principles to save the free market system." And he did not succeed, clearing the way for much more abandoning to come.

Following widely accepted Keynsian theories, Barack Obama has proposed an economic stimulus next year of perhaps $1 trillion over two years, money that will take time to filter into an ever-worsening economy. Whether or not it succeeds, all the voters who get jobs because of this new spending will know its source: For a time, Obamadollars will pay their mortgage or rent. Obamadollars will feed their children. As such, the Democratic president has the ability to build a vast new political coalition of support, much like the one that FDR built during the 1930s. Ask Republican political strategists to honestly tell you why they hate government spending and they all offer the same answer: It creates Democratic voters.

It's probably fair to say Republican leaders are aware of this, but unsure what to do about it. At this point, they're left sputtering about Neo-Hooverite ideas, which are just slightly too misguided to be taken seriously. House Minority Leader John Boehner has even created an online form, hoping to find credible economists who'll tell him it's OK to oppose an economic rescue package.

So, what's going to happen? Scherer predicts Republicans will "retrench to a guerrilla war," and use EFCA to characterize Democrats as the "party of big labor." (Look out, Democrats are on the side of working Americans! Eek!) It hardly sounds like a recipe for success.

Given the conditions, it's an awfully difficult time to stand athwart history, yelling, "Stop."

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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PARDON ME.... Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball recently noted how "stingy" Bush has been on presidential pardons. It's true, by historical standards, this president hasn't exactly been a "compassionate" conservative when it comes to clemency.

As his presidency winds down, however, Bush is exercising the power a bit.

Before leaving for the holidays, President Bush on Tuesday commuted one prison sentence and granted 19 pardons, including one to a man who helped the Jewish resistance in the 1940s.

With this latest batch, which includes forgiveness for convictions ranging from gun and drug violations to bank and mail fraud, Bush has granted a total of 191 pardons and nine commutations. That's fewer than half as many as Presidents Clinton or Reagan issued during their two terms.

Today's batch didn't include any of the "famous" people who are seeking presidential pardons, but White House spokesperson Tony Fratto suggested this morning that there will be more pardons issued before Bush leaves office. Fratto told reporters the president has been "considering" additional clemency requests, adding, "[W]e should have something soon on clemency petitions."

ProPublica's Dafna Linzer had a good item recently about what to look out for during Bush's last month, 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. Also keep an eye on interrogation officials who've used administration-endorsed torture techniques.

It's a guessing game, of course, but I'd wager that Libby will get a pardon. I'd also bet that Bush chooses Christmas Eve for his most controversial pardon decisions -- it'd be keeping with family history.

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CHENEY AND A 'COMPLETELY INVERTED' REALITY.... Dick Cheney has been spending quite a bit of time outside of his undisclosed location lately. After hiding throughout the campaign season, the Vice President has done a series of "exit interviews" as his time in Washington wraps up.

And as part of his long goodbye, Cheney has offered a series of interesting legal opinions, all of which look pretty ridiculous when scrutinized. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick highlights a few of Cheney's most recent gems, all of which point to an official who has "completely inverted settled and open legal questions."

For example, Cheney made the case that torture is legal, most notably waterboarding, which he not only defended in an ABC interview, but acknowledged having cleared as Bush administration policy. Is he right? Not so much.

That question has been resolved as a legal matter for centuries and is not actually open to relitigation on ABC News. Water-boarding has been deemed torture and prosecuted as a war crime in this country. It violates, among other things, the Convention Against Torture, the War Crimes Act, and the U.S. anti-torture statute. Its illegality is neither an open question nor a close one. Yet again, the handful of people -- including Dick Cheney -- who maintain that torture is completely legal corresponds almost perfectly to the number of people who could be prosecuted for war crimes because it is not.

And then there's Cheney's belief that the president has the legal authority to do just about anything he wants as part of his national security responsibilities. This authority is vested in the presidency, Cheney said, because of "the nature of the world we live in." Is this right? Survey says...

The claim that "the nature of the world we live in" warrants a perennially unchecked executive branch can be delivered with all the gravitas in the world, and it still amounts to constitutional nonsense. To this end it's well worth reading Absolute Power, in which distinguished legal journalist John MacKenzie takes a close look at claims about the unitary executive. MacKenzie shows how a scholarly constitutional claim about the right of executive branch officials to interpret the Constitution morphed into the aggressively ahistorical interpretation of executive power that Cheney parrots with such perfect confidence. As MacKenzie writes: "The unitary executive has come a long way for a theory that has a hole in its heart and no basis in history or coherent thought. It simply is devoid of content, not expressed or even strongly implied in foundational documents such as The Federalist, not to mention the Constitution."

Something to keep in mind the next time Cheney sits down for another interview: when it comes to the rule of law, he has a twisted worldview.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WRONG RESPONSE TO THE WRONG PROBLEM.... I can understand the music industry's concerns about file-sharing and "piracy." I can't understand this.

James Blunt, Madonna and Led Zeppelin are set to disappear from YouTube after their record company, Warner Music Group, fell out with the video-sharing site in a row over royalties.

Warner Music said it would pull hundreds of thousands of videos from the site following the collapse of talks with the Google-owned company about renegotiating a content-sharing deal. "We simply cannot accept terms that fail to appropriately and fairly compensate recording artists, songwriters, labels and publishers for the value they provide," the group said. Warner Music added that it was "working actively" to find a resolution with YouTube.

The company had yet to remove all material from YouTube by yesterday afternoon, with Madonna fans still able to watch a video for her single 4 minutes posted by WMG on the site -- the promo for James Blunt's ubiquitous You're Beautiful was also available. Other Warner Music artists include Metallica and Bloc Party.

Content will be removed from the site along with recordings owned by Warner Music's record publishing business, Warner/Chappell Music, which controls the copyright to songs including Happy Birthday to You and Winter Wonderland. Warner Music's withdrawal also covers amateur clips that feature its artists or copyrighted songs -- potentially widening the action to hundreds of thousands of additional postings.

Ta-Nehisi Coates explained, "This makes no sense. A music video is nothing more than a really expensive ad. It's amazing that these guys want YouTube to pay them for the right to show their videos."

Quite right. The whole point of music videos is promotion; it's why they exist. The logical thing for Warner Music Group to do is to encourage YouTube to feature as many music videos from Warner artists as possible. It's not complicated -- consumer likes video, consumer purchases music ... consumer doesn't see video, consumer doesn't know about music, consumer doesn't purchase music.

In this particular situation, YouTube was already paying Warner Music Group for the rights to post videos, but Warner decided it wanted more money. So, after YouTube balked, Warner decided to take away the very promotional tool its artists need to sell more music. The company, in other words, is spiting YouTube in the most self-destructive way possible.

There's a reason the music industry is failing.

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TAKING INHOFE TO TASK.... As part of his long-time crusade to label global warming a "myth," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), arguably the Senate's most unhinged member, has released yet another "report" to bolster his arguments.

About a year ago, Inhofe released a similar document, pointing to 400 "scientists" who, he said, rejected the scientific consensus on climate change. Now, he claims 650 "scientists" in his latest contribution to the subject.

Amanda Terkel highlights a very good interview from yesterday, in which MSNBC's David Shuster pressed Inhofe on some of the experts the senator relied on for his report. Among the 650 are economists, engineers, geographers, TV weathermen, and physicists, none of whom have a background in climate science. What's more, Shuster noted that when digging a little deeper, some of the experts Inhofe cites actually believe that human activity and CO2 emissions contribute to the climate problem.

Making matters worse, some of the scientists included on Inhofe's list demanded that their names be removed -- and Inhofe ignored their requests.

It's not as if Inhofe was an especially credible character before. With each new embarrassment, he manages to look a little worse.

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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.

* Al Franken leads Norm Coleman by 48 votes, but, naturally, it's not over. Expect more movement today.

* Coleman's campaign claims it can make the case for a Coleman lead, if only the state canvassing board would do what Coleman wants it to do.

* A Quinnipiac poll shows 33% of New Yorkers want Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, while 29% prefer state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The same poll shows that a 48% plurality believes Kennedy will fill the Senate vacancy.

* New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't care who Gov. David Paterson picks, he just wants the governor to make a decision "reasonably quickly" because the speculation is "just getting out of control."

* With another census coming up, congressional reapportionment is around the corner. Election Data Services projects, based on population shifts over the last decade, that Texas will gain three House seats; Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Utah would each gain one; and Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would each lose one.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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BUSH'S RECORD ON TERRORISM.... As part of the apparent Bush Legacy Project, we've been hearing quite a bit -- from the president on down -- about Bush's record of keeping America safe from terrorist attacks since 2002.

The latest comes by way of Ed Gillespie, a White House aide and former RNC chairman, who wants Americans to remember a key "fact":

Our homeland has not suffered another terrorist attack since September 11, 2001. That, too, is part of the real Bush record.

First, this is plainly false. In the fall of 2001, someone (presumably scientist Bruce Ivins) launched an anthrax attack on the country using the U.S. postal system. Five people were killed, 17 were injured, and millions had the bejesus scared out of them. Why so many like to pretend this didn't happen is a mystery to me.

Second, Gillespie focuses on "our homeland," but it's worth noting that U.S. troops have been subjected to terrorist attacks overseas, as have our allies.

And third, this notion that evaluating Bush's legacy on counter-terrorism should start on Sept. 12, 2001, is just odd. Gillespie and others seem to be arguing, "Just so long as one overlooks the terrorism that killed 3,000 people in 2001, Bush's record on domestic security is excellent."

But that's absurd. As Yglesias explained:

The vast majority of Americans to have ever been killed by foreign terrorists were killed under George W. Bush's watch. As Gillespie says, whether or not a president succeeds in preventing foreign terrorists from murdering thousands of American citizens is an important part of that president's record. And Bush took office on January 20, 2001. Nine or so months later by far the largest terrorist attack on American soil was perpetrated. That's a fantastically enormous failing. If you only look at Bush's final seven years, you'll see that he was as good as every other president at preventing terrorist attacks. And if you include his entire presidency, you'll see that he was by far the worst.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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LINCOLN'S BIBLE.... The Politico reported recently that Barack Obama faces a possible "backlash" for his "ostentatious embrace of all things Lincoln." It looks like the president-elect doesn't much care.

On January 20th, President-elect Barack Obama will take the oath of office using the same Bible upon which President Lincoln was sworn in at his first inauguration. The Bible is currently part of the collections of the Library of Congress. Though there is no constitutional requirement for the use of a Bible during the swearing-in, Presidents have traditionally used Bibles for the ceremony, choosing a volume with personal or historical significance. President-elect Obama will be the first President sworn in using the Lincoln Bible since its initial use in 1861.

"President-elect Obama is deeply honored that the Library of Congress has made the Lincoln Bible available for use during his swearing-in," said Presidential Inaugural Committee Executive Director Emmett Beliveau. "The President-elect is committed to holding an Inauguration that celebrates America's unity, and the use of this historic Bible will provide a powerful connection to our common past and common heritage."

I suspect Obama's choice of Bibles will draw complaints from his more aggressive detractors -- Sean Wilentz, I'm looking in your direction -- but presidents routinely use historical items as part of their inaugurations. In Reagan's second inaugural, the Bible was placed on a marble-topped table that was built for Lincoln's second inaugural. Jimmy Carter used a lectern that had been used at Washington's inauguration.

Regardless, it's a nice symbolic gesture for Obama.

Post Script: Time for a scavenger hunt -- which will be the first prominent right-wing blog to express surprise that Obama isn't using a Koran?

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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A GROWTH INDUSTRY.... For all of the nation's financial problems, lobbyists are still doing quite well.

Washington's influence industry is humming steadily while the national economy is declining in what several economists predict will be the worst recession in 50 years.

More than half a million Americans lost jobs last month, and the value of most 401(k) plans plunged, yet government and public-relations pros in town expect to make a lot of money over the next two years.

Fueling the industry along K Street is an anticipation of sweeping changes that President-elect Obama and the newly emboldened Democratic Congress will pursue together -- from ending Bush-administration tax cuts to enacting the broad health reforms proposed during the campaign.

Wright Andrews, a partner at a lobbying firm, told The Hill, "A number of interests are extremely concerned that they are going to be hit with legislation, and this includes a number of parties who have not had to worry in the Republican era and now see a major threat... Everyone I've talked to thinks it's going to be a banner year. I'm just smiling, quite frankly, at what seems to be happening."

It's frustrating to think the only group of people able to thrive in this economy are K Street lobbyists, but this is not altogether unexpected. As Yglesias noted yesterday, "With business investment and consumer spending tanking, public sector expenditures are going to rise as a share of the economy even faster than they rise in absolute terms. And lots of firms are going to be cutting back, but already you can see that the hard-hit financial services and auto sectors are going to be counting on their government relations departments as key to their business models. Beyond that, I think big business trying to get its way in a Democratic-controlled Washington becomes more of a nakedly transactional affair -- old-school influence peddling reigns supreme -- with less ideological encrustment and profession of principle."

Tony Podesta, a high-profile Democratic lobbyist, told The Hill that companies simply can't afford to cut their lobbying budgets when policy makers are poised to pass landmark legislation. "Lobbyists and discounters may be the only people who grow," he said.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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CREATIVE ATTACKS ON EFCA.... We learned last week that conservative activist Rick Berman will be taking the lead in opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, supported by congressional Democrats and Barack Obama, which would make it easier for unions to organize. Berman, Greg Sargent noted, is "a D.C. cartoon villain business lobbyist who fights efforts to restrict drunk driving, mandate healthier foods, and, of course, to hike the minimum wage."

Berman's hardball background suggested that his attacks on labor and EFCA would get pretty ugly, and thanks to the corporate and far-right financial support Berman enjoys, his tactics are likely to have a significant reach.

We're already getting a sense of what to expect.

The 30-second television spot opens with a picture of Chicago's skyline and a mug shot of an allegedly corrupt governor. Then another photo bleeds onto the screen of a labor union boss with ties to the politician.

It may sound like a preview for the latest mobster-inspired drama. Instead, the commercial is a not-so-subtle attempt to implicate one of the fastest growing U.S. labor organizations, the Service Employees International Union, in the corruption scandal swirling around Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

The aim isn't mere union bashing. The larger goal behind the ad campaign is to derail controversial legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize, the so-called card-check proposal.

"We will keep hammering on this," said lobbyist Richard Berman, referring to the Blagojevich scandal. He heads Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based group that ran a full-page ad in the New York Times last week that sought to discredit the card- check measure by connecting the Illinois governor and SEIU.

Along with Americans for Job Security, a separate organization that paid for the recent television ads, the groups are following a common tactic of Washington's influence industry: a clear message funded by hard-to-trace benefactors.

Both are incorporated under a federal tax-code section that allows them to keep their donors secret. They declined to release a list of those funding them.

What does Blagojevich have to do with making it easier for workers to form a union? Nothing, but when debating legislation on the merits isn't an option, this is what the right comes up with.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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COMEY ENDORSES HOLDER FOR AG.... Jim Comey, Bush's former deputy Attorney General, oversaw the investigation of Marc Rich from 1987 to 1993 as a New York City prosecutor. He admits he was "stunned" by Clinton's 2001 pardon of Rich, a decision Comey obviously still disagrees with.

Given this background, one might expect Comey to be a leading critic of Eric Holder becoming the next Attorney General. As it turns out, the opposite is true.

The prosecutor who hunted Marc Rich for years has asked the Senate to confirm Eric Holder as attorney general, despite his "misjudgment" in approving the fugitive financier's presidential pardon.

James Comey, a longtime federal prosecutor in New York who rose to become Manhattan U.S. Attorney and deputy attorney general under President Bush, said Holder's role "should not disqualify him" as the nation's first African-American to lead the Department of Justice.

"I think Mr. Holder's [mistake] may actually make him a better steward of the Department of Justice because he has learned a hard lesson about protecting the integrity of that great institution from political fixers," Comey wrote last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will convene Holder's confirmation hearings next month.

Comey's letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee notes that he hopes "very much" that Holder is confirmed. "I'm not suggesting errors of judgment are qualification for high office, but in this case, where the nominee is a smart, decent, humble man, who knows and loves the Department and has demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law across an entire career, the error should not disqualify him," Comey wrote. "Eric Holder should be confirmed as Attorney General."

Republicans decided recently that the Holder nomination would make for some ideal grandstanding, not only attacking Obama, but allowing the GOP to return to its heyday of Clinton-era controversies. To that end, Comey's endorsement will, at a minimum, help bolster Holder's defenders.

I should add, for those who've forgotten, that Comey's name should sound familiar. Comey was the acting Attorney General in early 2004, after John Ashcroft was hospitalized, and balked at reauthorizing the NSA warrantless-search program, leading to the now-infamous Card/Gonzales hospital room visit.

In light of Comey's defense of the rule of law, it stands to reason that Senate Republicans will completely disregard his support for Eric Holder's nomination.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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CONSERVATIVES' CRAZY CONSPIRACY THEORIES.... For a while, before the presidential campaign, conservatives on Fox News and talk radio had an idea: the economy wasn't that bad, but Americans had been led to believe it was, thanks to an elaborate conspiracy involving the media and Democrats.

After the election, high-profile conservatives, including Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove, publicly described a new theory: an elaborate conspiracy involving the media and Democrats is still working to convince Americans the economy is in bad shape, so as to help Barack Obama appear even more impressive when conditions turn around.

This week, we have yet another conspiracy theory, this time from Rush Limbaugh, who's just delusional enough to believe Democrats, most notably Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), deliberately created the global economic crisis for partisan gain.

Here's how Limbaugh's conspiracy theory goes: Schumer caused on run on IndyMac bank in California this summer, in order to create a feeling of financial panic amongst the public. Democrats then capitalized on this panic with electoral wins in the White House and Congress. The purpose of gaining this power, according to Limbaugh, was to nationalize U.S. industries:

"Who's benefiting? Aside from the people being bailed out. The Democrat [sic] Party and Barack Obama are benefiting.

"They got elected, they increased their numbers in the House, they increased their numbers in the Senate, they got the White House now, and they've got a crisis that people think can only be fixed with the all-mighty and powerful government interceding to save this or to save that, when in fact, the government is going to nationalize the automobile industry. It's going to nationalize some banks. It's going to nationalize the mortgage industry, and may end up nationalizing the automobile industry."

Keep in mind, this isn't just some poor man ranting on a street corner; this is a well-paid, well-connected conservative media personality.

It just doesn't occur to any of these clowns that the economy really is in awful shape, and Bush's conservative economic policies fueled the crisis. Since reality couldn't possibly be true, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Rove, and others concoct these bizarre ideas about conspiracies to help them make sense of the world. It's kind of sad, really.

Krugman added, "Why does such stuff flourish? Probably because there is no punishment for it -- as long as you're on the right, and I mean right, side."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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December 22, 2008

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

* Toyota announced this morning that it expects to post its first annual operating loss in more than 70 years. U.S. markets did not respond well to the news, and finished down again.

* A jury convicted five men today of conspiring to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The plot, you may recall, came to light when the men gave a Circuit City clerk some of their training videos to be converted to DVD. The clerk contacted authorities.

* Nearly two years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers identified 122 levees across the country that were in "unacceptable" condition and in need of repair. To date, only 45 have been fixed.

* Did Arab leaders really give Condoleezza Rice jewelry worth more than $300,000? Apparently so. (thanks to B.G. for the tip)

* The New York Times accidentally published a letter to the editor that claimed to be from the mayor of Paris about Caroline Kennedy. The paper neglected to verify the authenticity of the letter. Oops.

* Barack Obama is poised to have four African Americans in his cabinet. The Congressional Black Caucus is reportedly disappointed. A senior member of the CBC apparently told The Hill that Obama "isn't doing enough for the black folks."

* The Boston Globe always seems to have the most amazing photo collections.

* Cokie Roberts' on-air complaints about Hawaii being "foreign" and "exotic" deserve the label of "Most Inane Punditry of the 2008 presidential campaign."

* Both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune included "The Middleman" among the best television shows of 2008. I'm glad; I was afraid I was the only one watching.

* I just can't figure out why Joe Scarborough says such dumb things on a daily basis.

* Here's hoping YouTube ignores the Parents Television Council.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE CAP KERFUFFLE.... You've probably heard a little bit about the blogospheric issue of the day.

If you're just joining us, the estimable Matt Yglesias had a brief item on Friday afternoon, principally about Barack Obama convincing centrists that an ambitious, progressive agenda is a great idea. The same post criticized Third Way, a DLC-like group that emphasizes Democratic messaging and tactics in a think-tankish kind of way. Specifically, Yglesias referred to the group's domestic policy agenda as "hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit," adding that the group's policy ideas "are laughable in comparison to the scale of the problems they allegedly address."

The post was not especially shocking, and by Friday night, it had garnered a grand total of 11 comments, which is quite modest by Yglesias standards.

Sunday night, however, Jennifer Palmieri, acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, had a post on Matt's blog, reminding readers that his views are his own, his opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and CAPAF has "partnered with Third Way on a number of important projects." The disclaimer of sorts led to a fairly significant kerfuffle (and an unusually entertaining comment thread).

There's no shortage of opinions and angles to this. Brendan Nyhan warns that "a chilling effect on Yglesias" is inevitable. Brad DeLong argues that the incident undermines the Center for American Progress' credibility. James Joyner noted Palmieri's "hamhanded" post, and lamented the apparent "institutional tone deafness." Josh Marshall said this was handled in a "clumsy" way, and argued, "Adding to the problem is that the fact that the 'guest post' seems pretty clearly to stem from inter-group Dem politics rather than any disagreement that some actual person has with what Matt said."

In light of the hullabaloo, ThinkProgress has done its own item on the blog's editorial independence, and Matt has his own piece, explaining that Palmieri's item just reiterated what has always been the case: "I'm posting un-screened posts on an un-edited blog and covering every issue under the sun. Under the circumstances, it's better for me, better for CAP and CAPAF, and better for everyone to understand that I'm writing as an individual not as the voice of the institution. Pointing that fact out isn't contrary to me having an independent voice, it's integral to having one."

I had finally figured out what I wanted to say about all of this, but noticed that Ezra had already written what I was thinking.

Jennifer Palmieri's actual message, oddly delivered though it was, says something quite banal: In case it wasn't clear, CAP does not agree with Matt's contention that Third Way, CAP's coalition partners, are proponents of "hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit." Or, at the least, they wouldn't phrase it that way (however, as compared to CAP's policy agenda, Third Way's offerings are inarguably hyper-timid incrementalism).

CAP is not a blog publisher. They are a think tank. They are the nerve center of the Democratic governing class. Their president has led Obama's transition effort. It's fairly uncharted territory for a think tank of that prestige -- indeed, of any prestige at all -- to hire a young progressive blogger and let him retain his voice on their site. Brookings doesn't do it, and nor does EPI, or Heritage, or the Urban Institute, or the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. But CAP is following a model in which they provide income support to promising progressives so their work isn't lost to law school or the commercial sector. That requires giving them a fair bit of editorial freedom, which will inevitably lead to conflicts and uncomfortable moments. As Ben Smith says, there are real consequences if Third Way is seen to be disfavored by CAP. And CAP has to balance that against their desire to support bloggers.

The fact that Palmieri's message was public is, I think, a good sign. It's transparent. They could have called Matt into the president's office, explained that he would never ever write anything like that ever again, and the editorial intervention would have been simultaneously invisible to readers -- no one would be criticizing CAP -- and much more pernicious. They did not do that.

Indeed, they didn't come close. At this point, Matt's original post is still online; he hasn't backpedaled on his opinion; and he hasn't apologized. Palmieri's post last night turned out to be clumsy, but the message wasn't that troubling -- Matt says things, and sometimes his employer disagrees with those things. All things being equal, that's not an unreasonable position for a think tank in CAPAF's position to take.

My hunch is someone at Third Way called CAPAF, complained that Matt had said something mean, and asked for a public acknowledgement that CAPAF thinks nice thoughts about Third Way. If so, that's a shame. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm not especially concerned with Matt or ThinkProgress having to blog with one arm tied behind their back. CAPAF has said their blogs will keep their editorial independence, and I'm inclined to believe it.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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PALIN WANTED MORE MEDIA TIME.... Opinions may vary, but looking back at the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin seems to have an unusual idea about what went wrong for her.

Palin told Human Events' John Gizzi she would have fared much better if she ... wait for it ... had done more media interviews.

GIZZI: What was the biggest mistake made in the '08 campaign?

PALIN: The biggest mistake made was that I could have called more shots on this: the opportunities that were not seized to speak to more Americans via media. I was not allowed to do very many interviews, and the interviews that I did were not necessarily those I would have chosen. But I was so thankful to have the opportunity to run with John McCain that I was not going to argue with the strategy decisions that some of his people were making regarding the media contacts?

But if I would have been in charge, I would have wanted to speak to more reporters because that's how you get your message out to the electorate.

Now, as I recall, Palin seemed to run into trouble when she started doing media interviews, so I'm not sure if more airtime would have helped (unless she has a "practice makes perfect" approach to answering substantive questions).

But I was also struck by Palin's admission: "I was not allowed to do very many interviews." I suspect everyone understands this just fine, but I'd really like to ask the governor: why do you suppose this is?

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THE BASELESS DRIVE CONTINUES.... Last week, the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman suggested Barack Obama and his transition team should ignore Patrick Fitzgerald and federal prosecutors, and release a list of contacts with Rod Blagojevich's office immediately. As Weisman put it, Obama could have "easily" ignored the wishes of law enforcement officials in the middle of an investigation, and "reassured" the public last week, instead of this week. For support, Weisman quoted Karl Rove's lawyer.

In the latest effort to connect Obama to the Blagojevich controversy, the WSJ's Weisman tries a new trick today.

[Obama] promised to account for any and all contacts between his staff and the governor's, setting a release within days. Finally, he said the account was complete, but he wouldn't release it until Christmas week.

The slow dribble "hurt him slightly," because it made him look like an ordinary politician in scandal mode, not the antipolitician people believed they voted for, said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant who dealt with scandals affecting then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Of course, those of us familiar with what happened know that Obama delayed the release of the contact list because federal prosecutors requested it -- a fact that Weisman doesn't note at all. There was no "slow dribble"; there was cooperation with the U.S. Attorney's office conducting a criminal investigation.

Weisman added, "Regardless of how clean the Obama camp is, the release of the report isn't likely to be clean." I don't kow what this means. Even if the report shows no wrongdoing whatsoever, it will be scandal fodder anyway?

This was tiresome before, but it's getting worse. When we learned over the weekend that Rahm Emanuel had one pro-forma courtesy call with the governor, and that the transition team really didn't offer Blagojevich anything, I hoped this would discourage reporters from pursuing this angle of tying the president-elect to the controversy. Apparently, "regardless of how clean the Obama camp is," the baseless drive will continue.

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'THE STEVENS LOBBY' NEEDS A HUG.... This holiday season, it's important not to forget those who've fallen on hard times -- like the impressive network of well-paid lobbyists who were dependent on Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.

Until recently, there were few better ways to start a lobbying career than by leaving the office of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.

With 40 years of seniority on important Senate committees, Mr. Stevens, a Republican, wielded unrivaled power over industries like fishing, forestry, communications, aviation and the military, steering billions each year to pet Alaskan projects like Eskimo whaling, missile defense and even salmon-based dog treats called Yummy Chummies.

His power made his good will a valuable commodity on K Street, where many lobbying firms are located. During the past five years, just nine lobbyists and firms known primarily for their ties to Mr. Stevens reported over $60 million in lobbyist fees, not including other income for less direct "consulting." The most recent person to leave his staff to become a lobbyist reported fees of more than $800,000 in just the last 18 months.

So when Alaskan voters narrowly rejected Mr. Stevens's bid for re-election last month, just days after a jury convicted him of federal ethics violations, it was in some ways like the closing of the plant in a company town.

Yeah, my heart bleeds for the gang the New York Times calls "the Stevens lobby," which includes whole offices specializing in lobbying the Alaskan.

An email that was making the rounds among Stevens-staffers-turned-lobbyists joked that Alaskans made a terrible mistake. "[Voters] don't understand the connection between Ted and the way of life they have come to take for granted," the email said. "For those of us long on the dole, the coming reality will take some getting used to."

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KRUGMAN TALKS TO TRANSITION TEAM.... The Politico's Anne Schroeder Mullins notes that Paul Krugman appeared on Bill Press' radio show this morning, and made just a little news.

Krugman in contact with the Obama team?

Yes.

