Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Daschle

What is it with these people and their taxes? First Geithner, and now, as Steve mentioned, Daschle.

I don't understand why people in public life don't just recognize that they should report anything that might even conceivably count as income, and do things right the first time.

What's more, I really don't like this, from the WSJ:

"Mr. Daschle told committee staff that he had grown used to having a car and driver as Senate majority leader and didn't think to report the perquisite on his taxes, according to staff members."

Part of what bothers me about this is the sense of entitlement: the sense that having a car and driver is just one of those ordinary things that happen to a person, not worth noticing or thinking of as compensation or a gift.

I think Obama should ditch him. But then, while I didn't get down into the weeds and figure out the ins and outs of Geithner's tax situation, I thought he should have ditched Geithner too. And while I see the problem with uncertainty about one's Treasury secretary in the middle of a financial crisis, the fact that Obama didn't drop Geithner will make it a lot harder for him to drop Daschle, and whoever else comes along.

I also have to ask: didn't this come up during the vetting? If not, why not? And if it did, what's up with that?

Hilzoy 6:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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THE OTHER REPUBLICAN OFFICIALS.... Congressional Republicans oppose the Obama administration's economic stimulus package. Media Republicans oppose the Obama administration's economic stimulus package. But then there are those other Republicans who actually have to govern during this economic crisis.

Most Republican governors have broken with their GOP colleagues in Congress and are pushing for passage of President Barack Obama's economic aid plan that would send billions to states for education, public works and health care.

Their state treasuries drained by the financial crisis, governors would welcome the money from Capitol Hill, where GOP lawmakers are more skeptical of Obama's spending priorities.

The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, planned to meet in Washington this weekend with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other senators to press for her state's share of the package.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist worked the phones last week with members of his state's congressional delegation, including House Republicans. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, the Republican vice chairman of the National Governors Association, planned to be in Washington on Monday to urge the Senate to approve the plan.

"As the executive of a state experiencing budget challenges, Gov. Douglas has a different perspective on the situation than congressional Republicans," said Douglas' deputy chief of staff, Dennise Casey.

You don't say. States facing unprecedented budget crunches and mounting healthcare, education, and transportation costs support the idea of a federal rescue package. Who knew?

Gov. Jodi Rell (R) of Connecticut called up Democratic Rep. Jim Himes to ask, "What can I do, who can I call to make sure this passes?"

Even South Carolina's Mark Sanford, perhaps the most reactionary of the Republican govenors' neo-Hooverite caucus, is facing such severe pressure from South Carolina mayors and even Republicans in the state legislature that he's officially "undecided" about Obama's plan.

It's doubtful that congressional Republicans will pay much attention to what governors -- even governors in their own party -- have to say about this. But it's just one more example of far-right lawmakers being isolated, whether that matters to them or not.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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WE CAN'T WAGE A WAR AGAINST A TACTIC ANYWAY.... The AP reports today the "war on terror," as a phrase, seems to be on its way out.

The catchphrase burned into the American lexicon hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is fading away, slowly if not deliberately being replaced by a new administration bent on repairing the U.S. image among Muslim nations.

Since taking office less than two weeks ago, President Barack Obama has talked broadly of the "enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism." Another time it was an "ongoing struggle."

He has pledged to "go after" extremists and "win this fight." There even was an oblique reference to a "twilight struggle" as the U.S. relentlessly pursues those who threaten the country.

But only once since his Jan. 20 inauguration has Obama publicly strung those three words together into the explosive phrase that coalesced the country during its most terrifying time and eventually came to define the Bush administration.

Now, this may or may not have been a deliberate shift on the part of the president. He's been addressing the economic crisis quite a bit, and he was only inaugurated last week. Perhaps Obama will use "war on terror" moving forward, perhaps not.

But if he chooses to stop using it, the end of the rhetoric won't be a huge loss. As Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the AP, the "war on terror" has "became associated in the minds of many people outside the Unites States and particularly in places where the countries are largely Islamic and Arab, as being anti-Islam and anti-Arab."

And before our friends on the right suggest that U.S. officials ignore how rhetoric is perceived, let's not forget that the Bush administration, just last year, insisted otherwise. Indeed, the Bush administration issued guidelines, entitled "Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication," urging officials to stop describing extremists as "jihadists" or "mujahedeen," and to drop "Islamo-fascism" altogether. "It's not what you say but what they hear," the memo said in bold italic lettering.

A shift from "war on terror" would be part of the same realization.

I'd just add, by the way, that more than a few top officials have supported this kind of rhetorical shift for quite a while. None other than Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, banned the use of the phrase "Global War on Terror," according to instructions from his office last October.

Before the right attacks Obama for dropping the phrase, I wonder if they'll be equally anxious to go after Adm. Mullen.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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CHRIS MATTHEWS, LIBERAL.... Interesting concession from the MSNBC on-air talent.

Tonight on Hardball, Chris Matthews admitted to John Heilemann and Michael Scherer that he voted for newly-minted RNC Chairman Michael Steele when Steele ran for the U.S. Senate seat in Maryland against Ben Cardin in 2006.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Steele's enjoyed broader-than-average appeal throughout his political career, and media people, like everyone else, have to vote for someone.

Still, is it not notable that Matthews just nonchalantly tossed out that he had voted for the new chairman of the Republican Party? Would he not draw a fresh round of castigation from the right if he just up and talked about voting for Obama?

Matthews is, of course, considered by his conservative detractors as a Democratic partisan, making it odd for him to publicly declare that he supported a woefully-unqualified conservative Republican Senate candidate as recently as 2006. Indeed, Matthews thought the new RNC Chair would make a "good" senator despite having run the most shallow of campaigns, which included paying homeless people to lie to voters.

Also consider the context: in 2006, partisan control of the Senate was very much up in the air. Matthews, the "liberal," still voted for Steele.

How odd.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE JUDD GREGG CATCH.... Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) confirmed yesterday that he is under consideration to join the Obama administration cabinet as Commerce Secretary. And what about the prospect of Gregg's departure giving Senate Democrats a 60-seat caucus? There might be a catch.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) won't accept a position as President Obama's secretary of Commerce unless he is guaranteed his Senate seat remains in GOP hands, said two Republicans who know Gregg well.

Departing the Senate without one could give Democrats 60 members and a filibuster-proof majority.

"Gregg would never allow his seat to go to a Democrat, the only way he would allow it is if he died," said a Republican close to Gregg. "He would consider it to be a breach of trust to people who elected it."

In other words, Gregg would want to strike a deal -- he joins the cabinet, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) would choose a Republican to replace him -- before accepting an offer from the president. In fact, rumors were common yesterday that Lynch had his eye on former Gov. Walter Peterson, a liberal Republican, as a leading candidate to succeed Lynch.

I'm curious, though: if Gregg sticks to this, what's the incentive for Obama to select him? Gregg considers himself an expert on economic and fiscal issues, but he's still a Republican who backed all of Bush's economic policies. The president might get some credit for having added a third Republican to his cabinet, but all evidence suggests the congressional GOP isn't going to negotiate with the White House in good faith anyway, no matter how many gestures Obama makes.

I suppose one possible advantage is a slightly more reliable Republican ally for Obama in the Senate -- trading one relatively moderate GOP senator for a dependably moderate GOP senator who'll step down in 2010 anyway.

Still, all things being equal, if Gregg is applying this condition, the appeal of his nomination goes down considerably.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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'RESPECTING' THE OFFICE.... Former Bush White House chief of staff Andrew Card complained to right-wing talk-show host Michael Medved that President Obama is insufficiently respectful of the presidency. Apparently, one demonstrates respect for the presidency by their choice of attire:

"...I found that Ronald Reagan and both President Bushes treated the Oval Office with tremendous respect. They treated the Office of the Presidency with tremendous respect. And some of that respect was reflected in how they expected people to behave, how they expected them to dress when they walked into the symbol of freedom for the world, the Oval Office. And yes, I'm disappointed to see the casual, laissez faire, short sleeves, no shirt and tie, no jacket, kind of locker room experience that seems to be taking place in this White House and the Oval Office."

"Locker-room experience." Card wasn't kidding.

I think there are two general angles to this. The first is that Obama isn't especially concerned about the formality of one's clothing. He was photographed at his desk wearing a shirt and tie, and some of the political establishment gasped because he was seen sans jacket. (Obama, a Hawaii native, reportedly prefers a warm office. David Axelrod said, "You could grow orchids in there.") Suits are common on weekdays, but the president issued an informal edict for "business casual" on weekends. That, apparently, means slacks and a buttoned-down shirt.

Traditionalists may not approve of Obama's easy-going style, but we're a long way from a "laissez faire locker-room experience." A frat house it isn't.

The other thing to consider here is exactly how one "respects" the presidency. For Card and others who served with Bush, it's about choice of clothing. For those who serve with Obama, it's about honoring institutional limits and the rule of law.

Or, put another way, where exactly does a loyal Bushie get off talking about "respecting" the presidency? Did George W. Bush always wear a coat and tie? Sure. Good for him. But while he was wearing nice clothes and demanding that his staff do the same, he also oversaw a scandal-plagued White House that trashed constitutional norms and routinely ignored the laws that the president twice swore to faithfully execute.

One respects the office by honoring its place in a constitutional system, not by wearing a suit.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (278)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting report from Gallup, measuring religiosity on a state-by-state basis.

There are a number of ways to measure the relative religiosity of population segments. For the current ranking, Gallup uses the responses to a straightforward question that asks: "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" The rankings are based on the percentage of each state's adult (18 and older) population that answers in the affirmative.

The United States is generally a religious nation, although the degree of this religiosity varies across states and regions of the country. A robust 65% of all Americans (across the entire U.S. population) reported in 2008 that religion was important in their daily lives.

Looking at the results, the top 10 most religious states are all in the South, with Mississippi the most religious (85% of state residents said religion is an important part of their daily lives). Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas were close behind. Rounding out the rest of the top 10 were Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Texas.

On the other end of the spectrum, the least religious state in the nation is Vermont, with 42% of state residents saying religion is an important part of their daily lives. Indeed, every state in New England offered similar results, with New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts rounding out the top four for least religious states. Rhode Island and Connecticut weren't far behind, and Pacific-coast states -- Oregon, Washington, and Alaska -- were also in the mix.

Analyzing the results, Gallup noted, among other things, "differing 'state cultures' that are themselves associated with life approaches that give varying degrees of credence to religion as a guiding force."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A California appeals court ruled this week that a private Christian high school can expel students based on nothing but sexual orientation. I wonder what would have happened if the school accepted public funds through a voucher program.

* Speaking of California, federal authorities launched an investigation this week into the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to see whether leading church officials "tried to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by priests." The Wall Street Journal added, "The investigation is still in its early, fact-gathering stage, and it isn't known whether any criminal charges will result."

* And speaking of Roman Catholicism, Pope Benedict XVI has caused a bit of an uproar this week: "Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including that of a Holocaust denier whose rehabilitation sparked outrage among Jewish groups. The four bishops were excommunicated 20 years ago after they were consecrated by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent -- a move the Vatican said at the time was an act of schism."

* Yes, it is possible for Ted Haggard's sex scandal(s) to get even worse.

* President Obama named Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor and political strategist who handled religious outreach for the presidential campaign, to head the revamped and reorganized White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

* Focus on the Family hired a new D.C. lobbyist this week, picking up Timothy Goeglein, who is best known for having served as the Bush's White House's liaison to the religious right community. Goeglein was forced to resign after getting caught regularly plagiarizing material for a newspaper column he used to write.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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BECK TACKLES CALIFORNIA.... David Neiwert reports that Fox News' Glenn Beck told his national television audience yesterday that wants to remove California from the United States. It was quite a tirade:

"OK, there's something driving me to the edge of insanity, makes blood shoot right out my eyes, and that is California.

"California today, they voted against offshore drilling. Not on their land, or their shore, no. They also voted last week to raise emissions standards because it's too smoggy there and they care about the trees. Also, uh, in the stimulus, we found out today, it appears as though Hollywood can get a, um, bailout, from you and me, because nobody's going to see their movies. Hmmph! You'd think maybe they should just make better movies, and then we'd all go. But no no, let's bail them all out.

"The Civil War taught us that, apparently, U.S. states can't secede from the Union. I'd like to test that one again maybe sometime. But what I'd like to know is if the Union has the right to kick out states. Because if so, I'd like to take a star right out of our flag, and California is it.

"From eco-warriors running the state and ruining it to Hollywood projecting their family values and politics on the U.S., and illegal immigration driving them into bankruptcy, the Golden State drives me out of my mind, and I don't think I'm alone."

So, Beck is finally willing to concede that he's on "the edge of insanity," and has been driven "out of his mind." He blames California for his condition; I blame the fact that he's a radical loon.

In either case, I'd just add that Beck's anti-California crusade has been going on for quite a while. In October 2007, the state had to deal with a series of devastating wildfires that burned 420,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,200 homes. Beck, at the time with CNN, told his viewing audience that Americans shouldn't feel too bad for the victims, because those affected by the fires aren't patriotic enough for him: "I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

But yesterday's rant was just about as offensive. There's a political mainstream in this country, and those who call for the elimination of entire states from the Union usually fall just outside that mainstream.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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BIZARRO WORLD.... The headline from The Hill says congressional Republicans are "losing patience" with President Obama. Seriously.

Republicans wrapped up their retreat Friday by signaling they are losing patience with President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) criticized the new administration on Friday, saying it had promised to reach out to Republicans on the Capitol Hill, but then offered an economic recovery package that included few, if any, proposals from the minority party. [...]

Earlier in the day, House Minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) ... noted he made it clear to Obama after the vote that Republicans would remain united if the final stimulus bill did not include tax relief increases and cut down on government spending.

OK, let me see if I make this plain.

1. Obama has bent over backwards to engage congressional Republicans -- up to and including watering down his own stimulus bill -- but they've had nothing constructive to offer, and have demonstrated no interest in cooperation.

2. When Republicans were in charge, their ideas failed on a catastrophic level. Now, as Obama tries to clean up the GOP's mess, they're demanding that Democrats embrace their failed ideas.

3. Voters saw the results of the Republican economic agenda, and handed the GOP a series of devastating national defeats. The failed, losing side usually doesn't get to drive the national policy agenda.

4. When Republicans define "bipartisanship," they describe a process in which they get what they want, reality be damned.

5. Republican arguments throughout the stimulus debate have fallen far short of coherence. GOP lawmakers have effectively substituted solipsism for lucidity, with arguments such as the Democratic drive to "turn the United States into France," and the notion that Bush's economic policies were a sterling success until Democrats took over Congress.

And yet, when Republicans get together to tell one another how right they are, they conclude that they're "losing patience" with Obama.

I wonder what the weather's like in Republicans' reality.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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DASCHLE'S TAX TROUBLES.... Tim Geithner's tax "issues" were relatively minor, and easy to overlook. Tom Daschle's are more problematic.

ABC News has learned that the nomination of former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to be President Obama's secretary of health and human services has hit a traffic snarl on its way through the Senate Finance Committee.

The controversy deals with a car and driver lent to Daschle by a wealthy Democratic friend -- a chauffeur service the former senator used for years without declaring it on his taxes.

It remains an open question as to whether this is a "speed bump," as a Democratic Senate ally of Daschle put it, or something more damaging.

During the vetting process, Daschle paid back taxes in excess of $100,000, including interest and penalties, after his accountant discovered some errors. What kind of errors? "[U]nreported consulting fees, questionable charitable contributions, and a car and driver provided by a private equity firm run by entrepreneur and longtime Democratic Party donor Leo J. Hindery Jr."

Ouch.

Daschle spokeswoman Jenny Backus told reporters that Daschle made no effort to hide the error. The former Senate Majority Leader "expressed his regret, he knew he made a mistake and he was fully responsible for it. He fixed it to the nth degree by filing all these amended returns. He is embarrassed. He fixed it and answered all these questions about it." She added, "It is a stupid mistake."

As for what happens next, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration is "confident the committee is going to schedule a hearing for him very soon and he will be confirmed." Likewise, Harry Reid's office is similarly "confident" about Daschle's eventual confirmation. Senate Republicans are, however, predicting Daschle's withdrawal.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, Daschle's tax mistakes were jaw-droppingly foolish. On the other hand, he has an exceptional career, he's admitted wrongdoing, he's corrected his error, and he's probably the single most important person in government right now when it comes to a historic overhaul of the American healthcare system.

We'll see what happens.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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January 30, 2009

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

* Another rough day on Wall Street, with the major indexes closing down about 2% each.

* Following the news about $18 billion in Wall Street bonuses last year, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) suggested a salary cap for employees of any company that accepts federal bailout money. "We have a bunch of idiots on Wall Street that are kicking sand in the face of the American taxpayer," McCaskill said on the Senate floor. "They don't get it. These people are idiots."

* Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) believes the stimulus package will get 60 votes, though conservative Democrats continue to cause heartburn.

* Nice soundbite: new Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn vows to "fumigate state government."

* Despite the economic crisis, ExxonMobil reported an annual profit last year of $45.2 billion. It's the biggest profit any American company has ever had.

* Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) publicly confirmed today that he's under consideration to be the next Commerce Secretary.

* On a related note, Senate Republicans are really desperate to keep Gregg around. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn was asked today what he'd offer Gregg to stay in the Senate. "I would say whatever it is, name it," Cornyn replied.

* Judd Legum has five interesting facts about newly-elected RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

* Why do House Republicans oppose tax cuts in the Democratic plan, and support tax increases in the GOP plan?

* I'm delighted to see Howard Kurtz take my side against Mark Halperin's argument about Obama and the stimulus.

* New EFCA ads have the media in mind.

* The Bush/Rove "executive privilege" claim isn't exactly compelling.

* Glenn Beck's ratings on CNN Headline News were so weak, his largely-unknown replacement is already generating better numbers.

* Interesting article about the new president's personal style in the White House.

* And finally, a "large sculpture of one of the shoes thrown at President Bush last December by an Iraqi journalist was unveiled this week just outside an orphanage in Tikrit, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's hometown." The status was intended to honor the "heroic action" of Muntadhar al-Zeidi. Not surprisingly, government officials made the orphanage director take it down.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CHAIRMAN STEELE.... It took six ballots, but former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele edged out South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, 91 votes to 77, to become the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele is the first African American to hold the post.

Steele's victory also marks a decision by some GOP leaders that to elect a man associated with an all-white country club -- when America just elected a black president, and the GOP itself runs a risk of being branded an all-white club -- was too big a risk to run.

Steele ran in large part on his ability to rebrand the party and to do battle on cable news. Though he is, in fact, quite conservative for the spectrum of American politics, he wasn't the conservative choice, and his win marks a real defeat for elements of the party's conservative wing. For younger Republicans and those seeking a dramatic break from the past, he was the choice, and his win suggests that the party is emerging from the phase of denying that, in the wake of its 2008 rout, it has a problem.

This was Steele's second attempt at the RNC gig, after a failed campaign in 2006, scuttled in part by Karl Rove, who was rumored to have questioned Steele's competence.

I suspect most Democrats didn't necessarily have a "favorite" among the RNC contenders, but Steele probably won't strike fear in the hearts of DNC members. We are, after all, talking about a man who got caught hiring homeless people to lie to voters, and nevertheless lost in a landslide.

Indeed, whenever I see Steele, I immediately think of the editorial the Washington Post ran on his U.S. Senate candidacy in 2006, which described Steele as a man of "no achievement, no record, no evidence and certainly no command of the issues." Noting his four-year tenure as Maryland's lieutenant governor, the Post added, "Steele had at best a marginal impact, even on his handpicked projects."

While Dems may be pleased with Steele's new position, the religious right movement is no doubt frustrated, again. After the Dobson crowd exerted no influence at all over the Republican presidential nominating fight a year ago, the religious right took a stand against Steele, noting his one-time association with the centrist Republican Leadership Council. Their opposition was meaningless.

As for the racial aspect of this, Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer noted a few weeks ago, "There certainly is an advantage of a credible message of inclusion if you have a minority as chairman."

That may be true, but I'm skeptical. The modern Republican Party's problems with race are systemic, and won't be resolved by the race of its national party chair. For that matter, the GOP's structural problems -- its ideas are unpopular, its policies have failed, and its agenda is out of sync with the nation's needs -- are so deep, "historical resonance" is largely inconsequential.

And perhaps most importantly, no one should exaggerate the significance of the RNC chair. A couple of years ago, Bush tapped Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, as chairman of the RNC. Refresh my memory: did that have any impact whatsoever on outreach to Latino voters? Did it make the party seem more inclusive and diverse? I don't think so.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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DUNCAN'S DONE.... For those jonesing for some kind of election-related activity, today's balloting for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee is, well, at least mildly interesting.

After the first ballot, the hand-picked-by-Bush incumbent, Mike Duncan, was in the lead with 52 votes. Michael Steele was a close second with 46, followed by South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson with 28. On the second ballot, Duncan and Steele were tied at 48, with Dawson in third with 29. On the third ballot, Steele pulled ahead with 51 votes, while Duncan slipped to second with 44, and Dawson holding on with 34.

And at that point, Duncan decided to call it a day, withdrawing from consideration.

"Obviously the winds of change are blowing at the RNC," Duncan said, adding that he trusts the "vision" of his fellow members. "I understand what's going on."

"At this time, I wish to withdraw my name from nomination as chairman as the RNC," he said, to a standing ovation.

The low profile Duncan served through the Republican collapse of the late Bush term, and received little blame for GOP defeats, but had little record of success to point to.

That Duncan was a top contender at all says something odd about the Republican Party. He was chairman for the 2006 and 2008 cycles, during which his party lost 10 Senate seats, 50 House seats, and the White House. It's hard to run for another term under these circumstances, especially when one realizes that Duncan got the job from a failed former president.

As for where Duncan's votes will go, and who's going to win this contest, stay tuned.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WHO PICKED A FIGHT?.... On Fox News this morning, John McCain was asked about President Obama having mentioned Rush Limbaugh by name, encouraging congressional Republicans not to take marching orders from the right-wing host.

"I don't know why [Obama] would do that," McCain said. "Mr. Limbaugh is the voice of a significant portion of the Conservative movement in America. He has a very wide viewing audience. He is entitled to his views. People listen very carefully to him. I don't know why the President would take him on. He's part of the political landscape and he plays a role."

Similarly, Kathleen Parker's column today argued that the president had been "baited by none other than the Master Fisherman." She urged Obama to remember some simple rules:

Never start a land war with Asia. Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel (or who owns the patent on the microchip). Never let rabble-rousers get under your skin -- especially those whose popularity in some circles compares favorably with your own and whose earnings make bailed-out bank presidents envious.

While we're at it, tread very carefully around the implication that conservatives cling to their talk-show hosts out of anger and frustration.

That may be true, but the backfire Obama felt in West Virginia was a gentle zephyr compared to the blowback that can be bellowed by El Rushbo.

I think there are a few angles to this. First, it's certainly possible that the White House (and Democrats in general) find it useful to make a right-wing loudmouth/drug-addict the public face of the Republican Party in 2009. The GOP is facing a leadership vacuum, and it seems plausible to me that Democrats want to fill it with a far-right clown who's publicly rooting for the nation's leadership to fail.

Second, like DougJ, I'm skeptical that Limbaugh's bellowing blowback is as severe as advertised. He has a large audience of conservative followers, and he can make some House Republicans perform like trained seals, but his electoral power, as a practical matter, is quite limited. As I recall, Limbaugh invested quite a bit of energy criticizing John McCain a year ago, imploring GOP voters not to give him the party's presidential nomination. How'd that work out?

And third, this notion that Obama "went after" Limbaugh has been wildly exaggerated. The president, speaking to Republican lawmakers behind closed doors, apparently said, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." The point wasn't to go after Limbaugh specifically, but rather to note that if the White House is going to have a productive, cooperative working relationship with the minority party in Congress, it's better for everyone if GOP lawmakers don't rely on right-wing shock-jocks for wisdom and legislative strategies.

That's not picking a fight; that's just good advice.

Update: Amanda Terkel has the video of McCain's comments, and notes how odd they are.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD FOR LABOR.... President Obama nominated a terrific lawmaker, Hinda Solis, to be Labor Secretary, but her nomination has languished in the face of Republican opposition. Obama has expressed his support for the Employee Free Choice Act, but it's not yet on the legislative radar screen. Some union leaders and activists have started to feel forgotten.

The president took steps to change that today at the White House.

President Barack Obama signed a series of executive orders Friday that he said should "level the playing field" for labor unions in their struggles with management.

Obama also used the occasion at the White House to announce formally a new White House task force on the problems of middle-class Americans. He named Vice President Joe Biden as its chairman.

Union officials say the new orders by Obama will undo Bush administration policies that favored employers over workers.

Specifically, Obama's new executive orders will "require federal contractors (holding contracts above $100,000) to post a balanced notice of their employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act;" "require federal service contractors providing services to federal buildings to offer a right of first refusal to the nonsupervisory, nonmanagerial employees of the predecessor contractor for positions for which they were qualified;" and "prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenditures intended to support or deter their employees' exercise of their right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining."

At the signing ceremony today, Obama said, "I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution. You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

Greg Sargent noted yesterday, in advance of the event, that today's gathering is "being seen as a big deal by organized labor officials, because it will affirm Obama's commitment to the unions at a critical moment."

And to drive that point home, Teamsters President James Hoffa told reporters after the ceremony, "It's a new day for workers. We finally have a White House that is dedicated to working with us to rebuild our middle class. Hope for the American Dream is being restored."

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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BRINGING POWER INTO THE FOLD.... In November, Obama brought on Samantha Power to advise his team on transition matters relating to the State Department. Given that Hillary Clinton had been named the next Secretary of State, and there was some unpleasantness between Clinton and Power during the campaign, this raised questions about possible "awkwardness."

I've long believed this was overblown. Looking at Power's overall career and accomplishments, but emphasizing on one stray campaign comment, is a ridiculous mistake. We're talking about a Pulitzer-prize winning scholar who has spent most of her professional life combating genocide and raising awareness of human rights abuses and global humanitarian issues.

With that in mind, I'm delighted to see Power will be joining the White House team, and will have a role working closely with the Secretary of State.

Samantha Power, the Harvard University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who earned notoriety for calling Hillary Rodham Clinton a "monster" while working to elect Barack Obama president, will take a senior foreign policy job at the White House, The Associated Press has learned.

Officials familiar with the decision say Obama has tapped Power to be senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, a job that will require close contact and potential travel with Clinton, who is now secretary of state. NSC staffers often accompany the secretary of state on foreign trips.

Yes, 10 months ago, Power said something intemperate. She'd hoped it would be off the record, and when it wasn't, Power apologized immediately and profusely, before resigning a few hours later. But here's the thing to remember: Americans are better off if Power has a prominent and active role in public service. That officials are prepared to move on, despite the brief incident, is a sign of some badly-needed political maturity.

On a related note, Ben Smith has a very sharp observation about the styles of Obama administration officials: "It occurs to me that Obama's broader national security apparatus now includes quite a few people who say the lesson they learned from the Bush and Clinton years is precisely not to be silent. From Power and Susan Rice, who were shaped by the failure to intervene in Rwanda, to the lawyers at OLC who have written that their job is to resign in some circumstances if their advice is ignored, Obama has chosen to hire a number of people explicitly committed to not being good team players on politically tricky questions of human rights and intervention in particular."

Good. In this sense, among others, Obama is the exact opposite of the recent president who equated "disagreement with disloyalty."

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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HERDING CATS.... After the economic stimulus plan drew 100% opposition in the House, the question quickly became whether any Senate Republicans would be willing the rescue plan. The political world apparently forgot to consider the conservative Democrats.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska is officially "undecided" about the legislation. He appeared on Fox News this morning and was asked if knows if any Senate Republicans who are prepared to support the package.

"I don't know, I don't even know how many Democrats will vote for it as it stands today because a lot of my colleagues are not decided. They're undecided on the bill as it is right now. Fortunately, we don't have to take the vote on it right now. We have an opportunity to make some improvements."

As far as Nelson is concerned, "improvements" would include cutting research projects at the National Institutes of Health and about $13 billion for Pell grants, both of which Nelson sees as having a "marginal" stimulative impact. As Matt Corley noted, Nelson is mistaken about both the NIH and helping students pay for college.

Nevertheless, Nelson is reportedly meeting with some "centrist" senators, exploring ways to "improve" the bill. This probably can't end well.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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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.

* The newly-created Organizing for America, an outgrowth of the Obama presidential campaign, is taking on its first project: rallying support for the president's economic stimulus package.

* The process of picking the next chairman of the Republican National Committee is already underway in D.C. With several top-tier candidates, and a minimum number of 85 votes to win, there will likely be several hours of balloting.

* One candidate who won't be in the mix is Chip Saltsman, the former Tennessee Republican chairman and former campaign manager for Mike Huckabee. Saltsman, who gained national notoriety for distributing a holiday CD featuring "Barack the Magic Negro," withdrew from consideration yesterday.

* Former Rep. Bill Sali lost his re-election bid last year, despite running in one of the most conservative districts in the country. The notion that he appears to be stark raving mad seemed to factor into his defeat. Yesterday, Sali filed for a re-match, hoping to once again take on Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho). Sali will likely face a few primary opponents.

* Despite rumors to the contrary, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) announced yesterday that he's not running for governor next year.

* If Judd Gregg leaves the Senate to join Obama's cabinet, who would New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) choose to replace him? There's some talk that former Gov. Walter Peterson, a liberal Republican, would be among the leading candidates, though he probably wouldn't seek re-election.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.

George Pelecanos:

I would recommend that President Obama read Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. It's a short-story collection that brilliantly illuminates the humanity and struggles of everyday Washingtonians. Despite the phony Washington bashing during the campaign, D.C. is as Main Street as any place in America, and just as deserving of federal attention. The District could be a model for reform. A leader with Barack Obama's intelligence and enthusiasm has the ability to make that happen.

Jim Pinkerton:

I realize that President Obama will be busy, and he won't have much time to kick back with a whole book. So I will merely suggest that he read The Pretense of Knowledge, by Friedrich Hayek, a 1974 lecture delivered after the Austrian-born economist accepted the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Hayek's argument was that social science, including the dismal science of economics, has built up the pretense -- and it is only a pretense -- that it is possible to gain "scientific" mastery over complicated social problems. Such intellectual ambition is inherently Icarus-like, he argued. It is "the fatal conceit," as he entitled one of his books (available, if 44 is curious, on Amazon).

It seems that every president feels called upon to undertake some enormous challenge -- a task worthy of his own ego -- and usually that challenge defeats him. For Bill Clinton, it was health care. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq. Of course, sometimes a president succeeds -- so it was with FDR, victor in World War II, and Ronald Reagan, who won the Cold War.

So what will it be for Obama? That's an open question right now, but a little Hayekian humility could save him from the grievous mistakes that other presidents have made as a result of overconfidence and underpreparation.


Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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NAF EVENT.... The new issue of the Washington Monthly covers the right and wrong way to spend $1 trillion on the economy, featuring a story from Phillip Longman on freight rail that's already sparked some good discussion.

To that end, the New America Foundation is hosting an event this afternoon to explore this and other infrastructure issues in more detail. Longman will be joined by the Millennium Institute's Alan Drake and Andrea Bassi, former Delaware Transportation Secretary Anne P. Canby, and John Gray, an executive at the Association of American Railroads. The panel discussion will be hosted by Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris.

If you're in D.C. and want to attend, the event will start in about a half-hour at the NAF offices at 1630 Connecticut Avenue. If you're not in D.C. and want to watch, I'm embedding a video feed below.

Broadcasting Live with Ustream.TV

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

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REMEMBER LAURIE MYLROIE?.... For all of the well-known Bush administration officials who were frightening in their handling of U.S. policy towards Iraq, sometimes it's the lesser-known officials who are truly jaw-dropping. Justin Elliott reports:

It's a truism that neoconservatives have a talent for failing upward: for repeatedly getting important things wrong and not seeing their careers suffer -- for, in fact, being handed new opportunities to pursue their work (see, e.g., Kristol, Bill; and Hayes, Stephen).

Today we can add another name to that list: Laurie Mylroie, the quintessential conspiracy theorist of the Iraq War era, wrote reports about Iraq for the Pentagon as recently as Fall 2007, years after she was discredited, according to documents obtained by TPMmuckraker.

Mylroie is the author of two studies -- "Saddam's Strategic Concepts: Dealing With UNSCOM," dated Feb. 1, 2007, and "Saddam's Foreign Intelligence Service," dated Sept. 24, 2007 -- on a list of reports from the Pentagon's Office Of Net Assessment [ONA], obtained by TPMmuckraker through the Freedom Of Information Act. The ONA is the Defense Department's internal think tank, once described by the Washington Post as "obscure but highly influential."

Steve Clemons said he was "shocked" to hear that Mylroie was still doing taxpayer-financed work for Bush's Pentagon in 2007. Jacob Heilbrunn added, "It's kind of astonishing that the ONA would come even within a mile of her."

And why are they astonished? Because Laurie Mylroie has a rather "unique" perspective on world events. In 2003, the Washington Monthly ran a must-read piece on Mylroie, explaining why she's the "neocons' favorite conspiracy theorist." In the article, Peter Bergen explained:

...Mylroie became enamored of her theory that Saddam was the mastermind of a vast anti-U.S. terrorist conspiracy in the face of virtually all evidence and expert opinion to the contrary. In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the '93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories....

Now we learn that even after Mylroie had been discredited, those same neocon friends elevated her to an influential position, writing about Iraq policy matters for the Pentagon's in-house think tank.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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GETTING FAMILY PLANNING BACK ON TRACK.... It was unfortunate that family-planning aid to states was pulled from the economic stimulus package at Republicans' behest. Fortunately, though, it may have been a temporary move. Elana Schor reports:

A source present at today's White House signing ceremony for the Lilly Ledbetter bill tells me that President Obama gave assurances that the family planning aid would be done soon -- perhaps as soon as next week, when the House is set to take up a spending bill that would keep the government funded until October.

Obama emphasized that the family-planning aid is "makes the budget look better, it's a money saver," the source said. In fact, removing the need for Medicaid waivers for family planning saves states an estimated $700 million over 10 years.

There was an impression in some circles that Obama's willingness to scuttle the family-planning funds was evidence of a lack of commitment on the issue. For the president, however, it seems this was about when to advance funding on the issue, not whether. Obama wasn't giving up on access to Medicaid-covered family planning services, he was just delaying it a little to help advance the stimulus plan.

On a related note, Time's Amy Sullivan (a Monthly alum) has a helpful item on this, taking a look at what the provision would have actually done if passed: "The provision would have allowed states to cover family planning services -- but not abortion -- that they already cover for low-income women who don't otherwise qualify for Medicaid, just without first requiring states to obtain a waiver from the federal government. That's it."

Also, with the White House prepared to move on this soon, consider a good point E.J. Graff raised the other day about the new administration "showing incredible savvy in making controversial changes about women's health." In less than two weeks, this includes repealing the global gag rule and restoring investment in the United Nations Population Fund.

Noting the withdrawal of the family-planning provision from the stimulus legislation, Graff said on Tuesday, "I'm guessing that the Obamamites are being savvy -- taking this fight out of the public eye so that they can handle it in a better way." That appears to be exactly right.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE FOREVER.... Earlier this week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) let Karl Rove know -- by way of a subpoena -- that he still has a few questions about the Bush administration's Justice Department scandals. So, might Rove stop by the Hill to answer lawmakers' questions? Not if the former president and his lawyers have anything to do with it.

Just four days before he left office, President Bush instructed former White House aide Karl Rove to refuse to cooperate with future congressional inquiries into alleged misconduct during his administration.

On Jan. 16, 2009, then White House Counsel Fred Fielding sent a letter (.pdf) to Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin. The message: should his client receive any future subpoenas, Rove "should not appear before Congress" or turn over any documents relating to his time in the White House. The letter told Rove that President Bush was continuing to assert executive privilege over any testimony by Rove -- even after he leaves office.

A nearly identical letter (.pdf) was also sent by Fielding the day before to a lawyer for former White House counsel Harriet Miers, instructing her not to appear for a scheduled deposition with the House Judiciary Committee. That letter reasserted the White House position that Miers has "absolute immunity" from testifying before Congress about anything she did while she worked at the White House -- a far-reaching claim that is being vigorously disputed by lawyers for the House of Representatives in court.

Rove relied on an executive-privilege claim to ignore the subpoena the last time -- the matter is still pending in the courts -- but it's far less clear if a former president can assert executive privilege after he's left office.

Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, believes that former presidents still retain executive privilege on matters relating to their time in office, and with Bush having ordered Rove not to talk to Congress, Rove feels he has to comply.

"To my knowledge, these [letters] are unprecedented," said Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in executive-privilege issues. "I'm aware of no sitting president that has tried to give an insurance policy to a former employee in regard to post-administration testimony." Shane likened the letter to Rove as an attempt to give his former aide a 'get-out-of-contempt-free card'."

Everyone seems to be waiting to see what Obama's White House counsel, Greg Craig, thinks about all of this. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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AN ECONOMIC 'TRAIN WRECK'.... We knew the numbers would be bad, and they are.

The United States economy shrank at its fastest pace in 26 years from October through December, the government reported on Friday, in the broadest accounting yet of the toll of the credit crisis. Consumer spending and business investment all but disappeared, and economists said the painful contraction was likely to continue at an alarming pace well into the summer.

The gross domestic product -- a crucial measure of economic performance -- shrank at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 as the credit crisis deepened the recession. The contraction was significantly better than many economists had expected, but raised the possibility that the economy had not yet hit bottom.

"It was basically a train wreck for the economy in the fourth quarter," said Alan D. Levenson, chief economist at T. Rowe Price.

There were some expectations that the economic contraction would be even worse -- some were predicting a 5.5% drop -- but that's cold comfort. Jobs were cut, business investments were curtailed, trade fell, demand fell, and consumers spent less. And there's no evidence this is the bottom.

In light of all of this, maybe policy makers in Washington can, at their earliest convenience, invest in some kind of large stimulus package.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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COMMERCE SECRETARY GREGG?.... Since Bill Richardson withdrew from consideration to head the Commerce Department, it's remained the only hole in the Obama cabinet. Oddly enough, this hasn't made much of a difference.

That may soon change.

The Obama administration has been floating the idea of naming Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) to be Commerce Secretary, several Senate sources said Thursday.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Gregg's nomination was far from a done deal, but remains a serious possibility. Reached by phone, Gregg, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he had no comment on whether he has been in talks with the White House about the post.

Roll Call isn't the only outlet with the story. Democratic Senate aides told the Huffington Post that there is "a strong possibility" that Obama would extend the offer to Gregg; the Politico offers a similar report; and the New York Times notes that the White House has already "approached" Gregg about the cabinet job. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged that he'd "heard" that Gregg was being considered seriously.

This would, of course, shake up the political world quite a bit should it come together. If Gregg leaves the Senate, his successor would be named by New Hampshire's Democratic governor, John Lynch. This, coupled with Norm Coleman eventually giving up in Minnesota, would give Senate Democrats a 60-vote caucus -- the number of votes needed to end GOP filibusters. Obama would also get at least nominal bipartisan credibility for having three Republicans -- Gregg, LaHood, and Gates -- in his cabinet.

What's in for Gregg? I would imagine that job security is a consideration. Gregg's up for re-election next year in New Hampshire, a state that's trending very "blue," and he'd likely face a major challenge from Rep. Paul Hodes (D). Gregg would probably be the favorite, but he might see Obama's cabinet as an attractive alternative to a possible defeat. For that matter, Gregg, a relative moderate by modern GOP standards, may also see the writing on the wall -- it's less fun being in the Senate when you're part of a small minority that's getting smaller. And if Gregg sees the congressional Republican caucus falling off a far-right cliff, he may decide it's time to break free.

If this moves forward, expect to see the Republican establishment put intense pressure on Gregg to turn down Obama's offer, if one is extended. The Senate GOP wants that 41st vote badly, and will no doubt beg, plead, and bribe Gregg to stay right where he is.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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S-CHIP CLEARS SENATE.... It's long overdue, and it was vetoed twice by former President Bush, but we're finally poised to expand healthcare for low-income children.

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday to provide health insurance to more than four million uninsured children, as a newly empowered Democratic majority brushed aside Republican objections.

The vote was 66 to 32, with nine Republicans joining Democrats to support the bill. [...]

The Senate debate showed the outlines of what promises to be a much larger political fight over universal coverage. While Democrats championed expansion of the child health program, many Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, said they worried that it was part of a long-term effort to replace private health insurance with government programs.

The House passed a nearly identical bill two weeks ago, by a vote of 289 to 139, with 40 Republicans joining nearly all Democrats in support of the measure. [...]

The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would enable states to cover more than four million uninsured children by 2013, while continuing coverage for seven million youngsters.

To pay for the expansion, which is expected to cost about $32 billion over four and a half years, Congress is raising cigarette taxes to $1 a pack.

The final roll-call is online. Note that 32 of the Senate's 41 Republicans opposed the measure.

Just to add some historical context, it's worth remembering that S-CHIP was created under a Republican Congress 12 years ago. It's enjoyed broad support, and should have been approved without any real controversy. I recall a Washington Post report from July 2007 that noted, "If anything looked like a sure thing in the new Congress, it was that lawmakers would renew, and probably expand, the popular, decade-old State Children's Health Insurance Program before it expires this year." It was a no-brainer -- who was going to balk at an established, successful program that offers health insurance for kids? Especially on a bill that enjoys support from governors in both parties, the medical community, and children's advocates?

And yet, the legislation nevertheless sparked a two-year conflict.

The House and Senate versions differ slightly, but the bill should be on Obama's desk by early next week.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) concluded, "It's my sincere hope that passage of this legislation will be the beginning of a major overhaul of American health care, which ultimately will provide coverage to all Americans."

That'd be nice.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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By: Hilzoy

Suicide In The Army

I don't know what to say about this, other than that it's just awful:

"Stressed by war and long overseas tours, U.S. soldiers killed themselves last year at the highest rate on record, the toll rising for a fourth straight year and even surpassing the suicide rate among comparable civilians. Army leaders said they were doing everything they could think of to curb the deaths and appealed for more mental health professionals to join and help out.

At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, the Army said Thursday. And the final count is likely to be even higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are still being investigated.

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," said Army Secretary Pete Geren. "We can tell you that across the Army we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem." (...)

The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since current record-keeping began in 1980. Officials expect the deaths to amount to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the civilian rate -- when adjusted to reflect the Army's younger and male-heavy demographics -- for the first time in the same period of record-keeping."