When master economist, columnist, and plain ole intellectual (so few left these days) Paul Krugman was asked this morning about whether or not he was "in communications" with the Obama administration regarding the economy, he declared: "Yes ... I am. And that's all I care to talk about."

Now, admittedly, that's not much to go on, but I'm encouraged anyway, in part because I think Krugman's right about the economic policies the Obama administration should pursue, and in part because I was under the impression that Krugman wanted no part of government service.

I recall an item Krugman wrote in January, explaining his belief that he's "temperamentally unsuited to public office." He noted that he interviewed with Bill Clinton shortly after he'd won the Democratic nomination in 1992, but was turned down. Krugman said he was "lucky" to have been rejected, because "it would have been a great disaster had I been offered a job."

If Krugman's 12-word comment on the air this morning is any indication, he's probably striking the right balance -- he's not looking for a job in the administration, but he's "in communications," presumably offering economic advice, with the president-elect's team.

Steve Benen 12:30 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.

* Over the weekend, Al Franken's campaign in Minnesota said it expects to win the unsettled Senate race by 35 to 50 votes. By the Star-Tribune's count, Franken currently leads by 251.

* On a related note, the recount will continue in Minnesota this week, with somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 ballots left to be processed. (Will the AP call the race once those votes have been settled?)

* The presidents of both NBC and NBC News believe that Chris Matthews will not run for the Senate in Pennsylvania in 2010. Network president Phil Griffin said over the weekend. "I've talked to Chris. I think he's going to be here [at MSNBC] for a long time."

* Hillary Clinton is still burdened by a significant debt from her presidential campaign, but it's down to $6.4 million from $12 million. There are a total of 16 creditors remaining, the biggest of which is Mark Penn's consulting firm.

* Kentucky Democrats seem to think Sen. Jim Bunning (R) will be vulnerable in 2010, and some big in-state names are eyeing the race. Last week, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) said he's considering a rematch of the 2004 contest, and a few days ago, state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) said he's thinking about the race, too.

* Former Denver mayor and Clinton cabinet official Federico Pena (D) does not want to be appointed to fill Ken Salazar's (D-Colo.) Senate seat.

* There will be a lot of people in D.C. for the Obama inauguration, but not quite as many as previously feared.

* And in Alaska, if Sarah Palin challenges incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 Republican primary, a new poll shows the governor as the clear favorite.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WHEN WATER CARRIERS PUT DOWN THEIR BUCKETS.... Conservative talk radio continues to be a major political force, and arguably the only thriving component of the conservative movement.

It has, however, been burdened with its general support for a certain failed presidency that is nearly over. Limbaugh, Hannity, et al, have managed to maintain a loyal following of conservative Republicans, but they've nevertheless struggled to carry water for a White House that's failed in nearly every endeavor.

With this in mind, far-right blowhards are disappointed with the outcome of the elections, but they're thrilled about having new targets for their rage.

Amid all the pressures on the radio industry, news-talk stations see an opportunity -- and his name is Barack Obama.

After eight years of playing defense for President Bush, the conservatives who dominate talk radio are back on offense.

Hours after Mr. Obama's election, the country's most popular radio host, Rush Limbaugh, was talking about the "rebirth of principled opposition." Sean Hannity, the second highest-rated host, quickly cast his afternoon show as the home of "conservatism in exile."

It is a lively time to be behind the microphone. One television talker, Joe Scarborough, is starting a radio show. Another, Bill O'Reilly, is ending his.

Several of the supporting actors in this year's Republican primary are showing interest in the medium, too. Fred Thompson, the "Law & Order" star turned presidential candidate, will begin hosting a two-hour show in March, as the syndicator Westwood One is expected to announce this week. Mr. Thompson's show would take the place of Mr. O'Reilly's.

If I were to guess, I'd say Thompson will soon grow tired of hosting a two-hour daily program -- let's just say his strengths lie elsewhere -- and his fill-in guest hosts probably shouldn't make any lengthy travel plans.

Regardless, every Republican with credible name recognition seems to be trying to sign a radio deal. Thompson got a show, Giuliani wants a show, and Huckabee is starting to dabble in radio, with expectations that it'll lead to more airtime in the future. All of this comes, of course, after lucrative new contracts for Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Laura Ingraham over the last 24 months. (A middle tier, featuring Monica Crowley and Lou Dobbs, is also apparently expanding its on-air presence.)

Whether these folks can actually keep an audience engaged remains to be seen, but the rush for microphones looks a bit like conservatives playing an odd game of musical chairs.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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IT'S BEEN THAT KIND OF PRESIDENCY.... On Fox News yesterday, Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney to identify the "highest moment" of the last eight years. It wasn't a trick question.

Cheney pondered this for a few moments before answering, "Well, I think the most important, the most compelling, was 9/11 itself, and what that entailed, what we had to deal with."

Wallace followed up by noting that the highest moment was also the lowest, which Cheney was quick to agree with.

Now, to be fair, Cheney didn't exactly say that terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 Americans was the "highest moment" of the Bush presidency; he instead changed the question a bit to make 9/11 the "most important" moment.

But it was still rather odd. Jed noted, "[I]t tells you something about the darkness of Cheney's mind that this was the first thing to come to his mind when looking for bright spots over the past eight years was 9/11."

Yes, but it also occurred to me that Cheney probably couldn't come up with anything that resembled a highlight. He might have mentioned, say, the capture of Saddam, though that turned out to be of little practical consequence. He might have mentioned the passage of the Republican tax cuts, but that would only remind people of how poorly the administration's policies have fared.

In other words, I don't necessarily blame Cheney for drawing a blank and changing the basis for the question. If I were in his shoes, and was asked to think of the "highest moment" of the last eight years, only one moment comes to mind, but it clearly wouldn't work as an answer for Cheney.

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KEEPING A CLOSE EYE ON OUR MONEY.... It's pretty outrageous that some of the banks that have received taxpayer bailouts have also rewarded their top executives with "nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits," which included personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, and country club memberships.

And what else have these banks been doing while benefitting from the bailout? Apparently, the institutions themselves aren't sure.

It's something any bank would demand to know before handing out a loan: Where's the money going?

But after receiving billions in aid from U.S. taxpayers, the nation's largest banks say they can't track exactly how they're spending the money or they simply refuse to discuss it.

"We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it,'" said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion in emergency bailout money. "We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to."

It's not the only one. The AP contacted 21 banks that received at least $1 billion each, asking four questions: "How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings, and what's the plan for the rest?"

Of the 21, not one was willing to answer the questions. The AP noted that none of the institutions "provided even the most basic accounting for the federal money." In some cases, they couldn't -- the banks didn't know exactly where the taxpayer money had gone.

Elizabeth Warren, the top congressional watchdog overseeing the financial bailout, told the AP, "It is entirely appropriate for the American people to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent in private industry." There is, however, nothing in place for the public to get this information.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT.... A global recession is tough on most businesses, but the president is doing his part to stimulate at least one part of the economy -- in Turkey.

Seems that shoe an Iraqi journalist threw at him last week has become a hot-ticket item, with orders for 300,000 pairs pouring in from Iraq, the United States and Iran, Bloomberg News reported.

The Turkish shoe manufacturer, Ramazan Baydan, said he may rename the brown shoe, called "Model 271," the "Bush Shoe" or "Bye-Bye Bush," and he's hired an agency to look into television advertising.

The new orders for the shoe are four times what he normally sells in a year for that model, he said, so the company is going to hire 100 more people to boost production. In addition to orders in the Middle East, Baydan said he's received a request for 4,000 pairs of shoes from a Maryland-based company called Davidson.

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Executives at Ramazan Baydan are no doubt wondering why someone couldn't have thrown one of their shoes at Bush even sooner.

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

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BAAL WORSHIPERS.... During the holiday season, it's not unusual to see news items focusing on cultural traditions, but leave it to WorldNetDaily, a far-right news website, to break new ground.

Matt Barber, the "director of Cultural Affairs" at one of the late Jerry Falwell's operations, explored in a very strange piece the "ancient Canaanite practice of Baal worship," which he described as pagan idolatry in Semitic Israel. The pillars of Baal worship, Barber argued, included "child sacrifice, sexual immorality (both heterosexual and homosexual) and pantheism (reverence of creation over the Creator)," which naturally led Barber to think of -- you guessed it -- U.S. political liberals. (thanks to reader N.B. for the tip)

Ritualistic Baal worship, in sum, looked a little like this: Adults would gather around the altar of Baal. Infants would then be burned alive as a sacrificial offering to the deity. Amid horrific screams and the stench of charred human flesh, congregants -- men and women alike -- would engage in bisexual orgies. The ritual of convenience was intended to produce economic prosperity by prompting Baal to bring rain for the fertility of "mother earth."

The natural consequences of such behavior -- pregnancy and childbirth -- and the associated financial burdens of "unplanned parenthood" were easily offset. One could either choose to engage in homosexual conduct or -- with child sacrifice available on demand -- could simply take part in another fertility ceremony to "terminate" the unwanted child.

Modern liberalism deviates little from its ancient predecessor. While its macabre rituals have been sanitized with flowery and euphemistic terms of art, its core tenets and practices remain eerily similar. The worship of "fertility" has been replaced with worship of "reproductive freedom" or "choice." Child sacrifice via burnt offering has been updated, ever so slightly, to become child sacrifice by way of abortion. The ritualistic promotion, practice and celebration of both heterosexual and homosexual immorality and promiscuity have been carefully whitewashed -- yet wholeheartedly embraced -- by the cults of radical feminism, militant "gay rights" and "comprehensive sex education." And, the pantheistic worship of "mother earth" has been substituted -- in name only -- for radical environmentalism.

I've been a liberal for as long as I can remember, and I have to admit, I've never been compared to a Baal worshiper before.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.... It's not yet clear what this new task force will do, but the goals are certainly encouraging.

President-elect Barack Obama on Sunday announced the creation of a task force to bolster the standard of living of middle-class and working families in America, tapping Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lead the effort with four members of the cabinet.

"Our charge is to look at existing and future policies across the board and use a yardstick to measure how they are impacting the working- and middle-class families," Mr. Biden said in a statement on Sunday. "Is the number of these families growing? Are they prospering?"

The effort, which is called the White House Task Force on Working Families, is intended to focus on improving education and training for working Americans as well as protecting incomes and retirement security of the middle class. The group, officials said, will work with labor and business leaders.

The task force is the first discrete assignment for Mr. Biden. He said the Obama administration would measure the success of its economic policy by whether the middle class was growing and prospering. Other members of the group include the secretaries of labor, education, commerce, and health and human services, as well as the top economic advisers to the president.

Speaking with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Biden said, "I'm going to chair this group and it is designed to do the one thing we use as a yardstick of economic success of our administration, is the middle class growing? Is the middle class getting better? Is the middle class no longer being left behind? And we'll look at everything from college affordability to after-school programs. The things that affect people's daily lives."

I'm generally skeptical of task forces, commissions, and blue-ribbon committees, but whatever Biden's panel ends up doing, I'm at least glad someone in the executive branch is going to start asking these questions for a change.

As Yglesias noted yesterday, "Over the past eight years to a remarkable degree the focus has been on trying to put as good a spin as possible on things rather than on trying to actually improving wages and living standards for the bottom 80 percent of Americans."

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

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By: Hilzoy

No More Double Standards

I've been wondering why such different standards are applied to financial executives and Detroit's auto workers. Consider:

* The financial executives helped cause the present meltdown. Auto workers did not.

* The financial executives run their firms, and are responsible for their troubles. Auto workers and their union, by contrast, just got themselves a good deal by bargaining with management. That's their prerogative. I don't see that they're any more to blame for the problems of the Big Three than people who accept unduly large cash back bonuses on their new cars would be, had the Big Three miscalculated and given away more in cash-back bonuses than they could afford.

* Financial executives have just destroyed a tremendous amount of value and ruined the global economy. Auto workers have been busy creating useful things.

* In exchange for destroying value, financial executives get paid a whole lot more than auto workers. Orders of magnitude more. They even get multi-million dollar performance bonuses when their firms lose money! And their benefits are a lot more cushy: not just good health care but private jets and chauffeurs!

* Punishing financial executives helps reduce moral hazard. Punishing auto workers does not.

Honestly: what sense does it make to stick it to a bunch of auto workers while letting the financial executives off scot-free? How can Richard Shelby get all upset about the fact that some blue-collar workers have, gasp, health care, and not about the fact that financial executives, on whom we have spent a lot more money than the Big Three ever asked for, get financial planners and chauffeurs? Just imagine the furious oratory we might have heard had the UAW succeeded in negotiating benefits like the ones people get at Goldman Sachs. (I'll bet chauffeurs would help auto workers concentrate more on their jobs...)

For the reasons given above, I think that we should stick it to the bankers and hedge fund managers, and not to the UAW. However, I'd be happy with a single standard uniformly applied. rok for dean at dKos has a good idea:

"In 1950, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO was less than 30 times that of an average U.S. worker; by 1980, prior to the "Reagan Revolution, the average pay of the S&P 500 CEO was approximately 50 times higher than that of an average U.S worker. But by 2007, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO had soared to more than 350 times as much as that of an average U.S. worker.

This is both immoral and unsustainable in a democracy. By way of comparison, in Europe, an average CEO only makes 22 times as much as an average worker, and in Japan, only 17 times as much.

If America wants to be competitive again, we need to reduce CEO pay to a level comparable to CEO pay in Europe and Japan. I know exactly how to accomplish this feat. The UAW should agree to immediately lower U.S. union worker pay to a level equal to the level paid by their non-union, non-American competitors. In return, auto CEO's must agree to permanently lower their compensation to only 20 times that of an average union worker.

Once this has been accomplished, Congress must move to apply the same pay standards to AIG and all of the financial institutions that took one penny of taxpayer money from the TARP fund."

Amen. Only one addition: this has to include not just salary but benefits, and benefits should be equal to (not greater than) those enjoyed by the average American worker. Until the average worker's employer pays for his or her home security system or chauffeur, those multimillionaires on Wall Street can pay for those things out of their salaries.

Hilzoy 12:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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December 21, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Oblivious

From the AP:

"Banks that are getting taxpayer bailouts awarded their top executives nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits last year, an Associated Press analysis reveals.

The rewards came even at banks where poor results last year foretold the economic crisis that sent them to Washington for a government rescue. Some trimmed their executive compensation due to lagging bank performance, but still forked over multimillion-dollar executive pay packages.

Benefits included cash bonuses, stock options, personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, home security, country club memberships and professional money management, the AP review of federal securities documents found.

The total amount given to nearly 600 executives would cover bailout costs for many of the 116 banks that have so far accepted tax dollars to boost their bottom lines."

There are all sorts of delightful tidbits in the article. Banks that took bailout funds paid for their executives' private financial advisors, club dues, home security systems, and chauffeurs and leased cars. Here's what passes for an explanation of all this:

"Goldman Sachs' tab for leased cars and drivers ran as high as $233,000 per executive. The firm told its shareholders this year that financial counseling and chauffeurs are important in giving executives more time to focus on their jobs."

I'm sure they're right. But the question is not: do chauffeurs contribute to peace of mind? It's: why should companies who are receiving taxpayer funds because they (meaning their executives) got themselves into deep trouble be paying for these things? Couldn't the executives, who are, after all, very well paid, pay for their own home security systems and financial planners and chauffeurs?

The super-rich seem to me, during the past few decades, to have wafted off into their own alternate universe, in which of course they are entitled to have their employers pay them not just large salaries, not just multi-million dollar bonuses every year, but the bills for everything that ordinary people pay for; in which flying on public airlines seems to them the way taking the public buses seems to much of the middle class; in which any possible contact with what the rest of us take to be reality has been airbrushed away by vast quantities of money.

Under normal circumstances, I'd think: nice work if you can get it, and worry about the effects of massive inequality on public life. But these are not normal times. The very people who are getting these bonuses and chauffeurs and private jets and financial planners have just sent the entire global economy into a nosedive. They have caused massive amounts of money to disappear. They are getting bailed out for their mistakes by the rest of us -- the people who, if we're lucky, get to fly coach, and if we're not, drive across the country or take a bus.

If they had any shame at all, they would stop. More than that: if they had any sense at all of how angry a lot of us are getting, sheer prudence would do the trick. This is our money. We are giving it to them to get all of us out of a problem that they caused. They should bear that in mind, not treat us as if we were one great big cookie jar.

Hilzoy 10:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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WHEN THE PRESIDENT DOES IT.... It's been a common refrain over the last eight years, but it's even more common now in light of the new Frost/Nixon movie: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

In context, Frost had asked about the notion that a president can "do something illegal," if he/she decides the crime is "in the best interests of the nation." Frost was particularly interested in the notion of the Huston Plan, which endorsed illegal surveillance and black bag jobs against Americans. After uttering the now famous phrase, Nixon added, "If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president's decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law."

Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney something similar for an interview aired this morning: "If the president during war decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?" Cheney's answer wasn't exactly Nixonian, but it was close.

"General proposition, I'd say yes. You need to be more specific than that. I mean -- but clearly, when you take the oath of office on January 20th of 2001, as we did, you take the oath to support and defend and protect the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

"There's no question about what your responsibilities are in that regard. And again, I think that there are bound to be debates and arguments from time to time, and wrestling back and forth, about what kind of authority is appropriate in any specific circumstance. But I think that what we've done has been totally consistent with what the Constitution provides for."

By saying he'd need Wallace to "be more specific," Cheney seemed to suggest that he may see limits on the "Presidential prerogatives > rule of law" formulation.

On the other hand, the rest of his answer seemed to indicate that those limits are not immediately apparent to Cheney. Indeed, given the question, and Cheney's response in the context of his constitutional oath, he seems to think that a president protecting the country can do anything -- literally -- so long as the chief executive is responding to a national threat, or at least what the president perceives as a national threat.

Matt Yglesias had a good item noting that while protecting the country is a good idea, Cheney's principles are inconsistent with a democracy, since every president always believes there are threats, which in turn could lead presidents to routinely supersede the law. (Indeed, in Cheney's case, it's even more extreme, since the mere possibility of terrorism is enough to empower the White House to ignore legal limits.)

Underlying all of this is an odd conservative lack of faith in democracy. Cheney's implicit theory is that the democracies prevailed in the Cold War -- surely a time of greater external threat -- despite our liberal political systems. In fact, the openness of liberal democracy was a major strength. Robust political competition, a free press, transparency in government, etc. helped ensure that policy errors would actually be corrected and that corrupt practices would be curbed. Cheney-style autocracy works fine as long as nobody is ever incompetent or corrupt, but that's never. And it certainly doesn't describe the Bush-Cheney administration.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CHANGING THE TONE.... It was one of those moments that defined the Bush/Cheney era. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, had been critical of Dick Cheney's ongoing ties to Halliburton, but when he saw the vice president on the Senate floor in advance of an annual photo in 2004, Leahy thought it best to be cordial and professional.

But Leahy approached Cheney, arm stretched in friendship, the vice president famously told the senator, "F*ck yourself."

Asked about the incident, Cheney later said he was pleased with himself for how he handled the situation, and said he saw no reason to apologize.

Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Cheney if, looking back, he has any "qualms, second thoughts, or embarrassment" about what transpired on the floor of the Senate. Cheney responded, with a smirk, "No, I thought he merited it at the time." He added that he and Leahy, four years later, are now "civil" towards one another. What a relief.

Soon after, Bill Kristol noted how impressed he is with Cheney's lack of regret, saying the vice president's response to Wallace's question was "a beautiful statement, really, of justice."

Let's remember, then, that if Joe Biden approaches, say, Arlen Specter or Orrin Hatch on the Senate floor, he tells them to go "f*ck themselves," and then brags about how appropriate his conduct was, as far as some on the right are concerned, this is completely appropriate behavior for the vice president to engage in.

George W. Bush admitted the other day that he's disappointed he wasn't able to "change the tone" in Washington. If he's curious where his White House went wrong, he may want to reflect a bit on his VP's conduct.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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DIMINISHING THE OVP.... Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney to respond to some of the criticism Joe Biden had directed at the vice president over the course of the presidential campaign. After mocking Biden for having referring to Article I during a debate, instead of Article II, Cheney shrugged off Biden's disapproval in a pointed way.

"...I think I'd write that off as campaign rhetoric. I don't take it seriously and if he wants to diminish the office of the vice president, that's obviously his call."

Yes, Dick Cheney believes someone else may tarnish and cheapen the OVP. Right.

Cheney also seemed to mock Biden for having less power and influence in the future than he's had over the last eight years.

"I think that President-elect Obama will decide what he wants in a vice president and apparently from the way they're talking about it, he does not expect him to have as consequential a role as I have had during my time," Cheney said.

That's true, but Cheney is rephrasing reality to make it sound insulting. Both Obama and Biden have said publicly that Cheney took on the role of co-president, and that it's time to restore some institutional and constitutional normalcy to the office. Cheney, for example, began every day with his own intelligence briefing, and then insisted that he sit in on the president's. It was Cheney who was the last person the president saw before making an important decision. And it was Cheney who not only picked Bush's cabinet and Supreme Court nominees, but who also established his own "shadow government" within the Bush administration.

Cheney believes Biden will be less "consequential" in the OVP. We should be so lucky.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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ABSOLVING EMANUEL.... In the latest in a series of strange reports from the Associated Press, hoping to connect the Blagojevich controversy to Barack Obama and his team, the wire service has a new report this morning insisting that the scandal "threatens" Rahm Emanuel.

The AP doesn't point to any wrongdoing, of course, but it suggests some unknown evidence might, at some point, emerge to make Emanuel look bad. To describe this reporting as baseless speculation is an understatement.

The article, however, was published shortly before ABC News' George Stephanopoulos came up with some more concrete reporting, which points in the opposite direction.

Sources tell me that the Obama team's review of contacts with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will show that Rahm Emanuel had only one phone conversation with Blagojevich.

The contact, described as a "pro-forma" courtesy call, came as Emanuel was named Chief of Staff for Obama. Most of the discussion concerned Emanuel's Congressional seat (which had previously been held by Blagojevich), with only a "passing reference" to the Senate vacancy, according to these sources. No deal for the Senate vacancy was discussed. [...]

The sources add that the report will show Emanuel also had four phone calls with Blagojevich Chief of Staff John Harris. During those conversations, the Senate seat was discussed. The pros and cons of various candidates were reviewed, and the sources say that Emanuel repeatedly reminded Harris that Blagojevich should focus on the message the pick would send about the governor and his administration.

Sources also confirm that Emanuel made the case for picking Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett during at least one of the conversations. In the course of that conversation, Harris asked if in return for picking Jarrett, "all we get is appreciation, right?" "Right," Emanuel responded.

Bottom line: these sources say that Obama's report, which is expected to be released this week, will confirm what Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and President-Elect Obama have said -- and what Governor Blagojevich clearly believed: that Obama officials were not open to any kind of deal for the Obama Senate seat.

As serious as Blagojevich's problems are, it sounds like the Obama/transition team angle is a dud. There's just nothing there.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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SABATO 'STUNNED' ABOUT THE SOUTH.... As part of my ongoing fascination with complaints about the lack of Southerners in the Obama cabinet, I found Larry Sabato's analysis of the dynamic especially odd.

"Obama scored a tremendous advance for Democrats in winning the three large Southern states and ignored them," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I'm just stunned. It was the one grouping completely ignored." [...]

"There really ought to be one (cabinet post) from each state," says Sabato. "These are three really big prizes, and they're tenuous. None of these states is guaranteed for a Democrat in the future."

Really? We'll need to more than double the size of the president's cabinet, just to make sure that every state is represented? Heaven forbid two great officials come from the same state -- one will be disqualified on the basis of geography. ("I'm sorry, Hilda Solis, you'd be a fantastic a Labor Secretary, but I'm afraid Steven Chu lives in California. You can either move to a new state or wait for California's cabinet slot to open up sometime in the future.")

I know these inside-baseball considerations matter to those of us who are engaged in politics at the granular level, but the notion that a Democratic president may or may not do well four years from now in Southern states based on cabinet selections is pretty silly. Exactly how many voters in Virginia and/or North Carolina are prepared to base their vote, not on how well the administration performs, but on the geographic backgrounds of the administration's cabinet members?

This has quickly become ridiculous. Ron Kirk is from Texas, Carol Browner is from Florida, Robert Gibbs hails from North Carolina, and Bob Gates was in Texas before he was in D.C. Bizarre theories from the Associated Press notwithstanding, there is no coordinated effort to exclude Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line from the president-elect's team. Some Southerners are on the team, some were eyed for the cabinet but withdrew from consideration, and some considered but weren't picked.

This notion that somehow Southerners have become an underrepresented minority, deserving of affirmative action and a quota system, is absurd.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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IRAQ 'CONSENSUS'.... The trio of John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham didn't have much luck on the campaign trail this year, but they nevertheless believe they have an important contribution to make to the discourse: they have a plan for a way forward in Iraq. Indeed, they wrote an op-ed explaining that their vision can serve as the "consensus" position of all U.S. officials, including politicians in both parties.

Their pitch will probably sound pretty familiar:

Based on our observations and consultations in Baghdad, we are optimistic that President-elect Obama will be able to fulfill a major step of his plan for withdrawal next year by redeploying U.S. combat forces from Iraq's cities while maintaining a residual force to train and mentor our Iraqi allies. We caution, however, that 2009 will be a pivotal year for Iraq, with provincial and then national elections whose secure and legitimate conduct depends on our continued engagement. By allowing a greater number of forces to remain in Iraq in the short term, we will be able to set the conditions for much deeper troop cuts thereafter. [...]

Iraq can serve as an anchor of stability in the region, a counter to Iranian hegemony and a model of democracy for the Middle East.

This outcome is not yet guaranteed, even with all the success we have seen over the previous two years in Iraq. That is what makes it all the more important that Republicans and Democrats put aside the differences over Iraq that have divided us in the past. The president-elect has the chance to repair this breach in our politics by adopting a set of policies, resting on the best judgments of our commanders and diplomats on the ground, that all of us -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- will be able to support. We have high hopes that he will do so.

To make a long story short, all of the things the McCain/Lieberman/Graham trio believed before Nov. 4, they still believe now. If only Obama and his team would sign onto their vision, voila, there'd be a consensus.

A few thoughts here. First, there were some U.S. elections held pretty recently, they lost, and as McCain has reminded us from time to time over the years, elections have consequences.

Second, as Atrios noted yesterday, this search for an elusive "consensus" is itself misguided: "This Washington fetishization of everyone agreeing with each other is just weird. People disagree about stuff. I'd think people in politics would understand that."

And third, Atrios' observation notwithstanding, if there's going to be a "consensus" view for the future of U.S. policy in Iraq, it seems to me it's the Obama policy, which has not only been embraced by the electorate, but also Iraqi leaders, Bush's Defense Secretary, and U.S. officials negotiating the terms of the recent status of forces agreement.

I know it's asking a lot, but maybe McCain/Lieberman/Graham can give us a little quiet time now?

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WE MAY NEVER KNOW.... The Bush gang's penchant for secrecy is well known, but let's not forget their goal of taking their secrets with them.

The required transfer in four weeks of all of the Bush White House's electronic mail messages and documents to the National Archives has been imperiled by a combination of technical glitches, lawsuits and lagging computer forensic work, according to government officials, historians and lawyers.

Federal law requires outgoing White House officials to provide the Archives copies of their records, a cache estimated at more than 300 million messages and 25,000 boxes of documents depicting some of the most sensitive policymaking of the past eight years.

But archivists are uncertain whether the transfer will include all the electronic messages sent and received by the officials, because the administration began trying only in recent months to recover from White House backup tapes hundreds of thousands of e-mails that were reported missing from readily accessible files in 2005.

The risks that the transfer may be incomplete are also pointed up by a continuing legal battle between a coalition of historians and nonprofit groups over access to Vice President Cheney's records. The coalition is contesting the administration's assertion in federal court this month that he "alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records" and "how his records will be created, maintained, managed, and disposed," without outside challenge or judicial review.

Eventual access to the documentary record of the Bush presidency has been eagerly anticipated by historians and journalists because the president and his aides generally have sought to shield from public disclosure many details of their deliberations and interactions with outside groups.

"We are worried," said Arnita A. Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, which sued the White House several years ago seeking wider access to presidential records than President Bush had said in a 2001 executive order that he wanted the government to provide. "There is a context that is not reassuring," she said.

It's not an issue that gets a lot of attention, but it matters a great deal. It's not just a question of administration officials hiding wrongdoing and covering up misconduct, and it's not just a matter of fulfilling the requirements of historical and archival records.