It's not the most important detail, but for some reason what really gets to me, just now, is the thought of these soldiers' friends and family members, who have been hoping against hope that their loved ones don't get shot or blown up, having to come to terms with the idea that even though they managed to escape enemy fire and IEDs, they killed themselves. Having been through the plain vanilla version of grieving, I cannot imagine what that extra twist must do. Nor, frankly, do I want to. My heart goes out to them.

Hilzoy 1:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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January 29, 2009
By: Hilzoy

The RedState Strike Force Strikes!

Erick Erickson of RedState has a message for the RedState Strike Force about their latest triumph (and may he enjoy many more victories like this one):

"Persevere. And relish victories like we had last night - the House Republicans heard us and stood united against Barack Obama's socialist stimulus plan."

He seems to be a bit more concerned about Mitch McConnell, though, and so he has come up with a new plan of action for the Strike Force:

"So here's what we need to do. I've said he lost his testicles and is now spreading a cancer of capitulation throughout the Senate Republican Conference. We need to send Mitch some balls.

Seriously.

We're teaming up with the Don't Go Movement to do just that. Go here and send Mitch some balls. The House GOP can hold the line. Mitch and the Senate GOP should do the same and oppose the stimulus bill.

Mail the balls to Mitch's Louisville Office (...)

The Senate GOP Leadership needs to stand up for the GOP, not kowtow to the Democrats."

The DontGo Movement is more colorful about what sorts of things people might send to Senator McConnell:

"These items could be golf balls, novelty items (think Spencers, eBay, Amazon for inspiration), or real items such as various "dried scrotum" products found in grocery stores (make sure we can actually ship this sort of thing first)."

I'm trying to imagine the look on one of Mitch McConnell's staffers' face when he opens the package, takes out a shriveled bit of skin or desiccated flesh, tries to figure out what it is, and realizes that it's a bit of dried genitalia. What, I wonder, will he say to Senator McConnell? "Um, Senator, in addition to these letters from your constituents, you also received eight dried scrota, three cans of prairie oysters, twenty-six golf balls, eighteen ping-pong balls, two basketballs, and one testicular tumor preserved in formaldehyde. They're from people calling themselves -- let me check -- 'The RedState Strike Force'. No, I don't know what it's about, but I've called security to be on the safe side."

That should really win McConnell over.

Still, the general concept is not entirely devoid of interest. Do you think we should start a campaign to send Erick Erickson a clue?

Hilzoy 11:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WELCOME, GOV. QUINN.... Rod Blagojevich spoke at some length to the Illinois Senate today, imploring state lawmakers not to remove him from office. He was not, apparently, persuasive.

The Illinois State Senate on Thursday convicted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on a sprawling article of impeachment that charged him with abusing his power. The vote prompted the governor's immediate and permanent ouster, and ended nearly two months of political spectacle in which he sought unsuccessfully to salvage his reputation and career here and across the country. [...]

Mr. Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat who rose from the ranks of Chicago ward politics on the strength of his charisma and family connections, is the first governor in the state's history to be impeached. The senators voted 59 to zero in favor of removing him after a four-day trial; a dramatic, 45-minute speech by Mr. Blagojevich in which he declared his innocence; and about two hours of deliberation.

Blagojevich was also barred from ever running for any public office in Illinois. Democrat Pat Quinn, up until a couple of hours ago the lieutenant governor, has already been sworn in as Illinois' new governor.

Blagojevich, sounding a bit like Helen Lovejoy, said his only wrongdoing was caring for the children.

For what it's worth, he can now devote all of his time to his criminal defense.

Steve Benen 7:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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

* The President signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law today, the first measure to get his signature.

* The president ripped Wall Street for $18 billion in bonuses last year in the midst of a market collapse. Obama called it "the height of irresponsibility" and "shameful."

* Multiple corporations announced thousands of additional layoffs today. The news comes as more Americans receive unemployment benefits than at any time since the government started keeping track in 1967.

* It was a rough day on Wall Street, with the major indexes falling about 3% each.

* Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) made his case to state senators today, asking them not to remove him from office.

* Blackwater will no longer be welcome in Iraq.

* The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced yesterday that union membership "rose last year by the largest amount in a quarter-century, a gain of 428,000 members."

* John Yoo continues to embarrass himself.

* The suicide rate among U.S. troops keeps getting worse.

* Dennis Blair was confirmed last night by unanimous consent as the new Director of National Intelligence.

* O'Reilly and Dennis Miller think torture is hilarious. No wonder Miller has been kicked out of so many jobs.

* The truth about food stamps matters.

* And the president goes out on a limb and picks a favorite for the Super Bowl.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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BIPARTISANSHIP.... Noting the conduct of House Republicans during the debate over an economic stimulus, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, "It's almost 'Alice in Wonderland.' You'd never know there was a major election with a huge shift and a clear mandate for a different direction."

That's plainly true. Congressional Republicans aren't acting like a chastened minority with the smallest caucuses in a generation; they're acting like, well, pretty much as they've acted for years. The election results have had no discernable effect -- the rank-and-file GOP believes the way to recover as a party is to be more rigidly conservative, not less.

The key difference: now they love the notion of "bipartisanship."

The problem, of course, is how they define the word. On Tuesday, Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign, the fourth-ranking Republican in the chamber, held up Bush's push for tax cuts in 2001 as the example of "bipartisanship" Obama and Democrats should be following. Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes Bush tried to privatize Social Security in 2005 in a "bipartisan" way.

Today, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) offered his understanding of the word.

"[If the Ledbetter and SCHIP bills] are any indication, we'll get votes on amendments, they'll all lose, and the bill will then pass, and we end up with a totally partisan package. I don't think that's what the president had in mind when he talked about putting legislation together in a bipartisan way."

So, the appropriate way to put together legislation is for Democrats to vote for Republican amendments. If GOP measures win, it's bipartisan. If not, it's antithetical to Obama's approach. Got it.

The president and Democratic lawmakers can obviously speak for themselves about how they interpret a "bipartisan" approach to governing, but my sense is, it's built around the notion of an open process. Republicans may have failed spectacularly at governing, and may have been handed devastating electoral defeats that left them as a regional party, but the White House and the Democratic majority are nevertheless willing to hear them out. Their ideas are welcome. Their amendments will be considered. The president is willing to engage them directly, and make some policy concessions to address their concerns. There has been and will be an exchange of ideas, in good faith, and proposals with merit will advance, no matter which party recommended them.

That's what's happened, and that's what Republicans don't believe is good enough. As Kevin Drum noted last night, the GOP apparently "really has decided to blindly stonewall everything Obama wants, no matter what."

The president pledged to work with everyone with a sense of common purpose, and he's demonstrated a commitment to the principle. But politics is adversarial, and Republicans reject the direction Democrats want to take the country. That is, of course, fine. It's what the loyal opposition is supposed to do.

But for this minority, "bipartisan" necessarily means getting their way. And that's not going to happen.

What's that phrase? "Elections have consequences."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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TAKING BACK THE CONCESSIONS.... As far as some House Democrats are concerned, when it came to the economic stimulus package, Republicans wouldn't take "yes" for an answer. The GOP wanted tax cuts, and Democrats offered them tax cuts. The GOP howled at some specific spending measures, and Democrats removed them from the legislation. It didn't affect the outcome.

Amanda Marcotte argued today that House Republicans "can't be dealt with like reasonable people." Not surprisingly, some Democrats who did deal with the GOP as if they were reasonable want to reverse the concessions they gave up.

Rank-and-file Congressional Democrats had been willing to give Republicans the business tax cuts and other provisions they wanted in the stimulus. That is, up until every single one voted against the bill on the House floor Wednesday.

Now, in both the House and the Senate, angry members are lobbying Democratic leaders to yank those tax breaks back.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked Thursday by the Huffington Post why the business tax cuts, whose purpose was to garner Republican support, would be left in the bill if no Republicans supported it regardless.

"That's what my members ask me," said Pelosi. "It wasn't something that was suggested [by Democrats]. It was a heavy lift for our members, but they understood that it has a benefit and were willing to support it."

So far, she said, she has been resistant to removing the cuts from the package. "It's something that we can live with," she said. "I can't answer why they wouldn't vote for this even though their main net-operating-loss carry-back suggestion was part of the tax cuts."

Indeed, David Weigel noted that he "literally cannot remember a time when the entire Republican conference in either house voted against tax cuts."

So, are the business tax breaks going to be yanked from the bill? No, at least not yet. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, "We haven't reached that point," he said. "In fact, Republican senators I've spoken to today said, 'Don't give up on us. We still want to work with you.'"

We'll see how that goes.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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CONTRA CLYBURN, WAXMAN EXPRESSES OPTIMISM.... House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) struck a very discouraging note this week when he said he doesn't expect Congress to tackle healthcare this year. "I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can't chew," Clyburn said on C-SPAN. "We've been down that road. I still remember 1994."

And while Clyburn is obviously an influential Democratic leader, Jonathan Cohn notes that another high-profile Democrat stepped up today with a very different message.

Barack Obama has said he wants to pursue major health care reform this year. Two key committee chairmen in the Senate, Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy, have said they want to pursue health care this year. But what about the House? [...]

A few minutes ago, Congressman Henry Waxman made his feelings known -- and did so with no ambiguity. Speaking at the annual Health Action conference, sponsored by the health care advocacy group FamiliesUSA, Waxman announced, "This is our time.... We need to get this job accomplished this year and get a bill to the president."

Waxman is not in the House leadership, of course. But he is very close with Speaker Pelosi and, no less important, he is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee -- the committee that will likely take the lead on writing and then pushing health reform legislation.

Cohn adds that Waxman knows about as much as anyone about how to get bills through Congress, and he "doesn't tend to pick fights he can't win."

At this point, I can only hope Democrats don't let fear and the scars of the 103rd Congress get in the way of progress in 2008. As Digby explained the other day, this isn't 1994: "The Republicans are on the decline not the ascent. Democrats were just given the task of saving the country. The health care crisis, which was already awful, is getting worse with every lay-off and every job lost -- and the state governments are going broke and can't take up the slack. How many uninsured to we have to have before they realize that this crisis can't just be kicked down the road until they get over their trauma of 1994?"

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THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.... Long-time readers may recall that I've had an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine who goes by the name of Zeitgeist, about who is the single most ridiculous member of the U.S. House. He's tried to convince me the honor goes to Rep. Steve King of Iowa who, to be sure, is stark raving mad. I've pushed back, however, insisting Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is more deserving.

I'm starting to hedge on whether I was too hasty.

Consider this comment from King, which is almost too ridiculous to believe.

"Let's just say that, that, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, is brought to the United States to be tried in a federal court in the United States, under a federal judge, and we know what some of those judges do, and on a technicality, such as, let's just say he wasn't read his Miranda rights.... He is released into the streets of America. Walks over and steps up into a US embassy and applies for asylum for fear that he can't go back home cause he spilled the beans on al Qaeda. What happens then if another judge grants him asylum in the United States and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is on a path to citizenship."

John Cole describes this "the dumbest thing said by anyone in the last 20 years." That's a perfectly reasonable assessment.

And in case there's any doubt about whether King really did say this, out loud and in public, here's the segment from "The Daily Show" that featured an audio recording of King's comments.



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ABOUT THAT TERRORIST WORLDVIEW.... When Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter get together for an interview on Fox News, I realize there's no point in fact-checking their discussion. The madness-per-syllable ratio is just too daunting to bother.

But Media Matters noted that Coulter argued that liberals "would like to live with the terrorists. They agree about America." While this is obviously blisteringly stupid, it's probably worth noting how backwards this is.

I've followed this for a quite a while, because I've always been fascinated by the extent to which far-right criticism of Americans runs parallel to terrorists' criticism of Americans.

Dinesh D'Souza, for example, wrote an entire book devoted to arguing that terrorists are right about the problems with the culture in the United States. Osama bin Laden and other dangerous Islamic radicals believe the U.S. is too secular, too permissive, too diverse, too free, and too tolerant -- and D'Souza concluded that they're absolutely correct. Indeed, D'Souza went so far as to argue that liberal Americans are to blame for 9/11 -- the left invited the attacks by reinforcing the beliefs al Qaeda had about the United States.

In one particularly memorable episode of "The Colbert Report," D'Souza conceded that he finds some of the critiques from radical, anti-American extremists persuasive.

Glenn Beck, at the time with CNN, came to the same conclusion:

"More and more Muslims now hate us all across the world, and it really has not a lot to do with anything other than our morals.

"The things that they were saying about us were true. Our morals are just out the window. We're a society on the verge of moral collapse. And our promiscuity is off the charts.

"Now I don't think that we should fly airplanes into buildings or behead people because of it, but that's the prevailing feeling of Muslims in the Middle East. And you know what? They're right."

And a few months later, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan also seemed to agree with our enemies about America: "We make it too easy for those who want to hate us to hate us. We make ourselves look bad in our media, which helps future jihadists think that they must, by hating us, be good."

So when Coulter argues that liberals "would like to live with the terrorists" because we "agree about America," it's hard not to notice that it's not the left that finds the violent extremists' worldview compelling.

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GOP ECONOMICS 101.... It's hard to negotiate on economic policy with a caucus where this kind of thinking is common.

Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, said that former President George Bush's signature tax cuts in 2001 had created years of growth but that the nation's problems started when Democrats regained majorities in Congress in the 2006 elections.

Noam Scheiber tries to use reason, asking, "So the Democrats came into office and a housing bubble retroactively inflated and began to pop? Mortgage-backed assets worth trillions less than their stated value just magically appeared on bank balance sheets and in hedge fund portfolios?"

The problem, of course, is that reason is irrelevant. A whole lot of people in the Republican caucus believe crazy things. One can present them with evidence, but since reality has a well-known liberal bias, facts merely get in the way.

It makes substantive dialog exceedingly difficult.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SOMETHING TO REMEMBER IN 2012.... Last year, Ohio's Joe Deters was the regional chairman of the McCain/Palin campaign, and was also a prosecutor in Hamilton County. Like a lot of Republican activists, he became convinced that there was widespread voter fraud underway in Ohio.

A special prosecutor looked into Deters' claims and reviewed 600 accusations of fraud. Take a wild guess what the investigation turned up. (via Mark Kleiman)

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said he had allegations last fall of widespread voter fraud -- allegations a special prosecutor reported Tuesday were wrong, noting the only voter fraud found was from a Connecticut man who told on himself.

"Ultimately," Special Prosecutor Michael O'Neill wrote in a report, "the investigators discovered 'get-out-the-vote' practices, sponsored by community organizations, which took full advantage of this unique absentee-voting period, but no evidence these practices violated Ohio law."

"Told ya so," Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party as well as chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said with glee of O'Neill's report. "Do I think (Deters) was playing politics? Damned right."

Deters had claimed concrete evidence of widespread wrongdoing. It apparently wasn't as concrete as he'd hoped.

And what about the one guy O'Neill found committed actual fraud? It seems a young man from Connecticut was in town to visit his sister, and went to the University of Cincinnati where he registered to vote and voted on the same day. A week later, the man felt guilty, called county elections officials, explained what he'd done, and asked that his vote not be counted. It wasn't.

What's more, for those who are curious, the special prosecutor who investigated the matter is himself a Republican.

Something to keep in mind the next time conservatives get hysterical about "voter fraud" claims.

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

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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.

* Sarah Palin said her new leadership PAC shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as the first step towards a presidential campaign.

* In Florida, Rep. Allen Boyd (D) announced that he won't run for the Senate next year. In a bit of a surprise, state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), who's run for the Senate twice, also said yesterday he'd skip the open-seat contest.

* Brian Moran's (D) gubernatorial campaign in Virginia got a boost yesterday with an endorsement from Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

* Rep. Peter King (R) plans to run for the Senate in New York next year, but according to a new Marist poll, he'll start as a serious underdog to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D).

* NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) really doesn't want Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to seek re-election next year.

* Might Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) be gearing up for a Senate campaign against Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) next year? Maybe.

* There are some caveats to the data, but Gallup's latest report on 2008 has to be discouraging for the GOP: "[J]ust five states, collectively containing about 2 percent of the American population, have statistically significant pluralities of adults identifying themselves as Republicans. These are the 'Mormon Belt' states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, plus Nebraska, plus Alaska. By contrast, 35 states are plurality Democratic, and 10 states are too close to call."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.

Rachel Maddow:

The new president should read The Edge of Disaster, by Stephen Flynn, despite its generic Chicken Little title. Flynn has the politics and the strategy exactly right for the two big business-of-government tasks facing the new administration: (1) annulling the previous politics of "homeland security" and getting it right this time; and (2) massively upscaling our investment in infrastructure. It's hard to be rational and rigorous and constructive when thinking about catastrophe -- but that's exactly what we need.

Joe Nocera:

"I can't believe some of this stuff is legal," a high-ranking government official said to me a few months ago, right around the time that all hell was truly breaking loose. It was when Lehman was going bankrupt, and AIG was teetering on the brink, and Merrill Lynch was being sold, and Morgan Stanley and even mighty Goldman Sachs were rumored to be in serious trouble. And "this stuff" the official was referring to were some of the more exotic, complex, and fiendishly hard-to-value derivative securities that were imploding like dynamite sticks, bringing down the financial system with them.

Barack Obama has so many things he wants to accomplish, in health care, education, the environment, and so on, but none of them will get done if he doesn't first get his hands around the financial crisis. We all know he's been brushing up on FDR's first 100 days, and that's all to the good. Saving the auto industry, getting banks to lend again, creating the kind of mega-stimulus package to get the economy back on its feet -- these are all things he is going to tackle early on.

But then he is going to have to figure out how to fix the financial system filled with "that stuff." And to do so he is going to have to build a new regulatory apparatus, because the old one has clearly broken down. That's where my two book recommendations come in.

The first is A Demon of Our Own Design, by Richard Bookstaber, a memoir with a point by a Wall Street veteran. Bookstaber, a risk manager, chronicles the rising complexity of Wall Street, through the prism of his own experience. Taking us through such traumatic events as the crash of 1987 and the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in the late 1990s, he makes a powerful case that "these breakdowns come about not in spite of our efforts at improving market design but because of them. The structural risk in the financial markets is a direct result of our attempts to improve the state of the financial markets; its origins are in what we would generally chalk up as progress. The steps we have taken to make the markets more attuned to our investment desires ... have exaggerated the pace of activity and the complexity of financial instruments that makes crisis inevitable. Complexity cloaks catastrophe." And so it has. Figuring out how to either make the system less complex or the risks more transparent to all will be a key part of any new system of financial regulation.

My second recommendation is that the incoming president read some of the writings of Warren Buffett, in particular the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway, his holding company. Happily, they are collected in a book, The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. Actually, they include lessons for everyone, not just corporate executives. It was Buffett who wrote in his annual report several years ago that derivatives were "financial weapons of mass destruction." But the main lesson he teaches is that the best kind of investing has a value system attached to it. Buffett buys companies, not stocks. He thinks about the long term, not the short term. He became very rich by not trying to get rich quick. He has tackled the problems with stock options, and with executive compensation. (Believe it or not, Buffett's executives at Berkshire Hathaway don't get any options; he doesn't believe in them.) In many ways, his rules for investing are rules to live by, and Obama could do worse than use his bully pulpit to preach them to the rest of us.


Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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HOW TO BROWN-NOSE THE BOSS.... On Tuesday, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) subtly criticized Rush Limbaugh for finding it "easy" to "throw bricks" at the Republican leadership from the outside. Less than a day later, Gingrey, in a surprisingly pathetic move, apologized profusely to the right-wing host, both in writing and on the phone.

But how far are congressional Republicans prepared to go with their unyielding support of the talk-show host? Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) offered a helpful example yesterday.

Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, appeared on MSNBC, and was asked by Norah O'Donnell whether he's willing to denounce some of Limbaugh's recent comments. Specifically, she noted Limbaugh announcing that he hopes Obama fails, and his argument that the nation is being forced to "bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever" because Obama's "father was black, because this is the first black president."

Under the circumstances, one might expect Pence to offer some gentle chiding. Maybe he could say Limbaugh engaged in some "rhetorical excesses" or something. But, no, Pence said, "I cherish his voice in the public debate" and then accused O'Donnell of accusing Limbaugh of "racism."

And with that, Pence won't have to follow Gingrey's example. Pence defended obvious lunacy, but at least he won't have to apologize to Limbaugh today. Since the radio host seems to be calling the shots for the GOP, Pence probably assumes it's better to rationalize madness than possibly offend Limbaugh. And he's probably right.

As DougJ noted, "The mistake the Republicans are making here is a basic one: now they've admitted that they take orders from Rush, they're on the hook for all the crazy ass things he says on the show. And that's not a good place to be."

That's true, but I'd just add that Pence is not just some random Republican -- he's the #3 leader in the House GOP caucus. As Matt Yglesias explained, that leads to an even more significant problem: "The larger issue, however, is that Mike Pence is a moron, and any movement that would hold the guy up as a hero is bankrupt... He has no grasp, whatsoever, of public policy issues. And yet I can only gather from the fact that his colleagues have elevated him to a leadership post, that a large faction of them are actually so much stupider than Pence that they don't realize how dumb he is. But it's really staggering."

It's quite a caucus the House Republicans have.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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HALPERIN BLAMES OBAMA.... President Obama went to great lengths to reach out to House Republicans, trying to get them to support an economic stimulus in the midst of an economic crisis. The president not only offered them more tax cuts than seemed necessary, he also acted swiftly to remove spending provisions -- family planning, National Mall renovations -- that they mocked.

The entire Republican caucus, we now know, balked anyway. Time's Mark Halperin, naturally, is blaming Obama. From this morning's appearance on MSNBC:

"This is a really bad sign for Barack Obama to try to change Washington.... He needs bipartisan solutions. They went for it and they came up with zero.... [This] does not bode well for a future that is supposed to be post-partisan. [...]

"[Obama] could have gone for centrist compromises. You can say to your own party, 'Sorry, some of you liberals aren't going to like it, but I am going to change this legislation radically to get a big centrist majority rather than an all-Democratic vote.' He chose not to do that, that's the exact path that George Bush took for most of his presidency with disastrous consequences for bipartisanship and solving big problems."

It's hard to overstate how foolish this analysis is.

Halperin believes, for reasons that are unclear, that the paramount goal was to win the support of lawmakers who were wrong and who were advocating bad ideas. It's not about what works, or what would actually improve the economy in the midst of a serious recession. What really matters is "bipartisan solutions." Why? Because Mark Halperin says so. Merit be damned -- if Democrats liked the legislation and Republicans didn't, it's necessarily flawed.

In our reality, Obama did make "centrist compromises," and liberals in the Democratic Party didn't like it. Obama did the opposite of Bush's style of governing -- he engaged the congressional minority, listened to their ideas, and weakened his own bill to garner a larger majority. House Republicans insisted on a worse bill, Democrats wouldn't give them one, so the GOP voted against it. Halperin inexplicably believes that's Obama's fault.

I'm trying to wrap my head around Halperin's logic here. By his reasoning, the only appropriate thing for Obama to do was let Republicans -- who failed at governing, and who've been rejected by voters -- shape the bill, addressing the crisis they helped create. If the far-right House GOP caucus was unsatisfied, it was Obama's responsibility to make them happy. Why? Because Mark Halperin says so.

This is absurd.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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VOTES HAVE CONSEQUENCES.... The White House has invested quite a bit of time and energy reaching out to congressional Republicans. Late yesterday, the president's efforts were rewarded with exactly zero GOP votes on an economic stimulus plan. As the Politico reported when Republicans announced their opposition, the minority party "slapped" Obama's "outstretched hand," as part of a "coordinated effort to embarrass" the president.

We're starting to get a sense of how the White House plans to respond.

Pushing back against the unanimous House Republican vote against President Obama's stimulus plan, the White House plans to release state-by-state job figures "so we can put a number on what folks voted for and against," an administration aide said.

"It's clear the Republicans who voted against the stimulus represent constituents who will be stunned to learn their member of Congress voted against [saving or] creating 4 million jobs," the aide said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the lawmakers will have to answer to their constituents. And a Democratic official added: "We will run campaigns in their districts."

What's more, Greg Sargent reports that a coalition of groups and unions, including Americans United for Change, MoveOn.org Political Action, AFSCME, and SEIU, are launching a new television ad "targeting Republican Senators and pressuring them to vote for President Obama's stimulus package."

The spot shows some arresting images of the recession -- chained up factories, empty warehouses -- and features Obama talking about our dire economic times and his economic package, an effort to harness Obama's popularity to push the plan at a time when Republicans are training their fire on House Dems, rather than the White House.

The ad is set to air in four states, targeting Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Olympia Snowe (Maine). Three of the five -- Grassley, Gregg, and Murkowski -- are up for re-election next year.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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IRONY IS DEAD.... Have I mentioned lately how entertaining Karl Rove's Wall Street Journal op-eds are? Take today's, for example.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama criticized Washington for being "obsessed with the perpetual campaign." As president he is the first occupant of the Oval Office to give his director of political affairs -- who coordinates the president's involvement with his party and other campaign related activities -- an office in the West Wing.

Many Americans may assume that the president's entire staff is in the West Wing. It's not. The West Wing is actually a very small place, so the vast number of people who work "at the White House" actually have offices across the street at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB).

Under Mr. Obama, the political director won't be in the EEOB, where other presidents have placed him. He'll occupy a West Wing office usually given to the head of presidential personnel. That's a sign of the importance of politics for Team Obama.

So, to summarize, Karl Rove is accusing someone else of emphasizing politics too much in the White House.

Keep 'em coming, Karl. You're a laugh-riot.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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NO LIBERALS ON THE TEEVEE.... If you watched the debate over the economic stimulus plan unfold on the cable networks this week, you may have noticed a certain imbalance. Digby asked the other day, "Can someone explain to me why I'm seeing Republican after Republican on television advising Americans on the right way to run the economy?" It was not an uncommon question.

As it turns out, this was not just a figment of progressives' imagination. ThinkProgress researched the issue and found that "the five cable news networks -- CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business and CNBC -- have hosted more Republican lawmakers to discuss the plan than Democrats by a 2 to 1 ratio this week." From 6 AM on Monday to 4 PM on Wednesday, the "networks have hosted Republican lawmakers 51 times and Democratic lawmakers only 24 times." The chart helps drive the point home.

Let's also not lose sight of the context. House Republicans dominated the networks' airtime, despite the fact that they were making absurd demands, despite the fact that they had no intention of voting for the legislation, and despite the fact that their small caucus lacked the votes to defeat the bill anyway.

Josh Marshall noted on Monday the "continuing Republican tilt of much of the capital press corps. Not in ideological terms perhaps, but in terms of whose opinions carry weight, whose matter and whose do not." The ThinkProgress piece highlights this dynamic quite clearly.

I'd just add that even when the interviews were over, and Republican officials weren't on screen, the on-air media kept talking about the stimulus debate from a decidedly Republican perspective.

When Republicans were in the majority, and controlled the White House, Senate, and House, it was important to air the GOP perspective. Now that Democrats are in control, it's still apparently paramount to let Americans know what Republicans are thinking.

Now, it's possible Republicans have been more aggressive in reaching out to network producers and bookers. Maybe Democrats haven't been as efficient in making themselves available for interviews. I'm not privy to the Dems' media strategy, and for all I know, it needs some "tweaking."

That said, I know there are plenty of camera-hungry Democrats in Congress, who'd just love to talk about a popular spending bill proposed by a popular president on national television. The kind of inequity ThinkProgress found is a symptom of a larger problem.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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YOU DON'T KNOW DICK.... Many have come to expect a certain standard for decorum and decency from prominent Republican voices -- that is to say, a very low standard -- but former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) showed just how far those norms have slipped yesterday.

Appearing on "Hardball" and debating Salon's editor-in-chief Joan Walsh, Armey offered the usual palaver about government economic policy and "income redistributonists" who ruined Bush's tax cuts. When Walsh tried to speak, Armey scoffed and growled at every word, interrupting with condescension like, "Give it a rest."

By the time Walsh highlighted the inconvenient fact about Obama's electoral mandate, Armey responded, "I'm so damn glad you can never be my wife 'cause I surely wouldn't have to listen to that prattle from you every day."

Once in a while, a politician drops the pretense and lets his true colors come through. In this brief interview, Dick Armey, perhaps best known for calling his then-colleague Barney Frank "Barney Fag," showed just what he's made of, before a national television audience.

Keep in mind, Armey isn't just some random nut from right-wing radio. He's a former Majority Leader, and as Digby noted, Armey is also "one of the foremost conservative economic gurus in the land and is one of the guys they turn to for serious policy advice. I'm not kidding."

For what it's worth, the New York Times' Bob Herbert appeared on the same program, and accurately described Armey's comments as "sexist," adding, "He owes Joan Walsh and your viewers an apology." For his part, Matthews said, "Dick Armey ... I like the guy but I think he went way overboard going after Joan."

Will Armey's on-air misogyny affect his chances of being invited back to "Hardball"? I seriously doubt it.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Hilzoy

Bipartisanship And The Stimulus

As Steve noted earlier, the stimulus bill passed the House without a single Republican vote. I'm glad it passed. I'm also glad that Obama tried as hard as he did to get bipartisan support, and I don't think that the fact that he didn't get it shows that the attempt was misguided. There are good reasons to try for bipartisan support regardless of how likely you think you are to succeed.

If you do succeed, then both parties have some ownership of the stimulus bill, neither will be as eager to politicize it, and it will be harder for either to use it to beat up the other. This is good. If you try hard, and publicly, to attract Republican support, but fail, then Republicans look like intransigent ideologues who would rather try to score political points than actually deal with the serious problems the country faces. You, by contrast, look reasonable: you tried to reach out, but your efforts were rejected.

Obviously, this only works if your efforts look serious. If Obama had gone to the Republicans and said: I propose a bill entirely made up of things Democrats really want and you really hate, but please, do join us in supporting it!, that wouldn't work at all. But he didn't do that. He went the extra mile. When Republicans protested about particular things, he dropped some of them (though not all: he was not, for instance, willing to compromise on refundable tax credits, and he was right not to compromise on that one.) There's a fine line between being willing to compromise and being willing to surrender, and I think Obama generally stayed on the right side of it, while being open enough to compromise that he will get real credit for trying.

The House Republicans, by contrast, looked silly. They were carping about tiny bits of the stimulus (the capitol mall?!). They changed the bits they objected to from one day to the next, and looked for all the world like what I take them to be: people who were determined to oppose the stimulus bill from the outset.

The function of trying to win bipartisan support, it seems to me, is to clarify things to the American people. If the House Republicans could be induced to support the bill, that becomes clear, and everyone would have been better off. If, on the other hand, they were bound and determined to oppose it, no matter what, that also becomes clear. Neither would have been clear had Obama not bothered to try.

To my mind, it is generally a good idea to act on the assumption that your opponents are reasonable people. (There are, of course, exceptions: e.g., when you don't have time.) It's the right thing to do morally. But it's also generally the right thing to do tactically. I think this is especially true when you suspect that your opponents are, in fact unreasonable. You should always hope to be proven wrong, but if you are not -- if your opponents are, in fact, unreasonable -- then by taking the high road, you can ensure that that fact will be plain to the world.

Hilzoy 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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January 28, 2009

STIMULUS PASSES HOUSE WITH ZERO GOP VOTES.... After all the outreach to House Republicans, all the concessions, all of the reports about the economic crisis, all of the evidence showing the stimulative effects of the plan, not a single GOP lawmaker in the chamber voted for the economic rescue package.

The House voted, 244-188, on Wednesday evening for President Obama's package of federal tax cuts and spending worth $819 billion and meant to jump-start the economy out of its worst crisis in decades.

Although the president's legislative victory was no surprise, given the Democrats' 255-to-178 advantage in the House, the lack of any Republican support was a disappointment for Mr. Obama. The vote came hours after Mr. Obama declared that "we don't have a moment to spare" just after conferring with business leaders at the White House.

If the House Republican caucus, en masse, isn't willing to support a stimulus package in the midst of a global economic crisis, it's hard to imagine when, exactly, GOP lawmakers are going to work with the majority party in a constructive way.

After lengthy debate, Republicans weren't swayed by the evidence, or the polls, or the president. They came into this in united opposition, and with Democrats unwilling to give them more of Bush economic policies, that's the way they stayed.

This isn't exactly a surprise. I suspect the Republican Party looked at this as a pragmatic political test -- if the stimulus plan works, and the economy improves, Obama and Democrats will claim credit and reap the political rewards, whether the GOP supported the proposal or not. If the stimulus plan falls short, and the economic effects are limited, Republicans want to be able to say, "We told you so." Given this dynamic, there really wasn't much of an incentive for the GOP to do the right thing.

Of course, the last time we saw a vote like this one was probably the 1993 vote on Clinton's first budget -- every single Republican in the chamber voted against it, hoping to prove, once and for all, that they were right about economics and Democrats were wrong. If memory serves, that budget was the first step towards the longest economic expansion on record, the creation of 22 million jobs, and the total elimination of the federal budget deficit.

In any case, the stimulus package now goes to the Senate, where passage is likely to overcome Republican obstructionism, and then to House-Senate negotiations, which are likely to be more than a little awkward.

Update: Here's the official roll call, and here's the roll call by congressional district.

Steve Benen 6:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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

* Al Gore warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today that the planet is facing a "grave danger."

* The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Eric Holder's nomination, 17 to 2. Only Sens. Coburn and Cornyn voted against him.

* Speaking of Holder, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Holder assured him that he wouldn't prosecute Bush administration officials who committed acts of torture. No one seems to think Bond is telling the truth.

* For a change, it was a good day on Wall Street.

* Don't be too surprised if mail delivery on Saturdays becomes a thing of the past.

* Funding for repairs to the Washington Mall were stripped from the stimulus bill to make Republicans happy. They'll vote against the bill anyway, though.

* On a related note, despite the concessions, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has plenty to like about the final House bill.

* Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is looking for a U.S. "apology." He'll be waiting for a while.

* The American Society of Civil Engineers have a pretty scary new report: "More than a quarter of the nation's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Leaky pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. And aging sewage systems send billions of gallons of untreated wastewater cascading into the nation's waterways each year."

* Education is likely to get a huge boost from the stimulus.

* Have I mentioned lately how impressed I am with the new Justice Department team? It keeps getting better.

* In case this afternoon's written apology wasn't quite pathetic enough, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) called Limbaugh personally this afternoon to express his regrets -- on the air -- for subtly criticizing him yesterday.

* Speaking of Limbaugh, here's Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), responding to some of the blowhard's latest nonsense: "Limbaugh actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict. If America ever did 1% of what he wanted us to do, then we'd all need pain killers."

* So long, Washington Post "Book World" section.

* And finally, President Obama gave his new hometown of D.C. some good-natured ribbing this afternoon for practically shutting down every time a winter storm comes through: "We are going to have to apply some toughness to this town." As someone who moved from D.C. to Vermont, I can only agree enthusiastically.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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HOW WE GOT IN THIS MESS IN THE FIRST PLACE.... Josh Marshall is listening to congressional Republicans give speeches this afternoon on the House floor, explaining their opposition to an economic stimulus package in the midst of a deep recession. He seems rather pained.

It may not be advisable for anyone to actually listen to the arguments House Republicans are actually making on the House floor. We're just listening again to Rep. [Jeff] Flake (R) who appears to have himself outdone himself in militant statements of economic nonsense. Earlier today we heard Flake claiming that tax cuts have no stimulus effect if they go to low-income earners who pay payroll taxes and not income taxes.

Now he's explaining how capital spending on AMTRAK is also not stimulus because AMTRAK doesn't run a profit. Again, total non-sequitur. I think rail is something we should be spending a lot more on. But you can certainly disagree with that on policy terms. But you can't claim that that capital spending on rail stock and rail upgrades doesn't provide jobs. Of course it provides jobs. And whether Amtrak is profitable or not is completely beside the point.

Where did they get this guy?

I can appreciate Josh's frustration. Listening to House Republicans talk about the economy is not only tedious, it's a striking reminder that these guys don't know what they're talking about.

I mean that, literally. They're clueless. There are coherent arguments against the stimulus plan, even from a conservative perspective, but actual GOP policy makers apparently aren't familiar with them. Their arguments about the CBO are wrong. Their arguments about tax credits are wrong. Their arguments about aid to states are wrong. Their arguments about the stimulative benefits of tax cuts are wrong. Their arguments about corporate tax rates are wrong. Their arguments about housing are wrong. Even their arguments about allocation are wrong.*

There's probably some entertainment value in considering the "stupid vs. dishonest" dynamic -- maybe Republicans know their arguments are wrong, and are repeating them anyway -- but the end result is always the same. It's hard to get through a single speech without searching frantically for the Maalox.

It reached the point today that Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a member of the leadership, said Democrats are acting like ... wait for it ... former Republican president Herbert Hoover. I suppose, by Ensign's formulation, that makes Mitch McConnell FDR?

And perhaps the single most frustrating part of listening to the Republicans' nonsense is the painful realization that it's their misguided worldview that got us into this mess in the first place. It's the same misguided worldview that opposed a stimulus last fall, which would have made this bigger stimulus less necessary now.

Congressional Republicans, in other words, still believe they have credibility on matters of the economy, and they demand that everyone respect their authority. It's quite odd.

* edited slightly for clarity

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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O'REILLY, ALBA, AND SWEDEN.... I ordinarily avoid celebrity news at all costs, but let's make an exception.

Jessica Alba is setting the record straight: Sweden was neutral during World War II.

Alba and Fox TV show host Bill O'Reilly traded punches last week after the presidential inauguration. After Alba told a Fox reporter that O'Reilly was "kind of an a-hole;" he retaliated by calling her a "pinhead" for telling a reporter to "be Sweden about it," assuming she meant Switzerland.

"I want to clear some things up that have been bothering me lately," Alba blogged on MySpace Celebrity. "Last week, Mr. Bill O'Reilly and some really classy sites (i.e.TMZ) insinuated I was dumb by claiming Sweden was a neutral country. I appreciate the fact that he is a news anchor and that gossip sites are inundated with intelligent reporting, but seriously people... it's so sad to me that you think the only neutral country during WWII was Switzerland."

Although Switzerland is more frequently cited as an example of neutrality, Sweden did indeed follow a policy of neutrality during World War II. History point to Alba.

Reader J.O. reminds me that O'Reilly isn't the only high-profile conservative who finds Sweden confusing.

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored ''road map'' for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman -- the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -- mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

''I don't know why you're talking about Sweden,'' Bush said. ''They're the neutral one. They don't have an army.''

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ''Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.'' Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ''No, no, it's Sweden that has no army.''

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.


Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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ALL SEX, ALL THE TIME.... Republicans were apoplectic over a stimulus measure that would have saved money on preventing unwanted pregnancies, so it was removed from the economic recovery plan. Today, GOP lawmakers, proving once again that they take sex really seriously, have found a related spending provision to get excited about.

To be fair, they had some help. Drudge got worked up today with a story about the bill funding the Center for Disease Control, most notably STD education and prevention programs. Soon after, the Republican establishment was on the case.

The NRCC is banging the good old culture wars drum today, sending out a raft of press releases asking if rookie Dems from conservative districts back the inclusion of anti-sexually transmitted disease programs.

The title of the release: Do Freshmen Dems Support $335 Million for STD Prevention in "Stimulus"?

On Byron York's advice, my friend Alex Koppelman took a closer look at the part of the bill that has conservatives all excited.

First of all, the money that goes to these programs will mean new jobs. There are the additional people who'll be needed for administration, of course, as well as additional doctors and researchers. There will also be, to borrow a phrase, a trickle-down effect: Money for vaccinating uninsured children, for instance, means more vaccinations will be produced, which means there'll be more jobs producing and distributing the vaccines. [...]

As for that $335 million for STD prevention, that number sort of pales when you consider the direct medical cost of STDs every year, which one 2000 study found was $6.5 billion. That same study notes that, for HIV patients at least, the government already assumes a large share of the burden; one group of researchers found that 47 percent of people receiving treatment for HIV were covered by Medicare, and 20 percent were uninsured.

Of course, the merit of the argument is secondary. At the end of the day, conservative Republicans just seem to like talking about, complaining about, and campaigning on sex.

Update: Amanda Terkel fact-checks the new complaint in some additional detail. Drudge and the GOP, still wrong.

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DRIVING THE WEDGE.... MSNBC's "First Read" asks today: "[A]re House Republicans trying to drive a wedge between Nancy Pelosi and President Obama?"

Of course they are. I thought that was obvious.

[J]ust because Obama has so far been able to disarm them doesn't mean Republicans are about to surrender. On the contrary, many Republicans are simply focusing their fire on a much softer target, hoping to drive a wedge between the President and his party at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "If you have an opponent with a 70% approval rating and one with a 20% approval rating, you're going to go after the one with a 20% approval rating," a House GOP leadership aide said, referring to the Democratically controlled Congress' dismal approval ratings.

So while House Republicans praised Obama in their first breath on Tuesday, in their second breath they slammed Pelosi. [...]

Sowing the seeds of discontent between Obama and Pelosi is a no-lose proposition for the GOP: If Obama wins they get a bigger seat at the table, and if Pelosi gets her way, it's a blow to Obama's promises of inclusiveness and bipartisanship. "If he's willing to kick [the Democratic leaders], we're willing to applaud, we'll take it," another GOP leadership aide said. "Am I trying to stir up trouble between him and his party? Of course I am."

It's shaped Republican rhetoric throughout the process. The GOP minority doesn't see any real value in launching attacks against a popular president, so they're attacking Democrats in Congress (who are, by the way, more popular than Republicans in Congress). As a result, Republican lawmakers have praised Obama's outreach and willingness to compromise, while bashing Pelosi & Co. for not being cooperative -- or "bipartisan" -- enough.

"First Read" asked, "The question is, of course, how long will Speaker Pelosi put up with the idea that Republicans have the president to whine to when they are not getting their way?"

Actually, I'm not sure Pelosi cares. If the Speaker and the President are playing good-cop/bad-cop with Republicans, she'll draw the GOP's ire, Obama will make some temporary concessions and lend Republicans a sympathetic ear, and Democrats will still get the bill they want signed into law.

Republicans think they'll gain an advantage if they balk at the House bill, because it will undermine "Obama's promises of inclusiveness and bipartisanship." Maybe, but I doubt it. The president has spent quite a bit of energy reaching out to the GOP, going to great lengths to hear them out. If Republicans are hoping to convince the public that the White House hasn't been "inclusive" enough, it's going to be a tough sell.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE LINE REPUBLICANS CAN'T CROSS.... On Monday, Rush Limbaugh took a few shots at Republican leaders in Congress, saying they're not doing enough to "frighten" President Obama. Yesterday, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) defended the party leadership, and dismissed the right-wing talk-show host for finding it "easy" to "throw bricks" from the outside.