As Hilzoy explained the other day, it's principally about preventing another fiasco in the future: "A crucial part of the record of how our government was systematically perverted will be lost, and we will not be able to learn from it how to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. We cannot let that happen. Too much depends on it."

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE NRA MUST BE DESPERATE.... Estimates vary, but the National Rifle Association reportedly spent about $15 million in 2008 on attacks against Barack Obama. The group is no doubt frustrated, not only with the election's outcome, but with its inability to have a serious impact on the campaign.

What's more embarrassing for the NRA is that it's still doing robocalls, seven weeks after Election Day. The Hartford Courant's Colin McEnroe received Wayne LaPierre's latest message yesterday.

So my phone rings today; and after that 1.5-second delay that tells you it's not a beloved friend, a guy comes on the line and says his name is Chris White from the NRA. Do I want to listen to a message from Wayne LaPierre about "Obama's scheme to ban guns?" You bet I do.

So Chris presses play and suddenly Wayne's voice is blasting in my ear at three times the decibel level of the human being who spoke first.

Wayne says that Obama's assurances that he will respect gun rights are "an outright lie."

Obama has been "stacking his administration with the most notorious gun-banners in America."

Wayne says he wants to "send a message loud and clear that the fight for our freedom is not coming. It is here and now."

When Wayne's automated message ended, a person comes back onto the line to explain that Obama has appointed "a cabinet full of gun haters." When pressed to name one, the NRA representative pointed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, of course, is not part of the Obama cabinet. Pressed further for an actual cabinet gun-hater, the NRA rep offers nothing but silence.

The point of the cheap smears, of course, is to raise some cash for the organization. Colin McEnroe wasn't exactly persuaded by the fundraising pitch, but it got me thinking -- just how much financial trouble do you suppose the NRA is in right now?

It invested $15 million to go after Obama, and an additional $25 million to help Republicans win congressional seats. The group's failures notwithstanding, that's a lot of money to spend in the midst of trying economic times.

Sure, the NRA also has an endowment, but if it's anything like all of the other institutional endowments right now, it's lost a whole lot of its value.

How much financial trouble, do you suppose, the NRA is experiencing right now?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Hilzoy

The Beam In Our Eye

Ever since I heard that opponents supporters of Proposition 8 had filed suit to invalidate all the gay marriages that have taken place in California, I've been trying to wrap my mind around the fact that someone, somewhere had to actually initiate this process. That means that someone, somewhere must have decided that the best use of his or her time was not to perform some act of kindness or generosity, not to stand up for justice or to comfort the afflicted, not even to try to turn a profit, but to decide to get together a lawsuit in order to break thousands of people's marriages apart. That person could have gone to the beach, or worked a stint at a food kitchen, or taken up hang-gliding, or done any number of things, but instead he or she thought: why not do my best to tear thousands of people's lives apart, people who are not bothering them, people who only want to be married and have anniversaries and argue about who has to take out the trash, like anyone else.

It's a pretty strange way to choose to spend your time, if you ask me.

The LA Times has a profile of a couple who worked to get Proposition 8 passed, and are still working for the legal challenge to California's existing gay marriages. Here's what motivates them:

"The Ferreiras like life in their gated community in the eastern suburbs of San Diego. Their house, nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac, is comfortable, with plenty of room for them and their three grown children, who still live at home.

But the Ferreiras are afraid of what is happening to the world beyond the gates.

"I'm just seeing our morals and everything just deteriorating before us," Robbie, 49, said one recent evening.

"The first time they wanted to take prayer out of schools, we as believers should have stood up," said Abel, who was recently laid off from his job as a salesman of manufactured homes. "Every time you give them a little bit, they want more." (...)

One Sunday about a year ago, Garlow [their pastor] told his congregation what he thought the consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage would be.

Pastors around the state would be required to marry gays, he said. Businesses would be forced to recognize gay marriage. Schools would begin teaching children that gay and lesbian lifestyles are the norm.

"The thing that affected me the most was knowing that my grandkids are going to be taught this ungodly and sinful act as if it's OK," Robbie said. "I thought from that point on, 'No. I will fight for them. I don't have them yet, but I'm going to fight for them.'""

Somehow, they didn't manage to check out the truth of these claims. What does it mean to say that "businesses would be forced to recognize gay marriage"? Do supermarkets or Home Depots or pet grooming facilities normally have to take a position on the validity of people's marriage? Wouldn't pastors be protected by the First Amendment? And about those schools: would kids be taught that gay marriage is OK? And if so, so what? Last time I checked, parents are quite capable of telling kids when they disagree with teachers, and kids are quite capable of not believing everything their teachers tell them.

(Parenthetical note: it's odd how when politics enters the picture, people sometimes acquire a faith in the Svengali-like powers of teachers that makes absolutely no sense at all. In normal life, we know that overbearing or biassed teachers are more likely to annoy their students than anything else, and that even good teachers are not always believed. In politics, people sometimes assume that normal, obstreperous kids and adolescents are somehow transformed into docile, sheeplike beings who accept every word their teachers say. As a teacher, I find this very selective faith in us and our awesome powers quite perplexing.)

In any case, the Ferreiras didn't just call their friends and put up signs for Proposition 8:

"For 40 days, the couple gave up coffee and didn't eat for 12 hours a day. And Robbie gave up "Days of Our Lives," the soap opera she had been watching since high school."

Mr. Ferreira has just been laid off. All three kids are still at home, which probably means they're struggling too. The couple lives in a gated community. They are frightened by what lurks outside. I can see that. What I can't see is forgetting about compassion and charity, or neglecting such Biblical injunctions as not to cast the first stone unless one is without sin, and to worry about the beam in one's own eye before turning one's attention to the mote in another's.

If we worry about our morals deteriorating, surely the best place to start addressing that problem is in our own lives. We all have more than enough sins to occupy us. When we have extirpated them all, and learned courage, justice, generosity, and mercy, there will be time enough to worry about other people's marriages. And I suspect that once we have learned those things, we will not find the fact that some couple in love wants to get married at the top of our list of concerns.

Hilzoy 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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December 20, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Saturday Poetry Blogging

Over at Ta-Nehisi's blog, I found a wonderful poem by Elizabeth Alexander, who has been invited to write a poem for Obama's inauguration. It's 'Hottentot Venus', about a woman from what is now South Africa who was taken to Europe and exhibited throughout Europe. When I was 12 or 13, I saw her skeleton, and I think some sort of cast, in Paris, where it was on exhibit in a museum (apparently, it has since been put away, thank God, along with her preserved brain and genitalia, which I do not recall. France returned her remains to South Africa in 2002.) I've put the poem below the fold; it's really, really good. Ta-Nehisi:

"I don't know how, but in my early readings of this piece, I missed perhaps the most important emotion--a kind of slow-burning rage. There are many ways to read those two quotes. But I'm black and Ta-Nehisi and what I see is the irony of science, how disciplines founded to better understand the world so often obscure the world."

I think that's right: right about the rage, right about the science. But it's also striking to me how she manages to combine a kind of generosity to Cuvier with that rage. The first part starts with such beauty, though as it goes on, you can see the inhumanity peering out from behind it. But a less generous poet would have left it out entirely.

But politics obscures the world as well. Googling around to find out more about the woman who wrote this poem, I found some other responses, from people who didn't seem to want to bother giving her a try. This from Newsmax is typical (it's worth reading the poem it excerpts in its entirety. You can make snippets from any poet sound dumb. Think of TS Eliot:

"Twit twit twit

Jug jug jug jug jug jug"

What a dope!)

In any case, enjoy!

The Venus Hottentot (1825)

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I'd thought
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope..

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving close,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling jar in the Musee
de l'Homme on a shelf

above Broca's brain:
"The Venus Hottentot."

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.

2.

There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called "Venus Hottentot."
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: a boon!
Master's brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powder in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London's
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
"Is it muscle? Bone? Or fat?"
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, "The Only
Scholar of His Race." He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

"The Ball of Duchess DuBarry":
In the engraving I lurch
towards the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother's sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence, I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from this table, I'd spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man's museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.

Hilzoy 4:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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FILLING THE BLANK SLATE.... Caroline Kennedy's interest in filling New York's vacancy in the Senate has more than a few hurdles to clear, not the least of which is the fact that no one really knows her positions on any issue. The Politico submitted a questionnaire to Kennedy in the hopes of fleshing out some of these pertinent details.

It appears that she's staking out a claim on the more progressive side of things.

Caroline Kennedy is finally sharing some of her political opinions with the people she's campaigning to represent -- casting herself in the liberal tradition of uncle Ted Kennedy, bucking Barack Obama by supporting same-sex marriage and disavowing Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote for the Iraq invasion.

A Kennedy spokesman drafted seven written answers to the eight questions submitted by Politico to the 51-year-old attorney, author and electoral novice.

Some of Kennedy's responses were brief and vague -- and she flatly refused to answer a pressing political query we posed: Will she support the Democratic nominee for New York mayor in 2009?

The answer of gay marriage was pretty unambiguous: "Caroline supports full equality and marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples." Her response on the 2002 AUMF was also clear: "Caroline opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. She supports President-Elect Obama's plan to work with our military leaders to begin a responsible withdrawal."

Now, it's hard to do a compare-and-contrast with some of the other Democrats who might be considered for the Senate vacancy, but at least we're getting a sense, for the first time, of the kinds of positions Caroline Kennedy would take if she serves.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WANTED: FOOLISH ECONOMISTS.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made clear he's against the idea of a government rescue package in response to the financial crisis, but he's apparently having trouble finding economists who agree.

So, as Matt Stoller discovered, Boehner has gone online looking for help. This plea was published this week on Boehner's website.

Attention Economists: Are You A Stimulus Spending Skeptic?

A recent Associated Press article quoted transition officials for President-elect Obama as saying "[o]nly one outside economist" contacted by the President-elect's advisors had "voiced skepticism" about the President-elect's emerging plans for an economic "stimulus" spending bill with a price tag as large as $1 trillion, with the vast majority of that number going to new spending on government programs and projects.

House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) is compiling a list of credentialed American economists who would like to add their voices to the list of stimulus spending skeptics. If you are an economist who would like to be added to this list, you can join the list here and provide your comments.

Boehner knows he's against injecting money into a struggling economy, he just needs some credentialed conservatives to tell him how right he is. Good luck with that, John.

This strikes me as a surprisingly embarrassing exercise. First, why Boehner would oppose a stimulus right now is beyond comprehension. Second, House Republicans should be able to make their case on the merits, and not point to a list of people Boehner found online to bolster a weak argument.

And third, isn't this the kind of thing Boehner should do quietly? Call up the Heritage Foundation, AEI, and Cato, tell them you need some skewed reports showing that the economy's in pretty good shape and will get even better on its own, and tell the Wall Street Journal editorial page to repeat the talking points. Isn't that usually how this game is played?

Let's put aside the fact that Boehner knows that the future of our economy is on the line, and he wants to stand in the way of the one thing the nation desperately needs. Even looking past this, Boehner putting up an "economists needed" plea on his website is kind of humiliating.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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A VISION FOR SCIENCE.... Barack Obama used his weekly radio/video address to introduce members of his science team this morning, but just as importantly, he talked a bit about his vision for the role of science in the coming years.

"From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process," Obama said.

"Because the truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. [...]

"I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity."

I realize that it's a testament to Bush's presidency that I get so excited about a new president talking about science is such a progressive way, but I can't help but feel encouraged about this reality-based rhetoric.

When Obama introduced Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the president-elect said, "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Greg Sargent noted that the emphasis helped "encapsulate for liberals ... just how big the potential of the moment feels right now, since the previous administration's disdain for 'science' and 'facts' contributed perhaps as much as anything else to the nightmarish quality the last eight years held for them."

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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PROP 8 FALLOUT.... Because nothing says "pro-family" like tearing apart thousands of legally married couples.

Sponsors of the California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage are seeking to nullify thousands of marriages between gay and lesbian couples performed after the state Supreme Court ruled them constitutional.

The sponsors Friday filed responses to three anti-Proposition 8 lawsuits with the state Supreme Court. The briefs also defend Proposition 8 against opponents' legal challenges, including an argument that the amendment needed a constitutional convention to be added to the state's constitution.

"We are confident that the will of the voters and Proposition 8 will ultimately be upheld," said Andrew Pugno, General Counsel for ProtectMarriage.com and the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund.

This was bound to happen, but it doesn't make it any less jarring. It's not enough for these activists to prevent people from getting married, they also believe the state has to nullify existing marriages that are already on the books and which were legal at the time. It reflects a painful degree of callousness.

On the other hand, California Attorney General Jerry Brown is pushing back, urging the state Supreme Court to invalidate Prop. 8, declaring that "the amendment process cannot be used to extinguish fundamental constitutional rights without compelling justification." Brown is responsible for upholding the state's laws, and Brown said last month that he planned to "defend the proposition as enacted by the people of California," but has come up with a compelling legal reason not to.

The California Constitution protects certain rights as "inalienable," Brown wrote. Those include a right to liberty and to privacy, which the courts have said includes a person's right to marry.

The issue before the court "presents a conflict between the constitutional power of the voters to amend the Constitution, on the one hand, and the Constitution's Declaration of Rights, on the other," Brown wrote.

The issue "is whether rights secured under the state Constitution's safeguard of liberty as an 'inalienable' right may intentionally be withdrawn from a class of persons by an initiative amendment."

Voters are allowed to amend other parts of the Constitution by majority vote, but to use the ballot box to take away an "inalienable" right would establish a "tyranny of the majority," which the Constitution was designed, in part, to prevent, he wrote.

It's a fairly straightforward pitch: there are certain rights that are not subject to popularity contests. This is one of them.

By the way, the lawyer who'll argue against gay marriage at the state Supreme Court? None other than Ken Starr. Yes, that Ken Starr.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released an interesting report yesterday, documenting the faiths of members of Congress.

Members of Congress are often accused of being out of touch with average citizens, but an examination of the religious affiliations of U.S. senators and representatives shows that, on one very basic level, Congress looks much like the rest of the country. Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress - like the nation as a whole - is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, a comparison of the religious affiliations of the new Congress with religious demographic information from the Pew Forum's recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of over 35,000 American adults finds that some smaller religious groups, notably Catholics, Jews and Mormons, are better represented in Congress than they are in the population as a whole. However, certain other smaller religious groups, including Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, still are somewhat underrepresented in Congress relative to their share of the U.S. population.

The study finds that there is at least one major difference between Congress and the nation as a whole: Members of Congress are much more likely than the public overall to say they are affiliated with a particular religion. Only five members of the new Congress (about 1%) did not specify a religious affiliation, according to information gathered by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum, and no members specifically said they were unaffiliated. By contrast, the Landscape Survey found that individuals who are not affiliated with a particular faith make up about one-sixth (16.1%) of the adult population, making this one of the largest "religious" group in the U.S.

It's especially interesting to see how the religious makeup of Congress has changed over the last generation or two. The report noted, for example, that the total percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped from 74.1% in 1961 to 54.7% today, while Catholic representation has nearly doubled (18.8% to 30.1%), and the percentage of Jewish members has tripled (2.3% to 8.4%). What's more, there are two Muslims and two Buddhists who began serving in Congress in 2007 -- all of whom were firsts for the institution.

For the record, there is still only one member of Congress, Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a self-identified Unitarian, who publicly concedes that he does not believe in a Supreme Being.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A federal judge has ruled that South Carolina may no longer issue a special "Christian" license plate featuring a cross, a stained-glass window, and the words "I Believe." U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie concluded that the plates violate the separation of church and state, and elevated one faith above others. The lawsuit prompting the decision was brought on behalf of four local clergy: the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

* In Las Vegas, it's very easy to get married, but in order to get a license to perform the ceremony, Nevada law mandates that applicants be tied to a religious congregation. Two national groups -- the American Humanist Assn. and the Center for Inquiry -- are asking the state legislature to change the law, and will file a lawsuit challenging the mandate if lawmakers decline.

* And just as an aside, seeing that we're just a few days from Christmas, I thought I'd mention that it seems like the "war on Christmas" nonsense is a lot quieter this year. It's likely that people just got sick of hearing the nonsense, but I also suppose that in the midst of a financial crisis, it's harder for Fox News and the religious right to rationalize national boycotts of struggling retailers.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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SOUTHERN COMPLAINING PICKS UP STEAM.... The Politico had a fairly long piece this week, noting that Barack Obama's cabinet was pretty diverse, but lacked Southerners. The piece suggested there was some grumbling in political circles over this, but it quoted a grand total of two people complaining -- both anonymous Hill staffers, one of whom doesn't even work in Congress anymore.

In the ensuing days, however, the complaints about Obama having "snubbed" the South have picked up steam.

The South may have inched toward Democrats in November, but that progress isn't showing in President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet selections. Obama hasn't nominated a single Southerner among his 15 Cabinet secretaries. [...]

The disparity isn't an accident -- critics already are calling it a snub -- and that perception could slow the pace of recent electoral gains Democrats have made below the Mason-Dixon line.

"Southerners need not apply," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "It's hard to believe that there wasn't anybody qualified for something from the South." [...]

Dan Carter, a political historian at the University of South Carolina, said the shortage of Southerners among top White House aides is highly unusual and could invite criticism.

Well, sure, I can think of a lot of things that "could invite criticism." The point here is whether this warrants criticism.

For that matter, why on earth is the Associated Press telling readers that the lack of Southerners in the cabinet "isn't an accident"? It isn't? How does the AP know that? Is the wire service prepared to argue, in a news story, that Obama is deliberately slighting an entire region?

But it's Jack Kingston's whining that's especially jarring. Kingston and his fellow conservatives have argued for years that employers should consider merit when making hiring decisions -- and nothing else. No quotas, no affirmative action, no regard for diversity. But the moment Obama picks qualified people for his cabinet, we have a Southern conservative running to the media to cry, "What about people like me?" Indeed, to say that Southerners "need not apply," suggests that Kingston not only believes his region has been slighted, but also that his region is literally being discriminated against.

This is patently ridiculous. As we talked about the other day, various groups want a seat at the proverbial table, but since when are Southerners an unrepresented minority? Will other regions start questioning whether they've been snubbed, too?

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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FIRST STEP: ADMITTING YOU HAVE A PROBLEM.... For a while, there was a question as to which party deserved the label of "party of ideas." The debate, such as it was, is obviously over. Republicans lost.

It's certainly not the only reason the GOP has suffered badly at the ballot box of late -- the wholesale failure of Bush's presidency may have had something to do with it -- but the inability to craft a policy agenda has no doubt contributed to the Republicans' inability to dig themselves out of their ditch.

An interesting observer wrote a memo this week arguing that the Republican Party has grown "stale," "does not deserve" the party-of-ideas label, has grown too quick to "fall back on ideology alone," and has lost the "American people's trust." As it turns out, the observer is Republican National Committee Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan. Greg Sargent reports:

In a frank and private memo sent today to Republican National Committee members, the RNC chairman acknowledges that the GOP has grown too addicted to ideology, places politics before policy, and is bereft of ideas -- and that it's imperative that the party shift towards a genuine effort to develop concrete policy solutions to people's problems in order to rescue itself.

The memo, which we obtained from a Republican operative. was written by RNC chief Mike Duncan to explain the RNC's decision -- first reported by Politico -- to create a new in-house think tank called the "Center for Republican Renewal," which is devoted to coming up with new policies and ideas to chart a new direction for the party after November's devastating losses. [...]

The assessment by Duncan, who's running for re-election as RNC chair, is a more straightforward acknowledgment of the party's deeply-rooted problems than we've heard from many of his opponents in the race.

Quite right. As we talked about the other day, Duncan is at least prepared to admit his party has a problem.

But what is less clear is whether Duncan realizes that the conservative ideology limits the party's ability to be constructive, or even coherent, on most of the major policy disputes that matter.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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December 19, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Step Away From That Shredder ...

The AP, via FDL:

"Dick Cheney's lawyers are asserting that the vice president alone has the authority to determine which records, if any, from his tenure will be handed over to the National Archives when he leaves office in January. (...)

"The vice president alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records, how his records will be created, maintained, managed and disposed, and are all actions that are committed to his discretion by law," according to a court filing by Cheney's office with the U.S. District Court on Dec. 8.

Cheney is being sued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that is trying to ensure that no presidential records are destroyed or handled in a way that makes them unavailable to the public.

The 1978 Presidential Records Act requires all presidential and vice presidential records to be transferred to the National Archives immediately upon the end of the president's last term of office and gives the archivist responsibility to preserve and control access to presidential records. The law ended the tradition of private ownership of presidential papers, opening White House records to the public and historians. (...)

But the law is unclear on how disagreements will be decided about the preservation of disputed records, said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

"Decisions that are made in the next couple of weeks may prove irrevocable. If records are held from the archivist now they may never be recovered," Aftergood said.

A judge in September ordered Cheney to preserve all his records while the suit continued."

Someone needs to make sure that Cheney carries out that order. Cheney is exactly the sort of person who could decide to shred his documents and say to a judge: Go ahead, hold me in contempt. I dare you.

If he is not prosecuted, that will be bad enough. But if he destroys the record of his time in office, then we may never learn what he was actually up to when he claimed to be serving us, at our expense. A crucial part of the record of how our government was systematically perverted will be lost, and we will not be able to learn from it how to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. We cannot let that happen. Too much depends on it.

Hilzoy 11:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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

* The markets rose early on, in response to Bush's loans to GM and Chrysler, but by the end of the close, the early gains were largely gone.

* I think it's fair to say the economy in California qualifies as "not good."

* Obama introduced the rest of his cabinet this afternoon, introducing his nominees to lead the Departments of Labor and Transportation, and serve as the U.S. Trade Representative. Perhaps the only real surprise was Obama's choice of Maine economist Karen Mills, a close ally of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), to be administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA).

* It was, by the way, Obama's 12th press conference as president-elect, breaking a record for modern presidents -- and he still has a month to go.

* As I type, Al Franken leads Norm Coleman in Minnesota by 249 votes.

* David Safavian, a former associate of disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has been found guilty of multiple criminal counts, again.

* Krugman has a good item on the Madoff Economy.

* Sargent has a good item on what's "new" about Obama's style of politics.

* Cohn has a good item explaining why Bush's loan package for the auto industry is a good idea.

* Lind had a good item on why the South wants to undermine the North's auto industry. (thanks to J.P. for the tip)

* Things didn't work out too well for Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) when it came to the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but new Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has rewarded Dingell with a good consolation prize: taking the lead of healthcare initiatives in the next Congress.

* Joe Scarborough knows even less about science than he does about current events. Scary, but true.

* If a politician's daughter's fiance's mother has a run in with the law, it probably shouldn't be national news. Just sayin'.

* And finally, W. Mark Felt Sr., the associate director of the FBI during the Watergate scandal who, and the man best known as "Deep Throat," died yesterday. He was 95.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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BLAGOJEVICH CLAIMS HE'LL BE 'VINDICATED'.... Gov. Rod Blagojevich has barely uttered a public word since his arrest 10 days ago, but he held an event in Chicago this afternoon. Regrettably, he did not break his silence to announce his resignation, but rather, to profess his innocence.

"I will fight, I will fight, I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong," Blagojevich said in a brief news conference. "I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing."

There were, as one might imagine, quite a few reporters on hand for the governor's comments, but Blagojevich did not take questions from reporters.

As for the prospect of resigning, the governor said, "I'm not going to quit a job that people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob." He added that he has "powerful" forces against him, but he has "the truth," which is the "most powerful ally."

After quoting Kipling at some length, Blagojevich said he is "absolutely certain" that he "will be vindicated."

He also appealed to Illinois voters, urging them to "patient," and asking that they "afford me the same rights that you and your children have. The presumption of innocence. The right to defend yourself." Blagojevich added that he is "dying" to respond to the accusations, but he said he'd reserve his defense for the "appropriate" setting, which in this case "isn't 'Meet the Press' or the news," but rather "a court of law."

I don't imagine his remarks today are going to change a lot of minds, but the statement does tell us that if Blagojevich is going to go, state lawmakers are going to have to impeach him.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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OH, NOW HE HAS QUESTIONS.... For the last two years, Joe Lieberman had oversight authority over the Bush administration, but he chose not to exercise it. Lieberman even backpedaled on oversight he'd promised voters he'd pursue during his 2006 re-election campaign.

But that was before. Now that Bush's presidency has just one month and one day remaining, now Lieberman has rediscovered the responsibilities of his committee. Sam Stein reports:

In a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, the Connecticut Independent demanded information about the outgoing president's "eleventh-hour transfers of political appointees to career government positions."

"At the end of each Administration, there are always concerns that political appointees may improperly convert to career positions," writes Lieberman. "The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently provided a briefing to Committee staff on the process of converting Executive Branch employees from non-career to career positions, often referred to as 'burrowing in.' While I appreciated the information provided at the briefing, I am requesting additional information to ensure that every request to burrow in is transparent, fair and equitable, and free from political influence." [...]

As such, there is a certain irony to Lieberman asking probing questions after his political hide was saved in a closed-door caucus vote. Either he got the message, or he has a growing interest in ensuring that the Bush administration's influence ends when the president leaves office.

I don't want to sound ungrateful. "Burrowing" is a serious problem with the Bush administration, and I'm glad Lieberman is taking an interest. Better late than never?

Also, Sam suggests Lieberman may be finally trying to prove his mettle to caucus Democrats, or perhaps he just takes Bush "burrowing" seriously. I can't help but wonder, though, if Lieberman may also be laying the groundwork for a new era of tough administrative scrutiny -- which he'll pursue with great enthusiasm once Obama takes office.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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ESCAPING ELECTORAL PURGATORY.... In the wake of a fairly devastating Election Day last month, Republican leaders have been throwing around very ideas about dragging themselves out of their ditch. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the #3 person in the House Republican leadership, for example, believes the party should focus on welfare reform and privatizing public schools. Governors like Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) and Mark Sanford (S.C.) have dabbled in Neo-Hooverism, calling for a balanced-budget amendment and drastic spending reductions, respectively.

It's probably safe to say the party hasn't quite found its road map. Tom Edsall considers some of the strategies before concluding that Republicans may ultimately be wasting their time: it's going to be a while before Republicans can recover.

I was struck, though, by the advice from David Frum:

"College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats -- but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time. So the question for the GOP is: will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion.

And it will potentially involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That is a future that leaves little room for [Sarah] Palin -- but it is the only hope for a Republican recovery."

That sounds pretty compelling to me. In effect, Frum is urging his party to, for lack of a better word, modernize. As he sees it, the Republican Party would be more competitive in the long run if it takes the environment seriously, respects women's rights, drops the knee-jerk reactionary style of politics, becomes more secular, starts doing their homework on policy disputes, and generally gets over the culture war. Good advice.

I'm afraid, though, that the prescription is not without flaw. Frum thinks his vision of a modern Republican Party would leave "little room" for the Palins of the party. That's true. But wouldn't it also make the GOP rather inhospitable for, you know, Republicans?

If Frum believes the future is bright for the party that caters to secular policy wonks who care about climate change, science, reproductive health, and above-board campaigning, it's no wonder he's worried.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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CABINET DIVERSITY, REDUX.... There's been some discussion about the diversity of Barack Obama's cabinet when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity, and even geography, but Matt Yglesias highlights a development that's gone largely unnoticed.

It seems Barack Obama is giving us a cabinet with no Jewish members. Plenty of Jews in non-cabinet top spots (Axelrod, Summers, Orszag) so I guess we'll have to just run things from behind the scenes. I think that was also the case at the beginning of the Dubya administration, though now we have Chertoff.

I must be slipping -- as was the case with the omission of Southerners from Obama's team, I hadn't noticed this.

I'd add, though, that Matt refers to "non-cabinet top spots," but the director of the Office of Management and Budget is considered cabinet-level, and the office will be filled by Peter Orzag, who is Jewish. Moreover, Rahm Emanuel is Jewish, and as White House CoS, he attends cabinet meetings, making his job kinda sorta cabinet-level.

Plus, the roles Axelrod and Summers will play aren't exactly chopped liver. Axelrod, as a special assistant to the president, will have real clout in the West Wing, and Lawrence Summers, as the director of National Economic Council, will have a major impact on the president's approach to the economy.

So, no cabinet spots per se, but not bad, either.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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ABOUT THAT OTHER $350 BILLION.... It was hard not to see this one coming.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Friday that Congress will need to release the last half of the $700 billion rescue fund because the first $350 billion has been committed.