Gingrey added that Limbaugh and others like him "don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn't be or wouldn't be good leaders, they're not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."

And just how long did it take before Gingrey was forced to back down and grovel for forgiveness after saying something sensible? About a half-day.

Turns out that Gingrey's measured remarks provoked such a violent outcry that he has now been forced to apologize.

"Because of the high volume of phone calls and correspondence received by my office since the Politico article ran, I wanted to take a moment to speak directly to grassroots conservatives," Gingrey said in a new statement released by his office. "Let me assure you, I am one of you."

"I never told Rush to back off," Gingrey continued. "I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives -- that was not my intent ... Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience."

Gingrey went on to say, "I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh," adding that he's among millions of Americans "inspired" by Limbaugh.

Note, Gingrey hadn't said anything especially controversial yesterday. It is easy for political observers on the outside to criticize, as compared to keeping a party together. But Gingrey not only faced a swift rebuke for daring to question Leader Limbaugh, but apologized, in writing, and in an embarrassingly meek tone.

The Republican Party is suffering something of a leadership vacuum. It's pretty obvious who's calling the shots.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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REPUBLICANS HEART IRISH TAX RATES.... While pushing back against the economic stimulus plan, Republicans have, of course, been demanding more tax cuts. But what kind of tax cuts are we talking about? Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign, the fourth-ranking Republican in the chamber, argued yesterday:

"You know, we have the second highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world. Microsoft, which is a great American company, has zero exports from the United States. They have a lot of exports from Ireland, because, guess what, Ireland has a 12.5 percent corporate tax rate; we have a 35 percent corporate tax rate."

Are we back to this again? John McCain relied on this talking point quite a bit last year. In the first presidential debate, the Republican nominee said: "Right now, the United States of American business pays the second-highest business taxes in the world, 35 percent. Ireland pays 11 percent. Now, if you're a business person, and you can locate any place in the world, then, obviously, if you go to the country where it's 11 percent tax versus 35 percent, you're going to be able to create jobs, increase your business, make more investment, et cetera."

I'd hoped we were past this, but so long as congressional Republicans want to re-litigate this as part of the stimulus debate, we might as well set the record straight. Igor Volsky explained that the Republican argument is "full of so many other holes, you can drain spaghetti with it."

* America's Effective Tax Rate Is Comparable To Other G7 Nations: According to a recent U.S. Treasury report, the effective tax rate on equipment financed by equity is 24 percent, the same as the G-7 average. The rate on equipment financed by debt is minus 46 percent, meaning that the government actually subsidizes these investments rather than taxing them.

* America Is The Number One Country To Do Business: The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report for 2007-2008 concluded that the United States is most business friendly, followed by Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Finland and Singapore. Ireland came in at number 22.

* Two-Thirds Of Corporations Did Not Pay Taxes: According to last month's Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, between 1998 and 2005 "about two-thirds of corporations operating in the United States did not pay taxes" because of a variety of corporate tax loopholes.

* US Raises Less Taxes From Corporations Than Ireland: In the United States, corporate revenues as a percentage of GDP was about 2.2 percent; Ireland raised close to 4 percent.

Yglesias added a while back, "Ireland really could be a model for successful reform in the United States; reform that would be aimed at growing the tax base by closing loopholes and, in exchange, lowering the rate. That would, if calibrated correctly, both boost economic growth and efficiency somewhat and also increase tax revenues. But a simple across-the-board rate cut would accomplish nothing of the sort."

Someone really ought to let the GOP caucus know about this. I'm sure they'll want to update their talking points.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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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.

* Let's just say Norm Coleman's legal strategy is off to a very bad start in the latest court hearings in Minnesota.

* Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) went after his Kentucky colleague, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, yesterday. On a conference call with in-state reporters, Bunning blasted McConnell for having said he's unsure whether Bunning will seek re-election.

* Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) realizes that his new colleague, Kirsten Gillibrand, is known for having a record that's pretty conservative for a Democrat, but he's confident that "her views will evolve" as a senator.

* Speaking of Gillibrand, her 2010 ambitions got a boost this morning when she was endorsed by EMILY's List, a move that may discourage a primary challenge from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.

* In the race to replace Gillibrand, Republicans will run New York Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a decision made yesterday by 10 Republican county chairs in the district.

* Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio (D) is considering a run for the Senate in 2010.

* The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already started advertising against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

* Rep. Jerry Moran (R) appears to be the frontrunner in Kansas' open-seat Senate race next year. A poll from Public Opinion Strategies shows him leading fellow Rep. Todd Tiahrt in a GOP primary, 41% to 25%.

* Republicans have suffered quite a bit at the ballot box lately, but the party is nevertheless optimistic about 2010 redistricting.

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

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.

David Ignatius:

I recommend the new president read (or reread) The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. He should do so to remind himself, when the clever, idealistic briefer comes to tell him about the "third way" that will produce a breakthrough in America's tangled relations with the world, that we've been down this road again, and again, and again.

John B. Judis:

I would like to think of something soothing and medicinal, but here's my dour choice: The Iron Wall, Avi Shlaim's revisionist history of Israel and the Arab world, which appeared in 2001. President Obama is going to want to focus on reviving the American and world economy, but he is not going to be able to ignore the Middle East. And he would be wise to train his attention not just on Iraq and Iran, but on the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Shlaim's book makes a good case for an old lesson: that a balanced, evenhanded approach to the conflict, far from being "anti-Israel," holds out the only hope for resolving the conflict, and that such a resolution is in the interests of the United States, the Palestinians, and the Israelis themselves.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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REPUBLICANS DEFINE 'BIPARTISANSHIP'.... Congressional Republicans, with their smallest House caucus in nearly two decades, and their smallest Senate caucus in nearly three decades, are outraged that they aren't able to shape the economic stimulus bill to their liking. GOP leaders are accusing Democrats of acting like they won sweeping election victories three months ago, when they should be acting in a "bipartisan" fashion.

And what, pray tell, would a "bipartisan" approach to governing look like? Yesterday, Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign, the fourth-ranking Republican in the chamber, held up Bush's push for tax cuts in 2001 as the example Obama and Democrats should be following.

"There was very much Democrat, leading up to, it was working together. It got partisan as the process went along, but it was very much bipartisan going into it. And that's what we need to do -- at least start in a bipartisan fashion."

He wasn't kidding.

Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also offered a prime example of "bipartisanship" for Democrats to follow.

"President Bush, newly re-elected and with expanded Republican majorities in Congress, had the courage to put Social Security reform on the agenda. When he asked for bipartisan help, not one Democrat in Congress stepped forward. Every single one of them turned his or her back, reflexively choosing politics over governing -- and the nation lost out on an opportunity to fix a crucial program in desperate need of reform."

So, as far as Republican leaders are concerned, the country not only needs more of Bush's economic policies, we also need more of Bush's style of bipartisan lawmaking.

This is, of course, delusional. But if folks like McConnell and Ensign are serious, and they think Democrats should pursue policy goals the way Bush did, the White House should pretty much stop returning Republicans' phone calls and start pretending the minority party doesn't exist.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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LAPSING INTO PAGANISM.... The National Review's Michael Novak assesses Barack Obama's first six days in office, and is concerned about the implications of the president's decisions.

From these announcements we learn that President Obama recognizes no difference between the Jewish-Christian covenant between a woman and a man (a covenant that they will have and nurture children, if they are so blessed), and a civil contract between two persons of any sex, in order to set up a household of affection and sexual favors.

This is a relapse into paganism.

Got that? Because the president believes in treating people equally, he's not just wrong, he's leading the nation towards paganism.

Isaac Chotiner notes, "The real surprise here, at least for those of us who have long followed Novak's career, is his apparent belief that America had not 'relapsed' into paganism a long time ago. Who knew that he had previously been so sanguine?"

Indeed, while Novak's argument is mind-numbing on its face, I'm also struck by his use of the word "relapse." The new president, after just six days in the Oval Office, and years after he expressed his support for legal recognition of gay couples, has brought on a "relapse into paganism."

As Damon Linker put it, "I'd heard Obama was a talented politician, but this is truly impressive. Just think of all that we pagan-Americans will be able to accomplish over the next four years!"

I'll be especially curious to see if this becomes a new trend for far-right rhetoric. Last month, WorldNetDaily ran a piece equating liberalism with "Baal worship." Now, we're sliding into "paganism."

I can't wait to see what we'll be called next.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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STIMULUS PUSHBACK -- FROM THE OTHER DIRECTION.... As the debate and negotiations over the stimulus have unfolded, we've heard plenty about conservatives' opposition, and quite a bit about efforts to make the right happy. It's encouraging, then, to see at least some attention directed towards those who worry that the stimulus package is missing an opportunity to go much further.

For some House Democrats, the problem is less a matter of balancing the short and long term than a shortage of focus and will on the part of the administration. Their disappointment centers on the relatively small amount devoted to long-lasting infrastructure investments in favor of spending on a long list of government programs. While each serves a purpose, the critics say, they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and fall far short of the transformative New Deal-like vision many of them had entertained.

The bill to be voted on today includes $30 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for public transit and $1 billion for inter-city rail -- less than 5 percent of the package's total spending. Administration officials have said they did not push for more infrastructure spending because of concerns about how many projects are "shovel ready" -- a view that House members say is held most strongly by Lawrence H. Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser.

Even though most House Democrats say they will back the plan, many reject the administration's argument, saying that infrastructure projects could easily be expedited, that the economy will need additional infusions for years to come and that the real reason for shunning infrastructure was to make room for tax cuts. Obama, with a public mandate to do something big, is missing a rare opportunity to rebuild the country, they say.

"Every penny of the $825 billion is borrowed against the future of our kids and grandkids, and so the question is: What benefit are we providing them? What are we doing for the country? It's the difference between real investment that will serve the nation for 30, 50 years and tax cuts, and that's a very poor tradeoff," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). "I go to my district and people say, 'Yeah, I can use 10 extra bucks a week, but I would rather see more substantial investment.' We've gone through a couple bubbles that were borrowing and consumer-driven. We want a recovery that's solid and based in investment and productivity, and that points us at building things that will serve us decades to come."

Administration officials reportedly see the stimulus package as something of a down payment on the president's broader priorities, with more investment to come in subsequent spending bills. This specific rescue proposal may be a unique opportunity, which may not come up again, but we'll see.

But this piece is a reminder of just how odd the debate has been at times. The most common areas of political discussion have been about what additional taxes can be cut, and what additional spending programs can be eliminated.

Though the more progressive arguments have received far less attention, it's encouraging to see at least some pressure coming from the other direction.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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JUAN WILLIAMS TARGETS MICHELLE OBAMA.... The things one learns watching Fox News.

During the January 26 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, NPR news analyst and Fox News political contributor Juan Williams again baselessly attacked first lady Michelle Obama, claiming that "her instinct is to start with this 'blame America' ... stuff." Williams asserted that "[i]f you think about liabilities for President [Barack] Obama that are close to him -- [Vice President] Joe Biden's up there -- but Michelle Obama's right there."

Williams continued: "[S]he's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. If she starts talking, as [Townhall Magazine contributor and Weekly Standard contributing blogger] Mary Katharine [Ham] suggested, her instinct is to start with this 'blame America,' you know, 'I'm the victim.' If that stuff starts to come out, people will go bananas, and she'll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross."

In context, there was no reason for Juan Williams to launch into this nonsense. His comments weren't just baseless and cheap, they were also gratuitous. Michelle Obama hadn't said anything specific or done anything specific to draw Williams' ire, but O'Reilly was talking about the scrutiny she'll face in the national spotlight, and Williams thought it appropriate to use the opportunity to tie the First Lady to black nationalism and the politics of victimization -- just because he felt like it.

Naturally, Williams didn't (and couldn't) offer any evidence to back up his accusations against Michelle Obama. Worse, it's part of a pattern with him -- Williams has accused the First Lady of using "militant anger" before.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has a fascinating piece on Michelle Obama in the latest issue of the Atlantic, added a brief message to Williams: "It's a dangerous, dangerous thing to make a living running your mouth."

And Adam Serwer also had a very sharp item on this, noting, "Williams' statement makes me angry not because it's about Michelle, but because it's so manifestly not about her, but about black women in general."

We're way past the point at which it's reasonable to expect Fox News personalities to apologize to those they smear, but a) Juan Williams probably shouldn't expect any White House exclusives anytime soon, and b) the Obamas' "honeymoon" apparently never actually started, at least as far as the Republicans' news network is concerned.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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SHE JUST WON'T GO AWAY.... A couple of weeks ago, Michael Tomasky summarized exactly why so many see Sarah Palin as an offensive political figure: "Never in my adult lifetime has one politician so 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."

Those who find this description compelling will probably be disappointed to learn that Palin now has a leadership PAC that will likely expand her political reach and influence.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has started a federal political action committee -- called Sarahpac -- that will allow her to raise money for and donate cash to candidates for office over the coming years, a move that should be seen as a precursor to a run for president in 2012.

The PAC has a website and a post office box in Arlington, Virginia but has not yet formally filed its incorporation papers with the Federal Election Commission. A call to the PAC was not returned.

Sarahpac is "dedicated to building America's future, supporting fresh ideas and candidates who share our vision for reform and innovation," according to a statement on the PAC's website.

Leadership PACs aren't uncommon, especially for likely presidential candidates -- Huckabee and Romney already launched theirs -- and are used to raise money, travel, and make campaign contributions to strategically-important, like-minded candidates.

If I were a voter in Alaska, I might wonder if my governor is focused exclusively on her state-wide duties. Between shopping for a book deal, traveling for Republican candidates, doing interviews with national media, and setting up a political action committee in Virginia, Palin's interests seem to lie elsewhere.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Hilzoy

Cram Downs!

From the WSJ:

"A measure to allow judges to reduce the principal amounts of mortgages for troubled borrowers in bankruptcy cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when it was approved by a U.S. House panel. (...)

Under the legislation, borrowers would be eligible to have a bankruptcy judge reduce the principal balance on their home loan -- a move known as a "cram down." Current law allows cram downs for mortgages on vacation properties, but not for those on primary residences. (...)

In key concessions to the banking industry, Mr. Conyers agreed to alter the legislation to allow court-ordered modifications only for existing mortgages and to require that borrowers contact their lender at least 15 days before filing bankruptcy. Citigroup Inc. had demanded the changes in exchange for throwing its weight behind the bill, a move that angered the rest of the industry.

In another change, the legislation will now require recipients of cram downs who resell their home within five years to share the proceeds with their lender.

The panel also added language dissuading bankruptcy judges from shrinking the principal amounts of mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration or the Department of Agriculture. Under current law, the government cannot guarantee or insure amounts that have been crammed down on such loans."

This is good news. As I understand it (and my understanding owes a lot to Tanta at Calculated Risk; her classic cram down post is here), allowing cram downs just amounts to treating mortgage like any other form of secured debt in bankruptcy: if the amount you owe is greater than the value of the asset that secures the debt, your debt can be modified by a bankruptcy judge. So, in the case at hand, if your mortgage is underwater, it can be written down to the amount your house is now worth, and the remainder of your debt to the mortgage company is treated like other unsecured debt.

Every other form of secured debt is treated this way in bankruptcy. Mortgages were treated this way for most of our history. It is not clear why they should be treated differently. In the hearings that led to the exemption, mortgage lenders argued that they should get the exemption because they "performed a valuable social service." Tanta:

"I have some sympathy with the view that mortgage lenders "perform a valuable social service through their loans." That's why, when they stop doing that and become predators, equity strippers, and bubble-blowers instead of valuable social service providers, I like seeing BK judges slap them around. Everybody talks a lot about moral hazard, and the reality is that you're a lot less likely to put a borrower with a weak credit history, whose income you did not verify and whose debt ratios are absurd, into a 100% financed home purchase loan on terms that are "affordable" only for a year or two, if you face having that loan restructured in Chapter 13. If you are aware that your mortgage loan can be crammed down, I'm here to tell you that you will certainly not "forget" to model negative HPA in your ratings models, and will probably pay more than a few seconds' attention to your appraisals. You might even decide that, if a loan does get into trouble, you're better off working it out yourself, via forbearance or modification or short sale, rather than hanging tough and letting the BK judge tell you what you'll accept."

(I miss Tanta.)

***

A whole lot of debt is going to have to be written down in the next few years. This is a way of writing down some of it in a way that's basically fair, that shares the pain between the borrower, who has to go through bankruptcy, have his or her credit destroyed, etc., and the lender/servicer/whoever, who has to eat some of the value of the loan. It avoids the horrendous disruption of foreclosure, and it does so without either letting borrowers off the hook or paying lenders the full price of the mortgage, as though they had nothing whatsoever to do with the ludicrous loans that got made.

Sounds like a good step to me. At any rate, I think the burden ought to be on lenders to explain why mortgages ought to be treated differently than other secured debt. And somehow I don't think that the claim that people who make mortgages can be presumed to be performing a socially valuable service, even when they run around trying to convince people to take out loans that only even seem to make sense if you assume that housing prices will rise in perpetuity, will cut it this time.

Hilzoy 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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January 27, 2009

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

* The "truce" in Gaza is already looking shaky, in light of a Palestinian roadside bomb that killed an Israeli today, which sparked an Israeli "airstrike that wounded a Hamas militant."

* No brainer: "The Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, announced on Tuesday that he would crack down on lobbying to influence the $700 billion financial bailout program by the companies that are receiving billions in taxpayer funds."

* Speaking of which, Geithner was confirmed late yesterday, following a 60-34 vote. Threee Democrats (Harkin, Feingold, and Byrd) voted against him, as did one of the independents (Sanders) caucusing with the Dems.

* Climate researcher Susan Solomon, of the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, believes "many damaging effects of climate change are already largely irreversible." Solomon explained, "People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that's not true."

* The Lily Ledbetter measure is headed to the White House for the president's signature.

* Al-Arabiya's Hisham Melhem thinks it makes sense for al Qaeda to be "nervous" about Barack Obama.

* Surprise, House Republicans not only fail to negotiate in good faith, but they also fail to maintain any kind of ideological consistency.

* Thanks to still more Republican objections, progress on S-CHIP has stalled once again.

* CNN's Ed Henry is confused about why the CBO incomplete "report" on the stimulus became controversial.

* The digital TV deadline has been extended to the summer.

* Congressional Republicans may not like Obama, but they do want their picture taken with him.

* Defense Secretary Bob Gates sets the record straight on Guantanamo detainee recidivism numbers.

* Is the far-right still repeating ACORN nonsense? Yep.

* Fox News' ridiculous "report" in Murtha's district on Guantanamo detainees was wrong on so many levels.

* Glenn Greenwald 1, Richard Cohen 0.

* R.I.P., John Updike.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PULLING A SPECTER.... This guy is hard to figure out sometimes.

It may be time to coin the phrase "pulling a Specter," because Sen. Arlen Specter (PA), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, just did it again. After making a huge fuss questioning the independence of Eric Holder, Specter just caved and said he'll support the attorney general nominee.

"I can say with some confidence that there won't be a successful filibuster," Specter told reporters at a press conference gathered to share his thoughts on Holder in advance of tomorrow's Judiciary panel vote on the nominee.

Specter has been fighting, resisting, and complaining about Holder's nomination for more than seven full weeks. Specter questioned Holder's "character" and his "courage." He compared Holder to Alberto Gonzales, for crying out loud. Specter told a committee room full of people that he questioned Holder's "fitness for the job."

Specter felt it necessary to talk endlessly about the Marc Rich pardon, the Elian Gonzalez controversy, Gore's fundraising efforts in the 1996 presidential campaign, the 1993 federal siege in Waco, the espionage investigation involving Wen Ho Lee, and the 1999 clemency for members of a Puerto Rican militant nationalist group. More recently, Specter sought some kind of guarantee that Holder wouldn't prosecute Bush administration officials who committed acts of torture.

But as of today, Holder's fine and will enjoy Specter's support when his nomination comes to the floor.

It's tempting to wonder why Specter bothered with delays, attacks, and weeks of complaining, if he was going to turn around and vote for Holder anyway. The answer, I suspect, is that Specter enjoyed the attention, found his own grandstanding entertaining, and saw utility in pushing Obama's team around for a while. Now that he's had his say, I suppose Specter is prepared to act like a senator again.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE NATION'S FOUNDING PRINCIPLES.... The National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing an item for the National Catholic Register, reflects on the Obama inauguration. (via Sullivan)

Rick Warren reminded us why all eyes were on the Capitol steps that Tuesday afternoon: "in His name."

We're a nation not just where you are free to believe or not to believe; we're a nation founded for Him -- so we could praise Him, so we could do His will.

Well, not exactly. Actually, not at all.

To be sure, those who want "praise Him" and "do His will" are certainly free to do so. It's a founding principle of our government -- people have the right to freely exercise their spiritual beliefs, or not, based on the dictates of one's conscience.

But to argue that the United States was founded "for Him" (emphasis in the original) just isn't supported by the facts. Long-time readers may recall that I used to work for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, so this is an issue that I've had an interest in for quite a while. I'll spare you a lengthy First Amendment diatribe, but I will say that the nation was founded on secular principles, which led to a secular government, based on the structures of a secular Constitution. The right may not like it, and wish they could change it, but the separation of church and state is real, and it's one of the founders' great contributions to Western governmental traditions.

Reasonable people can debate constitutional interpretation, but to argue that the country was formed specifically as a celebration of and testament to one faith tradition's deity is simply wrong.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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CBO PESSIMISTIC, FINDS NEED FOR STIMULUS.... A bleak forecast.

The nation's current recession is likely to be the longest since World War II, and by some measures could be the worst since the Great Depression, a new Congressional Budget Office forecast said Tuesday.

Without a major economic stimulus plan, "the shortfall in the nation's output relative to its potential would be the largest -- in terms of both length and depth -- since the Depression of the 1930s," said new CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf in testimony prepared for the House Budget Committee.

The analysis is sure to add important momentum to the effort to enact an $825 billion stimulus by mid-February.

Well, one would certainly like to think so.

Elmendorf added that the stimulus proposal "would provide a substantial boost to economic activity over the next several years relative to what would occur without any legislation."

There's been quite a bit of interest lately in the CBO's analysis of the stimulus package and the economy. What do you suppose the chances are that Republican lawmakers will be as enthusiastic about today's CBO forecast as they were about a preliminary report based on a partial look at an out-of-date stimulus proposal?

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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OBAMA WON'T GIVE THE GOP MORE TAX CUTS.... President Obama was on the Hill today, meeting with House Republicans on the economic stimulus package. When asked if the president was winning any GOP votes, one conservative House Republican who was in the room told the Politico, "Nope," adding that Obama "won't compromise on more tax cuts."

I'm not sure what definition of "compromise" the lawmaker was using, but the bottom line remains the same: the president's efforts to garner Republican support aren't working.

Obama seemed ready for the House Republicans to pounce, reportedly telling the gathered GOP lawmakers: "feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part [tax cuts]," according to two sources in the room.

That's basically what they did, hitting Obama for more than 30 minutes with questions about deficits, taxes and spending. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), won applause from his GOP colleagues when he asked the president whether he would promise that the stimulus would not be an excuse to raise taxes or increase spending.

Obama responded, according to sources in the room, that he was worried about the deficit and debt, and promised that his fiscal 2010 budget -- coming out next month -- would make hard choices in terms of spending cuts in an effort to reduce the deficit.

The Politico report noted that the "out of power minority party" seems to be "finding its voice as a stout opposition party instead of the party of compromise." Perhaps, but I'm not entirely sure when, exactly, House Republicans were ever positioned as the "party of compromise."

What's more, the article added that Republicans "slapped" Obama's "outstretched hand," as part of a "coordinated effort to embarrass" the president.

I suspect Obama isn't feeling especially embarrassed. Frustrated, maybe. Like he's wasting his time, probably. But the institutional dynamic hasn't changed. House Democrats still enjoy a 77-seat advantage over the minority, Obama is still a very popular president, and Republicans (and their ideas) still enjoy little public support. The stimulus is still likely to pass, especially in the House.

Whether the House GOP is enjoying itself more now than last week is largely inconsequential.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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GOLDFARB REFLECTS.... Michael Goldfarb, who did communications/blogging work for the McCain campaign before returning to the Weekly Standard, sat down for an interesting interview with CJR's Kate Klonick about his campaign experiences.

The interview covers quite a bit of ground, and even makes some news -- Goldfarb notes that the campaign was, at one point, poised "to throw The New York Times off the plane," which I hadn't heard about before.

Goldfarb also notes that he was hired to "attack the press"; he boasted that he was "good at ... pissing off the media"; and he "thought from the beginning" that McCain would lose. Goldfarb still thinks Palin was a wise addition to the ticket, and compared The New Yorker covering her selection to having Jane Goodall "writing about fu**ing apes mating in the jungle."

He added that campaign aides really did go after Palin after the campaign ended, and Goldfarb believes these staffers "are going to pay a real steep price in the long run."

But what struck me as especially interesting was Goldfarb responding to a question about McCain's reluctance to go after Obama over Jeremiah Wright. Goldfarb responded:

It's not for me to second guess how the candidate felt about any particular issue. There are obvious mistakes that were made throughout the campaign. The Rev. Wright issue is of some concern. It was frustrating, because if McCain never mentioned it, the media was going to act like it didn't exist.

That's not how I remember it. First, plenty of far-right voices who supported McCain/Palin used the attack throughout the campaign season. Second, the media not only kept talking about Wright, news outlets ran plenty of stories about McCain's strategy regarding Jeremiah Wright, in the process, talking about Jeremiah Wright.

"If McCain never mentioned it, the media was going to act like it didn't exist"? I'm afraid Goldfarb has it backwards.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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CONFUSION OVER KRISTOL.... Perhaps the only thing more frustrating that Bill Kristol's endless stream of jobs in the mainstream media is confusion over why this is frustrating.

After getting fired from Time, Kristol was hired by the New York Times. After getting fired from the New York Times, Kristol was hired by the Washington Post. Today, Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, defended the move.

Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt called Kristol "very smart and very plugged in," saying Kristol would be an influential voice in the coming debate over redefining the Republican Party. "It seems to me there were a lot of Times readers who felt the Times shouldn't hire someone who supported the Iraq war," said Hiatt, adding that he wants "a diverse range of opinions" on his page.

I don't doubt that many Times readers disagreed with Kristol about Bush's Iraq policy, but that wasn't the problem. Rather, Kristol had spent much of Bush's presidency not only touting neocon nonsense, but also becoming what Jonathan Chait described as a "thug" -- directing baseless, ridiculous attacks against anyone who disagreed with him.

Around the time Kristol was hired by the NYT, A.L. published a greatest-hits package of outrageous Kristol columns; ThinkProgress had a collection of Kristol's recent "lies, distortions, and hawkish proposals"; and Media Matters assembled a list of Kristol observations -- on matters ranging from foreign policy to campaign politics -- all of which are obviously, demonstrably wrong. In most professions, repeated failures on this scale are not rewarded with promotions at some of the nation's most prestigious news outlets.

And all of this came before Kristol even started his New York Times column.

Matt Yglesias, who once described Kristol's writing as "dangerous," noted today:

[Hiatt] doesn't say Kristol's column is good! Doesn't call it insightful, doesn't call it informative, doesn't call it well-written. He just says that Kristol is "plugged-in" and influential. Which no doubt he is. But as a consumer of media, I prefer to take in well-written informative commentary that's entertaining or enlightening. Being deliberately misled by influence-peddlers or wannabe influence-peddlers doesn't rank high on my priority list. But to Hiatt it's the very model of a modern major political pundit.

I suspect that Hiatt, like Andy Rosenthal before him, considers these complaints petty. He probably assumes that liberal bloggers are just whining about Kristol because he's a conservative. "Everyone knows" that Kristol is "very smart," so critics must be wild-eyed ideologues, not to be taken seriously.

The reality, though, is far more mundane. Kristol writes predictable twaddle, riddled with routine factual errors, misguided predictions, and radical, bellicose ideas. He's also well dressed, soft spoken, and a lively dinner companion, which gives him media credibility, influence, and career opportunities he hasn't earned.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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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.

* Norm Coleman's lawsuit got off to a bad start yesterday in Minnesota: "It's not a good day when the court throws out your evidence and tells your legal team to submit it all over again."

* The race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee is getting increasingly ugly. Some anonymous activists sent around a parodied USA Today cover, mocking the reactions if South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson wins the contest. One grammatically-challenged headline read, "RNC Chooses White's Only Chairman." Dawson rival Michael Steele, meanwhile, is under attack from the religious right.

* As expected, Florida state senator Dan Gelber (D) announced yesterday that he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He's the second Democrat to enter the open-seat contest, following Rep. Kendrick Meek.

* Despite pressure from his Republican colleagues to retire, Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R) said yesterday that he intends to run for re-election. In the same conversation, Bunning had no idea that Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) had already announced his campaign against him, saying, "I've been very busy."

* Former President Bill Clinton hosted a fundraiser last week for Terry McAuliffe's gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.

* Colorado Attorney General John Suthers (R) was widely expected to be a leading candidate for the Senate in 2010, but he announced yesterday that he's not running. Former Rep. Scott McInnis (R) will also skip the race, though he's likely to run for governor.

* Kirsten Gillibrand will be sworn in as New York's junior senator in about a half-hour. She has already begun campaigning for her 2010 race.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.

Nathan Glazer:

In view of how well read the new president is, from the press reports on his reading on presidential transitions and current crises, it is not easy to think of what else one might suggest to him. But one book that his advisers may not have thought of is India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, an excellent history of India since independence. India will have to concern the president on occasion; China will undoubtedly concern him more often, but in view of its closed political system no equivalent book could be written on China. Unlike many current books on India, Guha's is scholarly, well written, and remarkably balanced in judging the enormous problems India faces -- its poverty, some long-sustained internal insurrections, ineffectiveness of government in many respects -- against its recent economic vibrancy and in particular its success in maintaining its democracy over these sixty years.

Jeff Greenfield:

Barack Obama is no doubt acutely conscious of the "blind into Baghdad" mentality that afflicted Bush and many of his advisers. He has also, it is safe to assume, already read The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. So let me recommend Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter, for it is yet another reminder of the danger that every decisionmaker faces: the arrogant refusal to consider that his or her assumptions may be fatally flawed. The book is about Korea, where General Douglas MacArthur, from his perch in Japan, adamantly ignored warnings that his push north toward the Yalu River would bring the Chinese into the war. Indeed, when dead Chinese soldiers were found on the battlefield, MacArthur and his aides confidently asserted that they were North Koreans in Chinese army uniforms. The subsequent invasion by the Chinese cost thousands of lives and nearly led to the conquest of South Korea.

I'd also suggest he find a copy of an unjustly ignored novel about Washington: The Floating Island, by Garrett Epps. Published in 1985 and (apparently) set in the last years of the Carter administration, the novel gleefully skewers careerists, Establishment icons, self-proclaimed Washington power brokers, think tanks, and just about anything else the capital has to offer. Apart from providing any number of cautionary tales, the book is gut-bustingly funny -- and I suspect it won't be long before Obama finds he could use a good laugh.


Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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MAYBE WE CAN MAKE AN EVEN BETTER BILL NOW.... I suppose President Obama deserves credit for trying. He made a good faith effort to earn support from conservative Republican House members for an economic stimulus package. Obama negotiated with them, compromised with them, and even included a whole lot of tax cuts to win them over.

But just as the president was poised to work with the House GOP even further, the caucus leader announces it's too late.

President Barack Obama is coming to the Capitol later today in a bid to curry favor with congressional Republicans. But it appears GOP leaders have already made up their minds to oppose his $825 billion stimulus plan.

House Republican Leader John A. Boehner and his No. 2, Whip Eric Cantor, told their rank-and-file members Tuesday morning during a closed-door meeting to oppose the bill when it comes to the floor Wednesday, according to an aide familiar with the discussion.

This should dampen the mood for an early afternoon meeting with the president, who is making the trek to hear Republicans' input on the legislation before Wednesday's vote.

This isn't a surprise. As discussions progressed, Boehner had a habit of "zeroing in like a laser on the least-defensible possible position," including opposition to state aid and Medicaid expansion. For that matter, Boehner apparently rejects the very idea of an economic stimulus, hoping a combination of tax cuts and time will get the economy moving again.

Given this, of course he opposes the proposed rescue package. It's antithetical to all of his beliefs about government and the economy -- beliefs that, incidentally, helped create the crisis in the first place. That Obama was willing to engage them directly and honestly was gracious, and evidence of a leader sincere about changing the way business is done, but his efforts were bound to be in vain.

Once again, the relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown keeps coming to mind.

Nevertheless, I have one relevant question: since the House GOP isn't interested in passing the bill any more, can Democrats make it even better now? The White House has been willing to make all kinds of concessions to win over Republican support, but it's not enough. Since the GOP is going to vote "no" anyway, why not make the bill as effective and progressive as possible? If there's no point in the majority party offering unwelcome enticements to those who'll remain obstinate anyway, then pull the enticements and let the majority party do the right thing.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THIESSEN CAN'T HELP HIMSELF.... Marc Thiessen, up until recently George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, has been on a roll lately. It's almost as if he perceives an opening for a new generation of outrageous right-wing commentators, and wants to stake his claim to the leadership.

Last week, Thiessen argued that if Barack Obama changes Bush's national-security apparatus in anyway, he'll invite domestic terrorism and will shoulder the blame for American deaths. Also last week, Thiessen argued in a print column that Obama "is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."

Yesterday, Thiessen kept the madness going, praising the torture of Abu Zubaydah and heralding those Bush administration officials who did the torturing.

"They're not torturers. They're heroes.... And the thought that we're sitting here discussing whether these people should be prosecuted or investigated is just outrageous. These people are American heroes who saved lives and stopped the next Sept. 11."

First, Zubaydah was never the terrorist mastermind the Bushies made him out to be, and torturing him led, predictably, to a lot of bogus intelligence. Second, the evidence supporting Thiessen's arguments about torture helping prevent "the next Sept. 11" is literally unbelievable. And third, calling those who commit acts of torture "heroes" is just twisted.

As for Marc Thiessen, I have to admit, I'd barely heard of the guy before he started railing against Obama. Being Bush's chief speechwriter in 2008 was a fairly low-profile gig. So, what's his background?

Apparently, he was a spokesperson for Jesse Helms from 1995 to 2001, where he, among other things, declared the International Criminal Court "the the most dangerous threat to sovereignty since the League of Nations."

As Steve M. noted, "[I]f there's an unneutered-pitbull quality to Thiessen's rhetoric, well, he apprenticed with a master."

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

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CONYERS STILL HAS A FEW QUESTIONS FOR ROVE.... Well, this ought to be interesting.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) issued a new subpoena yesterday to former Bush White House aide Karl Rove, months after Rove deflected an earlier effort to compel his testimony about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and other political disputes that swirled around the Justice Department.

Conyers's committee subpoenaed Rove on May 22, calling on him to testify about his contacts with department officials in the Bush era. But Rove rebuffed the summons, saying he was barred from testifying because of executive privilege.

Yesterday's subpoena may test the limits of that power for the first time since George W. Bush left office, legal experts said. Some Democratic lawyers have suggested that an executive order issued by President Obama last week governing presidential records could make it easier for citizens and lawmakers to gather information about Bush administration controversies.

"Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it," Conyers said. "After two years of stonewalling, it's time for him to talk."

Rove relied on an executive-privilege claim to ignore the subpoena the last time -- the matter is still pending in the courts -- but Bush obviously isn't president anymore. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, argued that former presidents still retain executive privilege on matters relating to their time in office, but the current White House counsel may not agree. If so, Luskin assumes that "the matter will be resolved among the courts, the president and the former president."

We don't yet know how Obama's legal team will respond, but it's worth noting that the president has called the "absolute immunity" claims of the Bush administration "completely misguided."

Conyers has called for Rove's testimony on February 2, so this should move fairly quickly. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HEARTS AND MINDS.... Yesterday, the president dispatched George Mitchell, Obama's newly named special envoy to the Middle East, to the region, only four days after taking the job. It coincided with the president's first post-inaugural media interview, which was held with al-Arabiya, the "Dubai-based satellite network that is one of the largest English-language TV outlets aimed at Arab audiences."

Obama's emphasis on improving the nation's standing in the Middle East is obvious. And while concrete policy steps -- beginning a withdrawal policy in Iraq, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo -- matter, Obama's interview with al-Arabiya will also help deliver a message likely to resonate.

In one of his first interviews since taking office, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that "the Americans are not your enemy" and adding that "the moment is ripe for both sides" to negotiate in the Middle East.

His remarks, recorded in Washington on Monday night, signaled a shift -- in style and manner at least -- from the Bush administration, offering a dialogue with Iran and what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate. [...]

Mr. Obama said he believed "the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away" and that he had told his envoy to "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

"Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions," Mr. Obama said. "But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."

Obama added that his message to the Muslim world is straightforward: "We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task'"

The president also went to considerable lengths to drew a distinction between "extremist organizations" committed to violence and "people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop."

He added that his personal background -- "I have Muslim members of my family; I have lived in Muslim countries" -- helps shape his perspective on the region.

And following up on recent reporting regarding al Qaeda's panicky rhetoric, Obama conceded that the terrorist leaders "seem nervous" in the wake of Bush's departure, which is, of course, true.

We'll see, in time, whether public diplomacy like this has a lasting effect, but it appears that Obama is getting off on the right foot, with exactly the right message.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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AN ACTUAL CBO REPORT ON STIMULUS.... The report from the Congressional Budget Office, purportedly showing that the Democrats' stimulus proposal would be ineffective, did not actually exist. A more reliable document really was released by the CBO late yesterday, however, and the results are far more encouraging. Indeed, the CBO found that implementing the stimulus plan "would have a noticeable impact on economic growth and employment in the next few years."

Kevin Drum took a closer look at the numbers and came away with a positive impression.

Specifically, they estimate that in the spending portion of the bill, $477 billion out of $604 billion would be disbursed either this fiscal year or in the next two fiscal years. That's 79% of the total.

I guess opinions can vary on this, but that strikes me as pretty good. What's more, most of the spending that comes in FY2012 or later is either for projects that simply take more than two years to complete (highways, school repairs) or infrastructure improvements that have long-term paybacks (renewable energy programs). There are a few other items in the out years that are more arguable, but they add up to a pretty small portion of the bill.

Overall, then, it looks like the spending part of the bill is maybe 90% clean as short-term stimulus. And on the supply side, nearly 100% of the tax cuts are allocated during the next 18 months. Given the realities of the appropriations process, I'm not sure the White House could have done much better than this.

While Kevin's analysis rings true, the number we're likely to hear most is "two-thirds" -- as in, "Approximately two-thirds of the spending and tax cuts contained in an economic stimulus package crafted by House Democrats would flow into the economy by the end of fiscal 2010."

As for the "slowest" parts of the package, the CBO analysis notes a variety of factors, including "seasonal" concerns -- school renovations are better over the summer, and highway construction in the north over the winter is inherently tricky.

What's more, I'm also reminded of something Paul Krugman noted over the weekend: those portions of the stimulus plan that'll kick in later might help, too, since the economy will need ongoing boosts. "[W]e're looking at a situation where even if some of the projects are continuing to add spending two years out, two-and-a half, even three years out, that's not such a bad thing," Krugman explained.

The original CBO "report" got all kinds of attention, not just from Republican officials and conservative activists: "ThinkProgress has found that since the AP's report last Tuesday, the CBO report has been cited at least 81 times on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, the Sunday shows and the network newscasts in order raise questions about Obama's recovery plan."

Will the actual report get this kind of attention?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT.... The right howls, the media blares, Democrats decide it's not worth the bother. As Atrios noted, it's as "predictable as the rising sun."

House Democrats are likely to jettison family planning funds for the low-income from an $825 billion economic stimulus bill, officials said late Monday, following a personal appeal from President Barack Obama at a time the administration is courting Republican critics of the legislation.

Several officials said a final decision was expected on Tuesday, coinciding with Obama's scheduled visit to the Capitol for separate meetings with House and Senate Republicans.

The provision has emerged as a point of contention among Republicans, who criticize it as an example of wasteful spending that would neither create jobs nor otherwise improve the economy.

Under the provision, states no longer would be required to obtain federal permission to offer family planning services -- including contraceptives -- under Medicaid, the health program for the low-income.

I can appreciate the political dynamic here. The Obama White House wants to get at least some bipartisan support for an economic stimulus package, and GOP lawmakers, Fox News, right-wing blogs and talk-radio, and even media figures like Chris Matthews and Jack Cafferty, are telling Americans the policy proposal is right out of the Little Red Book. It's become a distraction, so it's understandable that Democratic leaders prefer to just make the irritation go away.

But it's nevertheless frustrating. The public actually supports family-planning programs; states have been screwed over on this for years; it's an easy and straightforward approach to preventative, cost-saving healthcare; and as it turns out, it's actually a pretty good stimulus.

By scrapping a good idea, it only reinforces the notion that Republican hissy fits will continue to dictate governing decisions, even when -- especially when -- the minority party is wrong.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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January 26, 2009

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

* Brutal news on the job market today, with six major corporations announcing combined layoffs of over 68,000 people.

* Two military helicopters crashed in Iraq today, killing four U.S. service members.

* Congress is poised to give the Federal Reserve significant new powers to regulate the financial system.

* Roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan hit a record in 2008, and increased 45% over the year before. The result was 161 fatalities among coalition troops -- double 2007.

* This is Fox News at its most destructive and irresponsible.

* Drew Westen makes the case for a new narrative to replace the "government is the problem" meme. (thanks to R.K. for the heads-up)

* Obama still intends to ban weapons in space. (via Blue Girl)

* On Google Maps, the Vice President's home will no longer be blurred.

* Althouse has a habit of writing very silly things.

* Robert Reich doesn't like it when the usual right-wing blowhards lie about his beliefs.

* It's very cool that Lisa Heinzerling is joining the EPA to advise Lisa Jackson on climate change.

* I'm sorry to see Dr. Larry Altman retire.

* The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt believes Bill Kristol is a "very smart" person who "wrote a good column" for the New York Times. Maybe he's thinking of a different Bill Kristol.

* Putting Guantanamo Bay detainees in Alcatraz is a very bad idea.

* When Bill Bennett starts disagreeing with him publicly, you know Rush Limbaugh has gone completely over the edge.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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FREDO FEELS SECURE.... Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales knows soon-to-be-A.G. Eric Holder considers waterboarding torture, and that torture is illegal, and that Gonzales signed off on torture during his tenure.

But is he worried about being prosecuted? Not so much.

On the question of prosecuting officers who employed any of the "extreme tactics'' that the Bush administration has acknowledged, without admitting to any "torture'' of detainees: "I don't think that there's going to be a prosecution, quite frankly.'' Gonzales said. "Because again, these activities.... They were authorized, they were supported by legal opinions at the Department of Justice.''