Paulson said the use of the rescue fund to provide loans to the auto industry along with all the other rescue efforts for the financial system meant that the administration has now basically allocated the first half of the largest government bailout program in history.

He said he was confident that the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. had the resources to address a significant market event if one should occur before Congress approves the use of the second half of the rescue fund.

But it's important for Congress to release the second half of the rescue fund "to support financial market stability," Paulson said in a statement.

A report in Bloomberg added that Paulson's informal request is likely to "set off a debate in Congress, where some members have criticized the Treasury chief's management of TARP."

That seems like a safe bet, especially in light of Bush's creative use of fine print in the original TARP package.

I'd add, though, that this was not a formal request for Congress to release $350 billion -- that has to come from the president. Paulson's remarks, however, suggest that call to the Hill is on the way.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CENSURE AND MOVE ON.... I probably run the risk of a reader revolt with one more Rick Warren-related post, but let's say this is the last one. Probably.

As regular readers have probably noticed, I've been more than a little bothered about the Warren invocation invitation, for all of the reasons that are now familiar -- Warren is a conservative extremist, wrapped in soothing tones, undeserving of such a high-profile validation. It's symbolism that sends the wrong message (tolerance of intolerance) and serves no greater goal. When Warren uses his expanded stature to undermine Obama's agenda in the future, it's the kind of mistake that may have political consequences.

But, while I've been clear about why I find the symbolism frustrating, I also think it's possible to lose perspective on this.

Time's John Cloud, who defended Ann Coulter's use of the word "faggot," blasted Obama yesterday as a "rational-sounding sort of bigot," comparable to a racist segregationist in the deep South during the era of Jim Crow.

I will gladly argue, and have repeatedly, that the Warren invitation is a mistake, and I'd hoped Obama and his team would have known better, but Cloud's criticism strikes me as excessive, not because it's intemperate, but the disparagement doesn't match the error. Obama, to my mind, is poised to become the most progressive president in history on social/cultural issues, including gay equality.

One dumb invitation does not a bigot make.

I found Todd Gitlin's take pretty compelling.

My initial reaction to Obama's Rick Warren announcement was horror. After what seems like weeks of intense back-and-forth, but in fact is only a day's worth, I'm still appalled. It's one thing to invite the adversary into the tent the better to defeat him with a smile -- neutralize him, in colder terms -- but it's quite another to give him a throne, even if a purely symbolic throne. Warren's political interventions are mostly terrible (AIDS and environment are the exceptions). [...]

But meanwhile, some proportion here, people. Other appointments are arguable but some are clearly superb.... Wes Boyd and Joan Blades had the right idea, back in the fading days of the 20th century, when they started what became the excellent Move On with a simple petition. Vis-a-vis Clinton-Lewinsky, recall that their petition read: "Congress must Immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country."

Censure Obama over Warren -- directly, sincerely, viscerally -- and move on.

That sounds about right. Looking back over the week, we've seen Obama make a variety of decisions, including support for an ambitious economic rescue plan, the introduction of a great environmental team, the introduction of an amazing science team, and some very encouraging nominations on labor and education. When it comes to substance and policy matters, these announcements are going to matter long after Warren heads back to Saddleback.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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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.

* As I type this, Al Franken leads Norm Coleman in Minnesota by 123 votes. It is Franken's first official lead since the process began six weeks ago. According to a projection by the Star Tribune, Franken will win by a margin of 80 votes.

* The AP reports that the final outcome will "also depend on some 5,000 withdrawn challenges that have not yet been allocated to the candidates," and that may not be resolved until the new year.

* On a related note, CNN reports that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is "quietly prepping for the possibility of a temporary Senate appointment," working under the assumption that the contest may not be resolved when Congress reconvenes in January.

* Caroline Kennedy had lunch with Al Sharpton in Harlem yesterday. He praised her as a "unique candidate," but would not say whether he supports her Senate bid. "I will trust the government's judgment to decide what's best for the state, he told reporters. "I won't get into that."

* Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is popular in her home state, but if she were to challenge Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) in 2010, he would still be the favorite.

* Rod Blagojevich has scheduled a 3pm (eastern) press conference in Chicago. That ought to be interesting.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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WORRYING ABOUT YOUTUBE.... The president said something interesting this week to RealClearPolitics' Tom Bevan and John McIntyre about politics and the online world.

"I am the very last President not to really have to worry about YouTube" while campaigning for the White House, President Bush told RealClearPolitics in an exclusive Oval Office interview last week, discussing the role the Internet and new media played in the November 4th elections.

"The 'gotcha' moments in my campaign in the past were few and far between," the President recalled, noting that with the advent of YouTube candidates have to be "really careful" what they say or "you're liable to see yourself on the Internet, along with 20 million other people."

I think I know what Bush means. He's had three serious campaigns in his professional political life -- 1994, 2000, and 2004. YouTube was created in February 2005. Bush was caught saying all kinds of bizarre things during his campaigns -- it's painful to think about how many -- and they made for great fodder on outlets like "The Daily Show," but distributing these humiliating moments became effortless after Bush's last race, not before.

That said, I strolled by YouTube this morning, just to see what happens when I do a search for "Bush," and found that one could spend many a day going through all of the cringe-worthy clips.

Bush is the "very last President not to really have to worry about YouTube"? Here's a crazy idea: maybe he should have worried about YouTube.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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IRONY WATCH.... Karl Rove, this week:

The top priorities for the Senator who will raise his right hand on January 20, 2009, and say "I do solemnly swear" are obvious: keeping America safe and growing the economy. Less obvious is how to create a White House where forceful debate can take place. Plain speaking, straight talk, and dissent must be encouraged....

Newsweek, 2005:

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.

I'm also reminded of a Time interview with a "youngish" White House aide, described as a Bush favorite, who said, "The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me. Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, 'All right. I understand. Good job.' He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom."

Go ahead, Karl, tell us another one about the importance of "forceful debates," in which "dissent must be encouraged" in the White House.

I had no idea he had such a sense of humor.

Steve Benen 10:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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BUSH THROWS DETROIT A LIFELINE.... Senate Republicans can block congressional action, but they can't, oddly enough, prevent their friend at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from bailing out U.S. auto manufacturers.

President Bush on Friday announced $13.4 billion in emergency loans to prevent the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler, and another $4 billion available for the hobbled automakers in February with the entire bailout conditioned on the companies undertaking sweeping reorganization plans to show that they can return to profitability.

Mr. Bush made his announcement a week after Senate Republicans blocked legislation to aid the automakers that had been negotiated by the White House and Congressional Democrats, and the loan package announced by the president includes roughly the identical requirements in that bill, which had been approved by the House.

With surprising cogency, the president explained that it's tempting to let the companies fail -- the result of mismanagement and poor decision making -- but the economic consequences would be too severe, and too sweeping, right now.

"Under ordinary circumstances, I would say [bankruptcy] is the price failed companies must pay," Bush said. But in light of the deep recession, "These are not ordinary circumstances.... In the midst of a financial crisis and a recession, allowing the U.S. auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action.... If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy and liquidation for the automakers."

The rescue package comes in the form of government loans, but the money comes with all kinds of strings attached, including a March 31 deadline for company restructuring. Among the conditions are requirements that the companies cut their debt obligations by two-thirds and, in a move that will make the GOP happy, renegotiate the contract with the United Auto Workers to make compensation packages more competitive with foreign manufacturers with plants in the U.S.

So, are Corker, Shelby, and DeMint getting what they wanted, by forcing American workers to get paid less? That depends on how this shakes out -- the NYT explained that Bush's plan makes the requirements "non-binding, allowing the automakers to reach different arrangements with the union, provided that they explain how those alternative plans will keep them on a path toward financial viability."

Also among the conditions are limits on executive pay and the elimination of the companies' corporate jets.

The Politico's report has more, including a fact sheet from the White House with additional details.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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LOU DOBBS, COLD WEATHER, WARMING PLANET.... This stopped being funny several years ago. Every winter, most of the country gets cold, and lots of snow falls. And every winter, conservatives point to the winter weather as evidence that global warming isn't real. And every winter, people who know what they're talking about smack their heads in frustration.

Yesterday, CNN's Lou Dobbs helped demonstrate just how inane this tedious practice has become. (thanks to reader D.K. for the heads-up)

Dobbs told viewers that the weather has been "unbelievable," because there are "unusual storms and a deep freeze across much of the country tonight." Dobbs was particularly animated about snowfall in Las Vegas, Malibu, and Payson, Arizona. "So what are those folks talking about global warming?" Dobbs asked incredulously.

To "discuss" the subject, Dobbs invited CNN meteorologist Chad Myers and Heartland Institute science director Jay Lehr onto the show.

Not surprisingly, Lehr told Dobbs what he wanted to hear, starting with an anecdote about Lehr's sky diving hobby.

LEHR: I have jumped out of a plane in Ohio every month for 31 years, and I track the weather constantly to find out if I can make it out of a plane. And I can tell you, the weather the last ten years hasn't been significantly different than the ten years before that or the ten years before that. It has been -- it is always changes what the weather is about. And to say that it has to do with global warming is really more of a joke than anything else. Why people are so alarmed about it, I have no clue.

DOBBS: You know, that's fascinating.

Before ending the segment, Lehr added that the sun, "not man," warms the planet, and that "right now," we're "going in to cooling rather than warming."

Let's quickly highlight reality here. First, it's not the sun. Second, snowfall on one day in one part of the country does not reflect "climate." Third, an anecdote about sky-diving experimentation is not indicative of climate science. Fourth, though Dobbs apparently forgot to mention it, the Heartland Institute is a conservative think tank subsidized by ExxonMobil, not an independent scientific organization, and Jay Lehr's background is in "groundwater hydrology," not climate science.

Oh, and fifth, this is not "fascinating."

Why CNN airs this nonsense, in between commercials promoting its "Planet in Peril" series, is a mystery.

Update: I neglected to mention that the bizarre commentary from CNN's Chad Myers wasn't much better. He argued that it's "arrogant" to think that humans can affect the climate ("Mother nature is so big," he said) and that people who accept global warming are only looking at "a hundred years worth of data, not millions of years that the world has been around."

Why is this man a CNN meteorologist?

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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CLOSING GUANTANAMO.... Shortly after the election, Barack Obama spoke to "60 Minutes," and explained, "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that." Dick Cheney told Rush Limbaugh this week that he doesn't really believe the next White House will change the policy: "I think they'll discover that trying to close it is a very hard proposition."

Perhaps, but Obama appears intent on doing it anyway.

This week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed Obama's position, saying the challenges Cheney sees are "solvable," and adding that the closing of the detention facility "will be a high priority for the new administration."

What's more, the Pentagon is moving forward accordingly.

The Defense Department is drawing up plans to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in anticipation that one of President-elect Barack Obama's first acts will be ordering the closure of the detention center associated with the abuse of terror suspects.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has asked his team for a proposal on how to shut (the detention center) down, what would be required specifically to close it and move the detainees from that facility while at the same time, of course, ensuring that we protect the American people from some dangerous characters," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters on Thursday.

The prison, built to hold suspected terrorists after the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, now houses about 250 detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others accused in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Obama, who's asked Gates to stay on as his defense secretary, has said that he wants to close the prison within two years of taking office on Jan. 20. Gates also has spoken publicly about the need to close the facility.

"If this is one of the president-elect's first orders of business, the secretary wants to be prepared to help him as soon as possible," Morrell said. "The request (for a closure plan) has been made, his team is working on it so that he can be prepared to assist the president-elect should he wish to address this very early in his tenure."

The Washington Post added, "Any plan will probably address whether to also abolish the military commission system and, if so, what kind of legal framework can be substituted to put detainees on trial."

Sounds like progress, and Cheney's skepticism notwithstanding, like a commitment Obama is going to keep.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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BLINDING US WITH SCIENCE.... Earlier this week, introducing Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as the next Energy Secretary, Barack Obama made a pointed claim about his upcoming administration: "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Yesterday, Obama's commitment to restoring the role for science in government was reinforced even further.

In a sign that President-elect Barack Obama intends to elevate science to greater prominence, John P. Holdren, a Harvard physicist widely recognized for his leadership on energy policy and climate change, will be appointed White House science adviser this weekend, the Globe confirmed yesterday. [...]

"I think they'll be restoring the role of science in the federal establishment," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based advocacy organization. "We've got a bunch of people across the [new] administration who get it." [...]

Holdren, who was an adviser to the Obama campaign and a member of a scientific advisory committee to President Bill Clinton, is a specialist on energy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.

Now, "White House science adviser" may sound like an impressive honor, but it's actually a post with key responsibilities. Joseph Romm noted yesterday that the position "oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies." Romm also said the combination of Holdren and Chu sends a signal that Obama is "dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming," adding, "[A]fter eight years of Bush spreading disinformation and muzzling scientists, putting Holdren in charge of the 'bully pulpit of science' is just what the nation and the planet need if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic warming."

What's more, I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that Obama is also poised to introduce Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which adds to the sea-change in elevating the importance of science in the next administration.

The Washington Post explained that Lubchenco is "a vocal proponent of curbing greenhouse gases linked to global warming," and her appointment represents a "radical" departure for NOAA under Bush.

We're talking about science-related choices from Obama that are, for lack of a better word, enlightened. After eight years in which science, reason, and evidence have been treated with disdain, when they weren't being ignored altogether, it's going to be a breath of fresh air.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Hilzoy

"There Is A Better Way"

Scott Horton has a really good interview with Matthew Alexander, the military interrogator whose interrogations helped the US locate and kill Zarqawi. Alexander's answers should put paid to the Ticking Time Bomb argument once and for all:

"In Iraq, we lived the "ticking time bomb" scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda's best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn't matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. (...)"

"I convinced the man who led us to Zarqawi to cooperate after only six hours of interrogation using a relationship-building approach. The old methods of interrogation had failed for twenty days to convince this man to cooperate. The American public has a right to know that they do not have to choose between torture and terror. There is a better way to conduct interrogations that works more efficiently, keeps Americans safe, and doesn't sacrifice our integrity. Our greatest victory to date in this war, the death of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (which saved thousands of lives and helped pave the way to the Sunni Awakening), was achieved using interrogation methods that had nothing to do with torture. The American people deserve to know that."

Torture: ineffective after twenty days. Relationship-building: effective in six hours. Also:

"The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The majority of suicide bombings are carried out by foreign fighters who volunteered and came to Iraq with this motivation. Consequently it is clear that at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics. Americans have died from terrorist attacks since 9/11; those Americans just happen to be American soldiers. This is not simply my view -- it is widely held among senior officers in the U.S. military today. Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "U.S. flag-rank officers maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat -- are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo." We owe it to our troops to protect them from terrorist attacks by not conducting torture and we owe it to our forefathers to uphold the American principles that they passed down to us."

Torture: blowback, costing lives. No torture: no blowback, so no such cost. Also: torture: requires selling soul. No torture: soul retained. And: torture: makes mockery of claim that our country has principles. No torture: our principles in action.

The choice between torture and no torture seems pretty obvious to me. It's a pity we have spent the last eight years being governed by people who are not just morally stunted but more interested in looking tough than in keeping the country safe. Contrast the quotes above, which come from someone who has actually been an interrogator, with Dick Cheney's latest musings on ethics:

""And I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do. If I was faced with those circumstances again I'd do exactly the same thing," Mr. Cheney said."

In just over a month, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will return to private life, and we'll never have to pay any attention to them again unless they are prosecuted for war crimes. That moment cannot come too quickly.

Hilzoy 2:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: Hilzoy

Random Cabinetry

I love this quote from Ezra:

"Word is that Congresswoman Hilda Solis is to be named Labor Secretary. I'd write a long post on this, and maybe I will later, but I think most of what I'd say is better expressed by the fact that Harold Meyerson just ran into my office doing everything but clicking his heels in the air."

I love this anecdote from Harold Meyerson even more:

"In 1996, when she was a back-bencher (and the first Latina) in the California State Senate, Hilda Solis did something that no other political figure I known of had done before, or has done since: She took money out of her own political account to fund a social justice campaign. Under California law, the state minimum wage is set by the gubernatorially-appointed Industrial Welfare Commission, and California's governors for the preceding 14 years, Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, hadn't exactly appointed members inclined to raise that wage. So Solis dipped into her own campaign treasury and came up with the money to fund the signature-gatherers to put a minimum wage hike initiative on the California ballot. The signature gatherers gathered the signatures, the measure was placed on the ballot, it passed handily in the next election, and California's low-wage janitors and gardeners and fry and taco cooks, and millions like them, got a significant raise."

Even if you don't like the minimum wage, you have to like a politician who's willing to spend money from her campaign account on a cause other than herself. I find that incredibly heartening.

The main reason for this post, though, is to give me an excuse to post this picture of Tom Vilsack dressed as the crocodile from Peter Pan:

Photobucket

He's dressed up this way for a literacy event hosted by his wife. I may not like his views on ethanol, but I do like anyone who is willing to look silly in a good cause. Far too few politicians are.

Hilzoy 2:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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December 18, 2008
By: Hilzoy

A Bad Rule

From the Washington Post:

"The Bush administration yesterday granted sweeping new protections to health workers who refuse to provide care that violates their personal beliefs, setting off an intense battle over opponents' plans to try to repeal the controversial measure. (...)

The far-reaching regulation cuts off federal funding for any state or local government, hospital, health plan, clinic or other entity that does not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other employees who refuse to participate in care they find ethically, morally or religiously objectionable. It was sought by conservative groups, abortion opponents and others to safeguard workers from being fired, disciplined or penalized in other ways.

The rule (pdf) covers not just employees who refuse to perform a medical procedure they find objectionable, but to those who refuse to refer people to others who do provide such services. It would, for instance, protect people who not only refuse to perform abortions themselves, but who refuse to tell their patients who else might provide one, where to get the morning-after pill, etc. (See p. 106.) And as the Post notes, it would prevent organizations whose mission is to provide a small set of services from "discriminating against" people who refuse to perform those very services. (E.g., Planned Parenthood can not "discriminate against" people who object to providing contraception, even though providing contraception is 38% of their services delivered.)

This is a wonderful rule for slackers, since it provides a legally protected way to get paid while doing no work at all. Here's the plan:

(1) Get an MD, and a job as a doctor.
(2) Become a Christian Scientist.
(3) Announce your religious objection to participating in any medical procedure, or to supporting such procedures in any way (e.g., by doing the other doctors' paperwork. This refusal would be protected under the rule.)
(4) When your employer protests, explain that your right to refuse to participate in any medical procedure at all is legally protected under this rule.

Voila: white-collar welfare! See how easy?

Seriously: I am all for employers trying to accommodate their employees' religious convictions, when they can do so without compromising (in the case of medical employers) either the care they provide or the interests of their patients. Thus, if one of thirty Ob/Gyns in a large hospital believed that it would be wrong for her to perform abortions, I think it would be great for that hospital to arrange for other doctors to perform any abortions that were required, while asking her to take up the slack in some other way.

But the qualification "when they can do so without compromising either the care they provide or the interests of their patients" is crucial. And there are very clear limits to this, limits that this rule does not respect. My imaginary Christian Scientist doctor was meant to point that out. But the idea that it should be illegal for Planned Parenthood clinics to take someone's willingness to offer contraceptive services into account in hiring decisions is almost as absurd as saying that they should not be able to take into account that person's being a Christian Scientist.

Moreover, being unwilling to refer patients to (for example) providers of abortion or contraception always compromises the interests of patients. Doctors are supposed to explain patients' alternatives to them, and to provide the relevant referrals. They are not supposed to mention only that subset of those alternatives that they approve of on non-medical grounds -- grounds their patient might or might not agree with. The decision whether or not to have an abortion, to go on the pill, etc., is the patient's, not the doctor's. Keeping patients in the dark about those alternatives, or refusing to tell them how to obtain them, is paternalistic, and it's wrong. If a doctor doesn't want to provide such referrals, she should have gone into ophthalmology.

It's an odious rule. Luckily, as Steve noted yesterday, it probably won't last very long.

Hilzoy 9:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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

* Yet another rough day on Wall Street, with the Dow falling more than 200 points, and the other major indexes down about 2% each.

* The Bush administration is considering an "orderly" bankruptcy for the ailing U.S. auto manufacturers.

* The news comes on the heels of Chrysler announcing its plans to shut down production at its 30 U.S. factories for at least a month, starting tomorrow.

* The Maliki government, reportedly breaking up a possible coup attempt, arrested dozens of officials from Iraq's Ministry of the Interior yesterday, including four generals. Was Maliki simply getting political rivals out of the way?

* Muntader al-Zaidi, the infamous shoe-hurler, apologized to Maliki in writing yesterday and asked for leniency.

* Chuck Todd will be the new chief White House correspondent for NBC News. Todd is generally a very sharp and knowledgeable political analyst, but is he a beat reporter?

* Don't look now, but Al Franken's chances for success look pretty good.

* Obama held a press conference earlier, and there wasn't a single question about Blagojevich. Good.

* Howard Dean deserves a really good job somewhere.

* Will the NYT give Kristol a contract extension?

* R.I.P, Majel Barrett Roddenberry.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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FILLING THE CABINET.... With Barack Obama preparing to head out of town for a Christmas vacation this weekend, it looks like the transition team is putting the finishing touches on the remaining cabinet vacancies. Believe it or not, we're just about done with the entire list.

We talked earlier about Rep. Hilda Solis of California becoming the next Secretary Labor, but there have been quite a few announcements, and a few related rumors, over the last 24 hours.

* Mary Schapiro will be the chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

* Rep. Ray LaHood will be the next Transportation Secretary (and the second Republican in the cabinet).

* Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk is likely to be the next U.S. Trade Representative, which is a cabinet-level position.

* Retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair appears poised to become the next Director of National Intelligence.

* Gary Gensler will head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, while Daniel Tarullo will fill the open seat on the Federal Reserve board in Washington.

* Physicist John Holdren, an international expert on energy and climate, will be Obama's science adviser.

That fills every position in the entire cabinet except the CIA director.

I don't have anything especially interesting to say about this; I just thought I'd update the record.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ACCOUNTABILITY WATCH.... It's not my intention to belabor the argument about Rick Warren giving the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration, but the topic has prompted some good discussion. For that matter, I've received a whole lot of good emails about this, many of which disagree with my conclusion, so I thought I'd summarize some of the more compelling arguments I've seen from readers who think I'm wrong.

* Lowery matters more: Sure, Warren is giving the invocation, but the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who's a brilliant progressive and champion of the civil rights era, is giving the benediction. And since the benediction comes at the end, and is longer than the invocation, Lowery's role trumps Warren's.

That's not a bad argument, I suppose, but one great pastor doesn't justify inviting one offensive pastor.

* I'm getting the validation backwards: Obama isn't validating Warren by extending this invitation, Warren is validating Obama by accepting it. And since Warren has millions of evangelical supporters, his "endorsement" will benefit Obama more in the long run.

Maybe, but doesn't that validation vanish when Warren starts criticizing Obama's policy agenda after the inauguration?

* Symbolism is just symbolism: Obama is the strongest supporter of gay rights in presidential history, and he's poised to make sweeping reversals to Bush-era restrictions on reproductive rights and family planning. Warren's invocation is easily-forgotten trivia by comparison -- it's the substance that matters.

That's not a bad argument, either. I guess one either finds symbolism important or one doesn't, but given the last 24 hours, it seems like a lot of people think it matters.

* Warren's bad, but he's not that bad: On the evangelical spectrum, Warren isn't especially radical, and his emphasis on poverty and international relief puts some important distance between him and religious right clowns like Robertson and Falwell. It's unfair to argue they're indistinguishable.

True, but even Warren has conceded the difference is one of "tone." When it comes to specific policy disputes, he agrees with Robertson and Falwell pretty much across the board. He's perceived as being more moderate, because he's less likely than the religious right leaders to demonize his "opponents," but that's largely the result of effective public relations.

* This is the wrong fight: The real problem isn't with who will give the invocation, but rather, the fact that there's going to be an invocation in the first place. We had 144 years of presidential inaugurations, dating back to George Washington, in which there was no invocation and no benediction. This shouldn't be a fight over which pastor delivers the prayer; this should be a fight over the official prayer itself.

I admit, I had overlooked this angle. This train has probably left the station, but it's a fair point.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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AN OPENLY GAY MAN AS SECRETARY OF THE NAVY?.... Well, this would probably raise a few eyebrows.

Some top retired military leaders and some Democrats in Congress are backing William White, chief operating officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, to be the next secretary of the Navy -- a move that would put the first openly gay person at the top of one of the services.

The secretary's job is a civilian position, so it would not run afoul of the ban on gays serving in the military, but it would renew focus on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office.

"He would be phenomenal," said retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, pointing to Mr. White's extensive background as a fundraiser for veterans' and military causes.

Retired members of the Joint Chiefs have contacted Mr. Obama's transition team to urge them to pick Mr. White, and members of Congress said he would be a good choice for a service secretary. [...]

Gen. Shelton called Mr. White's work at both the Intrepid Museum and the Fisher House Foundation "legendary."

"He has always been a staunch advocate of our men and women in uniform," Gen. Shelton said.

The Fisher House Foundation, which White has devoted considerable time to, offers a place to stay so families can be close to military members who are receiving medical care.

Having an openly gay person serve as the Secretary of the Navy would almost certainly drive conservative Republicans in Congress to apoplexy, and White's lack of military experience -- service is not an option given his sexual orientation -- would no doubt raise questions.

But retired Gen. Hugh Shelton knows a little something about qualifications in this area, and if he thinks White would be "phenomenal," that would carry quite a bit of weight, on the Hill and at the Pentagon.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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GIVE THE GUY A GOLDEN PARACHUTE.... As long as Rod Blagojevich is the governor of Illinois, the state's political system is effectively halted. What's more, the avenues for resolution appear blocked -- Blagojevich apparently isn't going to resign, the Supreme Court isn't going to oust him, and impeachment is off to a rather slow start. There's also no progress at all with filling Illinois' vacant Senate seat -- the governor knows he can't appoint someone, and there's waning support for a special election.

Something has to budge, and it starts with a change at the top. But how to get rid of a governor who wants to stick around? Eric Kleefeld directs our attention to a very outside-the-box idea from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, who suggests the people of Illinois "steal a page from the governor."

Just how much money do you think it would take to persuade Blagojevich to get the bleep out of the way?

I'm serious. Big corporations do it all the time. They've got a screw-up executive in the way, and they need to make a change. To save time and trouble, they pay him to get lost. It could be worth a try.

I assume Brown isn't really serious, but it's hard not to admire just how clever this idea is.

Reading the criminal complaint against Blagojevich, and going through the text of the recorded conversations, it's obvious the governor wants a lot of money ... in his bank account ... sooner rather than later. When he's recorded saying, "I want to make money," his motivations aren't exactly cryptic.

Indeed, while trying to figure out how to cash in on the Senate vacancy, Blagojevich describes a scenario in which he could become the head of some progressive organization that would -- you guessed it -- pay him a lot of money.

With this in mind, if Illinois wants to get rid of Blagojevich, Illinois would have to give him what he wants. Apparently, that's cash.

Now, paying the governor to go away is obviously not a realistic scenario. But as outside-the-box thinking goes, I like it.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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HILDA SOLIS TO LABOR.... Various names have been rumored, but it appears that our next Labor Secretary will be Rep. Hilda Solis.

A labor official says Rep. Hilda Solis of California will be nominated as labor secretary by President-elect Barack Obama.

The Democratic congresswoman was just elected to her fifth term representing heavily Hispanic portions of eastern Los Angeles County and east L.A. She is the daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants and has been the only member of Congress of Central American descent.

I'm only vaguely familiar with Solis' background, but a quick look around the tubes suggests she's well suited for the job, and her nomination will be a big win for unions. (The transition office was, by the way, under increasing pressure on increased cabinet diversity, and Holis, as a Latina woman, helps. If my count is right, she's the fifth woman and the third Hispanic official to join Obama's team.)

Seyward Darby notes, for example, that Holis has described herself as a "daughter of a union family," co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act in the 110th Congress, and earned a 100% rating from the AFL-CIO last year.

For more, take a look at Holis' EFCA speech on the House floor, and her position page on labor issues from her campaign website, which shows her taking a strong pro-union message on pretty much every issue important to labor.

We haven't heard too much lately about the lack of genuine, unapologetic liberals in Obama's cabinet, but for those who've been worried about ideological diversity on the president-elect's team, Holis should make progressives feel pretty good.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE OTHER SIDE ISN'T HAPPY EITHER.... One need not look too hard to find someone on the left who's upset about Rick Warren delivering the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration. But as it happens, liberals aren't the only one who are upset by the news.