When Holder is confirmed -- with a vote expected Wednesday -- he "will have to make a decision as to whether or not move forward with an investigation or a prosecution,'' Gonzales said. "But under those circumstances, I find it hard to believe...

Gonzales added that he believes Holder should not have made "a blanket pronouncement" that torture is torture, because it might undermine "morale" among some intelligence officials and lawyers. (The full context of Holder's answer was: "If you look at the history of the use of that technique, used by the Khmer Rouge, used in the Inquisition, used by the Japanese and prosecuted by us as war crimes. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam. I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture." Gonzales considers this a "blanket pronouncement" to be avoided.)

Gonzales added that he finds the very discussion "extremely discouraging," because intelligence officials who may be engaging in "controversial" interrogation techniques are now worried they might be investigated.

Sigh.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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'DIRECT DIPLOMACY' WITH IRAN.... Ambassador Rice gets the diplomatic ball rolling.

President Barack Obama's administration will engage in "direct diplomacy" with Iran, the newly installed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Monday.

Not since before the 1979 Iranian revolution are U.S. officials believed to have conducted wide-ranging direct diplomacy with Iranian officials. But U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice warned that Iran must meet U.N. Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment before any talks on its nuclear program.

"The dialogue and diplomacy must go hand in hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council. And its continuing refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase," she told reporters during a brief question-and-answer session.

Specifically, Rice said the U.S. remains "deeply concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region, indeed to the United States and the entire international community." She added, "We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran, as well as continued collaboration and partnership" with members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.

Rice's comments caused a bit of a stir, but when asked about the remarks earlier, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Rice was merely restating Obama's policy on Iran.

On a related note, Laura Rozen has heard that, last week's envoy event notwithstanding, former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross will, in fact, be a special U.S. envoy to Iran for the Obama administration.

Obama has made some comments about Iran's nuclear program that have raised questions about how much different his policy will be from Bush's. So far, though, there's ample evidence of a very significant shift.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CLYBURN HITTING THE BRAKES ON HEALTHCARE.... House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) disappointed many yesterday, when he said he prefers an incremental approach to healthcare reform. "I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can't chew," Clyburn said on C-SPAN. "We've been down that road. I still remember 1994."

The Hill said Clyburn's comments "could represent a major shift in the House Democrats' strategy of dealing with the uninsured." Perhaps not: Clyburn has preferred a take-it-slow, incrementalist approach for quite a while, and there's no reason to think he was necessarily speaking on behalf of the party's leadership yesterday.

Either way, Clyburn's take is discouraging for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, his skittishness based on a 15-year-old fight reflects a lack of imagination. As Digby explained very well, this isn't 1994: "The Republicans are on the decline not the ascent. Democrats were just given the task of saving the country. The health care crisis, which was already awful, is getting worse with every lay-off and every job lost -- and the state governments are going broke and can't take up the slack. How many uninsured to we have to have before they realize that this crisis can't just be kicked down the road until they get over their trauma of 1994?"

What's more, it's disappointing hearing Clyburn's take because it's the opposite of what we've heard from the administration. Obama and Daschle have suggested they're impatient about tackling the issue, and Rahm Emanuel recently said an incrementalist approach won't do, stressing that the new administration would "throw long and deep."

Igor Volsky said he can understand Clyburn's reluctance, but he should do it anyway.

Since we can't fix the economy without addressing skyrocketing health care costs or lower rising costs without bringing everyone into the system, a broad approach to health care reform is the only politically viable option.

To lower the health care costs of his constituents, Clyburn would have to bring everyone into the system. "In 2002, uninsured South Carolinians cost the system $1,936 per uninsured individual" and without extending coverage to the 16 percent of South Carolinians lacking health insurance or reversing South Carolina's dubious and costly distinction of falling into the top ten unhealthiest states for eleven years in a row, Clyburn is wasting his voters' money.

Pushing for big health reform is politically rewarding precisely because it will ultimately save the government and American taxpayers money and help restore the economy. In fact, rather than serving as a deterrent to comprehensive reform -- as Clyburn suggests -- the consequences of failing to achieve reform in 1994 are a stark warning against incrementalism, or worse, inaction.

Clyburn certainly understands and appreciates the facts, statistics, and economic arguments -- he just doesn't think that it's politically feasible. But given the intimate connection between the economy and health care costs and general popularity of taking a "bite" out of the health care crisis, comprehensive reform seems not only politically possible, but absolutely essential.

Here's hoping someone gave Clyburn a call today, explaining the need to get with the program.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WHY BOEHNER REJECTS STATE AID.... Congressional Republicans have reportedly "taken issue with the large chunk of funding in the stimulus package -- some $300 billion all told -- that will go to shore up the budgets of states." Matt Yglesias notes how ridiculous this is.

I'm pretty impressed with John Boehner's ability to zero in like a laser on the least-defensible possible position.... In the serious-people universe, [assisting with state budgets] is the least controversial form of federal outlay. The idea is merely to prevent overall public spending from dropping too precipitously at a time when state budget cuts would have a contractionary impact. [...]

One of the privileges of opposition, of course, is that you don't really need to take responsibility for the consequences of your views. So if Boehner wants to take this line, nothing will really stop him or pull him back to planet earth. But it should be seen for what it is.

Quite right. But how, exactly, did Republicans end up taking this position? I suspect a poll told them they could get away with it.

Gallup recently conducted a survey gauging support for various stimulus proposals. The single most popular idea was creating new jobs with "major new government spending on the nation's infrastructure," which found 78% support. The least popular idea was "providing federal money to state governments that are facing budget shortfalls," which generated 49% support.

Much of the public appears to be wrong on this, but Americans haven't heard much as of yet on why aid to states matters. Boehner & Co., however, don't really have an excuse.

It seems as if their goal is to find a politically palatable way to oppose an economic rescue plan in the midst of a deep recession. They are, in other words, looking for credible excuse to say, "No." If Gallup says the public is cold on state aid, then it offers the GOP cover to oppose the most "unpopular" part of the plan, whether it's a good idea or not.

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STIMULUS AND CONTRACEPTIVES.... House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared on "Meet the Press" yesterday, complaining about a proposed stimulus package. He noted, in particular, a proposal to spend "over $200 million for contraceptives." He asked, "How will this fix an ailing economy?"

Apparently, the contraceptives proposal has become quite an issue for conservatives. It was the lead story on Drudge this morning, far-right blogs are all worked up, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was quizzed on the spending on ABC yesterday.

What's this all about? Are Democrats trying to spend "over $200 million" on condoms? What's the story?

As you might have guessed, it's not quite as scandalous as conservatives would have you believe.

[T]he family-planning program that Pelosi supports expanding in the stimulus bill was created in 1972 under the leadership of Republican president Richard Nixon.

What's being proposed is an expansion in the number of states that can use Medicaid money, with a federal match, to help low-income women prevent unwanted pregnancies. Of the 26 states that already have Medicaid waivers for family planning, eight are led by Republican governors (AL, FL, MS, SC, CA, LA, MN and RI -- a ninth, MO, had a GOP governor until this past November). If this policy is truly a taxpayer gift to "the abortion industry," as John Boehner and House Republicans claim, where are the GOP governors promising to end the program in their states?

Additionally, the process of obtaining a waiver for Medicaid family-planning coverage is extremely cumbersome. A letter written by Wisconsin health regulators in 2007 noted that some states have had to wait for as long as two years before their request was approved. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that eliminating the waiver requirement would save states $400 million over 10 years.

It's likely that Boehner, Drudge, and others hope that they can simply say, "Democrats want to spend $200 million of your money on contraceptives" and the howls will be so loud, the money will be stripped from the spending bill. As is too often the case, they're assuming the public won't hear, or care about, the details.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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NIMBY.... There was bound to be some pushback against Barack Obama's decision to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but this isn't the one I was expecting.

Fox News personalities argued last week that the Obama would bring dangerous terrorists "to our soil, right here." Karl Rove argued over the weekend that Obama will change his mind about Gitmo because "there will be an uproar in the U.S." about detaining suspects on American soil. John McCain told Fox News yesterday, "I don't know of a state in America that wants them in their state. You think Yucca Mountain is a NIMBY problem? Wait till you see this one."

Elana Schor reports that the most likely facility is the military's maximum-security prison in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas -- which, by the way, is where Candidate McCain wanted to send the detainees when he endorsed closing Gitmo -- but that's facing resistance, too. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) and three House Republicans are pushing a measure that would prohibit the transfer of any suspects from Cuba to Kansas. (We're seeing a similar response from Republicans in South Carolina over the Charleston Naval Brig and Republicans in California over Camp Pendleton.)

I can appreciate the discomfort one might feel in the proximity of a psychotic religious fanatic, but as the Not-In-My-Backyard phenomenon goes, this is pretty silly.

As Glenn Greenwald explained the other day, there are already all kinds of suspected terrorists, including those associated with the 9/11 attacks, in federal detention right here on U.S. soil. As far as I can tell, no one much cares, and there have been no protests from conservative commentators, lawmakers, or activists about moving them out of the country.

I'm not even sure what the complaining is about, exactly. That the Gitmo detainees might break out of incarceration? If conservatives trust federal officials to administer a system of indefinite detention in Cuba, they should probably trust federal officials to keep the bad guys locked up effectively.

Some, meanwhile, have gone so far as to suggest that terrorists could be freed if their allies "crashed a plane into the prison to faciliate [sic] an escape."

Hilzoy's words of wisdom from the weekend deserve another look:

Curiously, no jihadists have flown planes into prisons to facilitate the escapes of any of these terrorists. Maybe they're waiting until we have been lulled into a false sense of security. Since the blind Sheikh has been in prison for over a decade, they are showing a lot of patience. Maybe, on the other hand, Jim Geraghty and the Repubicans in Congress just have hyperactive imaginations.

Moreover, it's not as though terrorists are the only dangerous people with associates who would be prepared to do a lot to spring them. Consider drug kingpins, for instance: they generally have lots of money and large organizations, and while I'm not sure they would fly planes into prisons (??), they could probably think of less lurid ways to spring people.

And yet the United States, under George W. Bush, actually sought to have these dangerous people extradited to the United States, exposing our citizens to danger! Not only that, we succeeded! For instance, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, the head of the Tijuana cartel, is now locked up in San Diego. We are seeking the extradition of his brother Eduardo, and have several other high-ranking members the cartel in custody. OMG!! Americans are at risk!!! What shall we do???

I suggest chilling out. We are talking about maximum security prisons, which are designed to keep very dangerous people locked up. If our government decides that extra resources are needed to keep terrorists safely behind bars, it has very capable people who could be deployed for that purpose.

Good advice. As Atrios noted the other day, we're not talking about "actual supervillains with special powers."

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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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.

* A trial will kick off in St. Paul today, with a three-judge panel hearing Norm Coleman's (R) latest complaint challenging his defeat in Minnesota.

* A Quinnipiac poll in New York shows that most voters in the state aren't especially familiar with newly-appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D).

* Four years ago, then-state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D) nearly defeated U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in Kentucky. In 2010, now-Lt. Gov. Mongiardo wants a rematch, and announced his Senate campaign this morning.

* Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe unveiled his first television ad this morning, as part of his gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. It uses the word "job" a lot.

* Club for Growth president Pat Toomey, who challenged Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in a GOP primary four years ago, will not seek a re-match in 2010. That's no doubt good news for Specter, but that doesn't mean he won't face some other Republican opponent.

* There's already a big field of candidates hoping to fill the vacancy in Sen. Gillibrand's House seat. Republican officials expect it to be an easy pick-up.

* It's mostly behind the scenes, but some Republicans are already positioning themselves for the 2012 presidential race. The latest is former Idaho governor and senator Dirk Kempthorne, who has reportedly "begun to reach out to allies gauge their opinion about whether he should run for President in 2012."

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

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts, and here are the next two from our list.

James Fallows:

We all know the areas in which Barack Obama's experience, instincts, and long-stated positions make him his own policy expert. Rule-of-law questions, plus management of racial frictions, are the two most obvious illustrations. I assume he is getting a crash education on economic and energy policy from a very strong team, and I bet he quickly shows a good natural feel for dealing with foreign leaders.

The place to worry is about defense policy. Obama said next to nothing about it during the campaign. Of course, he emphasized getting out of Iraq and focusing more on Afghanistan and about the limits of military-firepower answers to complex economic and ethnic questions. But about the cost and nature of America's defense establishment, the training and nature of the officer corps, the relative roles of the services, and a hundred similar issues Obama has been hazy at best. This is a problem not just because the issues are so important but also because Democratic leaders can so easily be mau-maued into thinking that they must be resolutely "pro-military" -- which in practice means never questioning budgets -- to hold off attacks from the right. Clearest recent case study: Hillary Clinton's eight-year role on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

What would make me feel best about Obama on this front? News that he had actually, himself, read America's Defense Meltdown, by an all-star array of truly expert authors. There is no better, terser, more comprehensive or authoritative introduction to an independent, realistic perspective on the Pentagon -- complete with the facts, details, and nuance to give Obama confidence in these views. Plus, it's free -- at this site.

Joel Garreau:

When you campaign on change we can believe in, and suddenly you're facing change we can't believe is happening, here are two books for you, Mr. President.

One is The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz. It's still the most accessible guide to thinking rationally, systematically, and strategically about futures you can't possibly predict. Scenario planning is the antidote to the kind of futures bravado that caused us to roll into Iraq thinking there was no other possibility but that they'd throw rose petals at our feet. As change accelerates, you've got a lot more strange stuff coming at you, Mr. President. This is the conceptual guide on how to prepare.

The other is Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's the greatest long-view provider -- ever -- of fresh reminders why you cared. Cared about these perverse, ornery, unpredictable, cussed people you chose to lead. It never lets you forget that in the face of unprecedented threats, the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity, and humor will wend its way to glory.


Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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IT STILL DOESN'T EXIST.... In an apparent effort to appear even more foolish, the Wall Street Journal editorial board rails against a proposed economic stimulus package today, relying on support from the Congressional Budget Office.

The stimulus bill currently steaming through Congress looks like a legislative freight train, but given last week's analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, it is more accurate to think of it as a time machine. That may be the only way to explain how spending on public works in 2011 and beyond will help the economy today.

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, a mere $26 billion of the House stimulus bill's $355 billion in new spending would actually be spent in the current fiscal year, and just $110 billion would be spent by the end of 2010. This is highly embarrassing given that Congress's justification for passing this bill so urgently is to help the economy right now, if not sooner.

And the red Congressional faces must be very red indeed, because CBO's analysis has since vanished into thin air after having been posted early last week on the Appropriations Committee Web site.

The Washington Times' Donald Lambro does the same, pointing to the CBO report as proof that the stimulus plan won't improve the economy.

The problem, for those who were away from their computers over the weekend, is that the CBO report conservatives are relying on doesn't exist. As both The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz and the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim reported, the CBO "ran a small portion of an earlier version of the stimulus plan" to see how quickly the proposal's expenditures would be spent. It not only didn't include large chunks of the stimulus plan, it also didn't include more recent changes to the rescue package.

The WSJ editorial board describes the non-existent CBO report as "highly embarrassing" for Democrats. The irony is rich.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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JOB SECURITY FOR THE PERPETUALLY WRONG.... We learned this morning that the New York Times is finally letting go of Bill Kristol, who wrote his final column for the paper today. What we didn't know is where Kristol is headed.

Keep his career trajectory in mind. Kristol, in 2007, wrote misguided, predictable, and dull columns for Time magazine. When Time fired him, the New York Times decided he'd be a great addition to its stable of columnists. Now, after a year of misguided, predictable, and dull columns, the New York Times has fired him, and ... wait for it ... the Washington Post is ready to pick him up.

By way of Ben Armbruster, we see that the Politico's Mike Allen reports:

Progressives will delight when they get to the italic note at the end of Bill Kristol's column in The Times today say, "This is William Kristol's last column." His one-year contract was up. Sources tell Playbook that he's now beginning a monthly column in THE WASHINGTON POST.

It's extraordinary to see the job security someone like Kristol enjoys, beyond his already-prominent roles running the Weekly Standard and serving as an analyst for Fox News.

In any other field, outside of conservative political commentary, Kristol's record would be nothing short of humiliating. He's been wrong, not only in his predictions -- you'll notice, for example, that John McCain was not inaugurated last week -- but in his analysis of most policy issues. And perhaps more importantly, as we discussed this morning, Kristol has a nasty habit of publishing columns with demonstrable, easy-to-notice factual errors, which the NYT had to run a series of corrections to address.

In what universe does the nation's second most prominent newspaper decide it wants to pay and publish the failed cast-off of its chief rival?

In most careers, falling up isn't this easy. If you keep getting fired for poor performance, it's usually difficult to find new companies willing to pay you to do the same job.

Kristol has obviously developed quite a racket. Nice work if you can get it.

Update: Kristol confirms to Michael Calderone that he will, in fact, be an "occasional contributor" to a Washington Post feature called,"Post Partisan."

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE REST OF THE STORY ON VOUCHERS.... The Washington Post editorial board, which has supported public funding of private school tuition for quite some time, has yet another item today urging Democratic lawmakers to invest federal funds in the D.C. voucher system.

The Post notes a survey that shows parents of students who receive vouchers are, among other things, pleased with "the freedom to choose where their children go to school."

We hope that, despite his stated reservations about vouchers, President Obama includes money in his upcoming budget to safeguard the interests of children in this important local program and to preserve an unusually rigorous research study. Mr. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, say they eschew ideology in favor of what serves the interests of children. Here's a chance to help 1,716 of them.

What the Post piece neglected to mention is that the D.C. voucher program that the editorial board is so fond of is a complete mess.

In October 2007 we learned that after Congress handed over tax dollars to unregulated private schools in D.C. without conditions, taxpayers ended up financing unaccredited schools, "unsuitable learning environments," schools with no operating permits, and schools where teachers didn't even have bachelor's degrees. Worse yet, a report from the Bush administration released in June 2008 found that students in D.C. who received vouchers didn't do any better academically, either.

Of course, it's not just Washington, D.C. As Greg Anrig recently explained in a terrific piece for the Washington Monthly, voucher "experiments" have failed to deliver the results proponents expected, and as a result, a lot of conservative activists are slowly but surely giving up on the idea altogether.

But not the conservatives on the Washington Post editorial board.

Post Script: As for the notion that parents of students with vouchers like "the freedom to choose where their children go to school," this may be true. Of course, these parents already have this "freedom," but can't afford to pay private school tuition.

I'm looking forward to Post editorials, though, in support of these parents having the "freedom" to choose federally-funded healthcare for their families, federally-funded housing for their families, federally-funded nutrition for their families, federally-funded transportation for their families, etc.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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A STEP FORWARD ON EMISSIONS STANDARDS.... Hilzoy had a great item on this overnight, but I didn't want the news to get lost in the shuffle. It's a pretty big deal.

About a year ago, California and 13 other states petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver to regulate greenhouse gas emissions more forcefully than the federal government. EPA scientists and policy experts agreed that the states qualified for the waivers, but at the 11th hour, then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, one of the Bush administration's more humiliating hacks, intervened, rejected guidance from his own staff, and denied the states' request.

There was some question as to whether the White House was involved with the EPA administration's decision to ignore the advice of the EPA. In response to questions, Johnson has stonewalled, delayed, and did everything possible to avoid cooperating with oversight, until the Bush gang ultimately claimed executive privilege.

Today, the Obama White House will do what Johnson and Bush declined to do: put the authority back in the hands of EPA experts and let states strictly regulate emissions.

President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday.

The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and signifies a sharp reversal of Bush administration policy. Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions would be one of the most emphatic actions Mr. Obama could take to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy.

Mr. Obama's presidential memorandum will order the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration's past rejection of the California application. While it stops short of flatly ordering the Bush decision reversed, the agency's regulators are now widely expected to do so after completing a formal review process.

What's more, the Washington Post reports that Obama, as part of today's emphasis on the environment and energy, will also "order the Transportation Department to issue guidelines that will ensure that the nation's auto fleet reaches an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, if not earlier."

As Hilzoy noted, "It's a whole new world, and I like it."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BLAGOJEVICH HAS A WAY WITH ANALOGIES.... With his impeachment trial in the state Senate poised to begin, Illinois' Governor-for-now Rod Blagojevich (D) has launched something of a public-relations campaign, sitting down for chats with various news outlets. Unfortunately for Blago, the p.r. offensive is just offensive.

On Friday, Blagojevich said he believes his arrest is analogous to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He also compared himself to a cowboy about to be lynched.

His choices for comparisons are getting worse.

Impeached Gov. Blagojevich, on the first leg of his media blitz timed to the start of his impeachment trial, in an NBC interview broadcast on The Today Show Sunday compared himself to human rights heros [sic] Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

On the press offensive, Blagojevich has lined up national interviews -- NBC, ABC, "The View" to run as his impeachment trail [sic] starts Monday before the Illinois state senate in Springfield.

As Dec. 9 unfolded, Blagojevich told NBC, "I thought about Mandela, Dr. King and Gandhi and tried to put some perspective to all this and that is what I am doing now."

He didn't appear to be kidding.

Blagojevich could be in Springfield, Ill., to present a defense -- his lawyers have already quit -- but the governor is instead launching this media tour. In addition to NBC and ABC, Blagojevich will be on CNN's "Larry King Live" this evening.

Michael Calderone noted, "Blagojevich is skipping his impeachment trial on Monday, perhaps assuming he'll have better luck in the court of public opinion." Perhaps, but it's hard to imagine how this will help him improve his political and legal standing. For one thing, the public still hates him. For another, after hearing the governor compare himself to Mandela, King, and Gandhi, voters will probably hate him more, not less.

Post Script: Blagojevich reportedly told ABC's Diane Sawyer this morning that he considered Oprah Winfrey for the Senate vacancy, but he was worried it might "look like a gimmick." Imagine that.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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KRISTOL LEAVES THE TIMES.... At the end of an otherwise uninteresting New York Times column from Bill Kristol, there are six heartening words:

This is William Kristol's last column.

There's been some question as to whether Kristol's one-year contract with the paper of record would get an extension, and today, we get our answer: he's done. Whether the Times showed him the door or Kristol quit is unclear, but the result is the same.

It's hard to overstate what an embarrassment this was from the start. Not only was Kristol's writing pedestrian and predictable, but he had an unfortunate habit of making obvious factual mistakes, which necessitated frequent corrections. Indeed, at last count, Kristol prompted four corrections in one year -- though, if you want to get picky about it, one of the four included two separate factual errors in the same column, which would bring the total to five.

And that's just counting the demonstrable errors of fact. Errors of judgment were found in practically every piece.

Back in May, Glenn Greenwald had an item on the "sloppy, error-plagued and incomparably hackish columns" Kristol has produced. Regrettably, the next seven months worth of content was no better.

For reasons that have never made sense, the Times' publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., decided in late 2007 that it was time to add another Republican columnist to the paper's op-ed page, and the decision early on was to find a "lightning-rod conservative." But Kristol didn't spend the year generating electricity, he spent a year embarrassing the nation's most prestigious news outlet, wasting space on the most valuable media real estate in the country. His columns combined the three worst qualities a columnist can have: Kristol's work was wrong, predictable, and boring.

A Times staffer said last year, "Having a robust conservative voice on the page is a good idea. But you want quality." Instead, the paper wanted Kristol. That is, it used to want Kristol.

And so, the search is on for a new Times columnist. No matter who the paper chooses, he or she is bound to be an improvement.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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GO NUCLEAR?.... When it comes to the nation's energy future, it's understandable that nuclear power would, after a generation on the outs, get a second look. In light of the climate crisis, nuclear offers an alternative with very low carbon emissions. There were controversies over safety in years past, but industry engineers are confident that technology has improved greatly. Best of all, the industry says, design improvements have made nuclear power plants easier and cheaper to build. None other than Barack Obama promised to maintain an open mind on the issue during the Democratic primaries, despite opposition from his chief rivals.

Given all of this, you might think it's a good time to reconsider opposition to nuclear power. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Mariah Blake explains why that would be a mistake.

In the United States, there are thirty-five reactors on the drawing board, with licensing applications for twenty-six of them already under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) -- the first batch the agency has seen since 1978. These projects enjoy a broad public backing that would have been unthinkable a decade ago: a recent poll by Zogby Interactive found that two-thirds of all Americans support the construction of new reactors on U.S. soil. And this support cuts across political lines, with half of all Democrats favoring more nuclear power. Liberal opinion makers, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have also endorsed the nuclear option. Wired magazine has repeatedly urged readers to "Go Nuclear." Even a few longtime foes of atomic energy, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now argue it "has to be on the table." As for President Barack Obama, both he and his energy secretary, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, have offered at least qualified support for expanding the use of nuclear power in the United States.

What's behind this dramatic reversal? The short answer is that climate change has shuffled priorities. Nuclear power may have some unsavory side effects, like radioactive waste and the risk of meltdowns. But no other energy source can deliver vast quantities of low- or zero-carbon energy at a price that rivals natural gas and coal, as the industry has promised the new breed of reactors will do. With this in mind, many people who once dismissed atomic power out of hand have come to view it as a vital, if imperfect, tool in the struggle to salvage our warming planet.

But as Finland's experience shows, the reality may be far messier than the industry lets on: a growing body of evidence suggests that new nuclear construction projects are prone to the same setbacks as those undertaken a generation ago, when lengthy delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns were commonplace. This raises serious questions about the potential of nuclear power as a front-line solution in the battle against climate change.

The issue is guaranteed to be a major part of the energy-policy discussion in the coming years, making Blake's piece a must-read. Take a look.

Steve Benen 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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January 25, 2009
By: Hilzoy

More Good News

From the NYT:

"President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday.

The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and signifies a sharp reversal of Bush administration policy. Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions would be one of the most emphatic actions Mr. Obama could take to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy.

Mr. Obama's presidential memorandum will order the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration's past rejection of the California application. While it stops short of flatly ordering the Bush decision reversed, the agency's regulators are now widely expected to do so after completing a formal review process."

I'm glad Obama has not actually ordered the EPA to approve California's application. The scientists at the EPA ought to be making that decision, not the President. When the Bush administration denied California's application a little over a year ago, it did so against the advice of the EPA staff. I didn't like it then, and I wouldn't like it now.

Of course, the fact that the EPA staff has already concluded that California's application ought to go forward does take some of the suspense out of the decision they will now be allowed to make.

Back to the NYT:

"Once they act, automobile manufacturers will quickly have to retool to begin producing and selling cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies have lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court. (...)

Beyond acting on the California emissions law, officials said, Mr. Obama will direct the Transportation Department to quickly finalize interim nationwide regulations requiring the automobile industry to increase fuel efficiency standards to comply with a 2007 law, rules that the Bush administration decided at the last minute not to issue.

To avoid losing another year, Mr. Obama will order temporary regulations to be completed by March so automakers have enough time to retool for vehicles sold in 2011. Final standards for later years will be determined by a separate process that under Mr. Obama's order must take into consideration legal, scientific and technological factors.

He will also order federal departments and agencies to find new ways to save energy and be more environmentally friendly. And he will highlight the elements in his $825 billion economic stimulus plan intended to create jobs around renewable energy."

It's a whole new world, and I like it.

Hilzoy 11:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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By: Hilzoy

Dear Ben Stein ...

Ben Stein has a truly unbelievable column in today's NYT (h/t). You should stop reading this post right now, and after you've made sure that you won't get Diet Coke all over the keyboard once you start laughing, click through and read it.

For those of you who didn't take my advice: he starts by telling us a tale of woe. A woman he knows has an interest-only mortgage on a house that was worth $2.7 million when she paid for it, and costs her about $12,000 a month. She gets $20,000 a month in child support and alimony, half of which will stop this summer.

"She has a wealthy beau who pays her credit card bills and other incidentals, but she is thinking of telling him she is through with him. She has no savings and has refinanced her home repeatedly, always adding to indebtedness and then putting the money into a shop she owns that has never come close to earning a dime. Now she is up all night worrying about money. "Terrified," as she put it. She wanted me to tell her what to do."

Ben Stein has, he says, known this woman since she was a teenager. The time for financial advice was a long, long time ago, before the housing market went down and her chances to sell at a profit shrank dramatically, before the economy tanked and her prospects for gainful employment went glimmering. On the other hand, it's not entirely clear that someone who has, apparently, lived her whole life on someone else's dime, without asking herself whether this arrangement was sustainable until quite recently, would have listened.

Then there's Ben Stein's son:

"My handsome son, age 21, a student, has just married a lovely young woman, 20. You may have seen on television the pudgy, aging face of their sole means of support. (...)

I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me. I wish I could teach them that money is a scarce good, worth fighting for and protecting. But I very much fear that my son, more up-to-date than I am in almost every way, is more of a modern-day American than I am. To hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine. To not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength. Of course, that’s my fault. (I have learned that everything bad that happens anywhere is my fault.) And I hope to be able to leave him well enough provided for to ease his eventual transition into some form of self-sufficiency."

Ben: your friend has already made enough disastrous choices that she probably has few options that do not involve selling most of her worldly goods. But your son is a different story. Supporting him while he's a student is fine. Supporting him in such a way that "to not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength" is a different story. That's not necessary, and it's no favor at all to your son.

I know whereof I speak. When I was a kid, I had no conception of money at all. It did not occur to me until some time in junior high that people took jobs for any reason other than because working was interesting, and because one should try to be of some use to the world. It never really occurred to me to wonder how my parents came to have a house, or clothes, or the money they gave me for my allowance.

However, I did know one thing: that to rely on my parents for things I could do myself, let alone to simply expect the world to somehow produce whatever I wanted, was somehow shameful. I was aware that there were kids who were spoiled -- I even knew some -- but I never particularly wanted to be one of them, however much I might have wanted this or that particular toy. It wasn't that I looked down on them or disliked them. It was that I was puzzled by something like their lack of self-respect. (This is, of course, how I put it now. Back then I would not have been able to say what bothered me about them. But something always did, and it wasn't something bad about them; more something sad.)

This way of thinking has always served me well. Where, I wonder, could I possibly have gotten it? Might there have been some, well, some adults who were in a position to have influenced my thinking when I was a child, and who might have given me this idea? Like, maybe, I don't know, my parents?

I don't want to say that everything is all Ben Stein's fault. His son is an adult, and adults are responsible for their actions. I do, however, think that saying "I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me" about your own children is a bit peculiar. Some people do manage to teach their children about the importance of fending for themselves. Luckily for me.

However, what's done is done. If I were Ben Stein, I think I'd revisit the nature of my support for my son. If the idea that he might not be able to eat out wherever he wants any time is alien to him, he either has very, very, very simple tastes or is getting way too much money. That should stop. Moreover, if I were backing any of my son's credit cards, or in any other way enabling him to rack up debt rather than living on a budget, I would stop that as well. I'd also figure out what I was prepared to do for him once he graduated, and make that very, very clear well in advance. Then I would stick to it. And "what I was prepared to do" would not be "support him and his wife indefinitely."

Of course, this is a lot easier if you've already taught your kids that self-respect requires self-reliance. In that case, given a modicum of luck, any arguments you have about money will go like this:

Parent: Wait, why didn't you tell me you needed money?

Kid: Um, er ... (shuffles feet and looks at floor.)

However, better late than never. You will be doing your son a favor. You'll know you're on your way if, the next time you write a sentence like "The age when money was a free good, available in unlimited quantities just for signing a note, may well be over", he looks at you, rolls his eyes, and says: "Money was free? Really? When exactly was that, Dad?"

And if, on reading a column like this one, your son asks you why you're focussing on someone who managed to get deep in debt while living in a $2.7 million dollar house and getting $240,000 a year in alimony and child support, and not on people who are poor or middle-class, then you can rest easy and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Hilzoy 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Hilzoy

There Are No Files, Part 2

This morning, I read this declaration in a GTMO case (pdf). It's very much worth reading: the author, LTC Darrel Vandeveld, is a member of the Reserve JAG Corps who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the lead prosecutor against a detainee, Mohammed Jawad, until he resigned last September. After spending over a year on the case, he became convinced that the government had no good case against Jawad, that Jawad had been badly mistreated and was suffering serious psychological harm, and that continuing to hold him was "something beyond a travesty." (p. 1) That's why he wrote the declaration in question, in support of Jawad's habeas petition.

Jawad was between fifteen and seventeen when we took him into custody. That was more than six years ago.

I wasn't reading this because I thought it might have something to do with last night's post on files. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the following, on p. 3 (note: OMC-P is "Office of Military Commissions -- Prosecutions"; CITF is "Criminal Investigative Task Force"):

"7. It is important to understand that the "case files" compiled at OMC-P or developed by CITF are nothing like the investigation and case files assembled by civilian police agencies and prosecution offices, which typically follow a standardized format, include initial reports of investigation, subsequent reports compiled by investigators, and the like. Similarly, neither OMC-P nor CITF maintained any central repository for case files, any method for cataloguing and storing physical evidence, or any other system for assembling a potential case into a readily intelligible format that is the sine qua non of a successful prosecution. While no experienced prosecutor, much less one who had performed his or her duties in the fog of war, would expect that potential war crimes would be presented, at least initially, in "tidy little packages," at the time I inherited the Jawad case, Mr. Jawad had been in U.S. custody for approximately five years. It seemed reasonable to expect at the very least that after such a lengthy period of time, all available evidence would have been collected, catalogued, systemized, and evaluated thoroughly -- particularly since the suspect had been imprisoned throughout the entire time the case should have been undergoing preparation.

8. Instead, to the shock of my professional sensibilities, I discovered that the evidence, such as it was, remained scattered throughout an incomprehensible labyrinth of databases primarily under the control of CITF, or strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks vacated by prosecutors who had departed the Commissions for other assignments. I further discovered that most physical evidence that had been collected had either disappeared or had been stored in locations that no one with any tenure at, or institutional knowledge of, the Commissions could identify with any degree of specificity or certainty. The state of disarray was so extensive that I later learned, as described below, that crucial physical evidence and other documents relevant to both the prosecution and the defense had been tossed into a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten. Although it took me a number of months -- so extensive was the lack of any discernable organization, and so difficult was it for me to accept that the US military could have failed so miserably in six years of effort -- I began to entertain my first, developing doubts about the propriety of attempting to prosecute Mr. Jawad without any assurance that through the exercise of due diligence I could collect and organize the evidence in a manner that would meet our common professional obligations."

Its description of the lack of GTMO case files is not even close to being the most important part of this declaration, which is worth reading in its entirety (it's only 14 pages long, and quite well-written.) It just makes me angry when an anonymous "former senior official" can say that when the Obama administration claims that there are no case files, it is just "'backpedaling and trying to buy time' by blaming its predecessor." That "former senior official" is counting on the fact that most people have no idea whether there are case files on GTMO detainees, and thus no idea who is telling the truth. So s/he thinks that s/he can say anything, and who's to say that s/he's wrong?

That makes me angry. Not nearly as angry a lot of other things about this case, some of which I've put below the fold, but it's the only one I can do something about.

More things that make me angry: (pdf)

"As early as November 2003, Joint Task Force-GTMO ("JTF-GTMO") personnel used sleep deprivation to disorient specific detainees for intelligence purposes. Pursuant to this technique, euphemistically referred to as the "frequent flyer" program, a detainee would be repeatedly moved from one cell to another in quick intervals, throughout the day and night, to disrupt sleep cycles.

48. Military records show that Mohammed was subjected to the "frequent flyer" program from May 7 to May 20, 2004. Over that fourteen-day period, Mohammed was forcibly moved from cell to cell 112 times, on an average of about once every three hours, and prevented from sleeping. Mohammed's medical records indicate that significant health effects he suffered during this time include blood in his urine, bodily pain, and a weight loss of 10% from April 2004 to May 2004."


Likewise, this account (pdf) of the "confession", obtained under torture, that the government described as "central" to its case against Jawad:

"During the interrogation, Mohammed allegedly made incriminating statements and a document, purporting to be a confession, was prepared for him to "sign" with his thumbprint. Mohammed did not know what the document was, did not read it, and was told he needed to put his thumb print on it to be released.

25. The written statement allegedly containing Mohammed's confession and thumbprint is in Farsi. Mohammed does not read, write, or speak Farsi. There are several factual assertions in the statement that are false, including Mohammed's name, his father's name, his grandfather's name, his uncle's name, his residence, his current residence, his age, and an assertion that he speaks English. The statement's account of the grenade attack -- the responsibility for which the statement ascribes solely to Mohammed -- conflicts with the eyewitness accounts of the American victims. Yet, it was this statement that Respondents and their agents primarily relied on as a basis for Mohammed’s detention, and for the charges brought against him in the Guantanamo Military Commissions.

Or this account (pdf) of Jawad's treatment while in US custody at Bagram:

"At approximately the same time, by sheer happenstance, I stumbled across a summary of an interview, taken by an Army Criminal Investigation Division Special Agent from Mr. Jawad himself, which had been added to the record of trial in a case where a guard at Bagram prison had been charged with the murder of a detainee. The statement -- essentially a recitation of Mr. Jawad’s account -- indicated that Mr. Jawad had experienced extensive abuse while at Bagram prison from December 18, 2002 to early February 2003. This abuse included the slapping of Mr. Jawad across the face while Mr. Jawad’s head was covered with a hood, as well as Mr. Jawad’s having been shoved down a stairwell while both hooded and shackled. I immediately provided the statement to the defense. The interviewer, a veteran Army CID agent, later testified as a defense witness at an August hearing in the Jawad case that Mr. Jawad's statement was completely consistent with the statements of other prisoners held at Bagram at the time, and, more importantly, that dozens of the guards had admitted to abusing the prisoners in exactly the way described by Jawad. My cross‐examination, which I quickly ended, only served to reinforce the agent's testimony on direct."

Hilzoy 11:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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MCCAIN AND THE STIMULUS.... The lead story on MSNBC's site right now reports, in a rather large, bold font: "McCain: Won't vote for stimulus as it stands."

Sen. John McCain says it will take some big changes before he would vote for the Obama administration's stimulus package.

The Arizona Republican, who calls himself a member of the loyal opposition, says he can't vote for the proposal as it is now written. For one, he doesn't think it would do enough to put people back to work.

The former GOP president nominee also says he will push to make permanent the Bush tax cuts, which helped high-earning people. Those cuts expire next year, and President Barack Obama has said he would not seek to renew them.

McCain spoke on "Fox News Sunday."

Now, I suppose McCain's intended vote is of some interest, in light of his recent run as the Republican presidential candidate. For that matter, Obama and his team have done some outreach to McCain of late, perhaps hoping to see some of the McCain circa Spring 2001 -- the persona that voted against the Bush tax cuts he now wants to make permanent.

But let's not put too much emphasis on McCain's perspective. The news, apparently, can by summarized this way: "Conservative Republican still embraces conservative Republican economic agenda." It's not exactly a stop-the-presses revelation. Of course McCain opposes an economic stimulus -- he thinks the economy is "fundamentally strong." He just spent six months telling 300 million people about his ideas on how to improve the economy, and investment in infrastructure, healthcare, schools, and energy is pretty much the opposite of McCain's worldview.

It would, in other words, be a far more significant story if McCain had said anything else this morning.

But with all due respect to the senator, he's one conservative voice in a 41-seat caucus. McCain won't sway any Democratic votes, and his influence in the Republican caucus is limited. Obama would no doubt like his vote on an economic rescue plan, but McCain's comments this morning don't really affect the landscape much.

Update: McCain, in the same interview, also apparently explained his opposition to a plan to expand internet access to rural communities. During his presidential bid, McCain held the opposite position.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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COUNTRY FIRST.... About a week ago, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, now seeking the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, explained his opposition to an economic stimulus bill. "[I]t could create a major electoral advantage for Democrats at taxpayer expense," Blackwell said. "That would be unacceptable."

Rush Limbaugh is apparently thinking along the same lines. (via memeorandum)

Obama's plan would buy votes for the Democrat [sic] Party, in the same way FDR's New Deal established majority power for 50 years of Democrat [sic] rule, and it would also simultaneously seriously damage any hope of future tax cuts. It would allow a majority of American voters to guarantee no taxes for themselves going forward.... Put simply, I believe his stimulus is aimed at re-establishing "eternal" power for the Democrat [sic] Party....

All of this is reminiscent of the memo Bill Kristol wrote for congressional Republicans in 1993, when he insisted that the GOP had to block any efforts to reform healthcare, because if Clinton and Democrats were successful, it would "give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote." What helps Americans is nice, but the real concern is blocking any policies that they perceive might give Democrats an edge.

Remember that Republican slogan from not too long ago? "Country first"?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THIS EXPLAINS A LOT.... Hilzoy reported on this overnight, but I don't want the news to get lost in the shuffle. It's one of those breathtaking stories that is almost too painful to believe.

Upon announcing his plan to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Barack Obama also began a process that would review the case files for every detainee. The problem for the new administration, however, is that there are no files.

President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials -- barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees -- discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

I mention this, in part to help resolve some lingering confusion. On the one hand, the Bush administration released some detainees who apparently turned out to be pretty dangerous. On the other, the Bush administration refused to release other detainees who weren't dangerous at all, and were actually U.S. allies.

How could this happen? In light of these revelations about the lack of files, it starts to make a lot more sense.

But to put this in an even larger context, consider just how big a mess Bush has left for Obama here. The previous administration a) tortured detainees, making it harder to prosecute dangerous terrorists; b) released bad guys while detaining good guys; and c) neglected to keep comprehensive files on possible terrorists who've been in U.S. custody for several years. As if the fiasco at Gitmo weren't hard enough to clean up.

I'm reminded of something John Cole said the other day: "The moral of this story is not the danger for Obama going forward with his Gitmo decommissioning, the moral is that when venal, shallow, small men are given unfettered power and authority, they do incompetent, stupid, and evil things."

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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A GROWING GAP.... Gallup has published some interesting data over the last few days, including Barack Obama's 68% approval rating during his first few days in office (only 12% disapprove). While some polling numbers, including CNN's, show Obama with even higher support, it's not a bad way to start a presidency. The last president to score this high, this early, was JFK 48 years ago.

But the numbers I found even more interesting were released Friday, measuring party identification. Based on all 2008 polling, 36% of Americans describe themselves as Democrats, while 28% identify as Republicans. The eight-point gap is "the largest for the Democratic Party since Gallup began regularly conducting its polls by telephone in 1988."

When the poll includes those who "lean" toward one party or the other, the gap is even larger: 52% back Democrats, 40% back Republicans. This is not only the third consecutive year in which Democrats held a majority, but it's also the "best showing for the Democrats -- in terms of both the percentage of Democratic supporters and their advantage over Republicans -- since Gallup began regularly tracking this measure of party support in 1991."

parties.gif

Obviously, the only appropriate conclusion one should draw from this is that the United States is a center-right nation, and Democrats have to govern in a more conservative fashion if they expect to stay in office.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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AL QAEDA'S LOSING HAND.... Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism coordinator for the National Security Council, explained in October that the last thing al Qaeda would want is an Obama presidency, in large part because the terrorist network wouldn't want a U.S. president who enjoys respect and support on the world stage.

Three months later, Obama is the president, and as predicted, the terrorist network is feeling a little panicky.

Soon after the November election, al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader took stock of America's new president-elect and dismissed him with an insulting epithet. "A house Negro," Ayman al-Zawahiri said.

That was just a warm-up. In the weeks since, the terrorist group has unleashed a stream of verbal tirades against Barack Obama, each more venomous than the last. Obama has been called a "hypocrite," a "killer" of innocents, an "enemy of Muslims." He was even blamed for the Israeli military assault on Gaza, which began and ended before he took office.

"He kills your brothers and sisters in Gaza mercilessly and without affection," an al-Qaeda spokesman declared in a grainy Internet video this month.

The torrent of hateful words is part of what terrorism experts now believe is a deliberate, even desperate, propaganda campaign against a president who appears to have gotten under al-Qaeda's skin. The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group.

"They're highly uncertain about what they're getting in this new adversary," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official. "For al-Qaeda, as a matter of image and tone, George W. Bush had been a near-perfect foil."

And now Obama's messing up their plans in a big way. Not only do polls show widespread support for the new U.S. president throughout the Muslim world, but Obama has taken additional steps in office that generate even more support, including beginning the process of closing the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ending the war in Iraq.

The more Obama makes decisions that curry favor in the Middle East, the more al Qaeda feels desperate to shift public opinion. The Post noted that the "verbal attacks have become sharper, more frequent and more clearly aimed at Muslim audiences," as Obama moves away from Bush's policies.

Rita Katz, who created the Site Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors jihadist communications, said the terrorist's hysterical rants against the president show "just how much al-Qaeda is intimidated by Obama."

Steve Benen 7:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Hilzoy

Chill Out

From the NYT:

"Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed coming to a prison near you?

One day after President Obama ordered that the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, be shuttered, lawmakers in Washington wrestled with the implications of bringing dozens of the 245 remaining inmates onto American soil.

Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama's plan, found a talking point with political appeal. They said closing Guantanamo could allow dangerous terrorists to get off on legal technicalities and be released into quiet neighborhoods across the United States. If the detainees were convicted, the Republicans continued, American prisons housing terrorism suspects could become magnets for attacks.

Meanwhile, none of the Democrats who on Thursday hailed the closing of the detention camp were stepping forward to offer prisons in their districts or states to receive the prisoners."

Jim Geraghty explains why housing terrorists in US prisons would be much worse than housing all the dangerous people who are already there:

"It's hard to picture militia members, the Crips, Bloods, or what have you doing something as extreme as, say, crashing a plane into the prison to faciliate an escape and/or provide martyrdom to their brethren."

As Glenn Greenwald notes, there are already terrorists in US prisons. He helpfully provides a partial list:

Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted, 1996, U.S. District Court (before then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey) -- plotting terrorist attacks on the U.S. (currently: U.S. prison, Butler, North Carolina);

Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted, 2006, U.S. Federal Court -- conspiracy to commit the 9/11 attacks (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

Richard Reid, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court -- attempting to blow up U.S.-bound jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

Jose Padilla, convicted, 2007, U.S. Federal Court -- conspiracy to commit terrorism (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

Iyman Faris a/k/a/ Mohammad Rauf, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court -- providing material support and resources to Al-Qaeda, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Al Qaeda (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

Ali Saleh al-Marri, accused Al Qaeda operative -- not yet tried, held as "unlawful enemy combatant" (currently: U.S. Naval Brig, Hanahan, South Carolina);

Masoud Khan, convicted, 2004, U.S. Federal Court -- conspiracy to commit terrorism as part of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamic jihad (currently: U.S. prison, Terre Haute, Indiana);

John Walker Lindh, convicted, 2002, U.S. Federal Court -- providing material support to the Taliban (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado).

Curiously, no jihadists have flown planes into prisons to facilitate the escapes of any of these terrorists. Maybe they're waiting until we have been lulled into a false sense of security. Since the blind Sheikh has been in prison for over a decade, they are showing a lot of patience. Maybe, on the other hand, Jim Geraghty and the Repubicans in Congress just have hyperactive imaginations.

Moreover, it's not as though terrorists are the only dangerous people with associates who would be prepared to do a lot to spring them. Consider drug kingpins, for instance: they generally have lots of money and large organizations, and while I'm not sure they would fly planes into prisons (??), they could probably think of less lurid ways to spring people.

And yet the United States, under George W. Bush, actually sought to have these dangerous people extradited to the United States, exposing our citizens to danger! Not only that, we succeeded! For instance, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, the head of the Tijuana cartel, is now locked up in San Diego. We are seeking the extradition of his brother Eduardo, and have several other high-ranking members the cartel in custody. OMG!! Americans are at risk!!! What shall we do???

I suggest chilling out. We are talking about maximum security prisons, which are designed to keep very dangerous people locked up. If our government decides that extra resources are needed to keep terrorists safely behind bars, it has very capable people who could be deployed for that purpose.

This would also be a good time for members of Congress to show some leadership. They need to explain to their constituents that there are already a whole lot of very dangerous people in our prisons, that some of them are terrorists, and that no one has flown planes into prisons to rescue them yet.

Hilzoy 2:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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January 24, 2009
By: Hilzoy

There Are No Files

From the Washington Post:

"President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials -- barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees -- discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

But other former officials took issue with the criticism and suggested that the new team has begun to appreciate the complexity and dangers of the issue and is looking for excuses.

After promising quick solutions, one former senior official said, the Obama administration is now "backpedaling and trying to buy time" by blaming its predecessor. Unless political appointees decide to overrule the recommendations of the career bureaucrats handling the issue under both administrations, he predicted, the new review will reach the same conclusion as the last: that most of the detainees can be neither released nor easily tried in this country.

"All but about 60 who have been approved for release," assuming countries can be found to accept them, "are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people," said the former official who, like others, insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters about such matters. He acknowledged that he relied on Pentagon assurances that the files were comprehensive and in order rather than reading them himself."

Hmm. Incoming officials say there are no files. Some Bush administration ex-officials agree, but others say that there are files, and that the Obama administration is just making excuses. Who is right?

As it happens, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that deciding what to do with individual detainees at Guantanamo "will require going through all their files and evaluating the evidence against them". About an hour later, a commenter at Obsidian Wings who is in a position to know, and who is, in my experience, absolutely trustworthy, replied:

"There aren't files. No one believes this at first, and it takes a long time to accept it, but really, that's it: no files. There are databases that can be searched . . ."

It takes, well, a special kind of administration to detain people for years on end without bothering to assemble case files on them. I'm just glad they're finally gone.

Hilzoy 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BOEHNER.... In the first weekly Republican radio address under the new administration, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) touted the GOP's vision for an economic recovery.

"Our plan is rooted in the philosophy that we cannot borrow and spend our way back to prosperity," Boehner stated.

The minority leader said the package authored by congressional Democrats was "chock-full of government programs and projects," noting a Congressional Budget Office report that projected less than half of the $355 billion that House Democrats would spend to create jobs through infrastructure programs and other efforts is likely to be used before the end of fiscal 2010.

Let's see, where to start. First, the CBO report Boehner is so fond of doesn't really exist. Second, Boehner has supported nothing but "borrow and spend" policies since the moment he arrived in Congress, which helps explain his votes in support of budgets that produced the largest deficits in American history.

Third, if the administration and the congressional majority listened to Boehner and relied on weak-stimulus tax cuts to improve the economy, isn't that necessarily a "borrow and spend" policy? And if tax cuts were the magic bullet, and Bush and Boehner cut taxes over the last eight years, shouldn't the economy be in great shape? (Indeed, it's this thinking that led the National Republican Congressional Committee to argue, as recently as yesterday, "Thanks to Republican economic policies, the U.S. economy is robust and job creation is strong.")

And fourth, of course the Democratic plan is "chock-full of government programs and projects." That's the point.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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MATTHEWS ON PALIN BOOK.... Now that Sarah Palin is "just" the chief executive of a state, she'll apparently find the time to write a book about, well, it's not quite clear what she wants to write about. The governor has, however, retained high-powered Washington super-attorney Robert Barnett, who's negotiated some very lucrative book deals for some very high-profile clients, to help secure her a deal. Rumor has it Palin's looking for about $11 million.

Chris Matthews, meanwhile, has a few impertinent questions about the governor's skills.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews suggested Friday that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) may not have the reading or writing ability needed to complete the book she is reportedly shopping.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Palin is seeking an $11 million advance for her memoir and has hired high-powered Washington attorney Robert Barnett to broker the deal.

Teasing a segment on the book during his show "Hardball," Matthews said: "If she can read, if she can write, she'll make some money."

Matthews repeated his suggestion that Palin could not write the book later in the show. "The question is who actually will write the Palin book," he said. "The only politician I know who can write is Barack Obama."

Putting Matthews' questions aside, I do think Palin's book -- unlike George W. Bush's or Karl Rove's -- would sell well. For many far-right activists, Palin is the future of the conservative movement, logic and reason notwithstanding. Plus, she wants to maintain a high profile in advance of 2012, and a book, whether she turns it over to a ghost-writer or not, would help.

That said, if Palin pursues this, I suspect Matthews' questions, while obviously impolite, will be fairly common.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (147)

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THEIR HERO.... Most Republicans have spent quite a bit of time and effort keeping their distance from George W. Bush. It's the natural result of a president who left office as an unpopular failure.

But Amanda Terkel notes that this is not a universal sentiment within the party. Several far-right lawmakers took to the House floor this week, to praise and pay tribute to the 43rd president.

Note that these Republicans not only adore Bush, but Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) feels so strongly about his affection for the former president, that he literally chokes up talking about the "more hopeful" future Bush has left his children.

There's sycophancy, and then there's this kind of sycophancy.

For some reason, watching the clip, I kept thinking of a scene from "Anchorman" in which Champ tells Ron, "I need you. I'm a mess without you. I miss you so damn much. I miss being with you, I miss being near you. I miss your laugh. I miss your scent; I miss your musk."

As I recall, Brian Fantana responded, "Why don't you sit this next one out, stop talking for a while."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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PEOPLE FOR REPUBLICANS TO IGNORE.... A week ago, Rush Limbaugh conceded on the air, "I hope Obama fails," adding, "Somebody's gotta say it." On Wednesday, Limbaugh added, "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."

It's hard to say with certainty that the New York Post's reporting is reliable, but apparently, the president told congressional Republicans yesterday that they may not want to take marching orders from this loudmouth clown.

"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he told top GOP leaders, whom he had invited to the White House to discuss his nearly $1 trillion stimulus package.

One White House official confirmed the comment but said he was simply trying to make a larger point about bipartisan efforts.

I suspect the point wasn't to go after Limbaugh specifically, but rather to note that if the White House is going to have a productive, cooperative working relationship with congressional Republicans, it's better for everyone if GOP lawmakers don't rely on right-wing shock-jocks for wisdom and legislative strategies, especially those who root against America. Sounds like good advice.

And while we're at it, perhaps congressional Republicans can stop listening to Grover Norquist, too.

This week, Norquist praised the work of the House Republicans.

"We should not treat Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, the way that the Bush administration treated Iran-'You're a bad person and we don't want to talk to you,'" said Norquist. "We engage the Democrats by being cheerful and pleasant and open to conversation. They say they want 10 ideas? OK, here are 10 ideas. The next time they say they want 10 ideas, we say that they asked before, and, just for the record, they rejected our ideas. When you get to May, who's the obstructionist and who's the collaborator?"

Where do Republicans find these guys?

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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IT NEVER ENDS.... The National Review's Michael G. Franc's latest item begins with the headline: "Will Obama Revive the Fairness Doctrine?"

Sigh.

Apparently, during Eric Holder's confirmation hearing, both Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (remember, he's supposed to be one of the Republican caucus' more sensible members) and Jeff Sessions of Alabama peppered the Attorney General-designate on his position on the Fairness Doctrine. Holder conceded he didn't know much about the policy, saying he would need to "know more about it before I could intelligently respond to the question."

Later, Holder responded to Specter and Sessions in writing, explaining that if Congress acted on the Fairness Doctrine, he would review its legality and be "fair and impartial" about its application. In other words, Holder doesn't much care, and the issue isn't on his radar screen. Given that he'll be at the Justce Department, the issue isn't really up to him anyway.

The National Review's Franc, without noting for his readers that Obama has already said he opposes reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, believes Holder's "evasive responses" offer a "hint" that the new Obama administration may "re-open" the Fairness Doctrine issue. Franc concludes:

The bottom line is beware -- and stay tuned to your favorite talk radio host for further details!

It's like reading dispatches from a parallel universe.

For the record, TNR's Marin Cogan recently wrote a great piece, noting that she couldn't find anyone on the left who was serious about reinstating the policy. Cogan explained, "The prospect of being in the opposition often brings out the worst in conservatives -- paranoia and self-pity."

And as Matt Yglesias recent put it, "I've never heard of anything like the current conservative mania for blocking a particular legislative provision that nobody is trying to enact."

I suppose it's better to have far-right voices obsessing over a problem that doesn't exist -- as opposed to, say, bothering us with input on actual policy disputes -- but conservatives' obsession with this sure is tiresome.

(thanks to Ron Chusid for letting me know about Franc's item)

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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OBAMA'S OTHER FAMILY-PLANNING MOVE.... President Obama's decision to repeal the global gag rule ("Mexico City Policy") will make a huge difference in the lives of countless families around the world. With a stroke of a pen, Obama has taken a key step towards advancing international family planning and women's health.

But let's also note the other important move Obama made on family planning yesterday.

In a related move, Obama also said he would restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). Both he and Clinton had pledged to reverse a Bush administration determination that assistance to the organization violated U.S. law known as the Kemp-Kasten amendment.

Obama, in his statement, said he looked forward to working with Congress to fulfill that promise: "By resuming funding to UNFPA, the U.S. will be joining 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries."

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, said: "The president's actions send a strong message about his leadership and his desire to support causes that will promote peace and dignity, equality for women and girls and economic development in the poorest regions of the world."

Indeed, it does more than just send a message; by restoring UNFPA funding, Obama is poised to save some lives.

This never should have been controversial. In Bush's first term, the former president intended to maintain UNFPA funding at Clinton-era levels. Then- Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We recognize that UNFPA does invaluable work through its programs in maternal and child health care, voluntary family planning, screening for reproductive tract cancers, breast-feeding promotion and HIV/AIDS prevention." The administration sought the money, and Congress overwhelmingly approved it.

And then, some right-wing activists with the Bush administration's ear, starting complaining bitterly. Since its inception in 1969, the Fund has won widespread recognition for its work in improving the lives of women in developing countries, but for far-right leaders, most notably in the religious right, UNFPA is a pro-abortion enterprise that supports China's one-child policy.

Bush put a hold on the money he'd already requested and received, so he could investigate UNFPA's work in China. When international investigators and a U.S. team found "no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization" in China, Bush suppressed the findings and blocked the funding anyway. It's a callous, twisted position he maintained for the rest of his terms in office.

Because of Bush's actions on UNFPA, fewer women in developing countries received pre-natal care, fewer doctors were trained to deal with pregnancy complications, fewer HIV prevention programs could operate, and less medical equipment was made available to expectant mothers.

Obama is going to make this right.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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ABOUT THAT CBO REPORT.... This week, congressional Republicans seized on a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showing the limited short-term stimulative effects of the Democrats' proposed rescue package. It's also led to widespread media coverage undermining the White House's arguments about the benefits of a stimulus plan.

There is, however, a problem. The CBO report, as it's been described, doesn't exist.

Reports of a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, showing that the vast majority of the money in the stimulus package won't be spent until after 2010, have Democrats on the defensive and the GOP calling for a pullback in wasteful spending.

Funny thing is, there is no such report.

"We did not issue any report, any analysis or any study," a CBO aide told the Huffington Post.

Rather, the nonpartisan CBO ran a small portion of an earlier version of the stimulus plan through a computer program that uses a standard formula to determine a score -- how quickly money will be spent. The score only dealt with the part of the stimulus headed for the Appropriations Committee and left out the parts bound for the Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce Committee.

Because it dealt with just a part of the stimulus, it estimated the spending rate for only about $300 billion of the $825 billion plan. Significant changes have been made to the part of the bill the CBO looked at.

Oops.

It appears that the preliminary, incomplete numbers put together by the CBO were distributed to a small handful of lawmakers in both parties earlier in the week. Someone (Republican congressional offices) then passed the misleading data onto the AP, which predictably ran with the incomplete numbers, telling the public that it "will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will boost the economy."

Other major media outlets quickly followed, and voila, Republicans had a talking point: "Boehner and other Republican aides roamed the Capitol press galleries, flogging the CBO numbers."

Obviously, congressional Republicans were less concerned about reality than undermining an economic rescue package. But as DDay noted, let's not brush past media culpability: "It's pretty clear that the media has no ability to or interest in understanding this stuff, because then they wouldn't have their precious 'conflict.' So they regurgitate whatever some GOP staffer feeds them, just to spice things up."

OMB Director Peter Orszag, who used to head the CBO, has already responded to the bogus reports and talking points. Republicans and reporters might want to check it out.

Update: It looks like the estimable Tim Fernholz was ahead of the curve on this one, and recognized the flaw in the Republicans' CBO talking point early on.

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

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January 23, 2009
By: T.A. Frank

A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON EFCA: My piece on the Employee Free Choice Act for the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, which Steve commented about here, has generated some thoughtful responses in the blogosphere. I can't get to all of the issues raised, but there are a couple of points I did want to reemphasize or clarify.

I think Ezra Klein is wise to lament that the debate over EFCA concerns a "future legislative regime rather than the ongoing abuses of corporations under the current law." As Ezra states, the problem is that employers are breaking the law to prevent unionization--period. That's what we're trying to remedy. That's where the debate should be. It's up to us to try to take it there.

But when Ezra objects that "unions and the corporate community are unlikely to both be wrong on the import of card check," I'd just like to challenge that assertion a bit. Card check as a provision in EFCA is definitely a help to unions, no doubt about it, but I submit that one reason it's been emphasized so heavily in the current debate is that unions have allowed Republicans and the corporate community to set the terms of the conversation. Republicans like to talk about the card check provision because it's easy to paint as something bad and anti-democratic--and this provides a cover for opposing the entire piece of legislation. Supporters of EFCA get suckered into this debate because they know card check is a justifiable and misunderstood provision--so they can't resist defending it. And that's the trouble: it's just impossible to explain in less than 400 words.

This brings me Jane Hamsher's criticisms over at Firedoglake, where I'm glad to have achieved the level of "well-intentioned but ultimately flawed." ("Flawed" is the norm for me--but "well-intentioned" is a promotion.) Hamsher seems to think I accept the GOP's objections to card check at face value. I don't, and I think I make that clear in my article. In fact, in her 437-word explanation of what card check is and isn't, Hamsher makes one of my points for me: that there's no succinct Democratic counter to the easy GOP talking point about eliminating the "secret ballot" and threatening workers' freedoms. That might be frustrating and unfair, but that's the reality of it.

Hamsher and I agree that other provisions in EFCA--such as arbiter-imposed contracts--probably scare corporations much more than card check. But Hamsher gets my argument wrong when she summarizes it as follows: "Just give up 'card check' in order to appease the bill's opponents, and everything will be hunky dory." Please. The point isn't to "appease" the bill's opponents; the point is to remove the only rhetorical fig leaf they have when opposing EFCA.

Look, I don't presume to know the intricacies of Senate horse trading, so I'm not trying to advise Senate Democrats on their EFCA strategy. And I'm a journalist, not a movement operative, so I'm not going to insist on some absolutist version of EFCA in order to set up parameters for the Democrats' opening negotiating position. I'm simply trying to clarify the issue as I see it. And in my eyes, certain provisions in EFCA matter a lot more than card check. If card check passes intact, great. But, given that card check probably requires many times more political capital to wedge into the bill than anything else in EFCA, I wouldn't be surprised to see it abandoned in the final version. And I won't be joining liberals and progressives in raising cries of betrayal or spinelessness should Democrats wind up settling for only 80 percent. The long game is what matters here.

T.A. Frank 5:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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

* As expected, the global-gag rule is no more, at least until there's another Republican in the White House.

* The U.S. bombing campaign against al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan continued today, and among those killed may be a leading al Qaeda member.

* Just think, the stimulus package could be a whole lot smaller, if only Republicans had agreed to address the crisis last fall.

* Senate Republicans are blocking Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis, too.

* Have I mentioned how thrilled I am about the new team at the Justice Department? It keeps getting better.

* There's something deeply wrong with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

* Visitors have been denied access to the top of the Statue of Liberty since 9/11, but the Obama administration apparently intends to open the monument back up.

* Just how many people showed up for Obama's inauguration? It looks like officials are going with 1.8 million, which would easily set a record for presidential events.

* Good piece on "Get Afghanistan Right."

* It won't literally be a State of the Union address, but Obama will deliver its equivalent sometime in February.

* Republican Joseph Bruno, the former Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, was indicted today on eight counts of public corruption.

* Bush "burrowers" are going to be a problem for years.

* I'd heard that Obama got testy with a reporter during a friendly visit to the White House briefing room, but I've watched the video. If that's Obama annoyed, it's pretty mild.

* Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is refusing to partake in the Senate trial against him.

* And speaking of Blagojevich, he believes his arrest is analogous to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. There's something wrong with that guy.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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FUNDAMENTALLY STRONG.... This one's been making the rounds today, and it's a fun one.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has an "issues" page, which includes the "Economy" on its list. (It's seventh on the page, behind Social Security and Border Security.) The page tells readers, "Thanks to Republican economic policies, the U.S. economy is robust and job creation is strong."

After clicking "read more," we learn all about the NRCC's message on the economy.

Thanks to Republican economic policies, the U.S. economy is robust and job creation is strong.

Republican tax cuts are creating jobs and continuing to strengthen the economy, yet there is still more to do so that every American who wants a job can find one.

The NRCC's site also explains that if we stray from Republican economic ideas, we will "set back our economy."

Now, it's pretty likely that House Republicans simply don't take their website seriously, and haven't updated its content since, oh, let's say the start of the current recession 13 months ago.

Except, that's not quite right -- the site was updated as recently as yesterday, with an item about ... wait for it ... economic policy.

The DCCC, meanwhile, is having quite a bit of fun with all of this: "I'm sure the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet in this 'robust' economy are overflowing with gratitude for those Republican economic policies that got us into this mess."

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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OBAMA TELLS GOP, 'I WON'.... President Obama is, for good or ill, making a sincere effort to work with congressional Republicans, most notably on an economic stimulus package. That doesn't mean, however, that's he's going to get pushed around.

President Obama listened to Republican gripes about his stimulus package during a meeting with congressional leaders Friday morning -- but he also left no doubt about who's in charge of these negotiations. "I won," Obama noted matter-of-factly, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

In context, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told the president that the Democratic plan to give a tax credit to those who don't pay income taxes isn't a tax cut, but rather, a check. Obama responded that this was a common point of debate during the presidential campaign -- McCain/Palin called Obama's plan "welfare" -- and voters were not swayed by Republican arguments. "I won," Obama told lawmakers.

So, Obama wasn't throwing too sharp an elbow, but it was nevertheless a not-so-subtle reminder to the minority party. There are two sides to this debate, and one of them has the backing of the American electorate, and was endorsed after a national campaign based on a specific policy platform. Hint to Kyl: it's not your side.

I can only hope the president keeps this in mind as the negotiations continue. It's very gracious of him to try to bring in the failed and unpopular party to work on these issues, but before any major concessions are made, that single phrase -- "I won" -- should be front and center.

It's already drawing complaints from the right, with suggestions that Obama is being insufficiently "bipartisan" by stating that his position is superior to the Republican/losing position. But that seems to miss the point -- Obama is willing to work with the minority party on this, and he's even willing to weaken his own stimulus plan to accommodate their concerns.

But there are lines he's not going to cross. That's not rigid partisanship; it's negotiating from a position of strength.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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AMERICANS HEART INFRASTRUCTURE.... A couple of weeks ago, Gallup conducted a poll on public attitudes towards a stimulus package. The single most popular aspect of a possible rescue plan? Government spending on infrastructure, which enjoyed 78% support, and came out on top among Americans of every party and ideology.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz has been doing similar tests of public opinion, and has found similar results: Americans really care about infrastructure.

I'm a pollster and political consultant associated with Republican causes: the Contract with America, the "death tax" and, of course, ending wasteful Washington spending. So why am I behind the new stimulus legislation -- the biggest spending bill ever to be considered by Congress? Maybe because when it comes to some things -- crumbling schools, overcrowded highways, an ineffective energy system, clean-water facilities that don't clean water and trains and planes that are always late -- we're all on the same side.

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment.... The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade. Iraq, healthcare, taxes, education -- they all predictably divide and polarize Americans into political camps. Not infrastructure.

Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities.

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government -- and 83% wants more spent by state governments -- to improve America's infrastructure.

How strong is the support? Luntz found that Americans are prepared to pay (cue scary music) higher taxes for more infrastructure investment. Luntz was further shocked to find that three out of four Republicans would accept such a trade off.

Better yet, Luntz found that Americans "understand that infrastructure is not just roads, bridges and rails. In fact, they rated fixing energy facilities as their highest priority. Roads and highways scored second, and clean-water treatment facilities third."

The phrase "good policy is good politics" keeps coming to mind.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THIESSEN CRANKS THINGS UP A NOTCH.... Just yesterday, Marc Thiessen, up until recently George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, wrote a rather twisted op-ed for the Washington Post, engaging in the kind of shameless demagoguery that's so over the top, it almost reads like a parody. Today, Thiessen went even further.

Yesterday, Thiessen argued that if Barack Obama changes Bush's national-security apparatus in anyway, he'll invite domestic terrorism and will shoulder the blame for American deaths. Today, writing for the National Review, Thiessen believes Obama is the most dangerous president "ever."

Less than 48 hours after taking office, Obama has begun dismantling those institutions without time for any such review. The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11. He has removed the tool that is singularly responsible for stopping al-Qaeda from flying planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Heathrow Airport, and London's Canary Warf [sic], and blowing up apartment buildings in Chicago, among other plots. It's not even the end of inauguration week, and Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office.

This is not only a rather hysterical rant, it's rather silly.

For example, a CIA program was not "singularly responsible for stopping al-Qaeda from flying planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles." What Thiessen neglects to mention is that the Library Tower plot was an idea that "had not gone much past the conceptual stage." Many within the intelligence community eventually concluded that the Library Tower scheme was never much more than "talk." We literally tortured this idea out of detainees, but that doesn't make it a thwarted terrorist plot. What's more, the evidence to bolster Thiessen's other examples is no more compelling. (And this puts aside the notion that we might be able to get intelligence without torturing suspects.)

As for the notion that Obama is already the most dangerous president ever, the estimable Greg Sargent, blogging from his new home at WhoRunsGov.com, challenges Thiessen's "toxic" assertion nicely.

And as for Thiessen, maybe he's gunning to be a guest host for Limbaugh or Hannity, but these ridiculous pieces aren't doing him any favors.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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A TIRESOME TUSSLE IN TEXAS.... At some point in the future, we'll stop seeing foolish disputes like these. That day has not yet arrived.

The latest round in a long-running battle over how evolution should be taught in Texas schools began in earnest Wednesday as the State Board of Education heard impassioned testimony from scientists and social conservatives on revising the science curriculum. [...]

In the past, the conservatives on the education board have lacked the votes to change textbooks. This year, both sides say, the final vote, in March, is likely to be close.

Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

The chairman of the board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist, pushed in 2003 for a more skeptical version of evolution to be presented in the state's textbooks, but could not get a majority to vote with him. Dr. McLeroy has said he does not believe in Darwin's theory and thinks that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event, thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion as scientists contend.

In this particular dispute, the creationists want public school science classes to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence." As a practical matter, that means incorporating religious dogma into the curriculum to undermine modern biology.

Michelle Cottle noted how tempting it is to "let Texas revel in its own ass-backwardness." But it's best to resist that temptation.

First, Texas is "one of the nation's biggest buyers of textbooks, and publishers are reluctant to produce different versions of the same material." Weaker science classes in Texas has far-reaching consequences for students elsewhere.

Second, Texans have elected nutjobs to the State Board of Education, but that's not a good reason to punish the state's public school students.

And third, this nonsense really needs to stop as a national phenomenon. Fundamentalists are entitled to their personal beliefs, but these efforts to undermine science education have gone on long enough. The country just can't afford to tolerate this nonsense anymore -- the competitive advantage the United States used to enjoy is vanishing, and conservatives' anti-science push comes with too high a burden for the country.

Fortunately, there's some push-back in Texas, not just from educators and scientists, but also from the business community, which worries about attracting educated workers and their families to a state with a ridiculous science curriculum. A software executive told the NYT, "The political games we are playing right now are going to burn us all."

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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EYEING THE WRONG PRESIDENT.... With Barack Obama closing down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, stories like this are going to generate quite a bit of attention.

The emergence of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.

The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen's capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.

I get the idea behind reports like these -- Guantanamo has housed some dangerous folks, and if we let them go, they'll do dangerous things. Therefore, we better not let them go, and Obama should rethink all of his recent announcements.

Except, the evidence doesn't match the conclusion. Obama isn't saying that he wants to just open the Gitmo doors, he saying he wants to review the pending cases and present evidence against the bad guys as part of a legal process. Ali al-Shihri returning to al Qaeda isn't evidence of a flawed Obama process, it's evidence of a flawed Bush process. Why did Bush let a dangerous guy this go? Did Bush's team not consider, I don't know, bringing charges against him before setting him free?

The same is true with the incessant media fascination with the 61 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who've since become alleged terrorists. First, the confirmed number is 18, not 61. Second, even that number isn't considered entirely reliable.

And third, again, the argument about how this relates to Obama is flawed. As Atrios noted, it wasn't Obama's policy that led to their release. The administration created this nightmare at Guantanamo, which was supposedly necessary for U.S. national security. What do we have to show for the former president's efforts? A series of bad guys who went free, and many more bad guys we'll struggle to prosecute because the Bush administration broke the law and tortured them.

As John Cole noted, "The moral of this story is not the danger for Obama going forward with his Gitmo decommissioning, the moral is that when venal, shallow, small men are given unfettered power and authority, they do incompetent, stupid, and evil things."

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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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.

* Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D) selection as New York's new senator has pushed a whole lot of dominoes in the Empire State and "appears to have thrown the state's political scene into a free-for-all."

* As expected, even before taking office, Gillibrand seems to already be shifting to the left. The first issue is gay rights, on which Gillibrand has been anything but a progressive ally.

* A special three-judge panel rejected Al Franken's request that Norm Coleman's latest lawsuit be dismissed.

* Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), a close friend to Barack Obama, has begun taking steps toward challenging Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) in a 2010 Democratic primary.

* Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) for president? John McCain raised the possibility last night.

* I knew Obama was popular, but I didn't expect him to have 60% approval ratings in very "red" states like Texas and Tennessee.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts. Here's the next two from our list.

Steve Coll:

I suggest The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS, by Helen Epstein. My premise is that the new president is a serious reader, is passionate about the big issues of his presidency, and hungers for reliable explication and detail, yet has limited time and therefore needs a single volume that is both easy to read and transformational in its effects. This at least was my experience as an accidental reader of The Invisible Cure. Epstein is a molecular biologist who has worked extensively in Africa -- her tough, fair-minded, empathetic, and empirical book changed utterly what I understood about the "social ecology" of the greatest medical crisis of our era and the policies that might address it. She is as hard on the United States as she is on African governments, and by this method has produced a great service to both. President Bush's heartfelt but flawed approach to the AIDS crisis in Africa is one of his few truly positive legacies; if President Obama finds time for this book, he will not dare abandon Bush's cause, but he will be smarter about its pursuit.

Debra Dickerson:

A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, is the perfect way for the new president to relearn history for our troubled moral (see: torture) and economic times. It reminds us that unrestrained nationalism and crony capitalism are poisons which savage the have-nots. Zinn looks at the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the labor movement, and even how the West was won from the point of view of that vast majority of us who don't have the capital, don't make the decisions, and don't write the history books, but do get to do all the grunt work while the rich get richer. If nothing else, it would force Obama to contemplate the reality that we citizens are much too deferential to authority, far too willing to blame ourselves for not being a "have," and woefully susceptible to the old strategy of "divide and conquer."

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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REVERSING THE GAG RULE.... Following up on an item from Tuesday, President Obama is poised to follow through on a campaign promise and scrap the global gag rule in an executive order today.

President Barack Obama plans to sign an executive order ending the ban on federal funds for international groups that promote or perform abortions, officials told The Associated Press on Friday. [...]

The policy bans U.S. taxpayer money, usually in the form of U.S. Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the "global gag rule," because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that even talk about abortion if there is an unplanned pregnancy.

Also known as the "Mexico City policy," it has been reinstated and then reversed by Republican and Democratic presidents since GOP President Ronald Reagan established it in 1984. President Bill Clinton ended the ban in 1993, but President George W. Bush re-instituted it in 2001 as one of his first acts in office.

One interesting angle to this is the timing: both Clinton and Bush acted on the measure on Jan. 22 -- the anniversary of the Roe decision at the Supreme Court. Obama deliberately waited a day, issuing a statement on reproductive rights on the 22nd, but reversing the policy on the 23rd. It's a subtle and inconsequential gesture, but it was apparently intended as an understated olive-branch to his critics who oppose Obama over his support for abortion rights.

Regardless, the gag rule has undermined family-planning and healthcare programs around the world for eight years, putting women's health in jeopardy, particularly in the developing world. Today's executive order from Obama will make a huge difference.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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GILLIBRAND HEADED TO THE SENATE.... I've been reluctant to write a post about Gov. David Paterson's decision regarding New York's Senate vacancy, in large part because of his capacity to change his mind. Sure, it looks like he's about to appoint Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to the seat, but maybe Paterson will throw us an 11th-hour curve-ball?

Apparently not. Paterson made the offer, Gillibrand has accepted, and the announcement will be made in about an hour.

Ms. Gillibrand is largely unknown to New Yorkers statewide, but is considered an up-and-coming and forceful lawmaker in her district and has gained considerable attention from Democratic leaders in Washington.

Mr. Paterson made his final decision shortly before 2 a.m. Friday after a marathon series of phone calls and deliberations with his top aides, according to the person who spoke to him. He began making phone calls to other contenders about 9 p.m., and had notified most of the other contenders by midnight. By then, the only two candidates who had not heard from Mr. Paterson were Ms. Gillibrand and Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Paterson had indicated at various points in the process that he would prioritize gender concerns and the interests of up-state New York, and Gillibrand certainly addresses both questions. For that matter, she's proven herself to be a very effective fundraiser, which no doubt matters to the governor and the state party (Paterson will be sharing a statewide ballot with her next year.)

But if Paterson hoped to avoid political strife with his selection, he's out of luck. Gillibrand is a Democrat, but she's easily the most conservative Democrat in the state's caucus. Indeed, just yesterday, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) told reporters she would challenge Gillibrand in a Senate primary in 2010, which is bound to cause some intra-party heartburn.

That said, it'll be worth watching to see whether Gillibrand's ideology "adapts" once she holds statewide office. She was pretty conservative while representing one of the state's most conservative districts (the likelihood of Democrats keeping the seat is remote). As a senator, might she become more sympathetic to the progressive agenda? We'll see.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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REPUBLICANS STILL DISLIKE STIMULUS.... Barack Obama has prioritized bipartisan support for an economic stimulus package. But as predicted, it's very difficult to pass a meaningful, effective bill that draws support from congressional Republicans. The president made concessions from the outset -- offering tax cuts to garner GOP backing -- and wouldn't you know it, Republicans aren't satisfied.

Just days after taking office vowing to end the political era of "petty grievances," President Obama ran into mounting GOP opposition yesterday to an economic stimulus plan that he had hoped would receive broad bipartisan support.

Republicans accused Democrats of abandoning the new president's pledge, ignoring his call for bipartisan comity and shutting them out of the process by writing the $850 billion legislation. [...]

Republicans have a long list of grievances. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who gave Vice President Biden a 17-page list of spending requests, said he opposes the proposed increase in funding for Pell Grants for college students because it would do little to spur short-term economic growth. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said the plan lacks enough "fast-acting tax relief," such as a temporary halt to payroll taxes and more relief for businesses. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) said the nearly $1 trillion price tag would add too much to a federal deficit that is already predicted to top $1.2 trillion for 2009.

"The Republican concerns about what's moving in the House are growing by the day," Thune said. He dismissed as "very, very ambitious" Obama's hope of securing a bipartisan majority of 80 votes for the stimulus plan in the Senate, which could consider its version of the legislation next weekend.

Republicans believe they have not been treated as equal partners in the process, and that conservative ideas aren't being taken seriously. Newsflash: they're right. What Republicans seem to be missing here is that they shouldn't be treated as equal partners -- they're a small congressional minority whose economic ideas helped create the mess Democrats are now trying to clean up.

We're left with the same dynamic that's existed from the beginning of the process: the Obama administration can pursue a better bill that passes with 60 votes, or a weaker bill that passes with 80. The priority should obviously be the quality of the package.

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

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WHEN THE SENATE GOP PUSHES FOR A RETIREMENT.... With several Senate Republicans recently announcing their retirement, the GOP leadership would presumably encourage all of their remaining incumbents to seek re-election. Apparently, however, there is an exception.

One of the more fascinating campaigns in recent years was Sen. Jim Bunning's (R) re-election fight in Kentucky in 2004. While political observers routinely joke about politicians who are "crazy" or have "lost it," Bunning was one of those rare candidates who actually, literally, seemed to be suffering the effects of dementia. He would fail to show up for campaign events, he skipped a debate he agreed to participate in, and he lied about using a teleprompter in a different debate in which he wasn't supposed to use one. He insisted on traveling with a special police escort, at taxpayer expense, for fear of a terrorist attack.

When local journalists asked that he release his medical records, Bunning refused. As the campaign wore on, Bunning was unaware of current events, and bragged about not watching or reading the news. He won on Election Day with 51% of the vote.

Four years later, Kentucky Republicans and the NRSC are looking ahead to the 2010 cycle. A growing number of Republicans would love to see Bunning quietly go away.

Some Republicans are privately urging Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to step down at the end of his term amid growing concerns that he can't win reelection in 2010.

According to two GOP sources, leading Republican fundraisers in Kentucky are hesitant to raise money for Bunning and have told him he should not seek a third term.

"They want him to realize he's had a good run but that it's time to move on. These people want to win, and they realize he could easily lose this seat," said one leading Kentucky Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

While national campaign officials usually urge their incumbents to remain in office -- recognizing it's tougher to defend an open seat -- even leading Republicans seem unconvinced Bunning can win reelection.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn was recently asked if Bunning was the best candidate to run in Kentucky. He replied, "I don't know."

Expect the pressure on Bunning to retire to get pretty intense. Republicans are already in a state of semi-panic over 2010.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WE CAN FINALLY REST EASY.... In a classic episode of "Seinfeld," George Costanza comes to realize that all of his instincts are completely wrong, all of the time. To improve his life, Costanza starts doing the opposite of everything he would ordinarily be inclined to do, and his reverse judgment pays off.

Conservative personality Dick Morris reminds me a lot of Costanza, except Morris hasn't quite learned that he's always wrong, so he doesn't realize that he shouldn't trust his misguided instincts.

In his latest column, for example, Morris insists that Obama will turn the United States into a quasi-socialist state in which the government "determines private-sector priorities," and will "create a permanent electoral majority that does not pay taxes, but counts on ever-expanding welfare checks from the government." It led Morris to conclude:

...Obama's name will be mud by 2012 and probably by 2010 as well. And the Republican Party will make big gains and regain much of its lost power.

Helping drive GOP gains, Morris explained, will be Obama's decision to ... wait for it ... re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, which he said would help undermine the growth of the Internet. There was no evidence Morris is kidding.

Morris' piece is obviously sky-is-falling hysterics, not to be taken seriously, but keeping George Costanza in mind, it should offer hope to the rest of us. Indeed, perusing Morris' recent columns, we learn that independents would break late for McCain; Sarah Palin would drive voters to the Republican ticket; Hillary Clinton would undermine the Obama campaign; ACORN was committing fraud and would drain support from Obama; and a weak economy would improve the Republicans' election chances. And that's just his print column -- it doesn't include how strikingly backwards Morris has been on television.

And now, the scandalous conservative commentator believes Obama will destroy the country, abandon capitalism, and lead to a historic resurgence for the Republican Party.

It sounds to me like Americans can rest easy.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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IT'S ABOUT TIME.... The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is finally poised to become law.

The Senate approved landmark worker rights legislation on Thursday that will make it easier for those who think they've endured pay discrimination to seek legal help. The vote was 61-36.

The House of Representatives approved a similar measure on January 9, three days after the 111th Congress convened. Because the Senate made modest changes in the House version, the House must pass it again. Once it does, as is assured, this will be one of the first bills that President Barack Obama signs into law.

The measure passed the House in the last Congress, and enjoyed majority support in the Senate, but was blocked by a Republican filibuster.

Looking over the roll call, every Democrat in the Senate (sans Kennedy and the two vacant seats) voted for the bill, as did five Republicans -- Collins (Maine), Hutchison (Texas), Murkowski (Alaska), Snowe (Maine), and Specter (Pennsylvania). Every woman in the chamber supported the legislation.

To hear opponents of the bill tell it, making it easier to challenge pay discrimination will lead to more lawsuits. That's almost certainly true. But therein lies the point -- if American workers are facing unjust wage discrimination, there should be more lawsuits. Those are worthwhile lawsuits, challenging an injustice. Ideally, employers would stop discriminating, as most already do, and in turn, there'd be fewer lawsuits.

Nevertheless, 36 Senate Republicans, some of whom are up for re-election in 2010, and all of whom knew full well that the bill was going to pass anyway, voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. (If you're unfamiliar with the Ledbetter case, the NYT recently had a good editorial on the subject.)