In an interesting twist, plenty of conservatives are mad, not at Obama for inviting Warren, but at Warren for accepting the invitation.

David Brody, a correspondent for TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, reported today that he's been "flooded with emails and most of them absolutely rip Pastor Warren for doing this."

Brody doesn't seem to share their concerns -- he asks, "Why can't a pro-life pastor pray for a pro-choice candidate?" -- but he republished a variety of the angry emails. This one stood out:

"Unless Rick Warren has changed, he is very disappointing in the pro-life cause. Just ask pro-life leaders their opinion. He doesn't like to deal with it at his church. It just seems funny that he is known as 'pro-life' when he largely ignores the subject and teaches others to do the same. I fear God for these 'men of God'. We have lost 50 million babies, and most won't say a word. Reminds me of Nazi Germany or our slavery days. Very few spoke out. It was more comfortable to keep quiet."

Here's another:

"I have had about all I can stand of Rick Warren's double standards. WHOSE side is he really on anyway? I'm beginning to think all he cares about are his questionable political connections. When I saw your article announcing his participation in "that one's" so called inauguration ceremony it absolutely sickened me. It isn't enough Obama is so full of himself that he "thinks" he's God. - Apparently now Rick Warren believes he is too. This is a complete mockery of all things sacred."

We can now expect the inevitable onslaught of reports indicating that "extremists on both sides" have expressed concerns about Warren's role at the inauguration.

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OBAMA ADDRESSES WARREN CONTROVERSY.... At a press conference this morning, a reporter asked Barack Obama about the invitation to Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Obama seemed aware of the controversy, and his answer reflected some forethought. Based on my transcription, here's his response in its entirety:

"Well, let me start by talking about my own views. I think it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.

"What I've also said is that it is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues. And I would note that a couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion.

"Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialog, I think, is a part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're never going to agree on every single issue. But what we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans. So Rick Warren has been invited to speak, Dr. Joseph Lowery -- who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren on a whole host of issues -- is also speaking.

"During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented -- and that how it should be, because that's what America's about, that's a part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. So, that's the spirit in which we have put together what I think will be a terrific inauguration, and that's hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration."

This certainly sounds reasonable. Obama wants to bring people together and focus on what unites Americans. He supports gay rights, but he's willing to engage prominent figures like Rick Warren, even though they disagree. Indeed, Warren reached out to him in 2006, and now Obama, as a sign of respect, is doing the same thing in return. It's a symbolic gesture about inclusiveness and the importance of diversity of thought.

I get it. In fact, it's a noble and admirable goal. But Warren is still the wrong choice for the inauguration.

Consider it this way: imagine the Obama White House were to host an inter-faith dialog on the great moral issues of the day. President Obama and his team want a lively discussion with a variety of competing ideas, and invite a wide variety of pastors, including Warren, to participate. There may be some who would say this is wrong -- that Warren's conservative believes should necessarily disqualify him from being invited to the White House. If, under those circumstances, Obama responded by saying, "There are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented -- and that how it should be, because that's what America's about," I would agree without hesitation.

But that's not what we're talking about here. There's only going to be one invocation at Obama's inauguration, and it will be delivered be a conservative who strongly disagrees with Obama on gay rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and modern science. I'm a huge fan of diversity of thought, and if Obama and Warren want to have a spirited dialog, I'd no doubt find it fascinating. But this is obviously different.

Indeed, in Obama's response this morning, he seemed to suggest he was returning a favor -- Warren invited him to speak at his church, so Obama is inviting him to speak at his inauguration. The problem, of course, is that the two are in no way comparable.

I'm afraid Obama's decision, at its core, is ironic. In the name of tolerance, he's elevating someone who's intolerant. In the name of acceptance, he's extending an imprimatur to someone who refuses to accept those unlike himself.

I'm reluctant to make too big a deal about this. As I argued this morning, it's a symbolic gesture, which will likely have no substantive effect whatsoever. But that doesn't change the fact that it's a mistake.

Update: Greg Sargent has the video of Obama's comments this morning.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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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.

* This morning, Bill Clinton published a list of his foundation's financial supporters. There are more than 200,000 donors listed, and the materials were released as part of an arrangement to remove concerns about potential conflicts of interest if Hillary Rodham Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State.

* Incoming NRSC chairman John Cornyn is demanding that there be a special election in Illinois to fill its Senate vacancy.

* A Siena College poll in New York shows state attorney general Andrew Cuomo as the top choice to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, with Caroline Kennedy close behind.

* On a related note, Liz Moynihan, the widow of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, endorsed Kennedy yesterday.

* Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas will announce today that he will not seek re-election in 2010. This does not come as a surprise, given that Brownback has been gearing up for a gubernatorial campaign for quite a while.

* Rod Blagojevich's attorney said yesterday that the impeachment process against his client is "illegal," telling the 21 members of a special Illinois House impeachment committee, "The evidence you have is nil, zero, nothing."

* After a very long wait, far-right Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) conceded defeat yesterday, officially resolving the only outstanding U.S. House race. For the record, Democrats went +24 for the cycle, and the next House will have 257 Dems to 178 Republicans.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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FORCING PATERSON'S HAND?.... It's tempting to say Caroline Kennedy was "campaigning" in upstate New York yesterday, but that's probably the wrong word. At this point, there isn't an election, per se, but rather one voter who'll make one decision, in private, whenever he wants.

That said, while kinda sorta on the campaign trail, Kennedy said something interesting yesterday.

In her first visit to Rochester, U.S. Senate hopeful Caroline Kennedy met Wednesday with Mayor Robert Duffy and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, asking questions about upstate but not asking for an endorsement. [...]

"It's my first time in Rochester, but I'll be back as many times as Chuck Schumer," Kennedy said, referring to New York's other Democratic senator, who coincidentally also stopped in Rochester on Wednesday.

Asked whether she would run for the office if Gov. David Paterson doesn't appoint her, she replied: "Absolutely."

Maybe there was some additional context, but if that's right, it's an interesting development.

Paterson will fill the vacancy, and in two years, there will be a special election to finish out Hillary Clinton's term. Presumably, the governor wants a Democrat who'll do well in the Senate for two years and then win in 2010.

But if Caroline Kennedy is "absolutely" going to run for the seat in 2010, it puts Paterson in an awkward position, doesn't it? It leaves him with three choices: pick Kennedy, pick a placeholder who'll step aside in two years, or pick someone who'll face a primary challenge from Kennedy.

It's unclear if this was part of a deliberate strategy, but I wonder if Caroline Kennedy is trying to force Paterson's hand -- and how he might react to this.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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AN INCREASINGLY AMBITIOUS STIMULUS.... Way back in the midst of the presidential campaign -- seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? -- Barack Obama talked about a $175 billion stimulus package. As the economy continued to deteriorate, the talked-about figure became $500 billion.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal had an item pegging the package at starting somewhere between $600 billion and $700 billion. Today, the AP eyes an even bigger number.

President-elect Barack Obama is laying the groundwork for a giant economic stimulus package, possibly $850 billion over two years, in his first test of legislative give and take with Congress.

Obama's economic advisers are assembling a recovery plan and reaching out to members of Congress and their staffs. Obama aides cautioned that they have not settled on a specific grand total. But they noted that economists from across the political spectrum have recommended spending similar or even larger amounts to jolt the worsening economy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week said Democrats were preparing their own recovery bill in the range of $600 billion, blending immediate steps to counter the slumping economy with longer-term federal spending that encompasses Obama's plan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that Obama has indicated that Congress will get his recovery recommendations by the first of the year.

"He's going to get that to us very quickly, and so we would hope within the first 10 days to two weeks that he's in office, that is after Jan. 20, that we could pass the stimulus plan," Reid said. "We want to do it very quickly."

The speed certainly matters, but the size of the stimulus plan is of equal, if not greater, significance. I've heard rumors that the number, which is growing with each passing week, isn't done, and that some of the experts with the transition team's ear are thinking about an even bigger rescue plan.

The problem, oddly enough, may be the challenge of spending $1 trillion very quickly. There are only so many "shovel ready" projects, waiting for the green light.

Nevertheless, I frequently refer back to Paul Krugman's recent item on the necessity of a stimulus package: "My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It's much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little."

Steve Benen 10:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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NO SOUL COMPROMISING NECESSARY.... George W. Bush will, from time to time, comment on his remarkable unpopularity. His responses always seem so odd.

President George W. Bush knows he's unpopular. But here's what matters, he says: "I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy." In a wide-ranging interview with Fox News Channel, Bush also praised the national security team assembled by President-elect Barack Obama, offered hope to U.S. automakers seeking government assistance and said the people of Illinois will have to sort out allegations that Gov. Rod Blagojevich sought kickbacks in choosing a successor for Obama's Senate seat.

Bush said presidents fail when they make decisions based on opinion polls.

"Look, everybody likes to be popular," said Bush.

"What do you expect? We've got a major economic problem and I'm the president during the major economic problem. I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. ... I've been a wartime president. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

Bush really does seem to think this is an either/or situation -- he could either do things that would make a popular president with broad support from Americans, or he could maintain the integrity of his "soul." Those, as far as he's concerned, are his choices.

But this is foolish. On the one hand, he "compromised" his "soul" plenty of times, supporting policies -- such as the financial industry bailout -- that completely contradict the philosophical principles he holds dear.

On the other hand, Bush seems to think Americans have been demanding that he "compromise" his "soul" to coincide with public whims. This, of course, is nonsense. For years, most voters have effectively been looking for little more than basic competence from their president. When Bush failed to meet even this low standard, his disapproval numbers soared.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Bush doesn't understand this, but it never ceases to amaze me.

Steve Benen 10:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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PAUL WEYRICH DIES AT AGE 66.... I didn't share his politics and couldn't relate to his worldview, but it's impossible to ignore the impact Paul Weyrich had on the conservative movement.

Paul M. Weyrich, 66, who helped found the Heritage Foundation and at one time was one of Washington's most visible conservatives, died this morning. At his death, he was president and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

Heritage announced this morning: "Paul M. Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation and first president of The Heritage Foundation, died this morning around 1 a.m. He was 66 years old. Weyrich was a good friend to many of us at Heritage, a true leader and a man of unbending principle. He won Heritage's prestigious Clare Boothe Luce Award in 2005. Weyrich will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, including son Steve, who currently works at Heritage."

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform wrote this tribute: "Paul Weyrich created institutions and networks that incubated new and old powerful policies and strategies to advance liberty. ... He brought leaders of various freedom impulses together. Most of the successes of the Conservative movement since the 1970s flowed from structures, organizations, and coalitions he started, created or nurtured. Paul also lived a balanced life with work, family and his faith. We will miss his puns and wisdom and hard work."

Norquist's point about Weyrich's institutions is absolutely right. Weyrich passed while serving as the chairman of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, but more importantly, he was a pioneer for far-right conservatives, having helped create both the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation.

In an age when some powerful conservative activists would occasionally trade principles for access, Weyrich took his ideology seriously, and refused to waver. This, to his credit, led him to help create a group called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, which condemned the Bush administration's warrantless-surveillance program as an example of big government run amok.

That said, Weyrich's far-right ideology was also unquestioned. He helped create the Arlington Group, which pushed a very conservative social agenda, and accepted a religious right worldview that was so rigid, Weyrich publicly speculated a few years ago that God personally wanted Ken Blackwell to be Ohio's Secretary of State in 2004 so as to help Bush win a second term.

No one ever mistook Weyrich as a moderate. That was just the way he liked it.

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

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BUSH V. GORE CONTINUES TO HAUNT.... The Mess in Minnesota just keeps getting stranger.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman went before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to block improperly rejected absentee ballots from Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount, with his lawyer warning that justices must act to prevent a repeat of the tortured 2000 Bush-Gore impasse.

"With the best of intentions, this could become Florida 2008," attorney Roger Magnuson told the court, saying it would be improper to add votes not counted on Election Day.

The argument drew stern words from Justice Paul Anderson.

"This is not Florida," Anderson said. "I don't appreciate the comparison."

I can't say I blame him. But keep in mind, Coleman's lawyers aren't using the Fiasco in Florida from eight years ago as a disaster to avoid, they're using it as a template for their current arguments. As Kevin explained last night, Coleman hopes to stop vote counting "by using Bush v. Gore as precedent for an Equal Protection Clause claim," the same Bush v. Gore decision "that was so contrary to previous conservative opinion that the court specifically (and to considerable mockery) stated that 'Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances.'"

For what it's worth, every time Coleman and his legal team go to court, their arguments seem to be rejected. Yesterday, the jurists on the Minnesota Supreme Court seemed especially unimpressed.

With that in mind, today should be a fairly consequential day. The state canvassing board, which had hoped to wrap up business by Friday, will meet to consider a series of ballot challenges by the Coleman camp, while the state Supreme Court will issue its opinion on Coleman's lawsuit to stop the counting of improperly discarded absentee ballots. A decision against Coleman makes the likelihood of an Al Franken victory quite strong.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NO LOVE FOR LIEBERMAN.... About a month ago, Senate Democrats made it abundantly clear that they're not angry with Joe Lieberman for his campaign antics throughout the year. Lieberman's constituents, however, are far more peeved.

A new Quinnipiac poll shows Lieberman's approval rating tanking after voters watched their independent senator act like a Republican attack dog for the better part of 2008.

Lieberman ... had the approval of 38 percent and the disapproval of 54 percent of voters.

The rating was the worst of any senator in a Quinnipiac poll since Robert Torricelli of New Jersey was forced to resign in 2002.

Jed added, "The Q-Poll's numbers reflect Lieberman's abysmal showing in last month's Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos, which showed Lieberman with a 36/61 approval rating. In that poll, 48% said they would definitely vote to replace Lieberman, and another 18% said they'd consider replacing him."

Of course, Lieberman won't seek re-election again until 2012, so he'll have quite a bit of time to impress his voters -- if he wants to.

For what it's worth, the Democratic State Central Committee in Connecticut met last night to consider a formal rebuke of Lieberman for his campaign efforts this year. Committee members voted to "send a letter admonishing Lieberman," but decided against a formal resolution chastising him for his conduct.

That'll show him.

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WARREN, REDUX.... After having had a chance to sleep on it, does Barack Obama's decision to invite Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his presidential inauguration look any better? Actually, no. I'm probably even more annoyed about it now than I was yesterday.

That said, I've been curious to see what others have come up with as a defense. I suppose, to borrow Rachel Maddow's phrase, I want someone to "talk me down."

Over at TNR, Damon Linker considers the invitation "shrewd."

Warren is beloved by mainstream evangelicals, who have helped him to sell millions of books extolling a fairly anodyne form of American Protestantism. (Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell he is not.) It is in Obama's interest (and the Democrats') to peel as many moderate evangelicals away from the GOP as he can. Giving Warren such a prominent (but purely symbolic) place in the inauguration is a politically cost-free way of furthering this partisan agenda.

That's not a bad pitch, but I'm not persuaded. Warren's theology is offered in soothing tones, but it's hardly "anodyne" -- Warren's worldview is very conservative on gay rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and modern science. He's not exactly of Dobson's ilk, but the difference is one of tenor and emphasis -- they agree on most issues.

The notion of peeling off moderate evangelicals from the GOP is compelling, but is there any evidence to suggest Warren's invocation is going to make a difference in that capacity? Obama did fairly well among moderate evangelicals, especially younger ones, on Election Day, and the courtship could have continued apace with an invocation from a religious leader who actually shares Obama's worldview.

Indeed, I wonder if Linker has this backwards. When Obama advances a progressive agenda on social issues, as he's certain to do, Warren will continue to speak out on the other side -- only now, he'll do so with the added authority that comes with being the president's hand-chosen pastor for the inauguration's invocation. Warren's status will soar, and his criticism of Obama's policies -- or Democrats' in general -- will resonate that much louder.

That's not "cost-free"; it's the opposite.

Linker noted that Warren's role is "purely symbolic," and this much is clearly true. Indeed, John Cole made a compelling case on this, arguing, "I would much rather have Warren given a few minutes to speak about religion at a time and manner appropriate for religious discussion than I would having Obama give a nod to the religious right by appointing the God squad to Justice, to the FDA, to NASA, and so on. When Rick Warren and folks like him are driving policy in an Obama administration, I will then muster the necessary outrage. So while not my first choice, not a big deal. Let him speak for a few minutes and be done with them."

Perhaps. If there was any reason at all to think Warren's invocation carried with it policy implications for the Obama administration, it would be far more serious. In fact, I suspect Warren will get a very high-profile role on Jan. 20, but have no meaningful influence at the White House on Jan. 21.

Nevertheless, even if it is symbolism, the Warren choice strikes me as Obama's biggest mistake since the election. He's elevating a conservative religious leader to new heights, giving him stature and credibility, and making his far-right message that much more meaningful when he challenges Obama administration policies in the future.

It's all risk, no reward.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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December 17, 2008

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

* The major Wall Street indexes finished down about 1% each.

* The shoe-throwing incident seems to sparked all kinds of political turmoil in Baghdad, including the resignation of Parliament's Speaker.

* Speaking of Iraq, Blackwater may be finished in the country.

* OPEC is really cutting back on production, but prices keep dropping anyway.

* Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) was considered the likely pick for U.S. Trade Representative in the Obama administration, but he's passed up the chance and will stay in the House.

* At some point, I sincerely hope Bush White House officials learn not to say, "No one could have anticipated." It's just embarrassing -- for all of us.

* Republicans want to go after Holder for supporting the Brady Bill? These guys do not wear desperation well.

* Sarah Palin's friends on the Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission want to help give her a generous raise.

* When it comes to corruption convictions per 100,000 residents, the four worst states in the union are in the Bible Belt: Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Alabama.

* As the recession gets worse, welfare rolls are surging for the first time since the '96 reform effort.

* Great line from my friend Melissa: "[I]f you want to be a parent, you're better off being a gay male penguin in China than a gay male human in Arkansas."

* Didn't Giuliani already have a radio show?

* Congratulations to Sean Hannity for winning Media Matters' "2008 Misinformer of the Year" award. On second thought, maybe "award" is the wrong word.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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REVERSING BUSH ON ABORTION RIGHTS.... It's unclear exactly what will take immediate priority on Barack Obama's to-do list after his inauguration, but it seems clear that Americans won't have to wait too long before seeing progress on issues relating to science, health, and reproductive rights.

This includes undoing Bush's "right of conscience" regulation, which has not yet been finalized, but it goes further. The Wall Street Journal reports that Obama is closely reviewing reproductive-health issues, identifying Bush measures in need of reversals.

On abortion and related matters, action is expected early on executive, regulatory, budgetary and legislative fronts.

Decisions that the new administration will weigh include: whether to cut funding for sexual abstinence programs; whether to increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include discussion of birth control; whether to allow federal health plans to pay for abortions; and whether to overturn regulations such as one that makes fetuses eligible for health-care coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Women's health advocates are also pushing for a change in rules that would lower the cost of birth control at college health clinics.

The reversal on research using embryonic stem cells should come fairly quickly in the new administration, and expect early action on dropping the "global gag rule" and restoring federal funding for family planning to the United Nations Population Fund (which is way overdue).

Action on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, is probably less likely. The right is gearing up for it -- Family Research Council considers it the "No. 1 concern" -- but abortion-rights supporters are directing their attention elsewhere. The WSJ noted, "A coalition of nearly 60 liberal and women's groups submitted a list of 15 requests for action in the Obama administration's first 100 days, and FOCA isn't on the list."

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT WON'T OUST BLAGOJEVICH.... This was a bit of a long shot anyway.

The Illinois Supreme Court has refused to hear a challenge to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's fitness to hold office.

A spokesman said Wednesday that the court rejected the challenge without comment.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan had argued Blagojevich's legal and political troubles are keeping him from performing his duties. He has been charged with seeking kickbacks in choosing a successor for President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.

Madigan was stretching the spirit of the law to creative lengths. An obscure Illinois Supreme Court rule says the seven justices can oust a sitting governor if he/she is deemed unfit for office. Madigan argued that Blagojevich's scandal has effectively become a practical disability, leaving him unable to serve.

The Illinois Supreme Court wasn't going for it.

As a result, Blagojevich's future seems to boil down to three possibilities: impeachment, resignation, and criminal conviction. Which is the most likely? At this point, your guess is as good as mine.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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K STREET'S DR. EVIL.... Last week, when Senate Republicans blocked a rescue package for the U.S. automotive industry, an internal party memo said it was the "first shot against organized labor."

It seems likely that Rick Berman will fire the second shot. Not that Rick Berman, this Rick Berman.

Meet the fine fellow who will be the number one foe of the big unions as they try to pass their number one legislative priority next year: He's a D.C. cartoon villain business lobbyist who fights efforts to restrict drunk driving, mandate healthier foods, and, of course, to hike the minimum wage.

He's Rick Berman, a notorious and familiar figure in D.C. who has spent years lobbying for business interests, many of them in the food and restaurant industries, and has been called everything from "sleazy" to "Dr. Evil" by his enemies.

We're introducing you to Berman because he is going to be at the center of one of the biggest looming fights in Washington this spring: The battle between business and labor over the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize and is labor's number one legislative goal.

Berman runs a group called the "Center for Union Facts," which bills itself as a union watchdog organization but is described as a front group for business interests by labor officials. The group, which doesn't disclose its donors, will be one of several key business and right-wing groups leading the charge to kill the Employee Free Choice Act.

Berman himself has vowed to raise some $30 million to fund various efforts to battle it. The other day his group took out a full page ad in The New York Times showcasing the new strategy being employed by the Act's opponents: Use the Blagojevich scandal and SEIU's contacts with the Blago camp to smear unions and portray the Act itself as some kind of payoff from Dems being demanded by Big Bad Labor.

If you're thinking this is going to get ugly, we're on the same page.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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WARREN TO GIVE INVOCATION.... Barack Obama is, for the time being, a man without a pastor of his own, so we knew he'd have to turn to someone else to deliver the invocation at his presidential inauguration. Unfortunately, Obama has chosen Rick Warren.

Dr. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church will give the formal invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration. The good pro-life theologian first met Obama in 2006 at a Saddleback AIDS forum in California. Obama used the occasion to press the evangelical pastors present to embrace "realism" when they considered the issue; preach abstinence, yes, but preaching against contraception can kill. (Here's some of what Obama said that day: "I know that there are those who, out of sincere religious conviction, oppose such measures. And with these folks, I must respectfully but unequivocally disagree. I do not accept the notion that those who make mistakes in their lives should be given an effective death sentence.")

When I interviewed Obama last year, he told me that the moment was integral to his decision to run for president; when was the last time, he had asked himself, when a Democrat had had such dialog with pastors about AIDS?

This is not too big a surprise, but it is disappointing. Obama and Warren have been friends for some time, and Obama accepted an invitation to appear at Saddleback's presidential forum over the summer.

Not too long ago, CNN labeled Warren "America's Pastor," so this, coupled with his friendship with Obama, made it fairly likely that he'd be considered for a Billy-Graham-like role at the inauguration.

So why is it disappointing? Because, while Warren is certainly more tolerant of discussion than activist leaders like Dobson and Robertson, his beliefs run counter to Obama's on most of the major social issues of the day. Warren is opposed, on religious grounds, to abortion rights, gay rights, stem-cell research, and euthanasia. In 2004, he described these issues as "nonnegotiable" and "not even debatable."

What's more, just this month, Warren supported* Prop. 8 in California for absurd reasons, and offered an incoherent theological rationale to Sean Hannity's assertion that the United States needs to "take out" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He is, in other words, hardly the ideal choice for the invocation.

I wouldn't read too much into it -- this is hardly evidence that Obama is going to be more conservative on social issues, for example -- but it's a genuine shame Obama didn't call on a more progressive religious voice for the event.

Update: A reader reminds me that Warren was a featured guest at the Clinton Global Initiative, which I'd forgotten about. It reinforces, I suppose, the notion that Warren is positioned as some kind of go-to pastor for major political events. Still, there are a lot of progressive pastors out there, and Obama could have picked one of them.

* corrected

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ARNE DUNCAN AND THE 'GAY HIGH SCHOOL'.... When Arne Duncan's nomination to head the Department of Education is considered, the most likely political dispute will have nothing to do with testing, merit pay, or charter schools. Instead, we're probably going to hear a fair amount of complaints about the Social Justice Solidarity High School.

...Duncan's openness to new ideas caused a stir in Chicago just last month when he proposed a high school designed for gay students. Aimed at keeping students from being bullied and ostracized, Duncan pitched the idea of an explicitly gay-friendly school, where half of the students were expected to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The proposal met with misgivings from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley -- traditionally an advocate for gay and lesbian issues -- as well as ministers, gay activists and social conservatives opposed to segregating gay students.

As the school board's Nov. 18 vote approached, designers of the Social Justice Solidarity High School tried to broaden its mission, pitching the campus as a refuge for bullied youths in general and removing references to sexual orientation in the proposal. But they withdrew their proposal at the last minute, pledging to return with another version of the plan in time for an opening in the fall of 2010.

David Brody, a correspondent for TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, argued on his blog yesterday that Duncan has been "pushing for Chicago to start their first gay high school." Brody added that Obama is "going to get a lot of flack over this pick from social conservative groups" and conservative Republicans in the Senate are likely to "raise a fuss," because it gives the impression that Obama wants "wild liberals" in his cabinet.

The school in question was not designed exclusively for gay students, but rather, would "cater" to gay students who felt alienated or intimidated at their traditional school. Duncan liked the idea as a way to respond to the growing dropout rate among GLBT students (a study in Chicago in 2003 found that gay students are three times more likely to miss school because they didn't feel safe).

Now, there are some pertinent details that Brody neglected to mention. For example, the idea for the school was "watered-down considerably after a meeting between Duncan and evangelical ministers," and school organizers ultimately withdrew from consideration.

Nevertheless, if the right wants to target Eric Holder over the Elian Gonzales story, then it stands to reason that conservatives will be fired up over Duncan's interest in a high school that offered a welcome environment for students who were made to feel like pariahs elsewhere.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE RNC'S THINK TANK.... I've argued a few times since the election that the Republican Party's intellectual bankruptcy compounds its electoral problems. The race to be the "party of ideas" is over; the GOP lost. When one of the top House Republican leaders wrote about the policy vision for the party's future, and listed three failed ideas from the '90s, it only helped reinforce the point this is a party lacking in substance and policy direction.

It appears that the party is at least aware of the problem (and admitting you have a problem is the first step). Ben Smith reports that the Republican National Committee is "building a new, in-house think tank aimed at reviving the party's policy heft."

The think tank will be called the Center for Republican Renewal, and it has been mentioned as part of RNC Chairman Mike Duncan's platform for reelection, but was begun shortly after the election as a new RNC office, separate from the campaign, a Republican official said.

Though Washington has many conservative think tanks, many inside the party and the conservative movement viewed November's failures as, in part, a product of stale ideas, and like the Democrats after 2000, some in the GOP have called for a revival of the conservative intellectual infrastructure.

This does not, at first blush, sound ridiculous. The party has gone years without a policy agenda, spending the last two campaign cycles in particular telling voters that they essentially just want to stop Democratic ideas. If the Center for Republican Renewal wants to craft a few ideas, and engage in a substantive policy discussion, it'd be a step in the right direction.

But I'd argue that this is a two-step process for the GOP: 1) decide that policy matters; and 2) actually come up with some policies that make sense and that voters might like. Republicans have, apparently, started to slowly come to terms with the prior -- as opposed to, say, bashing policy experts as pointy-headed elitists to be ignored -- but the latter is likely to be very difficult for them.

Why? Because their ideology puts them in a box. They want less taxes, less spending, and less government, which in turns leaves few options for innovation. Healthcare? People already have too much insurance. Global warming? If it's real, let the free market handle it. Energy? Tell Exxon/Mobil to just keep drilling. Recession? Let's have less capital in the system by cutting government spending.

Republicans are still brimming with ideas when it comes to the culture war -- I can hardly wait for the next vote on flag burning -- but they're tired ideas that even the far-right base finds dull.

To be fair, I think the party does have some genuine policy goals in key areas, but they're burdened by the fact that no one actually likes them. The party would love, for example, to privatize public schools and Social Security, but these are awful ideas that voters hate.

So what on earth can the Center for Republican Renewal do? I'm at a loss. So, I suspect, is the RNC.

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

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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.

* Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) for Secretary of Transportation?

* ABC News reports that Rod Blagojevich will "likely hold a press conference toward the end of this week."