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Hilzoy

No More Extraordinary Rendition

In comments at Obsidian Wings, CharlesS notes a section of one of Obama's executive orders that I somehow missed. (I sort of zoned out once it started in on the composition of committees; this was clearly a mistake.) This order establishes a Special Interagency Task Force one of whose missions is:

"(ii) to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control."

That means no more extraordinary rendition. No more shipping people off to countries with horrific human rights records to be tortured. No more pretending that when, say, the Egyptian or Syrian intelligence services tell us that they really, truly won't torture anyone we send them, we actually believe them. On this point, Obama is not only rolling back Bush's excesses, but Clinton's.

This is really, really, really wonderful.

Hilzoy 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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January 22, 2009
By: Hilzoy

More On Cornyn

Steve has already written about Sen. Cornyn's decision to delay Eric Holder's confirmation as Attorney General for a week. I just wanted to add a couple of points. Here's what Cornyn said about his reasons for the delay:

"Other GOP members of the committee, said Cornyn, are also concerned about the potential for prosecutions. The intent of the Military Commissions Act, he argued, was to provide immunity from prosecution if agents believed they were acting lawfully.

"Part of my concern, frankly, relates to some of his statements at the hearing in regard to torture and what his intentions are with regard to intelligence personnel who were operating in good faith based upon their understanding of what the law was," said Cornyn.

"There were provisions providing immunity to intelligence officials based up on good faith and what they understood the law to be," said Cornyn. "I want to know if he's going to enforce congressional intent not to second guess those things in a way that could jeopardize those officials but also could cause our intelligence officials to be risk averse -- the very kind of risk aversion...that the 9/11 commission talked about when they talked about what set us up for 9/11.""

First, the Military Commissions Act does not immunize intelligence agents from prosecution for anything. In Sec. 6, it provides a list of things that can be prosecuted as war crimes. One of them is torture. Another is 'cruel or inhuman treatment'. Insofar as we can infer congressional intent from this statute, we ought to conclude that Congress intended that people who torture someone can be prosecuted: after all, Congress passed a law that expressly provides for their prosecution.

If John Cornyn and his colleagues meant to immunize intelligence officials for whatever they did, they should have passed a law saying so. If they wanted to immunize intelligence officials for doing anything that the Bush administration said was OK, however implausible the administration's claims might be, they should have passed a law saying that. And if they wanted to add a codicil saying: "For the purposes of this statute, the practice known as 'waterboarding' is not a form of torture", they should have done that.

But they didn't do any of these things. They passed a law saying that people who engage in torture can be prosecuted for war crimes. Eric Holder, like many people, and like our government before George W. Bush got hold of it, believes that waterboarding is torture. Nothing in the Military Commissions Act says otherwise.

Second, because Eric Holder is not yet Attorney General, he has not yet had a chance to see what, exactly, people did to detainees over the last seven years. That being the case, it would be completely irresponsible for him to say whether he will or won't prosecute them.

Imagine ...

... that when Joe Biden walked into the Vice President's office, he discovered that Cheney had created a small dungeon where his anteroom used to be, a dungeon in which he was able to personally watch as intelligence officials ripped detainees' fingernails off. Imagine that Cheney had all this videotaped, and that between that, analysis of the fingernails that littered the room, and other forensic evidence, there was no doubt at all about what had happened.

Now imagine that interrogations of the intelligence officers in question revealed that while most of them knew perfectly well that this was illegal, despite the elaborate opinion John Yoo had written explaining why the loss of a mere fingernail, as opposed to an entire limb, cannot be considered to be torture, the one intelligence agent who had participated most enthusiastically was too dim to see this. Should anyone ask Holder to commit himself, in advance, and without knowing what he will find, not to prosecute such a person?

Obviously, this works the other way. Imagine that when Obama's appointees begin to dig through our interrogation policy, they discover that it was all a hoax designed to deter people from joining al Qaeda. Those records of apparent torture sessions were all in code: 'Harsh Ego Down', for instance, meant 'Subject received additional silken pillows, as per request; also, more Godiva chocolates.' Maher Arar is in fact a long-time undercover CIA operative who has been pretending to be a victim of extraordinary rendition. Whenever the detainees' lawyers visit Guantanamo, everyone pulls together to make them think the worst; afterwards, they head back to their carefully concealed beach resort and crack open another bottle of Chateau D'Yquem. Under those circumstances, even a hard-core advocate of prosecution such as myself would change her mind.

These are, of course, ludicrously extreme examples. But the basic point stands -- that no responsible prosecutor ought to say whether or not he will prosecute a given individual before he knows where the evidence leads. If Holder were willing, at this point, to promise either that he would or that he would not prosecute people for war crimes, I would regard that as disqualifying him for the position of Attorney General.

John Cornyn ought to know this. He has a law degree. He served as a District Court judge for six years, on the Texas Supreme Court for seven, and as Texas' Attorney General from 1999-2002. Either he slept through most of his career, or he just doesn't care. In either case, he should be ashamed.

Hilzoy 11:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Hilzoy

More On Today's Executive Orders

Now that I've actually read Obama's Executive Orders on detention (1, 2, 3, 4; the 4th is a pdf), I wanted to highlight a few more points. First:

"The individuals currently detained at Guantanamo have the constitutional privilege of the writ of habeas corpus."

This was expected, but it's immensely important nonetheless. It's also very good that the Guantanamo order puts a lot of emphasis on speed: as it says, the detainees have been there for quite a while now, and deciding what to do with them promptly matters a lot.

Second:

"The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future."

This is also incredibly important: no more black sites.

However, my candidate for underreported detail of the day is this, from the same order:

"All departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with notification of, and timely access to, any individual detained in any armed conflict in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States Government, consistent with Department of Defense regulations and policies."

This matters enormously. First, if the ICRC can visit detainees, it will know how they are being treated. But the fact that the ICRC will know where any such detainees are being held might be even more important. This order says: no keeping ghost prisoners in undisclosed locations. No more prisoners whose families do not know whether they are alive or dead. No making people simply disappear.

I also like the broad language: as I read it, this covers detention facilities operated by contractors as well as US government employees.

One last point: the Washington Post writes:

"Just hours after his inauguration Tuesday, Obama ordered the suspension of all judicial proceedings at Guantanamo Bay under the auspices of the Bush administration's military commissions system. What is to be done with the prisoners will be part of the review, sources said. Listed options include repatriation to their home nations or a willing third country, civil trials in this country, or a special civil or military system."

This description of the options in the order is inaccurate. The listed options are: Transfer, Prosecution, and 'Other Disposition'. The option of 'transfer' is described as follows:

"The Review shall determine, on a rolling basis and as promptly as possible with respect to the individuals currently detained at Guantanamo, whether it is possible to transfer or release the individuals consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and, if so, whether and how the Secretary of Defense may effect their transfer or release. The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and, as appropriate, other Review participants shall work to effect promptly the release or transfer of all individuals for whom release or transfer is possible."

I can find nothing in the order that limits any release of detainees to "their home nations or a willing third country". As far as I can see, it just says "release", period, without specifying or precluding any particular destination. In particular, nothing in the order precludes the release of detainees into the United States.

This matters. If I were in the government of a country that was asked to take in Guantanamo detainees, I'd be a lot more willing to consider doing so if it were clear that the United States was not just expecting everyone else to take care of problems it had caused, without being willing to do its part.

These orders are really, really, really good news to anyone who cares about the rule of law and basic human decency.

Hilzoy 9:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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

* The roller-coaster ride on Wall Street continues, with another downturn today.

* The Senate Finance Committee approved Tim Geithner's nomination today.

* Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) opposed Geithner, but ended up attacking the nominee for a failure Grassley himself is guilty of.

* As expected, George Mitchell was introduced today as Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, while former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke will serve as a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

* Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin isn't allowing William Lynn's nomination to move forward. Lynn, a former lobbyist for a military contractor, is looking to become the #2 man at the Pentagon.

* Antarctica is warming, but we've got some work to do before Americans fully appreciate the problem.

* Dick Cheney's disappointed that Bush didn't pardon Scooter Libby. Seriously.

* Why did Caroline Kennedy really withdraw from Senate consideration? It may have had something to do with taxes and household employee issues.

* This year's anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we have a president who supports existing law.

* Olbermann's a hit at 8 pm, Maddow's gold at 9 pm, so MSNBC wants to keep the line-up going with a similar show at 10 pm. I'm thinking, "Political Animal, with Steve Benen...."

* It's great to see Greg Sargent back, blogging away.

* Do you ever get the sense that Limbaugh is trying to be repulsive?

* The new White House staff is very tech savvy, but their offices aren't. "It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," spokesman Bill Burton said.

* The Child Online Protection Act has died a quiet death.

* If you watched Obama's inaugural address in China, you missed a few sentences the Chinese government didn't want people to hear.

* The new "Funny or Die" video has an amazing supporting cast. How'd they get all of those folks?

* And finally, to the new president's relief, he will be able to keep his Blackberry after all.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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A RIDICULOUS STANDARD.... Marc Thiessen, up until recently George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, has a twisted op-ed in the Washington Post today, arguing that if Barack Obama changes Bush's national-security apparatus in anyway, he'll invite domestic terrorism and will shoulder the blame for American deaths. Jason Zengerle described the piece as "despicable," and I'm hard pressed to disagree.

Most of the arguments are tiresome and familiar: except for the catastrophic events of 9/11, and the anthrax attacks, and terrorist attacks against U.S. allies, and the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's record on counter-terrorism was top notch. As Thiessen sees it, Bush handed Obama a terrific national-security dynamic, which shouldn't be tinkered with at all.

It reads like a laundry list of discredited talking points: torture works, warrantless-wiretaps are necessary, we can't withdraw from Iraq or al Qaeda wins, etc. It's the kind of inane demagoguery that a sensible person would be embarrassed to be associated with.

But it's the shameless scare tactics that are truly offensive.

Al-Qaeda is actively working to attack our country again. And the policies and institutions that George W. Bush put in place to stop this are succeeding. During the campaign, Obama pledged to dismantle many of these policies. He follows through on those pledges at America's peril -- and his own. If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible -- and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation. [...]

President Obama has inherited a set of tools that successfully protected the country for 2,688 days -- and he cannot dismantle those tools without risking catastrophic consequences. On Tuesday, George W. Bush told a cheering crowd in Midland, Tex., that his administration had left office without another terrorist attack. When Barack Obama returns to Chicago at the end of his time in office, will he be able to say the same?

As Zengerle noted, "You almost get the sense guys like Thiessen are hoping for an attack so that they can blame Obama when it happens."

Update: Both the NYT and Joe Scarborough touted Thiessen's arguments, without noting why he's wrong.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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A NEW ERA FOR SCIENCE.... Chris Mooney had a great piece in Slate last week, noting that the "war on science" is finally over. We've seen the end of an era in which an administration attacked "the integrity of scientific information -- its biased editing of technical documents, muzzling of government researchers, and shameless dispersal of faulty ideas about issues like global warming."

After some very frustrating years, it seems the scientific community finally has reason to celebrate. The New York Times reported today that many scientists are "exuberant" about Barack Obama becoming president, and staff members throughout the government's scientific agencies "reported being teary-eyed with joy."

"If you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces," said Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "It's not just getting money. It's his recognition of what science can do to bring this country back in an innovative way."

On issues like stem cells, climate change, sex education and contraceptives, the Bush administration sought to tame and, in some cases, suppress the findings of many of the government's scientific agencies. Besides discouraging scientific pronouncements that contradicted administration policies, officials insisted on tight control over even routine functions of key agencies.

And then, here comes Obama, who won plaudits for noting in his inaugural address: "We will restore science to its rightful place."

Indeed, maybe I'm just especially sensitive to the issue, but I've noticed that the new president seems to take the issue far more seriously than most politicians, beyond just Tuesday's speech. When he introduced a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as his choice for Energy Secretary, Obama said, "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts." Soon after, he introduced one of the most impressive science teams any White House has ever seen.

And soon after that, Obama devoted one of his weekly multimedia addresses to the issue: "[T]he 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."

Is it any wonder so many scientists are "exuberant"?

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE ALWAYS-EFFECTIVE PAIN-IN-THE-NECK STRATEGY.... Congressional Republicans forced a brief but unnecessary delay on Hillary Clinton's nomination, and have forced additional delays on the confirmation of the next Attorney General and Treasury Secretary. Today we learned that another conservative Republican senator is standing in the way of EPA nominee Lisa Jackson and Council on Environmental Quality nominee Nancy Sutley.

David Kurtz wonders what the Republicans are thinking.

Think about it for a minute. This is the Republican Party circa 2009: pro-torture and pro-global warming. This is what they're staking their claims on. And willing to obstruct a wildly popular new President in the midst of not just a national economic crisis, but a convergence of international crises of which economic collapse is just one.

That is, of course, true. Congressional Republicans don't really have a strategy in mind -- they know these confirmations are going to go through anyway -- but they're flailing around, demonstrating little more than their ability to be nuisances.

I'm curious, as far as the Republican Party's leaders are concerned, has anything changed over the last few months? Put aside the notion of soul-searching and introspection, and consider if the GOP has made any effort to change its tactics or direction in any meaningful way. If so, I don't see it.

Republicans have the smallest House minority in nearly two decades, the smallest Senate minority in nearly three decades, are now easily outnumbered in the nation's governorships, and got trounced in the presidential race. In response to all of this, GOP leaders have decided to spend this critical period blocking some of the president's cabinet selections for ridiculous reasons, and demanding still more tax cuts.

Granted, Republicans aren't exactly in a position of power or leverage, and it's unreasonable to think the party will just roll over and let Democrats do as they please for the foreseeable future. But where's the strategy? Where's the evidence that the party has learned lessons following its electoral fiasco? Where's any indication at all that the Republican Party has changed, even a little?

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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DON'T JUMP IN THE POOL.... It's impractical for every major media outlets to have a staffer trailing the president at all times, so pool reports were invented. They're quick and informal accounts written by White House correspondents for other media professionals. While they're important to journalists and widely read, in general, news consumers (i.e., the public) never see them.

The Obama White House apparently hoped to change this, and set aside part of the White House website to publish pool reports. Alas, that's not going to happen -- reporters won't let them.

Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, the president of the WHCA, said everyone is in agreement that "pool reports are the media's product, not the White House's, and can't be a regular part of their Web site."

"The White House has told me that is their view, too, and it was never their intention to post pool reports on a permanent basis," Loven said.

Why does it matter if pool reports are made public? In short, because covering the president around-the-clock is expensive -- and pool reports belong to the news organizations funding the coverage. News organizations also want to be able to control the integrity and the use of their products. That is especially true on domestic and foreign trips, the costs of which are determined by how many reporters travel because they split the cost. If all news organizations could simply look up the pool reports online instead of paying to travel with the president, it could create a disincentive for some news outlets to actually go, thus raising costs for those organizations providing the news.

That's a fairly reasonable explanation, but how about running the pool reports a day or two later?

Either way, it's an unusual dynamic -- the White House is so committed to transparency, news professionals believe the president's team is going too far.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SO FAR, SO GOOD.... It's obviously folly to judge a president after 50 hours on the job. ("He's had two good days; make room on Rushmore!") But it's not too early to acknowledge the fact that Barack Obama is off to a very encouraging start.

Glenn Greenwald had some compelling praise in an item this morning.

Barack Obama will have spent his first several days in office issuing a series of executive orders which, some quibbling and important caveats aside, meet or actually exceed even the most optimistic expectations of civil libertarians -- everything from ordering the closing of Guantanamo to suspending military commissions to compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual to banning CIA "black sites" and, perhaps most encouragingly (in my view): severely restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents on the basis of secrecy, which has been the prime corrosive agent of the Bush era.

Agreed. Like everyone else, I've been curious about what Obama would do early on. I expected him to hit the ground running, but it was less clear what he'd be running towards. But consider what we saw on the first day -- the new president not only created stricter lobbying rules than any administration in history, but he also issued sweeping orders to boost accountability and transparency. He not only took steps to halt the military tribunal process at Gitmo, but he also reached out to leaders in the Middle East to recommit the United States to the peace process.

Day Two, as Glenn explained, has included a fairly dramatic overhaul of U.S. detention policies and facilities.

Spencer Ackerman added, "For all the talk about Obama not governing as a progressive, take a look at his first not-even-48 hours in office. He's suspended the Guantanamo Bay military commissions, a first step toward shuttering the entire detention complex. He's assembled his military commanders to discuss troop withdrawals from Iraq. He's issued a far-reaching order on transparency in his administration that mandates, among other things, a two-year ban on any ex-lobbyists working on issues they lobbied for. And now he's shutting down the CIA's off-the-books detention complexes in the war on terrorism.... [F]or progressives, that's a pretty robust first two days."

I'll spare you the cliches about "change you can believe in," but I will say that this is exactly the kind of start I'd hoped to see.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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INTELLIGENCE GATHERING AND LAW ENFORCEMENT.... Back in 2004, then-President Bush told an audience, "[John] Kerry said, and I quote, 'The war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law-enforcement operation.' I disagree.... After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and supporters declared war on the United States of America -- and war is what they got."

The point was hardly subtle -- Bush and Republicans battle terrorists with the most powerful military in the world; Democrats fight al Qaeda with cops and intelligence-agency bureaucrats.

The evidence of how wrong Bush was continues to be overwhelming. If we want to stop al Qaeda, intelligence gathering and law-enforcement operations are what works.

Pakistani police acting on a tip from U.S. intelligence agents arrested an al-Qaida suspect believed linked to the 2005 London transit bombings, two Pakistani security officials said Thursday.

Zabi ul Taifi, a Saudi national, was among seven al-Qaida suspects caught in a raid near the main northwest city of Peshawar, they told The Associated Press. They said the raid was witnessed by U.S. intelligence officials sitting in a nearby car. [...]

"We have reasons to believe that we got the right man who had played a role in the 2005 attacks in London," said one official, who said he received the information from security agents in Peshawar.

Hmm, U.S. intelligence cooperating with Pakistani police captured a dangerous terrorist suspect. Success, in other words, was dependent on international cooperation, law enforcement, and intelligence gathering. What a concept.

As Joe Klein noted, "One hopes that with less public melodrama, less Presidential bloodlust rhetoric, there will be more events like this arrest of a major Al Qaeda operative -- and even though they'll be reported in the back pages, the damage to the terrorist network will be extensive."

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CLOSING GITMO, RESTORING THE RULE OF LAW.... Two weeks ago, Barack Obama promised, "We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our constitution. That is not only the right thing to do but it actually has to be part of our broader national security strategy because we will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values."

But questions remained. How soon would the president keep his promise? How quickly would he shut down the notorious detention facility? What about the secret prisons? We got our answers this morning.

President Obama signed executive orders Thursday directing the Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantanamo detention camp within a year, government officials said.

The orders, which are the first steps in undoing detention policies of former President George W. Bush, rewrite American rules for the detention of terrorism suspects. They require an immediate review of the 245 detainees still held at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine if they should be transferred, released or prosecuted.

And the orders bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years, a practice that has brought fierce criticism from foreign governments and human rights activists. They will also prohibit the C.I.A. from using coercive interrogation methods, requiring the agency to follow the same rules used by the military in interrogating terrorism suspects, government officials said.

"We are not -- as I said in the inauguration -- going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals," the president said this morning. He added, "The message we are sending around the world is that the US intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals ... We intend to win this fight, and we intend to win it on our terms."

D-Day joked, "Obama is really setting a bad precedent of keeping campaign promises and abiding by the rule of law. It's like the oath of office reboot, setting the horrible precedent of acknowledging mistakes and seeking to rectify them. Who does this guy think he is?"

Like Hilzoy, I was especially struck by the notion of winning the fight "on our terms." Not only is this the polar opposite of the ends-justify-the-means attitude that's undermined our national security strategy for far too long, it also means we're no longer going to fight on our enemies' terms:

Al Qaeda could never have destroyed our commitment to liberty, human rights, and the rule of law by itself. It could only hope that we would respond unthinkingly and do the dirty work ourselves. We obliged them, and in so doing did a lot more damage to ourselves than al Qaeda could ever have dreamed of doing.

It's wonderful to see that that has changed: that we have an administration that will not sacrifice the ideals America always ought to stand for, and will not allow our adversaries to dictate the terms and the terrain on which we will oppose them.

I could get used to this.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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.

* Norm Coleman still thinks he'll eventually get his Senate seat back, but just in case he doesn't, Coleman has taken a job with the Republican Jewish Coalition.

* On a related note, Senate Democrats are moving forward with a plan to bring Al Franken into the Senate. "We're going to try to seat Al Franken," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Wednesday.

* Is Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) the new front-runner to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate?

* South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, currently running to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, apparently got involved in politics because he opposed busing in the 1960s.

* Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) will likely face former Rep. John Kasich (R) in 2010, but early polling seems to favor the incumbent.

* And in Virginia, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi has signed on with Brian Moran's gubernatorial campaign, which means he'll be going up against Terry McAuliffe once again. I get the sense that Trippi is looking forward to it: "Like Obama, Brian Moran embraces a politics powered by the people, empowering supporters, not relying on millions of high-dollar donations and the status-quo party establishment."

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

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... The Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. We're covering the recommendations in an ongoing series of posts.

For today's installment, we turn to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, who, as of this morning, is the first woman to head the State Department's Office of Policy Planning, Foggy Bottom's in-house think tank. In our new issue, she has a couple of book recommendations for Obama:

The new president should read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. It will validate his intuitions about the world and give him a vocabulary and conceptual framework to explain how the Obama generation is different. He should also read The Way We Will Be, by John Zogby. He will see himself in the mirror as one of the "first globals" and will see the U.S. not as a parochial country but an increasingly globally connected one.

Congrats to Anne-Marie on her new position in the administration.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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ONE MORE OATH FLAP.... Just when it seemed we could finally move from complaints about Barack Obama's oath of office, the right finds something new to whine about.

When Obama took the oath on Tuesday, he used the same Bible that Lincoln used in 1861. When he followed up with another oath last night, he raised his right hand, but kept his left hand by his side. This, apparently, is making some people unhappy.

The lead story on Drudge right now reports, in all caps, "No Bible Used At Obama Re-Swear."

Obama urged the nation to put an "end to the petty grievances" on Tuesday, but it appears some haven't quite gotten the message.

A few angles to consider. First, the Constitution is silent on the issue. It directs presidents to take an oath, but it says nothing about where or on what presidents should place their hand. To that end, this latest flap is not just nonsense, it's inconsequential nonsense.

Second, this isn't historically unique. Teddy Roosevelt didn't use a Bible, John Quincy Adams swore with his hand on a book of constitutional law, and Franklin Pierce did the same. (There's also some question about whether Lyndon Johnson used a Bible in 1963.)

And third, who cares? Obama used a Bible for the inauguration, but didn't for the pro-forma, abundance-of-caution do-over. Right-wing blogs care, and one assumes Fox News reports are soon to follow, but what is the point, exactly, that conservatives hope to make here? That their fascination with pettiness remains unabated?

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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'NOW AND FOREVER WHAT DEMOCRATS DO'.... Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) formally took over as chairman of the Democratic National Committee yesterday, and the first question on the minds of many is whether he plans to break with Howard Dean's successful 50-state strategy.

If Kaine's remarks yesterday were any indication, party activists have reason for optimism.

As he took the reins of party chair at the winter meeting of the DNC, Kaine spoke freely about the debt he feels to Dean. "I feel like I'm taking over from somebody who just won three Super Bowls in a row," Kaine said at the beginning of his remarks. "This fifty-state strategy that you articulated in your time has been a magnificent success." Kaine described how Dean had invested heavily in Kaine's gubernatorial election in 2005 and subsequent races in Virginia. He called him, "as good a chairman as this party has ever had." [...]

"The fifty-state strategy was so simple and so powerful and so true," Kaine said.... "Every state, every community, every voter matters," Kaine said, summarizing the philosophy. "We'll do some new things, because we can never rest on just what worked yesterday, but we will never again, never again, write off people or states or regions. The fifty-state strategy is now and forever what Democrats do!"

At that point, the ballroom where hundreds of DNC members had gathered erupted in applause.

How Kaine plans to pursue a 50-state strategy is still unclear. Talking to reporters after yesterday's event, the Virginia governor promised to "play strong in all 50 states," but did not publicly commit to placing DNC staffers in every state. We'll know more in two months, when Kaine unveils his "strategic plan" for the party.

As for Dean, he had nothing but kind words to say about Obama and Kaine, but he seemed to take one last opportunity to tweak his critics: "Barack Obama won 9 states that President Bush won in 2004. We picked up 8 Senate seats in 2008 and 6 in 2006. We won in places like Alaska and North Carolina-states where no one thought Democrats could be competitive. But we knew better."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE HOLDER DELAY.... I can appreciate principled opposition as much as the next political observer. If Senate Republicans seriously believe Attorney General-designate Eric Holder is unqualified for the office, they should vote against his nomination. If they seriously believe he'd threaten the rule of law, they should filibuster his nomination.

But at this point, we're not dealing with principled opposition. Senate Republicans forced a one-week delay on a confirmation vote, even though his "ultimate confirmation still appears all but assured."

Holder will be confirmed with bipartisan support, which necessarily makes Republican delay tactics little more than a press stunt, intended to score some cheap points, while keeping the Justice Department effectively without a leader while the GOP spins its wheels.

At issue is a response Holder offered during his seven hours of hearings: "waterboarding is torture." That's both an accurate assessment and a reflection of existing law. But if Holder believes waterboarding is torture, and torture is illegal, he might be willing to prosecute officials who acted at the behest of the Bush administration, which leads some Republicans to block the confirmation process from proceeding. We certainly can't have an A.G. who's too committed to prosecuting those who break the law.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) believes it's a mistake to expect Holder to unilaterally rule out all prosecutions related to torturous interrogations: "Making a commitment that you'll never prosecute somebody is probably not the right way to proceed either ... I don't expect him to rule it in or rule it out."

And yet, Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) does expect him to rule it out. Indeed, he's not the only one -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said it would "really bother" him if Holder refused to rule out torture prosecutions.

"Holder put himself in a position of legal and rhetorical checkmate when he unequivocally described waterboarding as torture yet refused to tell the committee whether he would prosecute members of the intelligence community," [a] GOP aide said. "Holder can't have it both ways."

That, of course, is nonsense. Holder said waterboarding is torture, which is true. He also said he can't unilaterally rule out prosecutions on hypothetical cases he hasn't seen, which is just common sense.

This farce is painfully ridiculous.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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OBAMA, FOIA, AND BUSH.... Fresh off his explanation that he's rooting against the United States for the next four years, Rush Limbaugh argued yesterday that Barack Obama's commitment to transparency and accountability might "make it easier for the media to go get Bush documents."

If the goal is to keep important government information shielded from public scrutiny, Rush is probably right to be worried. Obama announced yesterday that he's changing the way Freedom of Information Act requests are dealt with, making it easier for Americans to access materials.

In particular, Obama said:

"Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution."

Notice that part about "I or a former president"? It led Tim Dickinson to note, "Obama has just rescinded the rule that would have let Bush's heirs continue to claim executive privilege over his papers."

Is that right? It seems like it. Bush put measures in place to help keep his records under wraps, and Zachary Roth explained, "[I]t certainly seems possible that on his first full day in office, the new president has dealt significant a blow to the Bush administration's efforts to permanently keep information from the public."

Good.

Update: The LA Times had a good summary of Obama's first day orders on transparency:

The first order effectively undid a Bush administration policy that had restricted the release of presidential documents -- a rule that had been challenged in court by the National Security Archives and by historians.

Bush's rule allowed former presidents, vice presidents and their heirs to cite executive privilege to block the release of documents after they have left office. With his order, Obama essentially threw out that rule, allowing only the current president to block the release of documents and depriving heirs of that right.

The second Obama order was designed to reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act. Open-records advocates have complained that a memo by former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in 2001 encouraged executive branch officials to delay or halt the release of documents requested under the law.


Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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CAROLINE KENNEDY WITHDRAWS FROM CONSIDERATION.... Caroline Kennedy's drive to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate did not go smoothly. Her media interviews did not go well, her support from in-state political leaders was shaky, and Kennedy herself struggled at times to explain why she wanted the seat and what she'd do with it.

Nevertheless, Kennedy was considered a leading candidate, if not the leading candidate, for the gig. It came as something of a surprise, then, after some overlapping and contradictory reports, that Caroline Kennedy withdrew her name from consideration last night.

Ms. Kennedy on Wednesday called Gov. David A. Paterson, who will choose a successor to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, to inform him that she was no longer interested.

"I informed Governor Paterson today that for personal reasons I am withdrawing my name from consideration for the United States Senate," Ms. Kennedy said in a statement released by her public relations firm.

Ms. Kennedy did not elaborate, but a person who spoke to her suggested that her concerns about the health of her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who suffers from brain cancer and was hospitalized after a seizure on Tuesday, contributed to her decision.

I won't presume to know Caroline Kennedy's personal motivations, but health concerns about Ted Kennedy's health strikes me as an odd explanation for withdrawal. The senator was diagnosed with brain cancer months ago, and she nevertheless pursued New York's seat. It seems more likely that she came to believe Paterson would pick someone else, and withdrew as a face-saving measure. That, or she came to realize this may not be the best idea after all.

Reports earlier this week indicated that Paterson would announce his selection on Friday or Saturday, and whether Kennedy's decision changes that equation is unclear.

With Kennedy no longer interested, the leading contenders for the position appear to be state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand and Carolyn Maloney, and United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OUT OF AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION.... There was widespread agreement that Chief Justice John Roberts' flub of the presidential oath of office was insignificant, but there was also widespread agreement that, just to be on the safe side, Roberts and Barack Obama should probably get together and give this another try.

Last night at the White House, they did just that -- and got it right this time.

For their do-over, the two men convened in the White House Map Room at 7:35 p.m. for a brief proceeding that was not announced until it was completed successfully.

"Are you ready to take the oath?" Chief Justice Roberts said.

"I am," Mr. Obama replied. "And we're going to do it very slowly."

After a day's worth of chatter over whether the president had been properly sworn into office -- he transposed a couple of words in the oath after being incorrectly prompted by the chief justice -- advisers to Mr. Obama decided Wednesday afternoon to try it one more time.

Only hours after aides told reporters there was no reason to administer the oath again, they concluded it was easier to do it on the first day, rather than have someone challenge the legitimacy of his presidency.

Apparently, as Roberts prepared for the do-over, Obama joked, "We decided it was so much fun...."

There were nine witnesses for last night's second swearing in -- four aides, four reporters and a White House photographer. White House Counsel Gregory Craig explained, "We believe that the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. But the oath appears in the Constitution itself, and out of an abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath a second time."

Once the now-flawless recitation of the oath was complete, Obama turned to the small group of reporters in the room and said, "The bad news for the pool is there's 12 more balls."

Post Script: Just for the record, Obama really was president after the first oath, and everything he did yesterday was legit. In 1789, George Washington was president for seven weeks before he'd taken the oath, but he still had all the authority of the office.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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January 21, 2009

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

* Hillary Clinton was confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of State. The final vote was 94 to 2, with far-right Sens. Vitter and DeMint in opposition.

* Around the same time, Senate Republicans delayed consideration of soon-to-be Attorney General Eric Holder by a week.

* It was an unusually good day on Wall Street today, with the Dow closing up 279 points, and the other major indexes finishing up over 4% each.

* Israel believes all of its troops have been withdrawn from Gaza, following the three-week military offensive.

* I'm pleased to see Teddy Kennedy has been released from the hospital after yesterday's seizure.

* Bush largely avoided the Middle East peace process. On his first day on the job, Obama signaled a far more engaged commitment: "This morning, the President placed phone calls to four Middle Eastern leaders: President Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority."

* According to the first press release from the new White House press operation, President Obama "arrived in the Oval Office" at 8:35 a.m., and "spent 10 minutes alone in the office." I can't say I blame him.

* Obama was photographed today at his Oval Office desk with a shirt and tie, but no jacket. Apparently, that was a major no-no for Bush.

* David Iglesias, the purged U.S. Attorney from New Mexico, will be prosecuting Guantanamo detainees, at the direction of Susan Crawford, who runs the Office of Military Commissions.

* Nice to see Neal Katyal join the Obama administration as the deputy solicitor general.

* Quite an impressive montage of newspaper front-pages.

* On a related note, I think I know how to solve the newspaper industry crisis: keep hoping for more major Obama-related events.

* More than 10 envelopes containing an "unknown white powder" were sent to the Wall Street Journal today, prompting an evacuation.

* A whole lot of people tuned in to watch Obama's inauguration. The Nielsen numbers do not, of course, include those who watched online. (More than 21 million people saw the event on just CNN's site.)

* Care to guess which was the only network to air Bush's homecoming event live? I'll give you a hint: it rhymes with "Pox Lews."

* It sounds like the actor who played Starbuck on the original "Battlestar Galactica" is a bit of a nut.

* Joe Biden joked about John Roberts' memory today, when administering the oath of office to senior White House aides. Obama apparently didn't want to talk about it.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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THE PROBLEM WITH FAIRNESS?.... I've been encouraged by reports that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell may join the Obama administration as a special diplomatic envoy to the Middle East. The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman is less enthused, and doesn't realize how foolish this sounds.

"Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously even-handed," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'even handed' -- it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support."

"So I'm concerned," Foxman continued. "I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."

Mitchell has demonstrated repeatedly an ability to be an accomplished and fair negotiator. Most notably, he helped negotiate the peace in Northern Ireland, because he came to the table as an even-handed mediator, with credibility as someone who can act in good faith.

To hear Foxman tell it, that's a bad quality to have in a U.S. envoy to the Middle East.

It's one thing to think this; it's another to admit it out loud. As Matt Yglesias noted, "[N]obody comes out against fairness."

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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WITH ONE DAY'S WORTH OF HINDSIGHT.... I was talking to someone last night about Barack Obama's inaugural address, with my friend criticizing it while I defended it. He challenged me to recite, from memory, one sentence -- a full sentence -- from the speech, just eight hours after it had been delivered. I couldn't, which he saw as evidence of a missed opportunity.

With the discussion still on my mind, I went back and watched the speech again today, and was even more impressed with the address the second time. James Fallows suggests this might be a common response.

Several of Barack Obama's big rhetorical performances have been recognized as hits from the minute he stepped off the stage. His 2004 Democratic convention speech is one example. His Philadelphia speech on race, which quelled the Rev. Wright controversy last spring, is another.

In many other cases, especially late in the campaign, the red-hots among his supporters thought he had "underperformed" or been "just so-so" immediately after an event, only to see the days-later and weeks-later reaction to the performance turn much more positive. The clearest example was his first debate with John McCain, where supporters thought he had missed chances to go in for the kill -- but over time it was clear that he had established his steady, gravitas-worthy persona.

I think his inaugural speech will be in this second category. Now that I have a chance to look at some blog-world commentary, I see that some is underwhelmed, as after the first debate. I think that the speech was in fact very well-pitched to this moment in history and the messages Obama wants and needs to send. That is, both artful and useful.

To be sure, I can think of various speeches from the campaign that I enjoyed more from a partisan/ideological perspective, but watching it again today, I was reminded about the qualitative differences between, say, a speech at the Democratic convention and a presidential inaugural address. The speech after Obama's victory in the Iowa caucus, or the "Yes We Can" speech in South Carolina, were uplifting campaign oratory that made me want to vote for the man, but yesterday wasn't about that.

Kevin Drum's take rings true for me: "If I had to describe the speech in a word, I'd call it 'workmanlike,' and maybe that's exactly what Obama wanted it to be. After all, his steady theme, both yesterday and for the past couple of months, has been that his administration will be one that buckles down and gets to work from Day 1. Memorable would have just gotten in the way."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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THE REASONING BEHIND THE GOP'S HOLDER DELAYS.... That Senate Republicans want to delay confirmation of Eric Holder as our next Attorney General is not surprising. It's interesting, though, what's driving the hold-up.

Do Specter, Cornyn, & Co. want to talk some more about Marc Rich? Elian Gonzales? No, apparently, Republicans are concerned that Holder might prosecute a certain group of people who violated federal laws.

Senate Republicans hope to delay a vote on the confirmation of Eric Holder to become attorney general in order to pressure him to say whether he will prosecute intelligence agents for torture if they were following orders and acting within what they believed to be legal guidelines.

Holder told the Judiciary Committee last week that waterboarding is "torture" and therefore illegal. Susan J. Crawford, the top Bush administration official overseeing the trials of detainees, told the Washington Post that at least one individual held at the prison center at Guantanamo Bay was "tortured."

The question Republicans want answered before Holder is confirmed: Will you prosecute those who took part in that torture?

Now, given the exchanges at Holder's hearing, he didn't exactly demonstrate an appetite for prosecuting intelligence agents. But the fact that there's even a possibility that the A.G. would consider charges against those who committed crimes by torturing detainees in U.S. custody is enough to, once again, delay consideration of the next Attorney General.

Cornyn rationalized his obstructionism, telling reporters, "I want to know if he's going to enforce congressional intent not to second guess those things in a way that could jeopardize those officials but also could cause our intelligence officials to be risk averse -- the very kind of risk aversion ... that the 9/11 commission talked about when they talked about what set us up for 9/11."

Well, what do you know. A mere 24 hours after Obama's inauguration, congressional Republicans have returned to using 9/11 as a political cudgel. Some things really won't change.

I do find it odd, though, that this is the rationale for more delaying tactics. To hear Republicans tell it, they want to block Holder from serving as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer because he hasn't ruled out prosecuting those who broke the law.

It's quite a worldview.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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OBAMA TOUTS 'TRANSPARENCY AND THE RULE OF LAW'.... In a largely symbolic gesture, Barack Obama announced today that he will freeze the salaries of White House aides making over $100,000 a year. The politics of this probably looks good to the public, even if, from a policy perspective, it's not especially effective.

And while the salary freeze is generating headlines, this strikes me as more interesting.

He also announced a change in policy that will require each federal agency and department to give full attention to Freedom of Information requests and said he expects members of his administration to be responsive to such pleas.

And Obama also revealed what he called a "clean break" from existing rules spelling out when and under what circumstances administration officials could work on issues on which they lobbied governmental agencies before.

He said there would be a two-year, rather than a one-year, waiting period for government officials to be able to work on such issues and said they would "not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or White House agencies you lobbied during the last two years."

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this administration," Obama said in a statement to reporters.

Obama added that the new lobbying restrictions are "stricter limits than under any other administration in history." That's not only true, it'll severely undercut the system wherein corporate shills run executive branch agencies.

Better attention to FOIA requests is also very encouraging. For the last eight years, FOIA requests were often not worth filing, given the efficiency with which officials would ignore them.

Update: I also like this line: "Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution."

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ISRAELI COURT REJECTS BAN ON ARAB PARTIES.... Updating an item from Jan. 12, Israeli officials banned Arab political parties from running in next month's parliamentary elections. I noted at the time that Israeli Supreme Court would quickly take up the matter, and cooler heads were likely to prevail.

Fortunately, that's exactly what the Israeli Supreme Court did today.

Israel's Supreme court overruled on Wednesday a parliamentary panel which had decided to bar Israeli Arab parties from running in next month's parliamentary election.

The court issued its decision in response to an appeal filed by Arab politicians against the ban. A spokesman for the Courts Administration said judges overturned the ban in an unanimous vote Wednesday.

About one-fifth of Israel's population is Arab, and there are 10 Arab lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset. No good can come of even trying to ban Arab political parties, so the Israeli Supreme Court's decision is a welcome one.

Raleb Majadale, the only Israeli Arab minister serving in the Knesset, applauded the decision, saying, "[T]he court didn't yield to extremism and racism. In a democratic society, it is fitting that all minorities will be represented in the government."

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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'PRESIDENT FOR LIFE'.... A prominent far-right website called WorldNetDaily ran a piece the other day with a provocative headline: "Hail King Obama: President for life -- Move under way to repeal Constitution's term limits." WND reported:

As Inauguration Day approaches and Barack Obama prepares to assume his first term as president, some in Congress are hoping to make it possible for the Democrat to not only seek a second term in office, but a third and fourth as well.

The U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary is considering a bill that would repeal the Constitution's 22nd Amendment prohibiting a president from being elected to more than two terms in office.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., earlier this month introduced the bill, H. J. Res. 5, which, according to the bill's language, proposes "an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to repeal the twenty-second article of amendment, thereby removing the limitation on the number of terms an individual may serve as President."

Steve M. noted a variety of right-wing blogs that got pretty worked about this, including one that insisted Obama "might take a page from his role models Chavez and Castro."

Before this becomes a standard conservative talking point -- I can only assume Fox News coverage is around the corner -- let's just nip this in the bud.

Serrano did, in fact, recently introduce a measure to repeal the 22nd amendment. Is this because he wants Obama to be "president for life"? No. Serrano has introduced this exact same measure a half-dozen times, starting 12 years ago. It has nothing to do with Obama -- Serrano just happens to believe presidential term limits are a bad idea. (I happen to agree with him.)

But what about the WorldNetDaily claim that Serrano's bill is under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee? In reality, every piece of legislation introduced in the House relating to constitutional amendments is referred to the Judiciary Committee. Serrano's bill almost certainly will be ignored, will not generate co-sponsors, and won't get a hearing -- which is what has happened to his bill in previous congresses.

So when you get that email from your crazy uncle complaining bitterly about the Democratic effort to make Obama a dictator, just keep this post in mind.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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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.

* New York Gov. David Paterson has kinda sorta decided who he'll pick to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, saying he has "a good idea now which direction" he'll go in. Rumor has it, we'll hear something on Friday.

* Norm Coleman's lawyers still want more absentee ballots counted.

* A new poll shows the 2010 Senate race in Florida, where incumbent Mel Martinez (R) has announced his retirement at the end of his term, to be wide open.

* Similarly, the 2010 Senate race in Ohio, where incumbent George Voinovich (R) has announced his retirement at the end of his term, also has no clear frontrunner, though former Bush administration official Rob Portman (R) appears to have the early edge.

* Fox News' Sean Hannity has not only endorsed Michael Steele's bid for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, he's also begun campaigning for the former Maryland Lt. Gov.

* And finally, it appears actor Val Kilmer is considering a gubernatorial campaign in New Mexico at the end of Bill Richardson's term. He told The Hill on Monday that "they've asked me to run for governor," though he didn't say who "they are." It's also unclear what party's nomination he would seek -- Kilmer supported Nader over Obama in 2008.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... In the latest installment of our ongoing series, the Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president, with suggestions from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. Here's the next two from our list.

Jacques Barzun:

I recommend that the new president read William James's The Will to Believe and George Santayana's Character and Opinion in the United States. Both books serve a useful purpose to anyone trying to understand America in an overarching sense. They are products of two of our best minds and tell us something of our national character and preferences.

Alan Brinkley:

My recommendation to President Obama is George F. Kennan's Memoirs, 1925-1950. It is a powerful account of a brilliant young man from the Midwest who attends Princeton as a lonely outsider and goes on to become one of the most important figures in the history of American diplomacy. More important, it conveys Kennan's contributions to the character of American foreign policy in the years of the Cold War. He believed that the United States had an obligation to be active in the world in preserving peace and stability. He also believed that there were limits to what the United States can do in the world, and that it must choose its missions selectively. The "containment policy," which Kennan helped to create, was meant not just as a strategy for containing Communism, but -- as Kennan saw it -- a strategy for containing the United States as well, for ensuring that the United States would exercise caution and restraint in its international ventures, something later supporters of containment often forgot.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE LOYAL OPPOSITION.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently conceded that Republicans can't simply be "the party of 'no.'"

There's apparently some difference of opinion on that.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is the kind of uncompromising conservative who can make the leaders' life difficult. Mr. DeMint thinks, among other things, that some of his Republican colleagues are helping Democrats push America far to the left.

"We have to have a remnant of the Republican Party who are recognizable as freedom fighters," Mr. DeMint said. "What I'm looking to do as a conservative leader in the Senate is to identify those Republicans, and even some Democrats, and put together a consensus of people who can help stop this slide toward socialism."

Yes, Jim DeMint is anxious to lead the Contra contingent of the 21st-century Republican Party.

DeMint's worldview is bolstered, of course, by the pressure GOP leaders will receive from its supporters.

Conservative strategist Grover Norquist said party leaders must draw a bright line against higher taxes and spending, and that Republicans working with Mr. Obama should be treated as "collaborators."

It's as if some are actively working to keep Republicans in the minority indefinitely.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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STOPPING GITMO TRIALS.... So far, so good.

Hours after taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered military prosecutors in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals to ask for a 120-day halt in all pending cases and a judge granted the request on Wednesday in the case against a young Canadian.

When defense lawyers did not oppose the move, a judge froze the proceedings against Canadian Omar Khadr, who was captured at age 15 and is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan. [...]

Obama's order to the prosecutors was issued several hours after his swearing-in on Tuesday and if all the continuances are granted it would halt proceedings against 21 prisoners.

As we talked about this morning, this wasn't a sure-thing. Obama instructed military prosecutors to try to suspend legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, so that the new administration can review the process and the pending cases, but there was no guarantee military judges would agree to the requests. This morning's announcement, then, is encouraging. Indeed, the AP noted that the judge granted Obama's request very quickly, without even holding a hearing on the question.

What Obama will replace this system with remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it's the beginning of the end for the Guantanamo detention facility and the military commissions as we know them.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ABOUT THAT OATH, REDUX.... OK, so Chief Justice John Roberts had a little trouble administering the presidential oath of office yesterday. Barack Obama has been gracious about the whole thing, telling ABC News, "Well, listen, I think we were up there, we've got a lot of stuff on our minds and he actually, I think, helped me out on a couple of stanzas there. Overall, I think it went relatively smoothly and I'm very grateful to him."

But there's still the matter of the mistake itself. The Washington Post reports that constitutional law experts agree that the "flub is insignificant," but the new president might want to straighten this out anyway.

Lawyers said Obama and his supporters need not be worried about the legitimacy of his presidency, but they also said a do-over couldn't hurt. Charles Cooper, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, said that the oath is mandatory, that an incorrect recitation should be fixed and that he would be surprised if the oath had not already been re-administered.

Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale University professor of constitutional law, said, "Out of a super-abundance of caution, perhaps he should do it again."

Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, was hosting an inauguration party at his McLean home yesterday and did a mock swearing-in of 35 children. When Roberts erred, one child shouted: "That's not right!"

"He should probably go ahead and take the oath again," Turley said. "If he doesn't, there are going to be people who for the next four years are going to argue that he didn't meet the constitutional standard. I don't think it's necessary, and it's not a constitutional crisis. This is the chief justice's version of a wardrobe malfunction."

No word yet on whether Roberts and Obama have re-connected.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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THE VILLAGE'S ODD EXPECTATIONS.... During the presidential campaign, John McCain occasionally tried to criticize Barack Obama for failing to stray too far from the Democratic mainstream. It was never altogether clear to me why this was supposed to be persuasive -- the Democratic nominee agrees with the Democratic Party! Eek!

And yet, this continues to be a common strain of thought among high-profile media observers. The Politico's Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris has a new piece this morning listing the various reasons why Americans should be "skeptical of Obama's chances" of success as president. Some of the points are more compelling than others, but this one is just odd:

Obama frequently talks of the need to transcend partisanship. And he invokes his support for charter schools -- a not-terribly-controversial idea -- as evidence that he is willing to challenge Democratic special interest groups.

In fact, there are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party's constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his own supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause.

Has Obama ever delivered a "Sister Souljah speech"? Ever stood up to organized labor in the way that Clinton did in passing North American Free Trade Agreement?

This is not a good sign.

I realize this is a common argument, I just don't understand why.

For one thing, Obama has "offended his own party's constituencies" more than a few times, both during and after the campaign. Before the election, Obama was at odds with Democrats over FISA and the financial industry bailout, and after the election, he frustrated party constituencies on everything from cabinet selections to Lieberman to Rick Warren to tax cuts in the stimulus bill.

For another, what difference does it make? Or more to the point, why on earth would Obama's chances of success as president be dependent on his willingness to disagree frequently with his own party?

If VandeHei and Harris were making a specific policy observation -- insisting that Obama should disagree with Democrats on X, because the party's position is incorrect -- the argument would have more merit. But they're arguing that Obama should reject the party's agenda just for the sake of doing so.

That's nonsense.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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AN OLC WE CAN BELIEVE IN.... About two weeks ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on "Face the Nation," and defended the Bush administration's legal abuses, saying they'd been endorsed by his lawyers.

"In terms of all of our actions," Cheney said, "we worked to stay close to the Office of Legal Counsel. We followed the guidance we got, which is what you're supposed to do and where you're supposed to do it."

In other words, Cheney got John Yoo to endorse actions that exceeded the law, so it's all kosher. After all, the OLC is where "you're supposed" to get this kind of authority.

It's encouraging, then, to know who'll be sitting in John Yoo's office for the foreseeable future.

A Georgetown source forwards over an email from that school's administration, reporting that Professor Marty Lederman's class will be canceled -- because he's joining the Obama administration.

Lederman, another former Clinton Office of Legal Counsel lawyer, is perhaps the most prominent of several high-profile opponents of the Bush Administration's executive power claims joining Obama, a mark that he intends not just to change but to aggressively reverse Bush's moves on subjects like torture. With hires like Barron, Johnen, and Lederman, Obama is not just going back to Democratic lawyers: These are anti-Bush lawyers.

Damn straight. Lederman has been a leading opponent of Bush's torture policies, and the legal reasoning behind them. He's even suggested that the former administration officials committed crimes in this area. Now, thankfully, Lederman is headed to the OLC.

And what an OLC it will be. The Lederman announcement came shortly after David Barron was named Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the OLC. Barron has been a staunch opponent of Bush's executive-branch power-grabs and war-time legal arguments.

Both Barron and Lederman will, of course, join Dawn Johnsen, who'll head the OLC, and whose record on these issues is sterling.

A lot of this may seem obscure. Before 2001, OLC was not widely known, and rarely thought about in a political context. But as Hilzoy recently explained, "It tells, for instance, the CIA and the Department of Interior what it judges to be permissible under the laws, and its opinions are binding. Under George W. Bush, the OLC seems to have been used to provide Get Out Of Jail Free cards -- opinions that would license whatever Bush and Cheney wanted to do, and provide some cover for people who did those things. That the OLC has that kind of power makes it a very, very important job."

That Obama has chosen terrific people to fix the OLC is a very encouraging development.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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FIRST THINGS FIRST.... George W. Bush relied heavily on federal regulations to make the government more in line with his ideological agenda. Barack Obama, shortly after taking office, told executive branch agencies to put an immediate hold on all Bush regulations.

In its first hours, the Obama administration took an initial step to put its imprint on the government, ordering work halted on all federal regulations left unfinished at the end of the Bush era until they can be reviewed by the new president's team.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dispatched a memo yesterday afternoon to federal agencies and departments, directing them to stop pending rules until the new administration has time to conduct a "legal and policy review" of each one. The directive has become a first-day tradition among presidents, dating to Ronald Reagan in 1981, helping incoming administrations put their own philosophical stamp on the regulatory work that is a subtle but potent tool of presidential power.

Though it's unclear how many of Bush's regulations have not yet taken effect, the former president's administration issued 100 final rules since Obama won the election. The review should take a while.

Also, as Hilzoy noted overnight, Obama also took steps to stop legal proceedings at Guantanamo.

In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration.

The instruction came in a motion filed with a military court in the case of five defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The motion called for "a continuance of the proceedings" until May 20 so that "the newly inaugurated president and his administration [can] review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."

This is obviously an encouraging development, but as mcjoan explained, the president's authority here is limited. Obama ordered prosecutors to suspend further proceedings, while administration attorneys consider what to do next, but military judges may decline the request, and some defense attorneys may object.

Still, as the Post noted, the White House's instructions, which were applauded by the ACLU and defense attorneys, are "a first step toward closing a detention facility and system of military trials that became a worldwide symbol of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and its unyielding attitude toward foreign and domestic critics."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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CARD CHECK.... The Employee Free Choice Act, its prospects on the Hill, and its support from Barack Obama have already generated considerable interest, and appear to be one of the key Democratic proposals that will draw the most heated Republican opposition. Indeed, opposition began in earnest in the fall, when a group of Southern Republican senators blocked aid to U.S. auto manufacturers, calling it the "first shot against organized labor."

In a provocative piece for the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, editor T. A. Frank pays particular attention to the bill's "card check" provision, which would empower workers to certify a union by having a majority of employees fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them. Frank argues that EFCA is an important bill, but the card-check provision isn't worth fighting for.

The question, then, is how much of a fight the card check provision merits. And the answer is probably a little, but not a lot. What most undermines the secret-ballot process is that employers can violate the law in numerous ways without consequences. Under EFCA, however, every illegal action has the potential to be costly, so firings, spying, threats, or other forms of intimidation would be less likely. Also, there is an alternative way to preserve the secret ballot while guarding against company malfeasance: expedited elections. Under current law, months can go by between when NLRB announces the results of a card check vote and when a secret-ballot election is held. If, however, this campaign window were reduced to just a few days, employers would have less opportunity to intimidate union supporters into changing their minds. Workers I spoke to in Lancaster seemed content with this alternative. And some savvy people in the labor movement I spoke to feel the same way -- provided that employers either refrain from captive-audience campaigning or else grant union members equal access to the workplace during a campaign.

Given that card check is substantively minor, why has it come to define the entire debate about EFCA in Washington? Because it is the one element of the bill that its opponents can object to and still seem principled -- it's easier to stand up for "democracy" than for the right of companies to break labor laws without consequence. And all of this factors into the gamesmanship that's likely to take place on Capitol Hill over EFCA. Commentators like Marc Ambinder have called the fight "a quandary" for Democrats, one that carries a risk of disastrous failure. But must it come to that? Deploying political capital wisely means fighting over what matters most, not what matters least. Perhaps the bill's proponents in Congress intend to stand firm in their defense of the card check provision of EFCA. But if they strategically retreat, at just the right moment, like a matador lifting his red cape, will liberals accuse Democrats of selling out labor? Or will they realize that, with or without card check, EFCA will still accomplish what's most needed -- finally, at long last, restoring the rights of workers who seek to organize?

It's an interesting argument. Take a look.

Steve Benen 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Hilzoy

Hopeful Signs

From the Washington Post:

"In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration.

The instruction came in a motion filed late Tuesday with a military court handling the case of five defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The motion called for "a continuance of the proceedings" until May 20 so that "the newly inaugurated president and his administration [can] review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."

The same motion was filed in another case scheduled to resume Wednesday, involving a Canadian detainee, and will be filed in all other pending matters.

Such a request may not be automatically granted by military judges, and not all defense attorneys may agree to such a suspension. But the move is a first step toward closing a detention facility and system of military trials that became a worldwide symbol of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and its unyielding attitude toward foreign and domestic critics."

This is wonderful news. And so is this, from Jack Balkin:

"Some of you may have noticed that Marty Lederman has not been blogging recently at Balkinization. The reason is that he has been working on the Department of Justice Transition team. As of today, the commencement of the Obama Administration, he begins work as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel. (...)

Needless to say, I am very pleased for the country by Marty's new job. I do not exaggerate when I say that Marty is one of the finest lawyers I know, and there is perhaps no better time to put his remarkable talents to use in helping to reform a Justice Department that so badly needs reform."

Marty Lederman has been one of the most forthright and vocal opponents of the Bush administration's policies on torture and detention. I have never met him, but you can tell a fair amount by someone from his blog, and the knowledge that Marty Lederman will be taking over John Yoo's old job is one of the most heartening pieces of news I've had in a transition that has had more than its share of them.

One other point about this appointment: at various points during the Presidential campaigns, I recall people arguing that whatever Obama might say about Bush's expansions of executive power, if he became President he would probably find those powers pretty convenient, and would want to hold onto them. In that light, it's worth noting that Marty Lederman is the co-author of a set of two articles (1, 2) that considers, in exhaustive (!) detail, the main conceptual foundation of the argument that the President has the right to set aside laws passed by Congress when conducting a war, and (basically) finds it to be baseless. The other co-author, David Barron, has also been appointed to a position in the Obama administration's Office of Legal Counsel.

In other words: the people who have been appointed to two of the most senior positions in the OLC, which (basically) tells the Executive branch what is legal and what is not, have explicitly and publicly rejected some of the Bush administration's central arguments in support of its expansive view of executive power. It's hard for me to see how they could reverse themselves on that score with a straight face, or why Obama would have appointed them if he had the slightest intention of adopting the Bush administration's views on this topic.

Both of these developments leave me feeling pretty hopeful.

Hilzoy 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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By: Hilzoy

It's Over

I've been trying to figure out what to say about the inauguration, with no success at all. I will only say: it feels like waking up from a horrible dream. -- I have travelled outside the US a lot. All my life, when people have criticized the US, I have tried to stick up for it where possible, and where it wasn't possible, to explain. I couldn't do either with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or Iraq, or, since about 2002, really much of anything. For the first time in eight years, I feel as though I can be proud not just of the ideals to which my country aspires, but of how it is working towards them: not just of its aspirations, but of its reality. And that means so much to me.

Hilzoy 12:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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January 20, 2009

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

* Ted Kennedy's condition has apparently improved this afternoon. Bob Byrd, meanwhile, did not fall ill, as previous reports had indicated.

* Unfortunately, Wall Street did not partake in celebrating the Obama inauguration, and the markets took a serious tumble this afternoon.

* The Senate unanimously approved the cabinet nominations of Secretaries Chu, Duncan, Napolitano, Salazar, Shinseki, and Vilsack today. OMB Director Peter Orszag was also approved.

* On a related note, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) decided to celebrate the first day of the new political era by blocking a vote on Hillary Clinton's nomination to be Secretary of State. She's expected to be approved tomorrow.

* On a related note, right-wing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) helped usher in a new political era by boycotting a Capitol Hill reception for Iowa's congressional delegation. Both of Iowa's senators and four of its five representatives will attend, but King is refusing, citing his "philosophical" problems with the new president.

* It's incredible, but Bush really has left.

* There's supposed to be a welcome-home celebration for Bush this afternoon in Midland, Texas. Good seats are still available.

* The president's new limo includes some pretty amazing features.

* No word yet on whether Bush issued any pardons this morning.

* CNN is still screwing up reports on the cost of the Obama inauguration.

* On the Hill today, Obama reportedly signed three documents: a proclamation declaring today a day of national renewal and reconciliation (a recent presidential tradition), cabinet nominations, and sub-cabinet nominations. As he signed his name, Obama said, "I'm a lefty. Get used to it." (For the record, Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton were also left-handed.)

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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POWELL.... Former President Bush's Secretary of State had some insights on today's historic events that are worth reading.

Colin Powell, the former Bush administration Secretary of State and now head of America's Promise, called Barack Obama's election to the nation's highest office a "reaffirmation of American principles values that will help us overcome some of the difficulties of recent years with respect to the attitude of the world toward us."

Speaking with CBS News Managing Editor Katie Couric, Powell said America's prestige abroad has improved since Mr. Obama won a decisive victory over Senator John McCain.

"I think it has really, really been an remarkable event in terms of getting everybody to stand back and say, look at what we have seen here in America," Powell said. "The America we remember is back again."

I've seen quite a bit of disapproval of George W. Bush today -- some direct, some less so -- but seeing Powell herald the return of the "America we remember" -- you know, before the last eight or so years -- strikes me as fairly devastating criticism.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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AN ERA OF MATURITY.... Adam Serwer had an interesting take on Obama's inaugural address, arguing that the speech was, at its core, about maturity.

"We remain a young nation," Obama said, "but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." After September 11, 2001 there was a lot of commentary to the effect that America had "entered adulthood" as we were introduced to the kind of harsh realities that other countries live with every day.

But we didn't react like adults. We lashed out like adolescents. We sought to banish our anxieties by making those who attacked us suffer, but when we couldn't find them, those who shared their language or religion would do. We played at adulthood, eschewing the hard choices that freedom and the rule of law demanded that we make. We were too grown for courts and trials, the pursuit and promise of those rights and ideals that make us who we are. Instead of putting away childish things, we embraced our least sophisticated, fearful impulses.

Today, Obama sought to provide a vision of our adulthood; an attitude that rejects the impulsiveness, painted as toughness, of the Bush years.

Re-reading the speech, Adam's critique rings true. There's no shortage of examples of what went wrong with our politics over the last eight years, but it's hard to escape the immaturity of our leadership and decision-making. The president too often resembled an impetuous child, with juvenile impatience. Obama's serious inaugural address seemed to underscore the notion that grown-ups are going to lead now.

Consider some of the examples Obama held up as things to reject: "petty grievances," "short-cuts," "those who prefer leisure over work" -- qualities reminiscent of adolescence. And who was held up for praise: "workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job," "a parent's willingness to nurture a child," troops who volunteer to serve as the "guardians of our liberty" -- examples of maturity.

One of the aspects of Obama that I always liked when he was a candidate was that he tended to talk up to people, not down. While Bush had a rhetorical tic on "in other words" -- as if we weren't sophisticated enough to understand his highfalutin arguments -- Obama tended to treat his audiences as if they were adults.

To that end, today's speech arguably had more than one theme, but it served as a reminder to the country: play time is over.

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

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KENNEDY, BYRD FALL ILL AT LUNCHEON.... Watching the inauguration festivities on television, special attention was paid to Ted Kennedy, who joined his Senate colleagues on the stage, appeared healthy, and was walking unaided. It was very encouraging.

Regrettably, it did not last. This afternoon, both Kennedy and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) experienced medical emergencies during a congressional luncheon with Barack Obama.

During a talk to members of Congress and others, Obama called attention to Kennedy, saying "I know that while I was out of the room, concerned was expressed about Teddy."

Obama said that Kennedy "was there when the voting rights act passed, along with John Lewis, was a warrior for justice."

"And so I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him," Obama added. "And I think that's true for all of us. This is a joyous time. But it's also a sobering time. And my prayers are with him and his family and (Kennedy's wife) Vicki."

Details are scarce, though the networks are saying that Kennedy had a seizure. Byrd has only been described as having "fallen ill."

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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JOSEPH LOWERY.... There were two very high-profile religious figures included in the inaugural ceremony, and if either was expected to generate attention, it was supposed to be Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation.

As it turns out, though, it was the Rev. Joseph Lowery who's generated some buzz.

The first 10 words of Lowery's benediction may have sounded familiar: "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears." The phrases come directly from James Weldon Johnson's poem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" -- sometimes referred to as the "Negro National Anthem."

But it was the end of the benediction that a lot of people will remember: "We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right." This, too, was borrowed rhetoric, but it led to smiles and laughter, and infused a serious ceremony with some lightheartedness.

The 87-year-old civil rights leader practically stole the show. Good for him.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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ABOUT THAT OATH.... The presidential oath of office is quite straightforward, and only 35 words long: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Somehow, Chief Justice John Roberts, with the whole world watching, managed to flub it.

As you can see in the video, Roberts initially made the first sentence too long. It should have been "I, Barack Hussein Obama," and then wait for the response. In fact, Obama started to respond at the right time, but Roberts kept going, adding, "do solemnly swear." Obama recovered and corrected it. No biggie.

But then Roberts, who had allegedly practiced this, rearranged the words of the oath, saying, "that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully." That's wrong in two places -- the "to" and the placement of "faithfully." Obama stopped, realizing Roberts had misspoken, before saying "that I will execute ... the office of president of the United States faithfully." That's not what the oath says, but that's what Roberts told Obama to say.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer said, "John Roberts had one job to do today and he sort of screwed up." True. Roberts, I noticed, wasn't reading from a prepared text, apparently confident that he could just memorize the 35 words. Note to the Chief Justice: four years from today, bring notes.

Josh Marshall added that some "nutballs" who'd hoped to prevent the inauguration, claiming that Obama isn't a natural-born citizen, "may get a second lease on life by claiming he didn't take the oath correctly."

Count on it. A reader told me a few minutes ago that Fox News' Chris Wallace speculated on the air about whether Obama is really president, since the oath didn't go as it should have.

I'm not an expert, but my understanding is that at noon today, by law, Barack Obama became president. The oath was a formality. Wingnuts and their lawyers really shouldn't bother rushing to court to challenge this, though I suspect they'll give it a try anyway.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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A FORCEFUL WAY FORWARD.... The president's inaugural address ended less than an hour ago, and thoughtful and thorough scrutiny will take a long while. But my initial reaction is that this was a dense and powerful speech, and a more forceful rejection of the status quo than I'd expected.

Early on, President Barack Obama (I still take some pleasure in typing that) acknowledged the peril of the times, but reminded Americans that conditions will improve in time.

"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

"These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America -- they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.... Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Soon after, Obama presented an ambitious agenda, and then defended the notion of ambition itself.

"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

But it seemed the portion of the speech that resonated most was an implicit celebration of civil liberties, even in a time of crisis.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

I didn't see George W. Bush's face at the time, but the new president's remarks were a rather specific rejection of the most recent president's entire worldview.

Obama went on to deliver a message to the world about America's place in it.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Looking over my notes, I noticed that there was some enthusiastic applause -- both in my house and on the Mall, when Obama noted, almost in passing, "We will restore science to its rightful place." It was also encouraging when Obama, in addressing America's spiritual diversity, gave a shout-out to non-believers. Nice touch.

I suspect a lot of observers watch a speech like this, waiting for "the phrase." FDR had "nothing to fear..." and JFK had "ask not...." To a lesser extent, Clinton told us that "what is right with America" can solve its ills, and Reagan identified government as "the problem."

Did Obama offer that short, memorable phrase, which will be talked about for generations? Perhaps not. I was struck by Obama's allusion to Corinthians: "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." That said, it was not a sound-bite line, for those looking for one.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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NICE SITE.... You know what looks really cool right now? The White House website.

Yes, there's a blog.

And in case you're curious, the Change.gov homepage has a thank-you message, noting the end of the transition, but all of the content is still there.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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'WE ARE READY TO LEAD ONCE MORE'.... The full transcript of President Barack Obama's inaugural address is below.

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.

They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment -- a moment that will define a generation -- it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE TRANSFER OF POWER....

11:35: I'm watching the inaugural festivities on television, unsure what to say. It's a scene unlike any I've seen. I know crowd estimates are verbotten, but I have to assume this is the biggest inaugural crowd in history, and an audience that exceeds all expectations.

11:36: The boos for Bush and Cheney from the crowd are noticable.

11:37: Olbermann noted that the inauguration is already 15 minutes behind schedule.

11:39: Obama, walking alone, appears unusually calm. It's striking.

11:42: I hope I'm not the only one who keeps pausing and thinking, "Wow, this really is happening."

11:47: Feinstein kept things fairly brief. She's not a bad speaker.

11:48: Rick Warren's on.

11:53: It was obviously overtly Christian, but Warren at least avoided political commentary in his invocation.

11:57: Stevens looks great for his age, doesn't he?

11:58: Congratulations, Vice President Joe Biden.

12:00: Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma have serious chops. Just sayin'.

12:04: Roberts, Obama. The crowd goes wild.

12:07: I'm not even going to try to live-blog the inaugural address. Consider this an open thread, starting ... now.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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THOSE WHO ROOT AGAINST AMERICA.... It takes a special kind of American to hope for our failure.

Barack Obama has not yet taken office, and Rush Limbaugh is already rooting for his failure. On his radio show last Friday, Limbaugh said, "I disagree fervently with the people on our [Republican] side of the aisle who have caved and who say, 'Well, I hope he succeeds.'"

Limbaugh told his listeners that he was asked by "a major American print publication" to offer a 400-word statement explaining his "hope for the Obama presidency." He responded:

"So I'm thinking of replying to the guy, 'Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.' (interruption) What are you laughing at? See, here's the point. Everybody thinks it's outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, 'Oh, you can't do that.' Why not? Why is it any different, what's new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. Why do I want more of it? I don't care what the Drive-By story is. I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: 'Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.' Somebody's gotta say it."

No, I don't think Americans have to root against the country. If Obama fails, we fail. If his presidency falls short, there are negative consequences for all of us.

This is the opposite of patriotism.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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PAR-TAY.... If conservative commentary is any indication, there are two main complaints about the Obama inaugural festivities: 1) they cost too much; 2) this is hardly a good time for a celebration.

The argument about cost, as we talked about yesterday, is unpersuasive. The most expensive aspect of the inauguration is the security, and with 2 million people on the National Mall, it's going to be pricey.

The second point, at first blush, may seem more compelling. Celebrating in the midst of multiple, ongoing crises may strike some as inappropriate, if not gauche.

Michelle Cottle makes the argument that this complaint is largely backwards.

No matter how ominous the economic outlook, the inauguration of a new president is something to celebrate. And, yes, that is all the more true because of the "historic nature" of this particular president. (Translation: OMG! Can you believe we finally elected a black guy!) In addition to feeling the burden of the nation's current situation, the Obama people are keenly aware of the widespread, pent-up desire to celebrate this day with all of the "ridiculousness" that this country can muster. The entire globe is watching. We should not shortchange the moment.

Moreover, I'd argue that the current anxiety and pessimism people are feeling make a large-scale, communal moment of celebration all the more important. In general, during tough times, people crave a little glamour and escapism. (There is a reason that the Great Depression spawned a Hollywood glut of high-society comedies.) More specifically, when there is an uneasy sense that our nation is struggling, people need to be reminded of its greatness. We need to feel like our best times are yet to come. We need spectacle. We need uplift. We need pomp and ceremony and, yes, silly whistle stop tours and cheesy speeches that self-consciously remind us how far we have come. [...]

Obviously, the Obama team must make clear they are mindful of the fear and pain afoot across the country. No one wants to see incoming administration officials scarfing caviar and dousing one another with bottles of bubbly while leading a gaudy Conga line through the Washington Convention Center tonight.... But Americans, perhaps now more than ever, could use a reminder that there is still much to celebrate in and about this nation.

Sounds right to me.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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ENDING THE GLOBAL GAG RULE.... The LA Times reports this morning that one of Barack Obama's first acts as president will be "to lift a rule that prevents federal money from going to international family planning groups that counsel women on abortion or perform the procedure."

This seems to be something of a recent tradition. One of Bill Clinton's first acts as president was to lift the global-gag rule, and eight years later, one of George W. Bush's first acts as president was to bring it back. Obama is apparently poised to keep the trend going.

It's probably worth noting that Bush didn't exactly know what he was doing when he acted on this issue. Soon after his inauguration, Bush met with a group of Roman Catholic bishops in the White House to tout his support for the "the Mexico City" policy, which got its name because Ronald Reagan launched the ban in Mexico City in 1984. Bush was anxious to show his support for issues of direct concern to the church, and was overheard by a live microphone that he didn't know was piping his remarks directly into the White House press room.

The president had just signed an executive order on the policy, literally just days prior to speaking to the bishops, but he clearly had no clue what he'd just done. Bush ended up bragging about "the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City."

That's not even close to what this policy is all about.

The "Mexico City" policy prohibits US dollars and contraceptive supplies from going to any international family planning program that provides abortions or counsels women about their reproductive health options. The policy isn't about money going to pay for abortions. Even those groups that use only private funds for abortion services -- where abortion is legal -- are barred from assistance. This is money going to family planning programs. [...]

[N]ot only are organizations that provide or counsel about abortion services affected; those that dare to take part in a public discussion about legalizing abortion are also affected (hence the name "global gag rule").... This policy has nothing to do with government-sponsored abortions overseas. Ten years before the gag rule was in place the law strictly prohibited that. This policy is about disqualifying prochoice organizations from receiving US international family planning funding.

Under Bush's policy, organizations that play a vital role in women's health are forced to make an impossible choice. If they refuse to be "gagged," they lose the funding that enables them to help women and families who are cut off from basic health care and family planning. But if they accept funding, they must accept restrictions that jeopardize the health of the women they serve.

The most tragic ramifications have been felt in the developing world. In Kenya, for example, two of the leading family planning organizations have been forced to shut down five clinics dispensing aid from prenatal care and vaccinations to malaria screening and AIDS prevention. Kenya's experience is common, according to "Access Denied," a report on the impact of the global gag rule on developing nations. Researchers found that programs for rural communities and urban slums have been scaled back by as much as 50 percent. As a result more women are turning to unsafe abortion -- a leading cause of death for young women in much of Africa -- because they lack access to family planning information and essential contraceptive supplies.

In the 1990s, the United States helped lead on international family planning, promoting sustainable development, empowering women, and saving lives. If Obama acts today to end the gag rule, we can again.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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ONE LAST BUSHIE SOIREE.... Slate's Christopher Beam managed to get into a special party on Sunday night: a final, farewell send-off event, called "Crossing the Finish Line," for the president and his team. Jason Linkins noted that it sounded "like the most depressing event in the world," which seems entirely fair given Beam's description.

The party, organized by outgoing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and his predecessor, Andy Card, was held in a room with no heating. They couldn't get any entertainers, because they'd already been booked for better events.

"Are these all white people -- I mean White House people?" I asked someone in a genuine Freudian slip. Turned out the crowd was a mix of alumni from the White House, State Department, Treasury, and Justice and a few campaign workers. The mood felt more sweet than bitter. Many staffers had spent the weekend clearing out their offices. The question I kept hearing was "What's next?" Some were applying to grad schools, others were heading to D.C. law firms or think tanks, and others were returning to their home states or traveling. One outgoing Treasury employee had already landed a job as a manager at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Take a moment to mull over that that last part. (Linkins noted, "The Great Gatsby could have ended with that line.")

Eventually, the president thanked his team.

"This is objectively the finest group of people ever to serve our country," he said. "Not to serve me, not to serve the Republican Party, but the United States of America."

"I am glad we made this journey," he went on. Then he engaged in a little reminiscence. "Remember the time in 2003 when Bartlett came to work all hung over?" Laughs. "Nothing ever changes."

He continued: "We never shruck--"

"Shirked!" someone yelled.

"Shirked," Bush corrected, smiling. "You might have shirked; I shrucked. I mean we took the deals head on."

I'm trying to decide whether or not Beam was lucky to get in. Sure, he finagled an exclusive, but then again, he actually had to endure the party.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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INAUGURATION DAY.... I don't recall exactly when I started seeing "1.20.09" bumper stickers; I guess it was about a year ago. But it wasn't long before "1.20.09" was pretty much everywhere -- on cars, on shirts, on hats, online.

And lo and behold, here it is. As Frank Rich noted the other day, "Barack Obama's day is one that I never thought would come, and one that I still can't quite believe is here."

I know the feeling. In fact, I find myself in a rather awkward position: slightly at a loss for words. In four hours, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and it's genuinely difficult to capture the significance of the day. All of the various cliches became cliches precisely because so many feel compelled by the same observations and emotional reactions. There really is a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Politics in America really is about to change. We really are going to turn the page on a painful and destructive era of our collective history.

It's time for an American Renaissance, it comes with an infectious excitement, and it's going to start this afternoon.

As for what to expect and when, inaugural festivities are scheduled to start at 10 a.m. eastern, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.

They will include:

-- Musical selections of The United States Marine Band, followed by the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

-- Sen. Dianne Feinstein provides call to order and welcoming remarks.

-- Invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren.

-- Musical selection of Aretha Franklin.

-- Biden will be sworn into office by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

-- Musical selection of John Williams, composer/arranger with Itzhak Perlman, (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gabriela Montero (piano) and Anthony McGill (clarinet).

-- 12 pm ET: Obama will take the Oath of Office, using President Lincoln's Inaugural Bible, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts.

-- Obama gives the inaugural address.

-- Poem by Elizabeth Alexander.

-- Benediction by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.

-- The National Anthem by The United States Navy Band "Sea Chanters."

After Obama gives inaugural address, he will escort outgoing President George W. Bush to a departure ceremony before attending a luncheon in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

The 56th Inaugural Parade will then make its way down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.


Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Hilzoy

Waiting For The Inauguration Music

Ten more hours.


Hilzoy 2:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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By: Hilzoy

Race Since The 80s

Matt Cooper has a really interesting post at TPMDC, on the difficulty of explaining to people who weren't around (or old enough) at the time just how different, and more troubled, race relations were like in the 80s and early 90s. He asks: "Why is America's racial atmosphere less poisonous than it was then?" And he offers a few answers: the drop in black crime and teen pregnancy, the disappearance of issues like school busing,the mainstreaming of hip-hop, Bill Clinton's ease with African-Americans and Bush's cabinet picks. Josh Marshall adds: "American mass culture found a more useful scary other: Arabs and Muslims. That's a key thing that isn't pretty but I think is also true."

Since I seem to be around the same age as Cooper, I thought I'd offer a few more possibilities, which I've put below the fold.

First, whatever welfare reform's impact on poverty, I think it's hard to overstate the political effects of removing welfare from the list of perennial campaign issues. Despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients were white, debates about welfare always seemed to devolve into debates about such topics as whether inner-city blacks actually deserved to be helped at all, whether welfare perpetuated social pathologies in black communities, and other topics guaranteed to reinforce any suspicion anyone might have had that there was something wrong with a whole lot of black people, something that people in Washington seemed to think meant that we (and the subtext of these debates was "we") should fork over large sums of money to "them." I think that the simple fact that we are not talking about this all the time has helped a lot (though the fact that we are not talking much about poverty either is a very serious problem.)

Second, I think that people, most especially white people, often imagined that the legacy of racism would be much easier to correct than it actually was -- as though as soon as legal obstacles to, say, voting were removed, everything would be OK, if not immediately then in a few years. They had, in other words, an unreasonable view of how long it takes to undo centuries of institutionalized injustice. By the mid-eighties, a lot of those legal obstacles had been removed -- but the problems hadn't all gone away! I think that the simple fact that time passes has helped here: the early eighties through mid-nineties were, I think, the time at which the discrepancy between people's unreasonable expectations and actual progress was likely to be sharpest. Since then, that progress has continued, and so the discrepancy has gotten smaller.

More importantly, though, I think a lot of the credit has to go to affirmative action. Affirmative action obviously created political problems of its own. But the idea, I always thought, was that while it would obviously preferable not to have been racist in the first place, affirmative action was necessary in order to ensure that more than a few African-Americans (and others less relevant to this post) had the opportunity their talents should have entitled them to to get the jobs, training, and so forth that they needed to advance into the middle and professional classes. And this, it seemed to me, was important not only for fairness and equality of opportunity, but because the simple fact of its being normal for blacks to be in jobs and colleges and the like would help immeasurably.

America is still much, much too segregated. But it is much less so than it was when I was growing up. -- In what follows, I'm going to talk primarily about people in relatively privileged settings, because that's what I know best. I believe that similar points can be made more generally, but for now I'll stick to what I know.

When I was in high school, Boston was in the midst of its busing crisis, which means that its public schools were only then being desegregated, under court order and in the face of violent resistance. I cannot recall any black (or Hispanic, or Asian) students at the (private) school I went to for grades 1-6; there were a handful at the school I spent grades 7-12 in, but not many. When I was in college, there were very few minority students, and many of those I knew felt somewhat besieged and unsure of their welcome. This changed dramatically during the 80s and 90s: when I started teaching, the ethnic composition of my classes was vastly different than it had been when I was a student, and it is even more different today. The same is true in a lot of professions.

This matters enormously, not just for the obvious reasons of basic fairness and justice, but because it means that many more whites are familiar with blacks than they used to be. -- Conservatives often point out the various idiotic things that people say and do in the name of not being racist. I think they're right about some of the idiocy -- the 70s and 80s, in particular, had a lot of earnest white people walking up to unsuspecting African Americans and saying things like: Hey, brother, I'm down with your struggle. They're also right about some of the idiotic excesses of political correctness: my personal favorite example was a brouhaha about a poster that some student group had put up advertising an event that involved (iirc) "a lazy afternoon relaxing and eating burritos", which supposedly implied that Mexicans were lazy. The late 80s and early 90s were full of that stuff.

Where I differed with conservatives who made those arguments was that I thought: well, this is what happens when people come to realize that there is something very wrong with their habitual ways of thinking about, and behaving towards, people they often don't really know at all, and try to figure out how to change their ways. It's especially likely in the case of racism, in which a lot of problems are likely to involve unconscious habits of mind and behavior. (You might think you're not a racist, but wouldn't a racist think that too?)

In situations like that, people say and do stupid things. They second-guess their own motives, and they don't always get it right. They try to establish their anti-racist cred by constituting themselves as the Official Racism Police. They are in no position to distinguish blacks who have discovered the delightful possibilities of being able to make white people feel guilty about almost anything, and have decided to explore them, from blacks with genuine and serious complaints about their conduct. This is all to be expected. But it in no way implies that the attempt is not worth making, or that if we proceed with good will, we won't eventually do better.

If you're white, and you believe that racism is wrong and that you should try to avoid it, and you don't know a lot of black people, I thought, then a certain amount of idiocy is in your future. It just is. And a whole lot of white people of my acquaintance really didn't know a lot of blacks. That was, of course, part of the problem. But the solution to it was not, I thought, to sneer at the whole effort. It was to do your best, observe carefully, think hard, be generous, and accept the fact that you just were going to do a number of things that would, in retrospect, make you absolutely cringe. The idiocy was temporary, and born of ignorance. With time, I thought, it would fade to normal human levels of awkwardness and cluelessness.

I also thought -- and here I'm on shakier ground -- that many of the African-Americans I knew were also working out issues of their own about what it meant to be black in a world in which blacks were not forced into opposition to mainstream culture. There they were, attending schools that had, in recent memory, been all-white, accepting jobs that had not previously been open to blacks, becoming investment bankers and such. What was that about? What, under these novel circumstances, counted as the normal sort of getting along, and what counted as being co-opted? Was there some amount of assimilation into, say, the dominant social norms at one's law firm at which one crossed over from collegiality into a serious betrayal of one's identity? What did it mean to be a successful black doctor living in the Connecticut suburbs, and how did you do that without selling out or forgetting who you were?

There were people who did this effortlessly and with enormous grace, but I think there were also, and understandably, people who flailed around a bit before figuring it out. I also think that the combination of such flailing and the white cluelessness I described earlier was worse than the sum of its parts.

The general point, though, is: I think that things are very, very different now. A white kid who's now twenty would not have gone to a grade school with no black kids, as I did. She might have gone to a college where people of different ethnicities tended to eat at different tables, but the simple fact that the number of non-whites is vastly higher than it was would have to make interaction a lot more common, and thus no big deal. And black kids who go to Ivy league schools, or end up in investment banks, have many more role models to look to, and so have less need to invent ways of being who they are in those worlds entirely from scratch

This was always, to me, one of the main points of affirmative action: that all this stuff would just become much more normal, and, slowly but surely, we'd find our way out of the idiotic flailing phase of race relations and into something less awkward and fraught.

I think this has a lot to do with the thaw that Matt Cooper talks about, and it's a wonderful thing. We're not nearly there yet, but I think we're much closer than we were when I was young.

Hilzoy 12:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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January 19, 2009
By: Hilzoy

No More Pardons?

From the NYT:

"President Bush on Monday commuted the sentences of two former Border Patrol agents imprisoned for shooting a Mexican drug smuggler, but he was preparing to leave office without granting clemency to any better-known figures or government officials who could face liability over administration policies. (...)

A senior White House official said that the commutations announced on Monday would be Mr. Bush's last acts of clemency before he leaves office.

There had been speculation that Mr. Bush might act in a number of high-profile cases, including those of I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and the financier Michael R. Milken, both of whom were convicted on felony charges.

Mr. Bush was also said to have been considering pre-emptive action that could have shielded Alberto R. Gonzales, the former attorney general, and other government officials or intelligence officers who could face legal liability over their roles in interrogations, surveillance or other Bush administration policies.

Hundreds of other defendants convicted of garden-variety crimes have petitioned for leniency, seeking to shorten prison sentences their advocates see as excessive. But in the end, Mr. Bush used his clemency power to aid only Mr. Ramos and Mr. Compean. He leaves office having granted 200 pardons and commutations, the fewest of any two-term president in modern times.

"I was shocked when I heard this was the only one," said Margaret Colgate Love, a former Justice Department pardon lawyer who represents about 20 imprisoned clients who were seeking clemency. "There are a lot of disappointed lawyers in this town today.""

I'll bet.

Atrios thinks that if Bush does not pardon any members of his administration, it's because "Pardoning the people below him would remove any 5th amendment reasons to not testify, and Bush has never shown much sign of giving a sh*t about other people." (Not Atrios' asterisk.) Myself, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that pardoning anyone in his administration would involve explicitly recognizing that they might require pardons. Bush is not big on admitting that sort of thing.

Whatever the reason, though, I'm glad.

Hilzoy 10:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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

* Over the weekend, Israel declared a cease fire to its three-week offensive in Gaza. Hamas, in response, declared a week-long truce, purportedly the time it should take for Israeli troops to withdraw from Gaza.

* On a related note, the Washington Post notes an uncomfortable truth about the break in the violence: neither Israel nor Hamas "made any concessions, except to stop fighting temporarily."

* On "Oprah," Jill Biden said Joe Biden was offered either the V.P. slot of the Secretary of State job. The soon-to-be vice president responded, "Shhhh."

* The Rev. Gene Robinson's invocation yesterday wasn't televised on HBO, but the inaugural committee will rebroadcast it tomorrow on the Mall.

* Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell may be Obama's special envoy to the Middle East.