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not only likes the idea of Caroline Kennedy joining the Senate, he conceded yesterday that he's lobbied the governor of New York on the issue. As to her background, Reid said Kennedy has "lived in government and politics her whole life."

* On a related note, Kennedy will reportedly head upstate today, visiting Buffalo, Rochester, Tonawanda, and North Tonawanda, and participating in a series of private meetings with local officials.

* The mess in Minnesota: "The Coleman campaign suddenly indicated that it wants to bring back some of their challenges that they'd previously withdrawn -- a development that will probably drag out this process well past the board's original goal of finishing by Friday."

* Sarah Palin's Wasilla Bible Church really does take a radically right-wing view when it comes to homosexuality.

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

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FAIRNESS DOCTRINE, REDUX.... This will probably cause some far-right heartburn, and will no doubt serve as the basis for countless conservative fundraising letters, but it's very likely to be meaningless, as a practical matter.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said Monday she will work to restore the Fairness Doctrine and have it apply to cable and satellite programming as well as radio and TV.

"I'll work on bringing it back. I still believe in it," Eshoo told the Daily Post in Palo Alto. [...]

Eshoo said she would recommend the doctrine be applied not only to radio and TV broadcasts, but also to cable and satellite services. "It should and will affect everyone," she said.

She called the present system "unfair," and said "there should be equal time for the spoken word."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced yesterday that he's "troubled" by Eshoo's proposal, and a few far-right blogs are voicing concerns.

So, what about all of those posts I wrote, insisting that there's no chance that the Fairness Doctrine would be reinstated? They're still true.

Look, all kinds of bills are introduced every year, mostly for symbolic value. The sponsors know their legislation has no realistic shot of passing, and the bills are assigned to committee, where they never see the light of day. It's routine and uninteresting.

Indeed, some members, every Congress, bring up a Fairness Doctrine proposal. And every Congress, it picks up a handful of co-sponsors before disappearing.

With all due respect to Eshoo, this is exactly what's going to happen again. We may hear a great deal about Eshoo's bill on Fox News and far-right talk-radio sometime soon, but there's no reason to take it seriously.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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THE LEGACY PROJECT SPINS IRAQ.... Over the weekend, the president made his last "surprise" visit to Iraq, in what was supposed to be something of a victory lap, showing off how much better conditions in Iraq are now than before. When Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoes, and became a cause celebre, the victory lap apparently took a detour.

But it's nevertheless hard to miss the public-relations offensive -- presumably as an extension of the Bush Legacy Project -- in which prominent administration officials and/or Bush allies push the notion that the war in Iraq really was a great idea, reality notwithstanding.

Just over the last few days:

* Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice inexplicably told the AP yesterday that no "American money" was lost to corruption in Iraq.

* Far-right commentator Frank Gaffney insisted on MSNBC yesterday that Saddam Hussein was a "mortal threat" to the United States and while it was "regrettable" that U.S. troops had to die, they "did have to die."

* Several conservative media personalities have condemned Iraqis as "ingrates" this week, for failing to thank the U.S. for our efforts.

* Vice President Dick Cheney, for reasons that defy comprehension, argued on Monday that Saddam Hussein "still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction" prior to the U.S. invasion.

* Bush, when confronted with the fact that al Qaeda wasn't in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion, said the development was irrelevant, asking, "So what?"

The intensity of the spinning is impressive, but wholly unpersuasive. Yglesias' take on the war yesterday rang true:

[I]t's crucially important not to allow these positive sentiments about soldiers and marines to deteriorate into sentimentality about the mission they were undertaking in Iraq. The Iraqi people didn't ask to be liberarted conquered and occupied by a foreign power that destroyed their country and then immediately set about meddling in Iraqi politics and until just a month or so ago was struggling mightily for the right to permanently station military forces on Iraqi soil contrary to the will of the Iraqi public. Not only did Iraqis not ask for such services, but nobody anywhere has ever asked for them.

The harsh reality is that this was not a noble undertaking done for good reasons. It was a criminal enterprise launched by madmen cheered on by a chorus of fools and cowards. And it's seen as such by virtually everyone all around the world -- including but by no means limited to the Arab world. But it's impolitic to point this out in the United States, and it's clear that even a president-elect who had the wisdom not to be suckered in by the War Fever of 2002 has no intention of really acting to marginalize the bad actors. Which, I think, makes sense for his political objectives. But if Americans want to play a constructive role in world affairs, it's vitally important for us to get in touch with the reality of what the past eight years of US foreign policy have been and how they're seen and understood by people who aren't stirred by the shibboleths of American patriotism.


Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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A LITTLE MESSIER IN ILLINOIS.... Illinois Republicans, excited about the mere possibility of picking up a U.S. Senate seat, have a new poll showing that 70% of voters in the state would be "less likely" to support a Senate candidate who "supported or endorsed Rod Blagojevich's re-election" in 2006. Since that would include pretty much every Democrat in the state, the result helps explain why the GOP is so desperate to get a special election.

It appears increasingly likely, though, that they won't get one.

State Democrats slammed the door Tuesday on a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, reversing earlier calls for a vote and ending a rare sense of statewide bipartisanship that followed Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest last week.

Indeed, the General Assembly began the impeachment process, but declined to take up the proposal for a special election, and will not reconvene until January 12.

A Democrat in the state legislature told Eric Kleefeld, "It hasn't been tabled permanently. It could die, but they are still working on it."

OK, so policy makers in Illinois will fill the vacancy by pursuing the other route -- remove Blagojevich from office, and have Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) appoint the new senator. The problem with that, however, is that the impeachment process is not only slow, but federal prosecutors said yesterday that it "might interfere with the criminal case" against the governor. Patrick Fitzgerald has reportedly "expressed reservations about the prospect that lawmakers may hear testimony from witnesses in the criminal case before a jury does."

This could go on for a while.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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TIME'S PERSON OF THE YEAR.... When presidents win their first national election, they tend to win Time magazine's "Person of the Year" award. Looking over the list, it's actually pretty common: FDR in '32, Truman in '48, LBJ in '64, Carter in '76, Reagan in '80, Clinton in '92, and Bush in 2000.

With this in mind, it's not too big a surprise that Barack Obama won (and obviously deserved) the honor this year.

It's unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama's face on the cover. He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago -- that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn't sure Obama had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order. Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth -- the one about boundless opportunity -- has plenty of juice left in it.

But crisis has a way of ushering even great events into the past. As Obama has moved with unprecedented speed to build an Administration that would bolster the confidence of a shaken world, his flash and dazzle have faded into the background. In the waning days of his extraordinary year and on the cusp of his presidency, what now seems most salient about Obama is the opposite of flashy, the antithesis of rhetoric: he gets things done. He is a man about his business -- a Mr. Fix It going to Washington. That's why he's here and why he doesn't care about the furniture. We've heard fine speechmakers before and read compelling personal narratives. We've observed candidates who somehow latch on to just the right issue at just the right moment. Obama was all these when he started his campaign: a talented speaker who had opposed the Iraq war and lived a biography that was all things to all people. But while events undermined those pillars of his candidacy, making Iraq seem less urgent and biography less relevant, Obama has kept on rising. He possesses a rare ability to read the imperatives and possibilities of each new moment and organize himself and others to anticipate change and translate it into opportunity.

The real story of Obama's year is the steady march of seemingly impossible accomplishments: beating the Clinton machine, organizing previously marginal voters, harnessing the new technologies of democratic engagement, shattering fundraising records, turning previously red states blue -- and then waking up the day after his victory to reinvent the presidential-transition process in the face of a potentially dangerous vacuum of leadership.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel, appearing on NBC this morning, said, "The Person of the Year was, in effect, invented for Barack Obama. He's a transformational figure. He has done something extraordinary."

The runners-up, in case you were wondering, were Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Sarah Palin, Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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DYNASTIES.... To reiterate a point from the other day, I'm not a fan of family dynasties. It's a predictable political dynamic -- candidates with key family connections benefit from high name recognition and a network of supporters -- and it's been part of the American tradition for a very long time, but it's an unfortunate characteristic of the system.

But this piece about Democrats "embracing dynasty politics," from the Politico's Charles Mahtesian, seems to miss the mark.

Barack Obama's ... secretary of state will be Hillary Clinton, the wife of the former president. The Senate seat she'll vacate is being pursued by Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of a president and the niece of two senators. Joe Biden's Senate seat may go to his son Beau. Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, Obama's pick for Interior Secretary, could end up being replaced by his brother, Rep. John Salazar.

And Obama's own seat could go to the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. -- less likely now in light of developments in the Rod Blagojevich scandal -- or to the daughter of Illinois' current House speaker.

The U.S. Senate could end up looking like an American version of the House of Lords -- and Republicans have begun to take notice.

"Democrats seem to lack a common man who can just win a good, old-fashioned election," said Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

First, some of this family-dynasty talk is pretty speculative. The Politico piece relies on the mere possibility of Kennedy, Salazar, and Jackson appointments to bolster its argument, not to mention the notion that Beau Biden may or may not run in 2010.

Second, I'm not sure what this has to do with Obama, exactly. He picked Hillary Clinton, who's married to a former president, but who's clearly qualified in her own right. Indeed, Mahtesian noted that Obama is "hardly responsible" for dynasty politics, and his presidential ticket is actually the "first winning ticket since 1976 without a son or a grandson of a U.S. senator on it."

But it's the Republican criticism that I find especially rich. We didn't hear too much complaining about dynasties when the party rallied in support of Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu this year. And with a Senate vacancy in Florida coming up, Republicans are rallying behind Jeb Bush (son and brother of presidents) and Connie Mack IV (son and grandson of senators, and great-grandson and great-great grandson of congressmen).

Indeed, we are, in fact, talking about the party of George W. Bush. Do Republicans really want to talk about the perils of dynasty politics?

Tom Reynolds thinks Democrats can't find "a common man" to win "a good, old-fashioned election." I seem to recall a point -- I believe it was a month ago -- when Democrats had all kinds of folks winning quite a few good, old-fashioned elections.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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VILSACK GETS THE NOD.... A month ago, the Washington Post called former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) "a near shoo-in for secretary of agriculture." A couple of weeks later, Vilsack told reporters in Iowa he "won't be the next agriculture secretary."

As it turns out, the initial reports were right. Vilsack will be introduced as Obama's pick to head the Department of Agriculture at a press conference today in Chicago.

When it comes to the nomination, there's no question that Vilsack, a "strong proponent of renewable energy and developing the nation's alternative fuel industry," knows a great deal about agriculture policy, but there are reasonable doubts about whether he's on the right track.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack are regarded as staunch advocates of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil. And Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress are working on a major economic stimulus package, in which they intend to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to "green energy" industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.

One of the first major decisions Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack may have to make is whether to grant the ethanol industry's requests for billions in federal aid in the stimulus bill, which Mr. Obama has said he hopes to sign into law quickly, perhaps on his first day in office.

"The big issue for him and any incoming secretary is going to be biofuels, that's the sector that right now is in such a volatile position," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that is a leading critic of federal farm subsidies. American farmers, Mr. Cook said, are "hitched to both the food system and the energy system, both of which are oscillating."

About a month ago, Ezra Klein made a compelling case that Vilsack is problematic, given his ceaseless support for corn subsidies, and the likelihood that his role on Obama's team would mean "treating agricultural policy as if the relevant constituency is food producers rather than food consumers."

But the news may not be that bad. Vilsack's position on subsidies has been discouraging, but as Ezra later noted, "his energy policy has been notably forward-looking, and so it's possible he could come around."

Indeed, Grist's Tom Philpott noted a few weeks ago, "[N]one other than Grist's own David Roberts declared his energy plan during last year's Democratic primaries the 'ballsiest and most detailed any candidate from either party has offered.' And Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me that Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack's bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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PARTY LIKE IT'S 1999.... Last week, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the #3 person in the House Republican leadership, argued that "welfare reform" should be near the top of the GOP list of policy priorities. A few days earlier, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, considered something of a "rising star" in Republican politics, said the party needs to rally in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And as if the '90s flashback wasn't quite obvious enough, Senate Republicans now want to talk about the Elian Gonzales controversy, which began in 1999.

Senate Republicans have requested information about Attorney General nominee Eric Holder's role in the Elian Gonzales controversy as part of a broad probe into his tenure with the Clinton administration and potential ties to presidential scandals during that era.

Eight of nine GOP members on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote Clinton Presidential Library Director Terry Garner on Thursday to ask for 10 categories of material, and that includes any information on Holder's involvement with the Cuban boy seized by U.S. agents in April 2000.

Holder was deputy attorney general at the time. While the senators have publicly stated concerns about Holder's role in the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, the move to focus attention on the highly controversial Gonzales case indicates the confirmation of President-elect Obama's top law enforcement official will be anything but smooth.

Seeking information about Gonzales suggests Republicans are seeking issues that will resonate outside the Beltway, unlike the Rich pardon.

This is just sad, even by the standards of congressional Republicans. Elian Gonzales' mother died, he was returned to his father. We don't like the country where his father lives, but we reunited the father and son anyway.

It's unclear what role, if any, Holder had in the Gonzales case, but even if he took a leading role in the matter, it doesn't matter. That eight Senate Republicans want to re-litigate this issue 10 years later borders on pathetic.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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December 16, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Ends And Means

Jill at Jack and Jill Politics has a post about what it's like to be a black student at Sidwell, the school Malia and Sasha Obama will be attending come January. It's a great post: very interesting and thoughtful, and well worth reading. But I found one part of it troubling. The background: the Reagan administration, led by its Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, is carrying out its odious policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa. Crocker's daughter, Rennie, is one of Jill's classmates; Mr. E is their teacher.

"Mr. E taught us, among other subjects, history. On learning about Rennie's father, he conceived a plan whose brilliant strategy I only fully appreciated years later.

Mr. E conceived of a Team 4 learning segment and associated field trip. Kids learn about current affairs starting in Lower School (elementary) so most kids had some awareness of South Africa's political situation. Mr. E took us on a deep dive into South Africa's socio-political dynamics and America's role. We held discussions where we debated the pros and cons of apartheid for the citizens there. We came to our own conclusions that apartheid was very wrong. Mr. E told us about the history of the struggle against apartheid. We were informed that we would be protesting in front of the embassy as a school trip to our great delight. Permission slips and waivers were sent home. My parents, former civil rights activists themselves and educators, were so proud -- baby's first protest! There was a growing spirit of purpose and excitement for all of us in class save one person -- Rennie Crocker.

Rennie was a sweet, soft-spoken, shy, studious and popular girl. This process slowly became exquisitely painful for her in the way that only sticking out can be when you're 13. As we excitedly made posters and signs for our protest, thinking up snappy anti-apartheid, anti-U.S. government-position-on-apartheid slogans, Rennie became increasingly moody and withdrawn. When we all came to school waving our permission slips proudly in the air, Rennie murmured quietly that she wouldn't be able to join us, "Because, you know, of my dad." Rolled eyes, heavy sigh ... sad, sad shoulder shrug. Reaction from us kids: sympathy that she was missing out mixed with "Sucks to be you! Laterz!"

On the day of the protest, we took about a half day of school and with our signs was driven in a Sidwell school bus down to protest. It was so incredibly fun. (...)

"During our fall adventure in global socio-politics and direct action, one girl sat alone in a classroom while her peers enjoyed the unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Rennie. While us kids were convinced that this exercise was all about learning and ethics and history and justice (which it was), I see now that Mr. E was leading the school in leveraging the presence of Chester Crocker's daughter in his class to place direct pressure on the man and his now-discredited policies in the way that only a man's daughter can. He was forced to explain in detail, unconvincingly apparently, why his position was correct and why her teacher, her school and all of her friends were somehow wrong in their assumptions and beliefs that apartheid was intolerable. He was forced to defend his lack of moral spine to one of the people who mattered most to him."

First things first: the way Jill writes about Mr. E, both in the post and in comments, suggests that Mr. E was a very, very gifted teacher. He clearly inspired her, and to inspire a student is a rare and wonderful thing. I don't want to deny that for an instant. Nor do I want to get too hung up on the question whether it's OK to take a class to demonstrate (I think not, for the same reasons that make me oppose making kids say prayers.) What really bothers me is the idea of using a thirteen year old to get to her father. And not just any thirteen year old: one whom it is your job to teach and to nurture. I think that is just wrong.

My dad was well known in the town I grew up in; and one of my friends has a father who was both much more famous and much more controversial than mine. Being thirteen is tough enough in its own right; it doesn't help when people assume that you're just an extension of your parents, and that you can be used to get to them, or to score political points. One of the two (2) guys who ever asked me out in high school did so because he thought that that would help him into the university where my dad worked. This was obvious at the time, and it did not make me happy.

Obviously, this kid, whom I will refer to as The Jerk, wasn't trying to do anything so noble as change America's South Africa policy. He was just a jerk. But what The Jerk did was similar to what Mr. E did in this respect: Mr. E was treating Rennie not as a person in her own right, but as an extension of her dad; and his actions were intended not to respond to her needs as a student, but to get her dad to do something. That's wrong in general, and doubly wrong for a teacher.

At this point, someone might be thinking: but changing American policy towards South Africa is much more important than the feelings of one (very privileged) American kid. She might have become "increasingly moody and withdrawn", but kids in South Africa were getting shot, or losing their parents, or growing up in squalor and deprivation. And of course this is true.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is just to say: that might be relevant if we knew, somehow, that our only two options were (a) to use Rennie in this way and have a chance to save the children of Soweto, or (b) to do nothing in the face of the massive injustice of apartheid. But that's almost never the kind of choice we face, and the idea that it is is similar to the idea that Bush and Cheney had a choice between (a) torturing people and (b) letting Osama bin Laden blow up Manhattan.

The existence of a genuine and serious problem does not automatically mean that you can freely disregard any smaller injustices or cruelties you engage in in fighting it. It does not mean that if you're Dick Cheney: the fact that bad as what we did to Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was, the deaths of millions would be even worse, does not make what we did OK. It does not mean that if you're a gifted teacher concerned about a genuine injustice either.

There were a lot of ways of fighting against the apartheid regime that did not involve using a child to get to her father. While Mr. E sounds to me like a great teacher in many respects, it was his job as a teacher to find them. Because it is always part of our jobs as adults and people who aspire to decency to find ways to confront injustice without engaging in cruelty of our own.

Hilzoy 10:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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

* Wall Street seemed to react well to the Fed's latest (and last) rate cut.

* Evidence of deflation may have had something to do with the Fed's move.

* Construction starts fell in November to the lowest point since the government started keeping track in 1959.

* The attempted terrorism in Paris today looked pretty scary.

* It looks like some folks may end up owing Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) an apology. If he's been working with federal investigators for months, then he's helped catch a crook.

* Is Muntadar al-Zaidi, the shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist, being abused while in custody?

* What do you know, Cheney signed off on torture.

* Speaking of Cheney, the fact that he's still confused about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is kind of scary.

* Conservative Republicans in Congress seem to want the U.S. auto industry to collapse.

* The Securities and Exchange Commission was unbelievably slow in responding to doubts about Madoff's business practices, which were apparently an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

* Speaker Pelosi will work with the Obama administration, but she's putting limits on Rahm Emanuel's influence.

* The Supreme Court has cleared the way for smokers to sue tobacco companies over the marketing of "light" cigarettes.

* Obama's plan to build up the nation's Internet infrastructure really is worthwhile.

* It's hard to believe, but Bill O'Reilly's replacement on Fox Radio is actually a step down: it's John Gibson.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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ONE IN FOUR HAVE BOUGHT THE NONSENSE.... Yesterday, a Rasmussen poll found that 45% of Americans believe it's "likely" that Barack Obama or one of his top aides was "involved" in the Blagojevich scandal. Since the wording of the question was awkward, the results didn't tell us much.

After a week of bizarre reporting, and a bizarre effort on the part of many outlets and media personalities to draw a connection that doesn't exist, the real question is how many Americans believe the president-elect and/or his team did something wrong/inappropriate. Today, Gallup released a more useful report.

About one out of four Americans, including half of Republicans, believe that members of President-elect Barack Obama's staff engaged in illegal activities relating to the charges that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was trying to profit from naming Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate. Still, Gallup's latest daily report of the public's confidence in Obama's ability to be a good president is at 68%, near the highest level since he was elected on Nov. 4.

These results are based on the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Dec. 12-14, which asked a random half-sample whether Obama's staff members did anything illegal in connection with this matter, and the other half whether Obama's staff members did anything unethical. The results show that about the same percentage of Americans interviewed say members of Obama's staff did something unethical as say they did something illegal.

Gallup's report noted that the responses were "highly partisan." That's clearly true -- Greg Sargent noted, "[T]he partisan breakdowns show that those totals are heavily fueled by Republicans saying Obama's team did something wrong, while large numbers of Dems and independents don't agree. And even the number of Republicans who've reached those conclusions isn't especially high: Less than half think someone did something illegal, while 54% think someone did something unethical."

The drive to connect Obama and his team, without evidence, to the Blagojevich mess isn't working, which is as it should be.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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FED ENTERS A 'NEW ERA'.... You know those signs that say, "Break glass in case of emergency"? This afternoon, the Fed broke the glass.

The Federal Reserve entered a new era on Tuesday, setting its benchmark interest rate so low that it will have to reach for new and untested tools in fighting both the recession and downward pressure on consumer prices.

Going further than analysts anticipated, the central bank cut its target for the overnight federal funds rate to a range of 0 to 0.25 percent, a record low, virtually bringing the United States to the zero-rate policies that Japan used for six years in its own fight against deflation. The rate had previously been 1 percent, and a cut of a half-point had been widely expected.

The move, which affects the rate at which banks lend their reserves to one another, was to a large degree symbolic. Demand for interbank loans has been so low that the actual Fed funds rate has been far below the previous target for a month and hovered at barely 0.1 percent in the last several days.

This may seem like the last arrow in the Fed's quiver, but the Fed's Open Market Committee added that it will "employ all available tools" to promote economic growth.

The NYT added that today's move "implicitly acknowledged that recession is more severe than officials had thought."

You don't say.

Update: Krugman adds, "Seriously, we are in very deep trouble. Getting out of this will require a lot of creativity, and maybe some luck too."

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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REMEMBER ROBERT LUSKIN?.... Following up on the last item, let's take another quick look at the Wall Street Journal piece, questioning Barack Obama's decision to abide by the wishes of Patrick Fitzgerald and federal investigators in the Blagojevich case.

Robert Luskin, a Washington white-collar defense lawyer who knows Mr. Fitzgerald well, said he doesn't doubt the prosecutor would have asked that Obama officials keep quiet until his investigation is further along. That is to prevent witnesses from tailoring their stories to what they learn others are saying. But, he said, Mr. Obama and his aides don't have to comply. They are using the prosecutor as a "fig leaf" to avoid answering questions just now, Mr. Luskin said. They could just as easily have decided that assuring the public about their actions is more important than acceding to the prosecutor's request.

Now, we know the reporting in the piece left much to be desired, but let's also pause to appreciate the irony of this criticism from Robert Luskin.

The WSJ notes that Luskin knows Fitzgerald well. What the article neglected to mention is why they know each other -- Luskin was Karl Rove's attorney when Fitzgerald was investigating the Valerie Plame case.

Remember this?

Karl Rove, former White House deputy chief of staff and President Bush's top political adviser, is refusing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to testify on "politicization" within the Justice Dept. Rove had been scheduled to appear next Thursday, July 10.

Rove's refusal to respond to a Judiciary Committee subpoena drew a stern response from Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Commercial and Administrative Law subcommittee.

"We want to make clear that the subcommittee will convene as scheduled and expects Mr. Rove to appear, and that a refusal to appear in violation of the subpoena could subject Mr. Rove to contempt proceedings, including statutory contempt under federal law and proceedings under the inherent contempt authority of the House of Representatives," Conyers and Sanchez wrote in a letter to Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin.

Yes, Mr. Luskin, please tell us again how awful it is when prominent political figures stoop to using a "fig leaf" to avoid answering questions. You are the expert on the subject.

At the risk of stepping on Atrios' toes, I'm nominating this guy for Wanker of the Day.

Update: An alert reader reminded me that Luskin knows full well that one is not supposed to talk about an ongoing investigation because Rove did exactly that, to the consternation of federal investigators.

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DAMNED IF YOU DO.... In June, political reporter Jonathan Weisman noted, "The great irony is that [Barack Obama] is much more white than black, beyond skin color." A month later, Weisman took an Obama quote, second hand and out of context, to make a wildly misleading claim.

Today, Weisman reports on the Obama transition office's decision to honor Patrick Fitzgerald's request on the release of a list of contacts with Rod Blagojevich's office.

Robert Luskin, a Washington white-collar defense lawyer who knows Mr. Fitzgerald well, said he doesn't doubt the prosecutor would have asked that Obama officials keep quiet until his investigation is further along. That is to prevent witnesses from tailoring their stories to what they learn others are saying. But, he said, Mr. Obama and his aides don't have to comply. They are using the prosecutor as a "fig leaf" to avoid answering questions just now, Mr. Luskin said. They could just as easily have decided that assuring the public about their actions is more important than acceding to the prosecutor's request.

I see. So, yesterday the AP suggests Obama is trying to bury embarrassing news by listening to Fitzgerald and federal prosecutors, and today, the Wall Street Journal suggests Obama could have "easily" ignored the wishes of law enforcement officials altogether, and "reassured" the public this week, instead of next week.

The media's drive to make Obama look bad as part of the Blagojevich mess is getting kind of silly.

Jamison Foser explained very well why, if we follow Weisman's logic, Obama is wrong no matter what he does.

If Obama ignored Fitzgerald's request and released the findings anyway, the Wall Street Journal -- and the rest of the media -- would be full of stories about Obama deliberately undermining Fitzgerald's investigation. They'd be speculating breathlessly about why Obama would undermine the investigation, and claiming that it proves he has something to hide.

And that's the entire point of Weisman's article -- that Obama could have blown off Fitzgerald's request.

NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker insisted this morning that reporters covering Obama are "going to have to get tougher." At this point, I'd settle for smarter.

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SOME OF HIS BEST FRIENDS ARE GAY.... We talked a couple of weeks ago about why pastor Rick Warren's reputation for being more reasonable and moderate than this religious right brethren may be unearned. At the time, the subject was his endorsement -- on Biblical grounds -- of Sean Hannity's assertion that the United States needs to "take out" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We got another reminder this week, when Warren sat down with Beliefnet's Steven Waldman, and the subject turned to Warren's opposition to gay rights. Warren rejected any notion that he might be homophobic, pointing to his work combating AIDS and his willingness to have dinner in "gay homes."

Sarah Posner noted how unpersuasive Warren's arguments were.

Warren dodged Waldman's question about whether he supported civil unions or domestic partnerships, answering instead, "I support full equal rights for everyone in America," adding that he only opposes a "redefinition" of marriage. He went on to say he's opposed to gay marriage the same way he is opposed to a brother and sister marrying (that would be incest), a man marrying a child (that would be statutory rape), or someone having multiple spouses (that would be polygamy). Pressed by Waldman, Warren said he considered those crimes equivalent to gay marriage.

Warren claimed he supported Proposition 8 because of a free-speech issue -- asserting that "any pastor could be considered doing hate speech ... if he shared his views that homosexuality wasn't the most natural way for relationships."

If Warren could come up with a principled explanation for his beliefs, fine. But this is utterly foolish. There was nothing in Prop 8 -- indeed, there's never been anything in any U.S. measure on marriage equality -- that would have permitted punishing religious leaders for espousing their beliefs on gay rights or any other issue.

I obviously can't read Warren's mind, but if he knows, as he should, that this argument is demonstrably false, his remarks were dishonest. If he was sincere and simply didn't know what he was talking about, Warren's opposition to a worthwhile ballot measure was based on ignorance.

Whether he's eaten in "gay homes" or not is of no consequence.

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A REVOLVING DOOR?.... With Time's Jay Carney leaving the magazine to become Joe Biden's communications director, some conservatives are using the occasion as proof that the media is liberal. The far-right Newsbusters site put together an interesting list of people who made the transition from a major news outlet to a Democratic campaign:

* CNN reporter Aneesh Raman who signed with the Obama campaign in September

* ABC reporter Linda Douglass who in May signed up as an Obama strategist and spokesman

* Former "Dateline" anchor Jane Pauley who toured the country campaigning on Obama's behalf

* ABC News anchor Carole Simpson who teamed up the Hillary Clinton campaign during the Democratic primaries

* CNN reporter Andrea Koppel who signed up with a left-wing PR firm in February

* Kate Albright-Hanna, a producer with CNN who crafted web video strategy for Obama while working at the network

Newsbusters added that neither McCain nor any other Republican presidential candidate lured "Big Media journalists to go work for them." (I should note that I haven't fact-checked Newsbusters' list or claims, and can't vouch for its accuracy.)

Now, there are a couple of ways to look at this, assuming the information is correct. One could joke, for example, that Republicans don't need journalists to go work for them; they already have Fox News. One might also note that the AP's Ron Fournier considered joining the McCain campaign, but instead became the DC bureau chief for the wire service, repeatedly engaging in questionable journalistic calls that worked in McCain's favor.

But instead, let's consider a different list -- people who made the transition from serving as top Bush administration officials to working for major news outlets:

* Michael Gerson was picked up as a columnist for the Washington Post.

* Sara Taylor, who was integrally involved in the U.S. Attorney Purge scandal and the politicization of federal agencies, became a pundit for MSNBC.

* Karl Rove became a Fox News "analyst," a columnist for Newsweek, and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

* Tony Snow went from the White House briefing room to a gig on CNN.

* Frances Fragos Townsend also went from the White House to CNN.

* Nicole Wallace went from Rove's office to CBS News (she left soon after to join the McCain campaign).

* Dan Bartlett is an "analyst" for CBS News.

If six media figures joining Democratic campaigns is proof that reporters are liberal, are seven loyal Bushies joining news outlets proof that major media outlets are conservative?

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RNC ATTACK CAMPAIGN DRAWING REPUBLICAN CRITICS.... Within a few hours of Rod Blagojevich's arrest, the Republican National Committee was circulating materials to reporters hoping to prove that the governor was closely tied to Barack Obama. As the week progressed, the attacks intensified, reality notwithstanding.

This culminated in a three-minute web video, released over the weekend, featuring evidence of instances in which the senator from Illinois met the governor of Illinois. This was helpful in proving ... well, that the RNC is pretty desperate right about now and hard up for content with which to smear Obama.

On Sunday, John McCain distanced himself from the RNC's efforts, saying there's corruption in both parties and describing the RNC's campaign as a distraction.

Today, Newt Gingrich went even further. From a written statement issued by the former House Speaker:

"I was saddened to learn that at a time of national trial, when a president-elect is preparing to take office in the midst of the worst financial crisis in over seventy years, that the Republican National Committee is engaged in the sort of negative, attack politics that the voters rejected in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

"The recent web advertisement, "Questions Remain," is a destructive distraction. Clearly, we should insist that all taped communications regarding the Senate seat should be made public. However, that should be a matter of public policy, not an excuse for political attack. [...]

"This ad is a terrible signal to be sending about both the goals of the Republican Party in the midst of the nation's troubled economic times and about whether we have actually learned anything from the defeats of 2006 and 2008.

"The RNC should pull the ad down immediately."

Interesting. Now, I won't presume to know Gingrich is thinking here, and for all I know, his statement was sincere.

But I think his denunciation speaks to a larger strategic truth -- there's just no reason for Republicans to pursue an Obama "connection" with Blagojevich, because, as is obvious by now, there's nothing linking the president-elect to this scandal. The more efforts the Republicans invest, the more time they waste, and the less credibility they'll have when their attacks fail to pan out.

Substantively, the RNC is pursuing a scandal that doesn't exist. Politically, the RNC has nothing to gain by throwing around bogus smears that no one seriously believes anyway, in a time of crisis where tolerance for far-right nonsense is awfully low.

Gingrich, whatever his motivations, is for a change offering his party some good advice.

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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.

* Caroline Kennedy has hired "major Democratic fixer Josh Isay, who has deep connections to New York powerhouses Sen. Charles Schumer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Rev. Al Sharpton" to serve as a political consultant.

* Kennedy picked up her first endorsement yesterday, when Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) threw her support to Kennedy.

* Kennedy has also been very busy on the phone, having called Hillary Clinton, Sharpton, and Chuck Schumer, among others.

* Hillary Clinton will not take sides in the selection of her successor for the Senate, but she doesn't want her supporters to punish Caroline Kennedy for having supported Obama during the primaries.

* Norm Coleman now has two sets of lawyers -- one working on the recount mess in Minnesota, and a new team representing him in the FBI investigation into possible fundraising irregularities.

* George W. Bush thinks Jeb Bush would be an "awesome" senator.

* Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) is contemplating a rematch against Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in 2010. "I'm considering the race," Mongiardo said yesterday.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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FILIBUSTERS.... There's been some great discussion around the 'sphere the past few days about filibusters, and I wanted to jump in.

Josh Marshall got the ball rolling on Friday, noting in response to suggestions that Democrats should pull their own nuclear option, that's it's "just bad practice" for "numerical majorities not only to use the power of their numbers in straight up votes but to change the rules of the game itself." He added, however, that the "filibuster has been increasingly abused."

Matt Yglesias responded that the filibuster should be eliminated altogether, insisting that there's "no compelling reason to add a supermajority requirement to Senate votes." He added a key point that caught my eye:

What's more, as Robert Farley observes the argument from tradition doesn't really hold up. Traditional practice was for the filibuster to be broken out rarely as an extraordinary tactic. But over the past fifteen years or so, for some reason or another (perhaps related to the increased ideological coherence of the parties), it's become more-and-more common so that we now speak of a 60-vote threshold as the ordinary hurdle for legislation to pass. Perhaps one can mount a defense of this de facto supermajority requirement on the merits, but it should be understood that routine filibustering is a very recent innovation and that eliminating the filibuster would leave us closer to our traditional practices.

I think that's largely right. In fact, Nate Silver posted a very helpful chart noting the recent trend in cloture votes, highlighting the fact that filibusters over the last two years (the span of the 110th Congress) is nearly triple the rate of the previous nine Congresses. It has become, to borrow Matt's description, both ordinary and routine.

But let's also consider how we've reached this point and why Senate Republicans obliterated previous records for obstructionism.

There are a variety of angles here -- including the general disappearance of GOP moderates -- but let's keep in mind that the ability to block bills that lack 60 votes isn't new. For decades, though, Senate minority caucuses were reluctant to simply filibuster everything of significance because they were afraid of destroying chamber comity, and more importantly, they feared a public backlash.

With that in mind, two factors contributed to Republicans' record-breaking obstructionism. First, the party gambled that voters wouldn't know or even understand their tactics. This was largely right -- most Americans have no idea what a filibuster or a cloture vote is, and the media, by and large, reports after a failed cloture vote that a bill "came up short in the Senate," not that a bill "was blocked from an up-or-down vote by Republican obstructionism." Senate caucuses in the past weren't willing to take this chance by abusing what was an extreme tactic, but this Republican caucus gambled on cynicism and was largely right.

Second, Senate Republicans could have just let Bush veto these same bills -- Democrats weren't even close to being able to override -- but his allies sought to protect him for the past two years. Filibusters are procedural minutiae, but vetoes are higher profile. Republicans decided early on that to protect the president from having to reject popular legislation, they'd block every bill of consequence that moved.

Now that the GOP has lost the White House, too, it's likely the party's tactics will get even more aggressive, until and unless the party faces political consequences from outraged voters.

Steve Benen 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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OF ALL THE PEOPLE TO RUN FOR THE SENATE.... This has "bad idea" written all over it.

Tim Griffin, who resigned his post as interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock after serving six months under scrutiny, says he's thinking about running against U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010.

Griffin told The Associated Press on Monday that he hopes to make a decision by early or mid-summer on whether to run against Lincoln, a Democrat seeking her third term in the Senate.

"I am certainly thinking about it," Griffin said. "I'm going to spend some time going around the state and talking to folks and getting an idea of the interest level.... I'm going to try and hit all 75 counties as soon as possible and I know that's a tall order trying to hit all of those in the next few months."

In the midst of the U.S. Attorney scandal, Griffin became well known as one of the "loyal Bushies" who replaced Bud Cummins, a federal prosecutor less willing to play ball with the White House political agenda. Griffin served as a U.S. Attorney for six months, but was never confirmed by the Senate.

But that's only a small part of what makes his possible Senate campaign troubling. Griffin, more importantly, was an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee before joining the White House team as a Karl Rove protege. As an oppo man, Griffin helped dig up footage that wound up in an ad by the Swift Boat Vets who smeared John Kerry. In describing his own work, Griffin once said, "We think of ourselves as the creators of ammunition in a war. We make the bullets."

And then there's the "vote caging." To refresh your memory, it's a process in which Republicans target eligible voters for disenfranchisement, send them mail knowing it'll be returned, and then use the "caged" mail to limit those voters' access to the polls.

Griffin was the research director for the RNC in 2004 and sent a series of confidential emails to Republican Party higher-ups with the suggestive heading "RE: caging." The emails contained spreadsheets with the heading, "Caging," with lists of homeless men and soldiers deployed in Iraq.

And now he wants to be a U.S. senator. Great.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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IMPEACHMENT PROGRESSES, BLAGOJEVICH LAWYERS UP.... Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) did not resign yesterday, as had been rumored over the weekend. Lawmakers in the state House responded by voting to begin impeachment efforts against the governor. The vote was 113 to 0.

Michael J. Madigan, the powerful House speaker in a capital where Democrats control both the House and Senate, appointed a committee that will begin gathering evidence and testimony on Tuesday in an "abuse of power" case against Mr. Blagojevich. [...]

"We're going to proceed with all due speed, but we are going to make sure that what we do is done correctly," said Mr. Madigan, who like many others in state government has long sparred with Mr. Blagojevich and has fielded calls for Mr. Blagojevich's impeachment long before now.

Blagojevich's future is obviously bleak, but the road ahead for Illinois officials is unclear. Impeachment is a lengthy process, and the 21-member special impeachment committee is already drawing complaints from Republicans, who were "furious" because they want the panel to have "equal representation from both parties." (With two parties and 21 members, I'm not sure how that's possible.)

The question of a special election is also still lingering. GOP officials in Illinois and Washington are anxious to have one (because they want to try to win the seat), and Blagojevich is nearly as excited about the possibility (because he believes it would buy him some time).

But even this option became more complicated yesterday when county clerks in Illinois explained that a statewide special election would cost up to $50 million, and the state simply can't afford that right now. It would be cheaper if the state could wait until April 7, when Illinois would hold already-scheduled local elections, but that would leave the state with a Senate vacancy for four months -- in the midst of some very important votes in Congress.

With this in mind, state lawmakers adjourned last night without even considering the special election issue, to the dismay of Illinois Republicans.

For his part, Blagojevich has reportedly hired Chicago defense attorney Ed Genson to represent him in this mess. Stay tuned.

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

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SALAZAR TO INTERIOR.... There'd been a few rumors about likely candidates for Secretary of the Interior, but Sen. Ken Salazar's (D-Colo.) name comes as something of a surprise. He will, apparently, accept the nomination and give up his Senate seat after just two years in the chamber. (One source familiar with the appointment process said, "It's a done deal.") He will also be the second Hispanic official named to Obama's cabinet.

I can only assume Salazar didn't enjoy life on the Hill. He's fairly young (53) and popular among his constituents, suggesting Salazar could expect to keep his Senate seat for quite a long while. And yet, he's trading it in for a not-especially-glamorous cabinet post, overseeing a scandal-plagued cabinet agency that oversees the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the United States Geological Survey.

In terms of political implications, Salazar's replacement will be named by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), and his appointed senator will be up for re-election in 2010. For Democrats, this may prove to be an improvement -- Salazar has been one of the more conservative members of the caucus, and if Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper gets the nod, the party may find a more reliable vote on progressive issues. (Among the other possible successors is Rep. John Salazar, the outgoing senator's brother.)

As for the more substantive question, is Salazar a good choice for Interior Secretary? He certainly has a background in these issues, having served as Colorado's director of natural resources, where he championed legislation that reserved state lottery proceeds for land conservation. He's also served on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Kate Sheppard took a look at Salazar's record, emphasizing the senator's work standing up to the Bush administration on oil-shale development.

Salazar got an 85 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters for his voting during the 110th Congress, and has an 81 percent lifetime score.

That's not bad, I suppose. As McJoan put it, the left "could have done worse."

I'd just add that the Interior Department, while hardly high-profile, is responsible for a seemingly-endless list of federal land regulations, which carry serious environmental implications. If Salazar, as a popular former senator, can leverage his stature and ties to Obama effectively, he can make a difference at the agency. And if he's replaced by a more progressive successor in the Senate, this may be a win-win opportunity for everyone.

Steve Benen 9:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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PRO-SCIENCE.... Late yesterday, Barack Obama held a press conference to introduce most of his environmental team, and the names coincided with the rumors from last week: Steven Chu for Energy Secretary, Lisa Jackson to head the EPA, Nancy Sutley to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Carol Browner to head a new a White House post as a coordinator on energy issues.

But in introducing Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Obama made a comment that stood out: "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Now, I realize this may sound like the soft bigotry of low expectations, but we've reached a point at which hearing a president praise "science" and "facts" emphatically is so refreshing, and so encouraging, it raises hopes about the new-found importance of reality in government. As Greg Sargent noted, "Obama's lines today will encapsulate for liberals as strongly as anything Obama has said just how big the potential of the moment feels right now, since the previous administration's disdain for 'science' and 'facts' contributed perhaps as much as anything else to the nightmarish quality the last eight years held for them."

Quite right. Two little words, one big message.

Indeed, it's not just Obama. The pro-science party is evident on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too.

As the White House tries to pick up the pieces of the auto industry bailout, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is already looking ahead to pumping more science-related spending into the massive economic recovery bill Democrats will begin moving through Congress next month.

The contrast Monday was striking. The Bush administration was sorting through the immediate crisis facing General Motors Corp. even as a new legal analysis by the Congressional Research Service raised red flags that could force Treasury to take a more roundabout route in providing aid.

Pelosi, by comparison, seemed reborn, having never liked the financing scheme for the $14 billion auto loan bill, which diverted funds from an advanced-technology program she wanted to speed the production of more-energy-efficient cars. Fresh from one of her "innovation agenda" events at Princeton University on Monday morning, the California Democrat told a Capitol press conference that the $500 billion to $600 billion economic recovery package would emphasize science as a path forward for the nation, not just public works.

What does Pelosi have in mind? Investing in renewable fuels, improving the electric grid, and investing more in the National Institutes of Health, among other things.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THREADING THE NEEDLE AT EDUCATION.... When Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were rumored to be leading candidates for Barack Obama's cabinet, there was considerable debate. But the debate over who the president-elect would pick for the Secretary of Education has been every bit as contentious, albeit not nearly as high-profile.

Competing camps of education policy have been at it for weeks, loosely organized into the "reform" camp, which supports additional testing and the expansion of charter schools, and the "traditionalist" camp, more in line with teachers' unions. Obama has done his level best to convince both that he's sympathetic to their concerns, and many were waiting to see the cabinet pick to determine where Obama's true loyalties lie.

As it happens, Obama made his selection and managed to stay on the fence at the same time.

Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools superintendent known for taking tough steps to improve schools while maintaining respectful relations with teachers and their unions, is President-elect Barack Obama's choice as secretary of education, Democratic officials said Monday.

Mr. Duncan, a 44-year-old Harvard graduate, has raised achievement in the nation's third-largest school district and often faced the ticklish challenge of shuttering failing schools and replacing ineffective teachers, usually with improved results.

He represents a compromise choice in the debate that has divided Democrats in recent months over the proper course for public-school policy after the Bush years.

In June, rival nationwide groups of educators circulated competing educational manifestos, with one group espousing a get-tough policy based on pushing teachers and administrators harder to raise achievement, and another arguing that schools alone could not close the racial achievement gap and urging new investments in school-based health clinics and other social programs to help poor students learn.

Mr. Duncan was the only big-city superintendent to sign both manifestos.

He argued that the nation's schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts.

Seyward Darby, who's been covering the debate within the education circles, noted last night that Duncan will be a "relief" to the reform camp, but "also appeals to the more traditional Democratic establishment and teachers' unions." Indeed, it's worth noting that Duncan, while generally considered a reformer, was also recently praised by the American Federation of Teachers' Randi Weingarten, who complimented Duncan as somehow "actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way."

Marc Ambinder added, "Like Obama, Duncan favors merit pay for teachers and administrators, but he's been cautious about pushing the concept too far without input from teachers' unions."

I don't doubt that some from the traditionalist camp will be grumbling this morning, but the mild disappointment will likely be tempered by the relief that Obama didn't pick NYC's Joel Klein or Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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December 15, 2008

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

* A relatively quiet day on Wall Street, with the three major indexes closing down slightly.

* Obama is now officially the president-elect.

* Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at the president, has become something of a cause celebre in the Middle East.

* It looks like the WSJ's report this morning on net neutrality got some key details wrong. Scott Gilbertson has a rundown of the different angles. (By the way, the WSJ report suggested Obama's support for net neutrality is waning. In reality, Obama is still an enthusiastic supporter.)

* If you haven't caught up -- I'm a little behind myself -- the story of Bernard Madoff and his $50 billion Ponzi scheme is just breathtaking.

* Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion will head Obama's new White House office of Urban Policy.

* It's a bit of a surprise, but Time's Jay Carney will be Joe Biden's communications director in the OVP.

* TPMM: "Mitchell Wade, the contractor who in 2006 pleaded guilty to bribing Duke Cunningham to the tune of over $1 million, was sentenced moments ago to 30 months in federal prison, and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine."

* A fired caused serious damage to Sarah Palin's church on Friday night.

* Obama continues to reach out to members of Congress individually, to the surprise of members from both parties. "This is unheard of," said retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "I don't know of another president-elect who has done this."

* Bush may deny it, but he really did say, more than once, that the Taliban has been "eliminated."

* If you haven't seen Bill Moyers' interview with Glenn Greenwald, be sure to take a look.

* New sci-fi trailers: "Terminator: Salvation" and "Wolverine."

* Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ken.) vote against the auto industry isn't earning him any friends.

* There's just no reason for refrigerated beaches.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE TRANSITION TEAM'S BLAGOJEVICH REVIEW.... Last week, Barack Obama announced that his transition team would review all of its communications with Rod Blagojevich and his office, and in the interests of transparency, release the information. There's no evidence to suggest wrongdoing on the part of the transition team anyway, but this would (ostensibly) put the matter to rest.

It's been several days, and the internal review is complete. Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't want the transition office to release the information, though, so at his behest, it's being put off a week. Transition Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer issued this statement this afternoon:

"At the direction of the President-elect, a review of Transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the President-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the President-elect's staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as US Senator.

"Also at the President-elect's direction, Gregory Craig, counsel to the Transition, has kept the US Attorney's office informed of this fact-gathering process in order to ensure our full cooperation with the investigation.

"In the course of those discussions, the US Attorney's office requested the public release of the Transition review be deferred until the week of December 22, in order not to impede their investigation of the governor. The Transition has agreed to this revised timetable for release," said Obama Transition Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

The AP noted, "That's Christmas week, when few people will be paying attention and when Obama plans to be celebrating the holiday in Hawaii."

That's true, but remember, neither Obama nor his team picked next week. It's not some deliberate attempt to bury the news; it's part of an effort to help prosecutors investigate the alleged bad guy. Patrick Fitzgerald, not the transition office, requested the week of December 22. It's part of the effort to get the alleged bad guy, not part of a cover-up.

The AP's report added, "The brief statement left several issues uncovered. It did not say whether Obama's incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, was heard on a wiretap providing the governor's top aide with a list of names that the president-elect favored. Nor did it say who if anyone on Obama transition's team had made contact with the governor or his aides concerning a replacement for Obama."

Given the last week, I'm starting to get the sense the AP is making a conscious effort to cover this story badly. There are two relevant questions here: did anyone on the transition team take steps to "pay to play" and did anyone on the transition team know in advance that the governor was trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder. Based on what we know, the answer to both is an obvious "no."

Today's statement, rather than leaving relevant issues "uncovered," seems to resolve the matter even further, noting that Obama had no contact with the governor or his staff, and no one on Obama's staff was involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff.

There's still no there there, whether the AP wants to believe otherwise -- or wants us to believe otherwise -- or not.

Steve Benen 4:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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LEAHY CAVES (A LITTLE).... Several Republican senators complained bitterly last week about a scheduled Judiciary Committee hearing on Eric Holder's nomination as the next Attorney General. The GOP said it needed more time to review Holder's record, but as a practical matter, Republicans appeared to want more time to coordinate their attacks. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), at least first, blew them off.

The bad news is, Leahy announced today that he's giving Republicans an extension, accommodating their demands. The good news is, Leahy isn't giving them much.

In an announcement from his Senate office on Monday afternoon, committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the hearings would be moved back from January 9 to January 15, giving Republicans more than "30 days from today" to consider Holder's qualifications.

"...[T]o accommodate the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, at their request we are delaying the hearing, again, until January 15," read Leahy's statement. "The Assistant Republican Leader said last year that 'attorney general nominees have been confirmed, on average, in approximately three weeks.' Nonetheless, in order to accommodate the Republicans members, I am rescheduling the hearing on Mr. Holder for twice that long, until more than six weeks after his official designation. It is disappointing to me that they are insisting that we delay at a time when the nation needs its top law enforcement officer and national security team in place and working."

That three-week standard was, fortunately enough, highlighted by Sen. Jon Kyl, the second highest-ranking Republican in the chamber, and Leahy is using it to great effect. If Kyl believes three weeks is appropriate timeframe to consider an A.G. nominee, it's tough to take GOP whining too seriously when Leahy is giving the minority party six weeks to prepare for Holder. (The process for Holder will already far exceed the confirmation schedule for both Alberto Gonzales and Janet Reno.)

This probably won't completely placate the Republican critics -- Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wanted the hearings pushed to Jan. 26 -- but I like to think Leahy has given an inch, he won't give up a mile.

Leahy added in his statement, "It is disappointing to me that [Senate Republicans] are insisting that we delay at a time when the nation needs its top law enforcement officer and national security team in place and working. I trust that with this additional time to prepare, they will cooperate in proceeding promptly to Committee and Senate consideration of the historic Holder nomination as Democrats did for President Bush."

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DEFINE 'INVOLVED'.... A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Barack Obama's national support unaffected by the Blagojevich scandal, which obviously makes sense given that Obama is not implicated in the Blagojevich scandal.

But a new Rasmussen poll offers an odd result in response to an awkwardly-worded question.

Forty five percent (45%) of U.S. voters say it is likely President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the unfolding Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, including 23% who say it is Very Likely.

Just 11% say it is not at all likely, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey taken Thursday and Friday nights.

The exact wording of the question was: "How likely is it that President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the Blagojevich scandal?"

The problem, of course, is that "involved" is more than a little ambiguous. For that matter, asking about "Obama or one of his top campaign aides" opens the door awfully wide.

Indeed, while I suspect some news outlets will pounce on the Rasmussen results as evidence of public doubts about Obama, the exact same pollster, on the exact same day, found that Obama's approval rating is still soaring, and one point shy of a post-election high.

In other words, looking at the Rasmussen numbers, Americans either a) believe the president-elect or his team were part of a major corruption scandal, but don't care; or b) think Obama or his aides were "involved," but not in a way that reflects badly on the president-elect or his team. My hunch is that it's the latter.

Tell you the truth, I'm kind of surprised the "involved" number isn't higher, given the media coverage. Yglesias tuned into MSNBC this morning, and found a "lengthy discussion of Obama's involvement in Blagojevich's corruption." It follows a week of inexplicable media reports about Obama's non-existent role in the matter, reality notwithstanding.

Yglesias added, "One might think that communicating to television personalities the fact that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Obama's part would constitute a good PR strategy. Given that they knew there was no evidence of wrongdoing, they should have ceased implying that there was wrongdoing. But they didn't do that at all. Not, I would submit, because of any failings on Obama's part, but because Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, John Heileman, Mark Halperin, and Pat Buchanan don't care at all about the accuracy of the impression their coverage gives."

All of this, in turn, leads to dubious results in response to odd poll questions.

Steve Benen 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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CAROLINE KENNEDY TO SEEK SENATE SEAT.... It's not necessarily a surprise, given her outreach efforts to New York political leaders, but Caroline Kennedy has reportedly decided to formally pursue Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

The decision came after a series of deeply personal and political conversations, in which Ms. Kennedy, who friends describe as unflashy but determined, wrestled with whether to give up what has been a lifetime of avoiding the spotlight.

Ms. Kennedy will ask that Gov. David A. Paterson consider her for the appointment. The governor was traveling to Utica today could not immediately be reached for comment.

If appointed, Ms. Kennedy would fill the seat once held by her uncle, the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Ms. Kennedy has been making calls this morning to alert political figures to her interest.

Roll Call is reporting the same thing.

Speculation about Kennedy's interest in the seat has prompted some strong analysis, but I'm afraid I don't have especially strong feelings on the subject. I'm not a fan of family dynasties, and I'm even less comfortable when dynasties are continued through appointments, rather than elections. So, by this score, count me as a skeptic.

On the other hand, it's certainly possible that Caroline Kennedy would be a fantastic senator and a champion of values and issues I hold dear. The problem, I suppose, is that I don't really know much about her, other than her last name, and some of the work she did in support of the Obama campaign. Kennedy's never held or run for public office, and I don't yet have a sense of why she wants to serve, what she'd do if she held the office, and whether she's prepared to run in a special election in 2010 and for a full term in 2012.

That's not necessarily meant as criticism. If given a chance, Kennedy may have compelling and persuasive responses to these points, putting all doubts to rest. At this point, though, we haven't heard any of these responses, so it's hard to know how best to respond to the news.

I guess we'll learn more soon enough.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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GOOD FAITH.... So Congress thought it was passing some strict limits on executive compensation when it passed the $700 billion bailout package for the financial industry. Bush added a tiny and seemingly inconsequential change, stipulating that penalties would only be applied to companies that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction. Democrats went along.

And why wouldn't they? Democratic lawmakers negotiated in good faith, and understood that buying the troubled assets was, in fact, the plan. It was right there in the TARP name and everything. There was no harm, they thought, in adding Bush's one-sentence provision.

Except they were wrong, and the Bush administration didn't buy up the troubled assets after all. The tiny and seemingly inconsequential change became a giant loophole.

But at least it wasn't a deliberate scam that Democrats fell for. Or, on second thought...

[Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson] repeatedly told lawmakers that he did not plan to use bailout funds to inject capital directly into financial institutions. Privately, however, his staff was developing plans to do just that, Paulson acknowledged in an interview.

Josh Marshall asks, "Don't we have laws to cover stuff like this?" That's not an unreasonable question.

I'd just add, though, that looking back over the last eight years, I'm hard pressed to think of instances in which Bush didn't ultimately punish congressional Democrats for negotiating in good faith. Policy makers have been confronted with crises, Dems have come to the table with good intentions and a willingness to trust their rivals, and it just never worked out for them.

The relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown keeps coming to mind.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AMERICANS AREN'T MAKING THE NON-EXISTENT CONNECTION.... Most of the recent national polls have shown Barack Obama with an almost surprising amount of support, even among Americans who didn't vote for him. It's all subject to change, of course, and Obama hasn't had to actually govern, but he's poised to enter the White House with considerable goodwill and very high approval ratings.

But wait, Obama detractors remind us, these polls were taken before Rod Blagojevich got arrested. Obama isn't connected to the scandal, hasn't done anything wrong, and hasn't been implicated in this mess in any way, but most news outlets have been working overtime to make the connection anyway, using baseless speculation and circular analysis. CNN's Wolf Blitzer announced late last week that "some are calling this Obama's first presidential scandal." He didn't identify the "some," and didn't explain why those people are completely wrong.

The next question, then, is whether, and to what extent, the media's drumbeat will undermine the president-elect's support. So far, Americans are seeing through the charade.

Public ratings of Barack Obama are unscathed by the scandal swirling around Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's apparent effort to trade off his power to appoint Obama's successor to the U.S. Senate, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

More than three-quarters of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the presidential transition, up significantly from three weeks ago, and a slim majority in the new poll said the president-elect has already done enough to explain any connections his staff may have had with Blagojevich.

If Obama has nothing to do with the Blagojevich controversy, and last week's innuendo hasn't changed public perceptions, maybe political reporters can cut the nonsense?

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'SO WHAT?'.... I'd like to think those responsible for the war in Iraq would know not to take a lackadaisical attitude towards the consequences of that war. If only that were true.

In an interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz yesterday, the president reflected on the war, saying, "One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand."

Raddatz interjected, noting that Iraq was not a major theater for al Qaeda until after the U.S. invasion. "Yeah, that's right," the president said. "So what?" He added that he believes the terrorist group is "becoming defeated."

It's hard not to watch clips like these and just shake your head.

Ali Frick sets the record straight: "Continuing his refusal to take any responsibility for the consequences of his decisions, Bush suggests that al Qaeda came to Iraq by chance, that it simply 'turn[ed] out to have been' the place where they 'were going to take their stand.' But al Qaeda's existence in Iraq is 100 percent attributable to Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq: al Qaeda never existed there before, and in fact, Saddam Hussein viewed Osama bin Laden as a threat and refused to support him."

That Bush considers this irrelevant is not entirely surprising, but it is a reminder of just how unwilling he is to accept any responsibility for his tragic errors.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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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.

* Members of the electoral college will meet today and formally make Barack Obama the president-elect.

* Caroline Kennedy is reportedly working the phones as part of her interest in replacing Hillary Clinton in the Senate, with Kennedy calling state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last week. She's also spoken to Gov. David Paterson and state Controller Thomas DiNapoli.

* Houston Mayor Bill White (D) has reportedly agreed, at the DSCC's behest, to run for the Senate in 2010, which will likely be an open-seat contest with Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) running for governor. White was re-elected last year with 86% of the vote.

* Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) is apparently enthusiastic about Chris Matthews' possible Senate campaign, calling the MSNBC host the "strongest Democratic candidate without any doubt."

* If Matthews does run, the latest Research 2000 poll shows him faring rather well against potential primary rivals and in a general election match-up against Arlen Specter. (Of course, these early polls largely measure name recognition and are likely to change.)

* John McCain hedged yesterday when asked whether he's prepared to support Sarah Palin in 2012, if she runs for president. He noted that his "corpse is still warm."

* Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, will not seek re-election in 2010. It's widely believed he's planning to run for governor.

* Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) will seek a ninth term in 2010.

* Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) does not plan to run for governor in 2010.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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WHISTLING PAST DIXIE.... As Barack Obama's cabinet continues to come together, it's hard not to notice the diversity. No one could argue that this team fails to "look like America," to borrow Bill Clinton's phrase from 1992. I doubt the president-elect and the transition team are overly concerned about checking off boxes, but this is obviously not a cabinet dominated by wealthy, middle-aged white guys.

Apparently, though, there's a group feeling slighted: Southerners.

Marc Ambinder recently noted that the region so far lacks representation in the cabinet, and the Politico devoted a fairly long piece to the subject today.

"Not a one," grumbles a one senior Democratic aide who hails from the South. "Not even half of one, unless you count Hillary Clinton, and she doesn't count because she's not even an Arkansan anymore. She's a Yankee."

To be fair, the official voice of the White House will come with a Southern drawl: Robert Gibbs, Obama's soon-to-be press secretary, is an Alabama native.

But going back to at least John F. Kennedy, every other new president has populated his initial Cabinet with one or more Southerners.

There are some practical concerns here. For one thing, the cabinet isn't finished, and we don't know who else might be nominated (or where they'll come from). For another, Republicans have dominated politics in the South for a generation.

Nevertheless, the Politico talked to a former senior Democratic Hill aide who complained about Obama's "geographic snubbing." The aide added, "The risk to the president-elect is that if he doesn't appoint anyone from the South to top level policy positions, he is going to look like he is buying into the stereotype that there isn't anyone from the South smart enough to work for him."

Maybe I'm insufficiently sensitive, but this strikes me as pretty unpersuasive. Obama is picking the most qualified, most capable officials he can find for his team. It's kind of silly to think he's deliberately "snubbing" a region -- chances are, the president-elect isn't paying much attention to geography at all. I get the sense Obama cares about gender, racial, ethnic, and even ideological diversity, but making sure the South is duly represented is probably low on his priority list.

And frankly, it should be. Various groups want a seat at the proverbial table, but since when are Southerners an unrepresented minority? Will other regions start questioning whether they've been snubbed, too?

It's likely the significance of this is being exaggerated. The Politico quoted a grand total of two people complaining -- both anonymous Hill staffers, one of whom doesn't even work in Congress anymore. Indeed, Gordon Taylor, a former chief of staff to a southern Democratic member, "said some Blue Dog Democrats didn't even realize the gap in geographic diversity until it was pointed out to them."

But for observers looking for something new to complain about, I guess this fits the bill.

Steve Benen 11:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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THE REASON FOR THE SEASON.... The fight over holiday displays at the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington, is fascinating, in large part because it's such an incredible mess.

The official policy seemed fairly reasonable and accommodating. A private group asked to donate a Nativity scene to be publicly displayed on the Capitol grounds. Officials agreed. An atheist group noted that if a creche is permissible, then they'd like to have a display of their own. Reluctant to play favorites and invite a legal dispute, officials agreed to this, too. A menorah was soon to be added to the mix.

At that point, the door was open, and others wanted to walk in. A hyper-right-wing religious group demanded that it be allowed to erect a sign that reads, "Santa Claus will take you to Hell." Around the same time, Seinfeld fans asked that space be reserved for a "Festivus" pole. Then came the request for a "Flying Spaghetti Monster" display, a Buddhist request for a display, and a Christian goodwill message to atheists. All wanted equal time, just like the others had received.

Frustrated and befuddled, state officials announced that a new moratorium is now in place, forbidding any additional holiday displays at the Capitol.

A lack of space and a need to rework policy were the reasons for the decision, said Steve Valandra, spokesman for the state Department of General Administration.

The moratorium affects at least five pending requests for displays, and none will be allowed this year, Valandra said. But a previously approved request to display a menorah will be allowed to go up Dec. 21.

"The moratorium applies to pending and any future applications for exhibits and displays. It will remain in effect until General Administration completes a review of its current policy for exhibits and displays for the Legislative Building," a statement issued by GA said.

"Reviewing" the policy seems like a good idea. Here's my recommendation: next year, have an understated "Happy Holidays" message, put up a few generic lights, skip the representation of the birth of Jesus, and tell the community that the door is closed.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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NET NEUTRALITY LOSING KEY SUPPORTERS?.... The Wall Street Journal has a front-page report this morning on the apparent trend of net neutrality "quietly losing powerful defenders."

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers. [...]

Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.

Included in the "prominent Internet scholars" is Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and an influential proponent of network neutrality, who the WSJ reports "recently shifted gears" on the issue.

Now, while all of this is discouraging, the WSJ piece may not be entirely right. For example, Lessig posted an item on his own blog about this, and explains why it seems the Journal misrepresented his position. Lessig makes the case, persuasively, that the paper is trying to "gin up a drama," and that he hasn't changed his views at all.

What's more, Google has posted an item on its policy blog, explaining that the WSJ article "is based on a misunderstanding of the way in which the open Internet works," and there is evidence to suggest Google's position has also been misrepresented.

That said, as Matt Stoller explains, there is a policy disagreement between Google, Lessig, and the vision embraced by supporters of net neutrality.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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QUITE A LOOPHOLE.... When lawmakers considered the $700 billion bailout package a few months ago, they argued with the Bush White House over restrictions on executive compensation. Democrats insisted that firms accepting bailout funds could not, in turn, lavish their top executives with multi-million dollar salaries and/or "golden parachute" severance pay. The president wanted no such restrictions.

At first glance, it was a fight Democrats appeared to win, and strict limits were included in the final legislation. Indeed, there was even an IRS mechanism that mandated a close review of executive compensation, and tax penalties for companies that failed to comply.

Apparently, lawmakers neglected to read Bush's fine-print.

[A]t the last minute, the Bush administration insisted on a one-sentence change to the provision, congressional aides said. The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

Now, however, the small change looks more like a giant loophole, according to lawmakers and legal experts. In a reversal, the Bush administration has not used auctions for any of the $335 billion committed so far from the rescue package, nor does it plan to use them in the future. Lawmakers and legal experts say the change has effectively repealed the only enforcement mechanism in the law dealing with lavish pay for top executives.

"The flimsy executive-compensation restrictions in the original bill are now all but gone," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), ranking Republican on of the Senate Finance Committee.

The hard-fought "concession" from the administration was, in practice, something of a joke.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE PENTAGON BUDGET.... If policymakers are looking at the federal budget, looking for areas to trim spending, the Pentagon may be one of the first areas to draw extra scrutiny.

We know Barack Obama's incoming national security team supports renewed fiscal discipline at the Defense Department. It was encouraging, though, to see the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree.

The top U.S. military officer says the Pentagon cannot afford continued cost overruns and is hinting that some weapons systems may be cut or scaled back under President-elect Barack Obama.

"I'm obviously discouraged by the lack of cost control that we've got in so many ... of our programs," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

"We are going to have to get a grip on that or we will not be able to buy them," Mullen said Wednesday, "or we won't be able to buy them in the quantity we need."

Mullen added that Robert Gates plans to "take a very, very intense, focused, comprehensive view at what we're buying. And from that perspective, I think that's very healthy." Mullen added, "I think it's important for all of us in the Defense Department to squeeze our budgets, to draw in where we can, and for leaders to commit to that."

All of this is pretty encouraging. During the campaign, some on the far-right hoped to demagogue this issue, insisting that Obama's willingness to scrutinize the Pentagon budget was evidence of being "soft" on defense.

And yet, we're now looking at an approach with fairly broad support. Obama has endorsed cutting back on military spending, but so has John McCain. With Bush's Defense Secretary, and a Bush-appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for tougher budget discipline at the Defense Department, we're looking at what can fairly be described as a consensus view.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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BLAGOJEVICH'S 'FOOTBALL'.... Reading over the criminal complaint against Rod Blagojevich last week, and seeing the partial transcripts of his telephone conversations, one gets the sense that the governor may not only be guilty of cartoonish corruption, but may also be ... a terribly odd person.

Indeed, I don't have a background on mental health, but I've seen more than a few reports over the last six days about whether Blagojevich, who knew he was being closely monitored, may not be, shall we say, playing with a full deck.

The New York Times reports today on some of the governor's idiosyncratic personality traits.

[Blagojevich] can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush. He calls the brush "the football," an allusion to the "nuclear football," or the bomb codes never to be out of reach of a president.

In 1996, John Fritchey, a Democrat who shared a campaign office with Mr. Blagojevich, was told that his stepfather had suffered a serious stroke. He walked over to Mr. Blagojevich, who was making fund-raising calls, and shared the news.

"He proceeded to tell me that he was sorry, and then, in the next breath, he asked me if I could talk to my family about contributing money to his campaign," recalled Mr. Fritchey, now a state representative and a critic of the governor. "To do that, and in such a nonchalant manner, didn't strike me as something a normal person would do."

Many who know the governor well say that as Mr. Blagojevich's famed fund-raising capability seemed to have shrunk in recent months and as his legal bills mounted after years of federal investigation, he appeared to have evolved from what Mr. Fritchey considered callous into something closer to panicked or delusional.

For what it's worth, while state attorney general Lisa Madigan said yesterday that she believes Blagojevich may step down from office as early as today, the governor's spokesperson, Lucio Guerrero, soon after announced that wasn't the case. In fact, the spokesperson said Blagojevich would head to work today and study some pending legislation. "He has no plans of resigning today or tomorrow," Guerrero said.

Blagojevich's apparent interest in state business notwithstanding, he also has other matters on his mind -- on Saturday, he met with a high-profile criminal defense attorney in Chicago.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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December 14, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Flying Shoe Thread

As you have probably heard, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at president Bush. Here's the video (via TPM):

McClatchy:

"As Bush finished remarks that hailed the security progress that led to a U.S.-Iraq agreement that sets a three-year timetable for an American withdrawal, an Iraqi television journalist leapt from his seat, pulled off his shoes and threw them at the president. Striking someone with a shoe is a grave insult in Islam.

"This is a goodbye kiss, you dog," the journalist, Muntathar al Zaidi, 29, shouted.

Bush ducked the first shoe. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, standing to Bush's left, tried to swat down the second. Neither hit the president. Another Iraqi journalist yanked Zaidi to the ground before bodyguards collapsed on Zaidi and held him there while he yelled "Killer of Iraqis, killer of children." From the bottom of the pile, he moaned loudly and said "my hand, my hand.""

About the shoes: as McClatchy notes, pointing the soles of one's shoes at someone, or striking them with shoes, is a serious insult in the Arab world. Juan Cole recalls the stories, from just after the invasion, of Iraqis hitting pictures and statues of Saddam Hussein with shoes. This YouTube should help to get the meaning across:

Personally, I don't like people throwing shoes at anyone. For some reason, I found myself wondering what kind of shoes they were: a pair of rubber flip-flops wouldn't do much damage; steel-toed Doc Martens would be a different story. Insofar as I could see anything about these particular shoes, a lot would seem to depend on whether or not they had wooden heels.

That said, I also wondered whether Bush would have had any sense at all of how angry a lot of Iraqis are had this not happened. I'm not saying that that makes it OK; just wondering.

Hilzoy 6:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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ALL OF THIS SEEMS ODDLY FAMILIAR.... Last week, Newsweek's "Convention Wisdom Watch" feature gave Barack Obama another up arrow. The feature added, however, "What, no gaffes? CW worrying it won't have enough silly distractions to feast on."

Now, the magazine was obviously kidding, but the snarky joke pointed to an unfortunate truth: the political media establishment has been just sitting around, waiting for a "silly distraction to feast on." A day after the Newsweek edition hit newsstands, Rod Blagojevich was arrested. Guess what happened next.

Kevin Drum's take this morning was spot-on:

...I've lost count of the number of op-eds and TV talking head segments over the past week that have started out with something like this: "There's no evidence that Barack Obama was involved in Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scheme -- in fact just the opposite -- but...." After the "but," we get a couple thousand words with some take or another on why this is casting a "lengthening shadow" over Obama even though there's precisely zero evidence that he had even a tangential involvement in the whole thing.

Look, I get it: it was kind of a slow news week, reporters are tired of Obama the Savior stories, the Blagojevich story is theatrically sexy, and everyone is desperately trying to find a way to turn it from a local story to a national one. But there's no there there. Maybe Republicans still haven't learned their lesson from the 90s, but that's no reason the press has to follow them over a cliff once again.

The "once again" phrase seems especially important. Media Matters' Jamison Foser had a terrific item on Friday afternoon, highlighting why this week's coverage, and the breathless efforts to connect Blagojevich to Obama, may seem eerily familiar to "anyone who lived through the media feeding frenzy of the 1990s."

If the news media regains a bit of the skepticism so many of them set aside for the past eight years, that would be an unequivocally good thing, and it should be applauded.

But this week brought signs that much of the media is set to resume the absurd and shameful behavior that defined the 1990s -- guilt by association, circular analysis whereby they ask baseless questions about non-scandals, then claim they have to report on the "scandal" because the White House is "besieged by questions," grotesque leaps of logic, downplaying exculpatory information, and too many other failings to list.

If that happens -- if the media continue to behave as they did in covering Whitewater -- they will damage the country. It's really that simple. We cannot afford to be distracted from serious problems by overheated conjecture and baseless insinuation masquerading as journalism.

Read the whole thing.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PULLING THE STRINGS.... When Barack Obama introduced Eric Holder as his choice to be the next Attorney General, the response was relatively muted on the right. There was some grumbling about the Marc Rich pardon, but even most Republicans conceded that Holder, with his extensive background and qualifications, would be confirmed.

Karl Rove appeared on the "Today" show soon after the nomination was announced, and called Holder "controversial," and promising, in his best passive voice, that "there will be some attention paid to" Holder's Clinton-era work.

This week, several conservative Republican senators, none of whom seemed to care about Holder before, began railing against the nomination, one even threatening a filibuster. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) argued this week that the new-found antagonism was a result of Rove pulling the party's strings.

Adding to the story, Satyam Khanna noted that the Washington Post's Ceci Connolly told MSNBC's Chris Matthews this morning, "Word on the street is that Karl Rove is going to be helping lead the fight against Eric Holder when his nomination for Attorney General heads up to the Senate."

Now, it's certainly possible that this is true. Rove needs a new hobby, and targeting Eric Holder for character assassination might sound appealing to him.

But here's the part someone's going to have to explain to me: why on earth would Senate Republicans care what Karl Rove thinks? He helped advise McCain, and McCain lost. He led the Republican strategy in the 2006 midterms, and the GOP suffered sweeping and humiliating defeats. Rove was nearly indicted for helping expose the identity of an undercover CIA agent, and left the White House under a cloud of scandal.

Sure, he has a platform on Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but why would the party care? Indeed, Rove may think Holder's vulnerable, but what are the chances Holder's nomination is going to be defeated in a Senate with 58 (or possibly 59) Democrats?

It's possible that Rove, if the "word on the street" is accurate, may simply want congressional Republicans to prove a point, picking a fight they're likely to lose in order to set a combative tone for the next two years. The goal, in other words, would be to maintain as toxic an environment as possible, and the Holder nomination would simply be a means to an end.

It sounds like a pretty dumb strategy for an unpopular party facing off against a man who'll enter the White House with a lot of popularity and goodwill behind him.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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MAVERICKY.... The Republican National Committee, true to form, is going to comical lengths to try to connect Barack Obama to Rod Blagojevich, reality notwithstanding. The latest initiative includes a three-minute web video featuring a bunch of instances in which the senator from Illinois met the governor of Illinois. The horror.

The video is likely part of RNC chairman Mike Duncan's campaign to keep his job -- he's desperate to prove to Republicans that he can be at least as ridiculous as the other candidates for the post. But outside this context, the Republican National Committee's baseless smear campaign against the president-elect seems unusually cheap, even by RNC standards.

Oddly enough, an unexpected source came to Obama's defense this morning.

John McCain, reminding GOP partisans why they always hated him, downplays the Blago story and takes a passing shot at the RNC on "This Week":

"I think that the Obama campaign should and will give all information necessary. You know, in all due respect to the Republican National Committee and anybody -- right now, I think we should try to be working constructively together, not only on an issue such as this, but on the economy stimulus package, reforms that are necessary. And so, I don't know all the details of the relationship between President-elect Obama's campaign or his people and the governor of Illinois, but I have some confidence that all the information will come out. It always does, it seems to me."

(McCain also joined everyone else in calling for Blagojevich's resignation, but added, "[T]here's a lot of corruption among Republicans and Democrats.")

When the Republican presidential candidate thinks the RNC is wasting its time on a foolish attack against the Democratic president-elect, you know the party is headed in the wrong direction.

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

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By: Hilzoy

Whistleblowers

Newsweek has a fascinating story about the person who first leaked the warrantless surveillance story:

"Thomas M. Tamm was entrusted with some of the government's most important secrets. He had a Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance, a level above Top Secret. Government agents had probed Tamm's background, his friends and associates, and determined him trustworthy.

It's easy to see why: he comes from a family of high-ranking FBI officials. During his childhood, he played under the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, and as an adult, he enjoyed a long and successful career as a prosecutor. Now gray-haired, 56 and fighting a paunch, Tamm prides himself on his personal rectitude. He has what his 23-year-old son, Terry, calls a "passion for justice." For that reason, there was one secret he says he felt duty-bound to reveal.

In the spring of 2004, Tamm had just finished a yearlong stint at a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies -- a unit so sensitive that employees are required to put their hands through a biometric scanner to check their fingerprints upon entering. While there, Tamm stumbled upon the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency program that seemed to be eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. The unit had special rules that appeared to be hiding the NSA activities from a panel of federal judges who are required to approve such surveillance. When Tamm started asking questions, his supervisors told him to drop the subject. He says one volunteered that "the program" (as it was commonly called within the office) was "probably illegal."

Tamm agonized over what to do. He tried to raise the issue with a former colleague working for the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the friend, wary of discussing what sounded like government secrets, shut down their conversation. For weeks, Tamm couldn't sleep. The idea of lawlessness at the Justice Department angered him. Finally, one day during his lunch hour, Tamm ducked into a subway station near the U.S. District Courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue. He headed for a pair of adjoining pay phones partially concealed by large, illuminated Metro maps. Tamm had been eyeing the phone booths on his way to work in the morning. Now, as he slipped through the parade of midday subway riders, his heart was pounding, his body trembling. Tamm felt like a spy. After looking around to make sure nobody was watching, he picked up a phone and called The New York Times. (...)

The story of Tamm's phone call is an untold chapter in the history of the secret wars inside the Bush administration. The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its story. The two reporters who worked on it each published books. Congress, after extensive debate, last summer passed a major new law to govern the way such surveillance is conducted. But Tamm -- who was not the Times's only source, but played the key role in tipping off the paper -- has not fared so well. The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past two and a half years. Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life. Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if or when federal agents might arrest him.

Exhausted by the uncertainty clouding his life, Tamm now is telling his story publicly for the first time. "I thought this [secret program] was something the other branches of the government -- and the public -- ought to know about. So they could decide: do they want this massive spying program to be taking place?" Tamm told NEWSWEEK, in one of a series of recent interviews that he granted against the advice of his lawyers. "If somebody were to say, who am I to do that? I would say, 'I had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.' It's stunning that somebody higher up the chain of command didn't speak up.""

It's fascinating, and well worth reading in its entirety. For now, I want to focus on one comment by Frances Frago Townsend:

"You can't have runoffs deciding they're going to be the white knight and running to the press," says Frances Fragos Townsend, who once headed the unit where Tamm worked and later served as President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser. Townsend made clear that she had no knowledge of Tamm's particular case, but added: "There are legal processes in place [for whistle-blowers' complaints]. This is one where I'm a hawk. It offends me, and I find it incredibly dangerous."

In general, I agree with Townsend. It is generally better for all concerned if whistle-blowers operate within the system, and it is dangerous when people freelance. But there's one big exception to this rule: when the system has itself been corrupted. When you're operating within a system in which whistle-blowers' concerns are not addressed -- where the likelihood that any complaint you make within the system will be addressed is near zero, while the likelihood that you will be targeted for reprisals is high -- then no sane person who is motivated by a desire to have his or her concern addressed will work within that system.

That means that if, like Townsend, you want whistleblowers to work within the system, you need to ensure that that system actually works. A good manager will do this: she will recognize that in any human endeavor, things go wrong, and that it's best for all concerned if people who spot things that have gone wrong can try to do something about it. She will also recognize that those employees who are genuinely worried by the prospect of illegal or immoral conduct are employees she should value. She will therefore bend over backwards to make sure that those employees have ways of making their concerns known that are likely to be effective, and that employees who use those channels are not penalized.

In so doing, she will not only make it more likely that her organization will spot and correct genuine problems; she will also make it more likely that employees who bring what they think are problems to others' attention will accept it if those others don't think that their concerns are warranted. If something worries you and you tell your superiors, but those superiors don't think there is a problem, you are much more likely to accept what they say if you know that they are open to the idea that there are problems, and to dealing with them, but don't think that your specific concern actually indicates anything wrong. If, on the other hand, you know that their response is always to circle the wagons and deny that anything is wrong, you're much more likely to assume that if they don't think that your concern is warranted, they're just being defensive.

If an organization has a functioning system for hearing and addressing employees' concerns about illegal or immoral conduct, then I think that employees should use that system except in truly extraordinary circumstances. But if it does not have such a system, or if that system is dysfunctional, then we should not expect employees to work within it.

It's odd that Townsend doesn't bother to consider whether the "processes in place" for whistleblowers actually worked in the Bush administration's Department of Justice. Given what we know about the degree to which that department was politicized under Bush, it seems likely that they did not.

And it's even odder given that Townsend herself is not an outside observer, but someone who has considerable responsibility within the Bush administration. Saying that whistleblowers ought to work within the system without adding "if the system is in fact functional" is odd in itself. But saying that when you are one of the people who could have helped to make it functional amounts to saying: well, I and my colleagues have failed to do our jobs, but never mind that: we should expect whistle-blowers to work within the system, even if our own failure means that they have no reason to believe that doing so will actually accomplish anything other than the destruction of their careers.

That's a lot to ask.

Hilzoy 11:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Hilzoy

Details, Details

Last night I wrote about the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction's draft report. The NYT has put the draft online here. I'm still reading through it, but here's a bit from p. 65. The scene is an interagency conference on reconstruction about a month before we invaded:

"Ambassador George Ward, head of ORHA's humanitarian pillar, asked, "How am I going to protect humanitarian convoys, humanitarian staging areas, humanitarian distribution points?" A flag officer who had flown in from CENTCOM said, "Hire war lords." "Wait a minute," Ward thought, "folks don't understand this. There are warlords in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. There were no warlords to rent." "At that point," Ward says, "I thought this was going to fail because no one is paying serious attention to civilian security.""

A month before the invasion, and people still didn't understand absolutely basic facts about the country they were planning to invade.

It's not news, but every new instance of this kind of basic ignorance about a country whose government we were proposing to topple, and which we were proposing to rebuild, still takes my breath away.

Hilzoy 10:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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OF COURSE THEY SPOKE.... Apparently, the big Blagojevich-related news of the weekend is evidence that the governor spoke, on more than one occasion, to soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, communicated with the office of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois about potential candidates for Mr. Obama's Senate seat and provided a list of names, according to two Obama associates briefed on the matter.

The Obama associates said the interactions concerned several people who might fill the seat. Such contacts are common among party officials when a political vacancy is to be filled. It was not clear whether the communication was via direct telephone calls.

I keep waiting for some tidbit here that's supposed to be interesting, but so far, these revelations seem pretty routine and not controversial in the slightest.

Obama's chief of staff talked to the governor who'll fill the vacancy left by Obama's presidency? Well, sure, of course they talked. It would have been odd if they hadn't. Emanuel, who's represented Illinois in Congress, had ideas about who might make a good senator? Well, sure, of course he did. As the Chicago Tribune noted, "The revelation does not suggest Obama's new gatekeeper was involved in any talk of dealmaking involving the seat."

And that's really what this is all about. If Emanuel took steps to "pay to play," it would be a problem. If Emanuel knew that the governor was trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder, that, too, would be a problem. But at this point, what evidence is there to support either of these contentions? There is none.

But, the AP insists, Obama said on Thursday that he's "confident" that "nobody on his staff" discussed the vacant Senate seat with Blagojevich. Doesn't the new information suggest that the president-elect wasn't telling the whole truth?

It might, if the AP's report were accurate, but it's not. What Obama said was straightforward and easy to understand: "I have never spoken to the governor on this subject. I'm confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat. I think the materials released by the U.S. attorney reflect that fact."

The AP's report, in the very first sentence, completely misrepresents what Obama said.

So, what have we learned? That Emanuel talked to Blagojevich about the vacancy, which isn't inappropriate, and which was fully expected. Not exactly exciting stuff.

Steve Benen 10:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM.... Matters of civic pride can focus on unusual qualities. I've always been impressed, for example, by the fact that nearly everyone seems to believe the drivers in their area are the worst in the country. ("Wait, you think your drivers are bad? I'm from [fill in the blank]."

This has also proven true this week, as Illinois has staked its claim as the most corrupt state. Oddly enough, many have gone to bat protesting the label, insisting that their state is way worse than the Land of Lincoln. Josh Marshall labeled this "crook envy" a few days ago, as residents of New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York got annoyed by all the attention that Alaska, Illinois, and Louisiana have been getting. (Jacob Weisberg gives the edge to Illinois over Louisiana.)

For what it's worth, I was saddened to see Florida, where I was born and raised, get left out of the mix.

Today, the New York Times' Bill Marsh tried to quantify matters a bit, using three competing methods to determine the "winner."

* Number of Guilty Officials: Bigger states often produce bigger numbers in this category. Florida was the clear winner here, followed by New York and Texas.

* Number of Guilty Officials, per Capita: D.C. does surprisingly poorly here (it has a "high concentration of public officials amid a relatively small population"), as does, oddly enough, North Dakota. Alaska and Louisiana, though, are close behind.

* Journalist survey: Apparently, researchers recently asked state house reporters to weigh in on the subject. Rhode Island edged Louisiana for the top spot, followed by New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Delaware.

Let the debate continue....

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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HECKUVA JOB.... Be sure to read Hilzoy's overnight item on the unpublished federal history of the reconstruction of Iraq, but I just wanted to highlight one more gem from the NYT article.

The history records how Mr. Garner presented Mr. Rumsfeld with several rebuilding plans, including one that would include projects across Iraq.

"What do you think that'll cost?" Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the more expansive plan.

"I think it's going to cost billions of dollars," Mr. Garner said.

"My friend," Mr. Rumsfeld replied, "if you think we're going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken."

Oh, that Rummy. We'll never see another one like him -- if we're all very lucky.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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By: Hilzoy

Reconstruction

From the NYT:

"An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also conc