* Paul Krugman responds to dumb Wall Street Journal editorials so we don't have to.

* There are no doubt multiple factors at play, but this fiscal year has been great for military recruiting, "with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004."

* Senate Republicans can't defeat Hilda Solis' nomination for Labor Secretary, but they apparently plan to slow it down an awful lot.

* The drop in interest rates has had "an unplanned and severe effect on legal aid societies, which depend heavily on revenues that are tied to the federal funds rate." As a result, "Scores of legal aid societies that help poor people with noncriminal cases -- like disputes over foreclosures, evictions and eligibility for unemployment benefits -- are being forced to cut their staffs and services, even as requests for help have soared." (thanks to T.D. for the tip)

* It looks like Obama's OLC is going to be terrific.

* It's a good thing Matthew Weiner and Lionsgate TV worked out a new two-year deal. "Mad Men" without Weiner at the helm would have been a serious problem.

* Sean Hannity blamed last week's emergency landing on the Hudson on Chuck Schumer and bird-lovers. It was, of course, further evidence that Hannity is a parody of himself.

* And finally, it appears that the Bush gang will resist the urge to remove the "O's" from White House keyboards. Given this, it's probably worth mentioning that in 2002, a review by the General Accounting Office found that "while there were some pranks that caused minor damage to White House property, reports of widespread vandalism by outgoing Clinton officials had been exaggerated."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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KRISTOL'S CONTRACT?.... It's Monday, so Bill Kristol has another New York Times column today. The gist of it is that he'd like to see Barack Obama embrace Bush's policies in Iraq. Natch.

But reading the column, it occurred to me that there's been very little news of late about Kristol's employment status with the paper of record. As I recall, it was January 2008 when Kristol signed a one-year contract. It's January 2009. So why is Kristol still there?

Greg Mitchell had an item on this back on December 29.

Exactly one year ago this weekend the Huffington Post broke the news that, as Jim Morrison might have put it, the Kristol Ship was about to sail at The New York Times. Much uproar ensued across the blogosphere. Some pointed out Kristol's call for the paper to be prosecuted, on Fox News in 2006, after its big banking records scoop: "I think it is an open question whether the Times itself should be prosecuted for this totally gratuitous revealing of an ongoing secret classified program that is part of the war on terror."

A day after the Huffington Post reported it, the Times announced that it had indeed hired the conservative pundit as a new weekly op-ed columnist, on a one-year contract. [...]

[The paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote a year ago]: "This is a decision I would not have made. But it is not the end of the world. Everyone should take a deep breath and calm down.... If Kristol is another [William] Safire, he has the chance to prove it. If not, he and the newspaper will move on, and the search will resume."

Now, a year later, the Times indeed has a chance to "move on."

And since then, nothing. There's been no news about Kristol getting a new contract, being denied a new contract, or the search for a new addition to the Times' stable of columnists.

Has anyone heard anything? I've long assumed that Kristol, after a year of errors of fact and judgment, would receive a polite call from the publishers, explaining that the paper has decided to go "in a different direction." But at this point, there haven't been any reports either way.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Hilzoy

Irony Is Dead

Yesterday, various bloggers, including Steve, posted a wonderful YouTube video of Pete Seeger singing 'This Land Is Your Land'. I hope you watched it then, since it's no longer available: HBO has taken it down (h/t). If you click the video, you get the following message:

"This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Home Box Office, Inc."

As Steve noted, Seeger included the two "radical" verses, which are often omitted. I think that Seeger et al changed the words somewhat in the performance, but guess what? I can't check. Here's the original version:

As I was walkin' -- I saw a sign there

And that sign said No Trespassin'

But on the other side it didn't say nothin!

Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city -- in the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office I see my people

And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'

If this land's still made for you and me.

Whatever you might think about No Trespassin' signs generally, it's a bit much to put them on video of a concert put on for the people, to celebrate our new President and our country. But putting them on this song in particular?

Irony is dead.

Hilzoy 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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TAKING PROGRESSIVE NEW MEDIA TO THE NEXT LEVEL.... As you may have heard, Matt Cooper has joined Josh Marshall's TPM team, and will help cover the Obama administration for the new site, TPMDC. I think this is great, for a variety of reasons.

First, I was the weekend guy at TPM for six months in 2007, and I'm delighted to see the TPM powerhouse continue to grow and expand. Second, Matt Cooper started his career in journalism right here at the Washington Monthly, and we're always delighted to see the magazine's alumni do so well.

And third, today's TPM announcement reinforced a point we've been kicking around for a few weeks. The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, who used to also blog for the McCain campaign, recently complained that the right lacked an "equivalent outlet" to offer TPM-like reporting. To revive the Republican Party, Goldfarb said, conservatives will need "the kind of online infrastructure the Democrats now have in place."

Responding to this, Matt Yglesias explained, "The issue ... isn't that the right doesn't have an outlet equivalent to TPM or other progressive sites. There are tons and tons of conservative media outlets, most of them with a web presence.... What the right lacks are people with the skill to do the job."

To that end, two major new media outlets have each made a major hire in recent weeks.

* TPM Media hired Matt Cooper, a 20-year veteran of political journalism and former White House correspondent for Time, to be a Washington correspondent.

* Pajamas Media hired Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, an unemployed, unlicensed plumber, to be a war correspondent in Israel.

"What the right lacks are people with the skill to do the job."

When conservatives wonder why the left seems to enjoy a new-media advantage, this should be a helpful hint.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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ANOTHER MISTAKE AT GUANTANAMO.... Describing the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Dick Cheney said last week, "[N]ow what's left, that is the hardcore." This is consistent with the line from the Bush White House, which has always maintained that those held at the facility are "the worst of the worst."

And yet, there's ample evidence to the contrary. Since November, at least 24 detainees -- roughly 10% of the population of the detention camp -- have been found to have been wrongly held by the Bush administration. The latest painful story is that of Haji Bismullah.

For nearly six years, Haji Bismullah, an Afghan detainee at Guantanamo Bay, has insisted that he was no terrorist, but had actually fought the Taliban and had later been part of the pro-American Afghan government.

Over the weekend, the Bush administration flew him home after a military panel concluded that he "should no longer be deemed an enemy combatant."

Which is to say, Bismullah hadn't done anything wrong. He was identified as a terrorist by Taliban collaborators who wanted his position as an official of the pro-American regional government in Helmand Province, and that was enough to keep him locked up. (Once taken into custody, one of his accusers stole his car.)

It gets worse.

At Guantanamo, Mr. Bismullah insisted he was innocent. He told military officials to contact his brother to vouch for him. The officials concluded that the brother was "not reasonably available" as a witness. At the time the brother, Haji Mohammad Wali, was the chief spokesman for a pro-American provisional governor who regularly gave news conferences, legal filings say.

In 2006, the brother filed a sworn statement with Guantanamo officials. Mr. Bismullah and his whole family, he wrote, "fought to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan."

Mr. Bismullah, he added, had a wife and three children, including a son born while he was in Guantanamo. "The boy," he wrote, "has never seen his father."

The United States kept this man detained for nearly six years. He was on our side, a fact that our allies were prepared to corroborate -- and did corroborate in 2006.

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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RAMOS AND COMPEAN.... I knew we'd see more pardons.

President George W. Bush has commuted the prison sentences of two former Border Patrol guards whose convictions for shooting a Mexican drug dealer ignited debate about illegal immigration.

Bush's act of clemency on Monday for Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean was a victory for Democratic and Republican members of Congress and others who pleaded with the president to pardon the men or at least commute their sentences.

Ramos and Compean are each serving sentences of more than 10 years for shooting an unarmed illegal immigrant as he was fleeing an abandoned marijuana load in 2005, then trying to cover it up.

Of all of Bush's end-of-presidency clemency decisions, this is easily the biggest.

As Dafna Linzer explained a while back, Ramos and Compean "are serving sentences of 11 and 12 years, respectively, for the nonfatal shooting in the back of an unarmed Mexican drug runner in February 2005. A jury found the two border patrolmen then tried to cover up the shooting."

Slowly but surely, the two became a cause celebre of sorts for several members of Congress, conservative media figures like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, conservative news outlets, and conservatives groups (including the John Birch Society).

This is not to say it was entirely a partisan matter. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for example, reportedly contacted the White House about this matter, in support of clemency, but the reaction today will probably be the loudest on the right, and the response will be very positive.

Update: Alex Koppelman, who knows a lot more about the Ramos/Compean controversy than I do, has an item that's worth checking out. Also, be sure to read Alex's 2007 article about the case.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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FOX NEWS BRACES ITSELF FOR CHANGE.... Over the last eight years, Fox News has had it pretty good with a very friendly White House. Not only would Fox News get access and interview opportunities, but the president wanted Fox News aired on Air Force One, and the vice president mandated that every hotel room he stayed in had its televisions already tuned to Fox News (lest he briefly be exposed to another news outlet).

In about 23 hours, that access is going to change quite a bit. Is the Republican network worried about its future? On the contrary, Fox News "seems re-energized," and some of the network's "prominent conservative hosts seem invigorated about being back on offense."

Even some of Fox's vocal critics think that Fox will thrive in the coming years. "Fox is in a much better position with a liberalish Democrat in the White House than they were with a Republican," said Eric Alterman, the media columnist for The Nation magazine.

He contends that Fox sells a simple message to its audience. "The things that Obama faces are very complicated and very large, and a lot of things are going to go wrong, especially with the spending levels we're seeing," he said. "There's going to be a lot of things that you can point your finger at and say, 'Yeah, we were right,' " he said, referring to critics of Mr. Obama.

"That's a much simpler thing for them to do," Mr. Alterman added, "than to defend a failed war and a failed president."

I think that's exactly right. Fox News is geared up to cater to its audience -- Alan Colmes is gone; Glenn Beck has joined the team; Mike Huckabee has his own show; and Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Roger Ailes have all signed new contracts that will keep them on through the end of Obama's first term.

Of course they're "re-energized." Rich Lowry recently noted, "People get ginned up when the other side is in power," and pointed to the fact that the National Review's circulation increased to 280,000 during the first two years of the Clinton administration, up from 150,000.

Fox News no doubt expects to take advantage of a similar trend, and it's probably right. There's a not-insignificant number of people in the country who are saying, "Tell us why Obama's wrong." It's a group of folks who need a cable network, and Fox News will fill the niche.

John Moody, executive vice president for news editorial, disagreed with the notion of Fox as a voice of the opposition to Mr. Obama. He said that the network's news correspondents would cover Mr. Obama objectively, just as they had Mr. Bush.

Sure, John, tell us another one.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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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.

* Wondering when New York's Senate vacancy will be filled? Gov. David Paterson said to expect an announcement within two or three days of Hillary Clinton's confirmation.

* Five years ago, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ken.) won re-election despite odd and erratic personal behavior. Now, a year before another re-election fight, Bunning is acting strangely again, including not having shown up yet for the 111th Congress. The Louisville Courier-Journal tracked him down, but he would not explain why he hasn't appeared on the Hill alongside his colleagues.

* Democratic state Senator Dan Gelber will run for the open U.S. Senate race in Florida next year. U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), the only Democrat in Congress to endorse Bush's Social Security privatization scheme, is also considering the race and is "very close to a decision."

* On a related note, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) -- the son and grandson of senators, and great-grandson and great-great grandson of congressmen -- is also eyeing Florida's open Senate race next year, and has received "very positive feedback from a lot of big money players all around the state."

* Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) only served one term before retiring from Congress, but he's not quite done with politics. Dayton is apparently preparing to run for governor in 2010.

* And in my adopted home state of Vermont, there's no real indication that Gov. Jim Douglas (R) plans to challenge Sen. Pat Leahy (D) next year, but a Research 2000 poll should discourage Douglas from even thinking about it -- Leahy leads in a hypothetical match-up by 22 points.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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RECOMMENDED READING FOR OBAMA.... Following up on this morning's item, the Washington Monthly has a feature in our new issue with book recommendations for the new president from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. Here's the first two from our list.

Reza Aslan:

Mr. President, if you are serious about negotiating with Iran, you need a guidebook on Iranian culture so that you can tell when "yes" means "no," when "no" means "maybe," and when "Death to America!" means "Please, let's talk." May I suggest The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, by Hooman Majd? An Iranian American who lives in the States and has advised and translated for both current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former President Muhammad Khatami, Majd has written perhaps the best book on contemporary Iranian culture and all of its complexities and contradictions. Don't go to Tehran without it.

Andrew J. Bacevich:

Barack Obama has identified Reinhold Niebuhr as "one of my favorite philosophers" and is familiar with the great Protestant theologian's various writings. Yet as Obama assumes the mantle of Most Powerful Man in the World, Niebuhr's Irony of American History is one volume that deserves a careful second reading.

Published in 1952, when the Cold War was at its frostiest and Americans were still coming to terms with what it meant to exercise global leadership, Irony called attention to a series of illusions to which Niebuhr believed his countrymen and their political leaders were peculiarly susceptible. To persist in those illusions, he warned, was to court political and moral catastrophe. History, he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." To imagine that history can be coerced toward some predetermined destination represents the height of folly.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989, those very same illusions -- now expressed through self-congratulatory claims that the end of history had elevated the United States to the status of indispensable nation called upon to exercise benign global hegemony -- gained a rebirth. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush embraced those illusions and made them the foundation of his global war on terror. The catastrophes that ensued testify eloquently to the enduring relevance of the warnings that Niebuhr had issued a half century earlier.

To correct the errors of the Bush era will require that Obama repudiate the illusions that gave rise to those errors in the first place. In that regard, Irony should serve as an essential text. A first rule of statecraft, Niebuhr writes, is to nurture a "modest awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and power." Modesty doesn't imply passivity. It does mean curbing the inclination to portray our adversaries as evil incarnate while insisting that we ourselves are innocent and our purposes altruistic.

Niebuhr observed that "the pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power." After eight years that gave us Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and waterboarding, our pretensions of virtue look a bit worse for wear. The imperative of the moment is to manifest "a sense of contrition about the human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy's demonry and our own vanities."


Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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PLEA FOR STEVENS.... I've been keeping a close eye on the pardon issue, wondering who, if anyone, will get 11th-hour clemency from George W. Bush. He has 25 hours to go, and on Thursday, Dana Perino was a little vague about whether the president had any additional pardons in mind.

The lobbying, meanwhile, continues. Some in the conservative media are still pushing for a Scooter Libby pardon, and at least one Republican senator is urging Bush to help Ted Stevens.

CBS News has confirmed that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has asked President Bush to pardon Ted Stevens, the former Alaska senator from charged with several felony counts by a federal jury in 2008.

Murkowski's spokesperson, Mike Brumas spoke to CBS News' Ryan Corsaro by phone, saying that Sen. Murkowski had made the request to President Bush, but would not give details.

"It's a sensitive time right now," said Brumas after confirming the pardon had been requested. Murkowski does not have an announcement scheduled for tomorrow.

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether Bush will actually act on Stevens' case, but I'm skeptical. Stevens was convicted on seven felony counts of corruption, was thrown out of office by his constituents, and left the Senate in disgrace. If Bush is mindful of his "legacy," does he really want his last act as president to be a "get out of jail free" card to a politician who flagrantly violated the public trust?

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

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OBAMA ON STEM-CELL POLICY.... The headline on the Politico homepage might give readers the wrong idea: "Obama may not lift stem cell limits." Since Obama made clear throughout the campaign that he would reverse Bush's restrictions on stem-cell research, this sounded rather alarming.

What Obama actually indicated is that he'd lift Bush's limits on the research, but by signing bipartisan legislation passed by Congress, rather than using an executive order.

"Well, if we can do something legislative then I usually prefer a legislative process because those are the people's representatives," Obama said in a CNN interview. "And I think that on embryonic stem cell research, the fact that you have a bipartisan support around that issue, the fact that you have Republicans like Orrin Hatch who are fierce opponents of abortion and yet recognize that there is a moral and ethical mechanism to ensure that people with Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's can actually find potentially some hope out there, you know, I think that sends a powerful message.

"So we're still examining what things we'll do through executive order," Obama continued. "But I like the idea of the American people's representatives expressing their views on an issue like this."

On a philosophical level, this approach is not without merit. If there's large, bipartisan majorities in both chambers in support of a policy like this, then it makes sense for a president to make the change through the legislative process. It brings added legitimacy, and a broader buy-in.

But on a practical level, we can only hope Congress moves quickly. The scientific community is fired up and ready to go, waiting for Bush's restrictions to finally end. Terry Devitt, the director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin, which runs the U.W. Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, recently said, "The [Bush] policy has set research back five to six to seven years in this country."

Congress should have no trouble passing the DeGette/Castle bill that Bush vetoed twice. The sooner they get the bill to Obama's desk, the better.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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OBAMA, MCCAIN, AND 'GOOD BLOOD'.... Mark Kleiman noted last night, "Turns out our guy isn't a sore winner." Apparently not.

Not long after Senator John McCain returned last month from an official trip to Iraq and Pakistan, he received a phone call from President-elect Barack Obama.

As contenders for the presidency, the two had hammered each other for much of 2008 over their conflicting approaches to foreign policy, especially in Iraq. (He'd lose a war! He'd stay a hundred years!) Now, however, Mr. Obama said he wanted Mr. McCain's advice, people in each camp briefed on the conversation said. What did he see on the trip? What did he learn?

It was just one step in a post-election courtship that historians say has few modern parallels, beginning with a private meeting in Mr. Obama's transition office in Chicago just two weeks after the vote. On Monday night, Mr. McCain will be the guest of honor at a black-tie dinner celebrating Mr. Obama's inauguration. [...]

Fred I. Greenstein, emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, said: "I don't think there is a precedent for this. Sometimes there is bad blood, sometimes there is so-so blood, but rarely is there good blood."

There may be some strategy behind this. Obama will likely want to forge working relationships with at least some Senate Republicans to help move his agenda. McCain, if one of his previous personas reemerges, may be one of the "swing" votes in the GOP caucus, and Obama's outreach may want to take advantage of McCain's "independent" streak.

Specifically, Obama has apparently approached McCain on collaborating on issues where they share common ground, "including a commission to cut 'corporate welfare,' curbing waste in military procurement and an overhaul of immigration rules."

That middle one is of particular interest, since McCain talked quite a bit during the campaign about wanting to cut defense spending. If McCain works with the Obama White House, it will offer the soon-to-be president some serious partisan cover on the issue.

There's no modern precedent for this kind of connection between a president and the candidate he defeated, but I guess it's all part of Obama's pledge to change the way business is done in Washington.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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GENE ROBINSON.... Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson delivered quite an invocation yesterday, to help kick off Barack Obama's inaugural festivities. Calling on a "God of our many understandings" to bless the country, the American people, and our incoming president, Robinson said:

"Bless us with tears -- for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

"Bless us with anger -- at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."

I'm going to guess that this was the first invocation at an inaugural event to cover this specific ground. Good for Robinson.

As for his prayer to a "God of our many understandings," Robinson said that was entirely deliberate. He told the Union Leader that he'd researched previous inaugural invocations and prayers and found them to be "aggressively Christian." He preferred a more inclusive route: "All I could think about when I read them was, 'My goodness, what does a Jew think hearing this? What does a Muslim think? What does a Sikh or a Hindu think?' Having been not included, as a gay man, in so many instances, the last thing I want to do is exclude any American from this."

I didn't see it, but Digby added, "I just saw Obama hug Bishop Robinson at the Lincoln Memorial and it did my heart good." Indeed.

And speaking of not seeing things, apparently, HBO's broadcast of the event at the Lincoln Memorial began after Robinson's invocation, so the national audience couldn't watch it. One of the attendees got a pretty good recording of it, however, and it's online, as is the transcript.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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INAUGURAL COSTS.... This week, inaugural festivities are a pretty big deal -- in D.C., throughout the country, and even around the world -- but it appears some news outlets have found a way to find fault with the celebration.

The AP, for example, reported, "Unemployment is up. The stock market is down. Let's party. The price tag for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration gala is expected to break records, with some estimates reaching as high as $150 million."

Indeed, the costs associated with the multi-day event are apparently of considerable interest. In addition to the AP, Yahoo News reported, "As the recession continues to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy and inauguration celebrations ramp up, a lot of people are asking: 'How much will this shindig cost?'" It didn't say who the "people" are who are asking, but it went on to say Obama's inauguration is "the most expensive ever," and costs more than triple Bush's 2005 inauguration. MSNBC's Tamron Hall followed suit, telling viewers that Obama's inauguration festivities are "estimated to reach as high as $150 million," while "[i]n 2004, to note, the inauguration of George W. Bush cost roughly $40 million."

Eric Boehlert set the record straight, explaining, "[T]he Obama figure of $160 million that got repeated in the press included security costs associated with the massive event. But the Bush tab of $42 million left out those enormous costs. Talk about stacking the deck."

...For years, the press routinely referred to the cost of presidential inaugurations by calculating how much money was spent on the swearing-in and the social activities surrounding that. The cost of the inauguration's security was virtually never factored into the final tab, as reported by the press. [...]

For decades, that represented the norm in terms of calculating inauguration costs: Federal dollars spent on security were not part of the commonly referred-to cost. (The cost of Obama's inauguration, minus the security costs? Approximately $45 million.) What's happening this year: The cost of the Obama inauguration and the cost of the security are being combined by some in order to come up with the much larger tab. Then, that number is being compared with the cost of the Bush inauguration in 2005, minus the money spent on security.

In other words, it's the unsubstantiated Obama cost of $160 million (inauguration + security) compared with the Bush cost of 42 million (inauguration, excluding security). Those are two completely different calculations being compared side-by-side, by Fox & Friends, among others, to support the phony claim that Obama's inauguration is $100 million more expensive than Bush's.

So, how much did Bush's 2005 inauguration actually cost, using the standard the media is applying to Obama? Boehlert crunched the numbers and came up with a total of $157 million.

Now, truth be told, I don't much care which president's inauguration came with a bigger price tag. The evidence suggests Bush's and Obama's will end up costing about the same.

What I do care about is a misleading drive on the part of a lot of news outlets to characterize Obama as some kind of extravagant spendthrift, insensitive to the plight of struggling American families. It's total nonsense.

Something to keep in mind as this story makes the rounds.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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OBAMA'S READING LIST.... Barack Obama, it is safe to say, likes books more than his predecessor did. We know that much because he has written a couple of good ones -- most notably, the well-received memoir Dreams From My Father, which launched him into the public sphere as a writer before his political career began -- and because it is not a news event when he reads one, as it was when George W. Bush announced that he intended to thumb through Camus's The Stranger on his summer vacation two years ago.

A president who is a serious reader is of course likely to be shaped by what he reads, and we know a bit about what has been on Obama's list so far. From interviews, we know that Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls made an impression on him as a young man. His campaign reading list -- or at least the books he chose to be seen with on the trail -- included Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment, Larry Bartels's Unequal Democracy, Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. And we know that, at least in the case of the latter book, Obama's choice of reading has already had some impact on his governing choices (or at least on how pundits frame them on the Sunday-morning talk shows).

So in the hope that he's willing to take a few more reading assignments, we asked a few of our favorite writers and thinkers to offer their suggestions on what the new president should have by his bedside. These writers and thinkers include: Reza Aslan, Andrew Bacevich, Jacques Barzun, Alan Brinkley, Steve Coll, Debra Dickerson, James Fallows, Joel Garreau, Nathan Glazer, Jeff Greenfield, David Ignatius, John Judis, Rachel Maddow, Joe Nocera, George Pelecanos, Jim Pinkerton, Walter Shapiro, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Ron Suskind.

Their recommendations, in the upcoming January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, can be read here

(the original text has been substituted by this slightly longer item)

Steve Benen 5:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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January 18, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Eternal Recurrence

The Nation has republished an editorial from just before the inauguration of FDR in 1933, called 'A Farewell To Republicans' (h/t). Except for the absence of any mention of Iraq or global warming, it's downright scary how apt it is today:

"For twelve years the Republican Party has been in power. During ten of those years it controlled the executive and legislative branches of the government. When, a few years hence, an attempt is made to minimize the disaster of this last quadrennium, and to point to a preceding eight year period of material development and growth, let it be noted that in a purely material sense the American people are much worse off today than they were twelve years ago. Far more than was gained has been swept away. Savings have been dissipated, lives have been blasted, families disintegrated. Misery and insecurity exist to a degree unprecedented in our national life. And spiritually the American people have been debauched by the materialism which made dollar-chasing the accepted way of life and accumulation of riches the goal of earthly existence. The record of Republicanism must be judged as a whole, although, in fairness, the consequences of the World War and the major responsibility of the Democrats for putting the United States into it must not be forgotten. (...) Moreover, economic disaster has been only a part of this sterile decade's legacy, the burdens of which will descend to unborn generations. Our worthiest traditions have been impaired; vital tenets of American life have been destroyed. What has become of that fundamental American axiom "salvation by work"? In all our previous history it has been taken for granted that ours was a land of opportunity, and that rewards bore some relation to initiative, effort, and ability. Granting the large mythical content of these beliefs, they were more nearly valid in America in the first century and a half of our national existence than anywhere else on earth. They are no longer true today. The promise of American life has been shattered -- possibly beyond repair. (...)

Behind the Administration facade, capped by the genial and banal Harding, the insignificant Coolidge, and the erstwhile superman, Hoover, have been the real rulers of America [ed.: there follows a long list.] It was a Grand Old Party -- for them -- while it lasted. Makers and beneficiaries of our politico-economic system, these are the men whose failure is now written large in the towering empty edifices that scrape the New York sky, in the hundreds of thousands of "For sale" and "To let" signs which adorn our cities, in the closed banks, in the foreclosed farms, in the whole picture of devastation which has come under their rule.

Have these captains and kings departed -- not to return? The epoch of their wanton and repulsive leadership is ending. Their incompetence and their betrayal are manifest. But much of the evil they have done lives after them. The coming years will see the struggle to purge America, to reassert the promise of American life, to validate, in consonance with the changed times and conditions, the high aspirations of the founders of the nation. Mr. Roosevelt has the opportunity to be the leader of this renaissance, but he will have to forge as his instrument a wholly different Democratic Party from that which so long has been indistinguishable from the Republican."

Plus ca change...

(Though, like Ed Kilgore, I don't think we'll have too much trouble telling Democrats apart from Republicans in the years to come.)

Hilzoy 11:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Hilzoy

Day Of Service

Barack Obama has asked people to spend tomorrow doing something to serve their communities, and he has set up a website designed to make it easy to find ways to do this. It's actually quite wonderful. Anyone can create an event, so in addition to some things one might expect -- opportunities to volunteer at soup kitchens, visit hospital patients, read to school kids, and so forth -- there are some wondrous things. When I checked my area, I found people who do not seem to be affiliated with any organization, but who seem to have just decided that now would be a good time to pick up some trash; an "Adopt A Storm Drain" event, which I would never have thought of, but which sounds quite useful; a few events that are a bit underdescribed; as well as "Prayer for God devine intervention".

Similarly, the email I got about his visit to Baltimore said:

"To attend, we ask only one thing: please deliver a can of food to a drop off location at Camden Yards. We will deliver the cans to a Baltimore food bank. It's a simple act that will do a lot of good for someone in the community."

I'm really happy to see Obama use his list to make it easier for people to get involved in community service, and even happier that its events are not just submitted by a list of pre-approved charitable organizations (though such organizations are there), but can be, and have been, created by ordinary people. This is one of the things I found most innovative about his campaign: the way in which it seemed to be quite specifically crafted to make it easier for people to form relationships that transcended the Obama campaign, and to genuinely empower his volunteers.

I'm also happy that there does not seem to be anything partisan about it, except for the fact that it's Barack Obama who's asking. Some things ought to be affiliated with a political party, but serving others should not be among them.

If any of you are planning on joining in, feel free to say how in the comments.

Hilzoy 10:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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A CHANGE IS GONNA COME.... There have been some performances at the opening inaugural celebration tonight that have been nothing short of beautiful, but I've always been partial to Sam Cooke.

And how about 89-year-old Pete Seeger doing "This Land Is Your Land," including the "radical" verses that we don't usually hear?

If you've missed any of the performances, HBO and HBO Online are airing (and will re-broadcast) the whole thing, even for non-subscribers.

Update: Oh, never mind. I should have known that HBO would want to restrict free access to a public event on public property, which had been aired, for free, on national television.

Steve Benen 8:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Hilzoy

Fanboyz

I gather there are football games today. Apparently, one of them even involves my hometown team. Buildings all over Baltimore are illuminated in purple. But we haven't gone as far as the mayor of Pittsburgh (h/t):

"In light of the big Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens matchup this weekend, mayor Luke R. Ravenstahl has officially changed his name to Luke R. Steelerstahl. The change is only temporary, but he's gone so far as to change the nameplate on his office door. He said he wants to "eliminate the Ravens just as the Steelers will on Sunday.""

Delightful quirkiness, abject pandering, or evidence of mental illness? And did he pay for the replacement nameplate himself, or ask the citizens of Pittsburgh to foot the bill? If he lived in San Francisco, would he have changed his name to 49erstahl? Questions, questions...

Hilzoy 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Hilzoy

Flashback

Steve already noted the NYT report that Obama will meet with military commanders on his first day in office. On This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked David Axelrod whether, in this meeting, Obama would ask those officers to come up with a plan to withdraw US combat forces in Iraq within sixteen months. Axelrod said, simply: "Yes."

This should not be surprising in view of the fact that Obama has consistently promised to do exactly this. However, it's worth recalling the flap that occurred last July when Obama said: "When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

To my ear, this just sounded as though Obama was saying: my goal is to withdraw our troops as quickly as possible. But of course I will consult with the commanders on the ground about exactly how this should happen. Which is to say: no big deal. But lots of people thought it meant that Obama was changing his position on Iraq in some fundamental way. My favorite moment from the whole brouhaha came on ABC's This Week (July 6, transcript via Lexis/Nexis):

"GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mark Halperin, I think it was on Thursday or Friday, you said that this apparent shift by Barack Obama, he denies it was one, is one of the biggest things to happen in the campaign.

MARK HALPERIN: So far."

Imagine: this utter non-story, which existed only in the minds of people like Mark Halperin, was one of the biggest things to have happened in the campaign -- a campaign which had included, for instance, Obama's speech on race, his fantastic organization, his string of caucus victories, and the fact that an African-American candidate had won a whole lot of states with very small black populations.

And it wasn't just Halperin: on that show alone, Ted Koppel claimed that Obama had "come to realize" that we have to keep troops in Iraq because it produces so much oil, and that we were "still going to have 80,000 to 100,000 troops in there three to five years from now." Michelle Cottle of TNR said:

"I think there's no question, I don't think any of the candidates that we were looking at, you know, Hillary or Obama or McCain ever intended to pull them all out to the degree that we were talking about. Now, it's general election time, he has to shift his emphasis."

And that was just one show.

Every single person on it agreed, first, that Obama was genuinely shifting his position on Iraq; second, that his protestations to the contrary were just meant to soothe his base; third, that he had never meant what he said in the first place, and fourth, that the reason for this was that it was just so obvious that we couldn't possibly withdraw all our combat troops from Iraq.

I mean: all the serious people said so. So how could Obama disagree?

We badly, badly need a new group of commentators on TV, or at least a ban on appearances by Mark Halperin and anyone else who just makes stuff up and then proclaims it the most significant development in the campaign to date.

Hilzoy 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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CHAVEZ CAN'T HELP HIMSELF.... Hugo Chavez's anti-American attitudes frequently led him to make an ass out of himself during Bush's two terms. And while most of the world seems encouraged by the change in U.S. administrations, Chavez's self-inflicted embarrassment continues.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Saturday Barack Obama had the "stench" of his predecessor as U.S. president and was at risk of being killed if he tries to change the American "empire." [...]

Chavez said frayed ties with Washington were unlikely to improve despite the departure of Bush, who the Venezuelan leader has often called the "devil."

"I hope I am wrong, but I believe Obama brings the same stench, to not say another word," Chavez said at a political rally on a historic Venezuelan battlefield.

"If Obama as president of the United States does not obey the orders of the empire, they will kill him, like they killed Kennedy, like they killed Martin Luther King, or Lincoln, who freed the blacks and paid with his life."

Most heads of state, even from rival nations, seem to be looking forward to improved relations with the United States in the coming years. Chavez, meanwhile, seems to believe his political survival is dependent on antagonizing an enemy, even if that means taking rhetorical shots at a popular incoming U.S. president.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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A DEEP WELL OF PUBLIC SUPPORT.... Atrios noted this morning, "I continue to be surprised by Obama's approval/popularity." I've been thinking the same thing. Obama won on election day with about 53% of the popular vote, and it stood to reason that his numbers would climb as Inauguration Day approached, but an 84% approval rating? That's pretty extraordinary.

A new national poll suggests that Barack Obama is more popular than ever, regardless of recent speed bumps on the road to transition.

The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Sunday morning also indicates that most Americans see Obama's inauguration as a chance for the nation to come together.

Eighty-four percent of those questioned in the survey say they approve of how Barack Obama is handling his presidential transition.

In early December, the same CNN poll pegged Obama's support at 79%. It led analyst Bill Schneider to note, "That's the sort of rating you see when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster." A few weeks later, the number climbed to 82%. Now, it's 84%.

CNN Polling Director Keating Holland noted, "You know the country is in the middle of a honeymoon when six in 10 Republicans have a positive view of Obama."

All of this is certain 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.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PELOSI ON BYGONES.... There's been some discussion of late over whether alleged Bush administration crimes should be investigated after Barack Obama takes office. Speaker Pelosi made her opinion clear this morning on Fox News.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants an investigation into whether the Bush administration broke the law when it fired a group of federal prosecutors.

She says that what she calls the politicizing of the Justice Department cannot go unreviewed.

House Democrats last week recommended a criminal investigation to see if administration officials broke the law in the name of national security. The report cited the interrogation of foreign detainees, warrantless wiretaps, retribution against critics, manipulation of intelligence and the fired prosecutors.

Specifically, Pelosi argued, "Past is prologue. We learn from it." Asked about the different approaches voiced by Obama and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), the Speaker added, "I don't think Mr. Obama and Mr. Conyers are that far apart. I want to see the truth come forward."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MUST BE SOMETHING ABOUT DONUTS.... In May, Dunkin' Donuts unveiled an ad featuring television personality Rachael Ray, holding a latte, standing in front of blooming trees. Ray, however, also wore a scarf, which far-right blogs said was a keffiyeh. A lot of conservatives freaked out, accused Dunkin' Donuts of promoting "the mainstreaming of violence" (as Malkin put it), and the company quickly pulled the ad.

Now, some on the right have turned their attention to Krispy Kreme.

When I first noticed blog posts talking about far-right Krispy Kreme outrage, I assumed it was about the company's promotional campaign in England this week. In honor of the Obama inauguration, the chain will offer free cafe Americanos to anyone who walks up to the counter and says, "Yes, we can!" I figured, this kind of political favoritism would generate some complaints.

But that's not quite it. Some on the right are livid about the company's innocuous-sounding press release this week:

"Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American's sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies -- just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet 'free' can be."

Sounds good. A free-donut campaign to coincide with Inauguration Day celebrations seems like a tasty promotional gesture.

But Krispy Kreme used the "c" word, and the American Life League is outraged. "The unfortunate reality of a post-Roe v. Wade America is that 'choice' is synonymous with abortion access, and celebration of 'freedom of choice' is a tacit endorsement of abortion rights on demand," the group's president, Judie Brown said in a statement. ALL added, "President-elect Barack Obama promises to be the most virulently pro-abortion president in history. Millions more children will be endangered by his radical abortion agenda. Celebrating his inauguration with "'Freedom of Choice' doughnuts -- only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion -- is not only extremely tacky, it's disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy."

The Krispy Kreme press release was almost certainly referring to the freedom to choose presidential candidates, but no matter. The far-right fringe is on hair-trigger alert these days, and I doubt this will be the last hysterical overreaction.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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BARACK OBAMA 2.0 GETS A NAME.... The LA Times reported the other day on the effort to turn Barack Obama's campaign structure into a post-election organization, taking advantage of the network and team of volunteers. Yesterday, the political operation, which boasts 13 million e-mail addresses, 4 million cellphone contacts, and 2 million active volunteers got a name and a broad mission.

"As president, I will need the help of all Americans to meet the challenges that lie ahead," Obama said in a video message e-mailed to supporters and reporters. "That's why I'm asking people like you, who fought for change during the campaign, to continue fighting for change in your communities."

The new group, called Organizing for America, will be a "special project" of the Democratic National Committee, according to Obama transition spokesman Ben LaBolt, and it appears to be the primary vehicle for issue advocacy for Obama's agenda. It will also be the keeper of Obama's e-mail list, which has 13 million addresses. [...]

The unveiling of Organizing for America came after months of consultation with the grass-roots network built by Obama during the campaign; more than 500,000 online surveys seeking guidance were filled out, and the group was created out of those recommendations. [...]

By keeping Organizing for America within the DNC, and running it with a small handful of campaign operatives, Obama is ensuring that the political machine, and political brand, he built during the campaign are preserved and protected over the coming years.

Marc Ambinder noted that Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, Jeremy Bird, and Mitch Stewart, all aides from the Obama campaign, will form the "triumvirate at the head of this new behemoth." (Also note, O'Malley Dillon will be the DNC's executive director, running the national party offices day to day.) Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is reportedly going to play a significant role in OFA.

Obama's message on the organization didn't go into too many details -- he talked about "building on the movement" and "fighting for change" -- but if the new organization can take full advantage of the grassroots political machine that was crafted throughout the presidential campaign, it's going to be a powerful tool for activism -- whether Congress likes it or not.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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GOP DIVERSITY.... Granted, it's inside-pool, but the Senate Republican caucus announced its Whip team the other day, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) boast about its members struck me as odd.

Kyl, as Minority Whip, is the #2 person in the Republican leadership, and he introduced Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) as his Chief Deputy Whip. The other Deputy Whips are Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and David Vitter (La.).

Kyl couldn't be more pleased.

"I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the whip team I've assembled. Not only do the members represent the diversity within the Republican Conference, but each brings critical skills that will help our leadership develop the successful strategies needed for the session ahead," Kyl said in a statement.

Hmm. The Senate Republican Whip team has seven members. Six of the seven are staunch conservative white men, and four of the seven are staunch conservative white men from the Deep South.

This "represents the diversity within the Republican Conference"? Come to think of it, I suppose it does.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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IRAQ ENDGAME.... During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama had a standard line in his stump speech about the war in Iraq: ''I intend to end this war. My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war responsibly and deliberately but decisively.''

If we count Wednesday as his first full day in office, it's a pledge the new president apparently intends to keep.

On his first full day as president, Barack Obama will meet with high-ranking military officers to discuss the Iraq war, a conflict he has vowed to end after six years of fighting, a top adviser to Obama said Saturday.

Wednesday's meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military commanders and aides will fulfill a key campaign promise and bring the war back to the political forefront after months of being overshadowed by the economy. [...]

The Obama adviser, who would speak Saturday only on condition of anonymity because the Wednesday meeting has not been formally announced, said the session will include several top commanders and aides in addition to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

CNN, citing two transition officials, noted the same meeting scheduled for Wednesday, and added that it "suggests the new President wants to send a signal to supporters that despite his heavy focus on the financial crisis he will also address Iraq early in the new administration."

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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NO PRESSURE.... It's not unusual for presidents to take office with a degree of public optimism, but Barack Obama will be sworn in with hopefulness that we haven't seen in a long while. To the added advantage of the incoming president, he seems to have the best of both worlds -- Americans have faith in his abilities, and at least for now, they don't expect immediate progress.

President-elect Barack Obama is riding a powerful wave of optimism into the White House, with Americans confident he can turn the economy around but prepared to give him years to deal with the crush of problems he faces starting Tuesday, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

While hopes for the new president are extraordinarily high, the poll found, expectations for what Mr. Obama will actually be able to accomplish appear to have been tempered by the scale of the nation's problems at home and abroad.

The findings suggest that Mr. Obama has achieved some success with his effort, which began with his victory speech in Chicago in November, to gird Americans for a slow economic recovery and difficult years ahead after a campaign that generated striking enthusiasm and high hopes for change.

Most Americans said they did not expect real progress in improving the economy, reforming the health care system or ending the war in Iraq -- three of the central promises of Mr. Obama's campaign -- for at least two years. The poll found that two-thirds of respondents think the recession will last two years or longer.

A total of 79% of Americans are optimistic about Obama, a "level of good will for a new chief executive that exceeds that measured for any of the past five incoming presidents." Oddly enough, even 58% of McCain voters are optimistic about the new president.

Some of this has to be the result of public disgust for the Bush presidency. A lot of Americans are no doubt hopeful about the future because Bush/Cheney won't be in the White House anymore. Indeed, looking through the poll, there's almost a mirror image -- nearly eight in 10 have an unfavorable view of Bush; nearly eight in 10 believe the nation is in worse shape than five years ago; and nearly eight in 10 believe Obama will help get the nation back on track.

That said, it's not just relief about the End of an Error at play here. The public, right now, likes and trusts Barack Obama. The goodwill and the desperate desire to see him succeed is overwhelming.

Something for congressional Republicans to think about when plotting their obstructionist tactics.

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

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By: Hilzoy

Heckuva Job

ThinkProgress had a snippet of Bush's 2000 inaugural address, and for some reason I decided to reread it. Looking back on it after eight years, it's pretty breathtaking. For instance:

"Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.

America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.

Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small.

But the stakes for America are never small. If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be led. If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism. If we permit our economy to drift and decline, the vulnerable will suffer most.

We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment."

Read this and think of Bush's response to Katrina:

"Where there is suffering, there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities. And all of us are diminished when any are hopeless."

And consider this:

"America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.

Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life not only in options, but in commitments. And we find that children and community are the commitments that set us free.

Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom.

Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone.

I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well.

In all these ways, I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times.

I completely agree. But I see no evidence at all that Bush meant a word of it. Worse, I don't see any evidence that he even understood it. Conscience and civility matter enormously. They are, as Bush said, matters of character that turn on "uncounted, unhonored acts of decency". Before Katrina, putting a talented, competent person in charge of FEMA, or making sure that the Department of Justice operated fairly before the US Attorneys scandal broke, would have been uncounted, unhonored acts of decency.

But Bush couldn't even manage honored, counted acts of decency, like not torturing people, or coming up with something resembling an honorable response when the implications of his administration's policies became clear.

He's a small, small man, who ought to have spent his life in some honorary position without responsibilities at a firm run by one of his father's friends. Instead, he ruined our country, and several others besides. He wasted eight years in which we could have been shoring up our economy, laying the groundwork for energy independence, making America a fairer and better country, and truly working to help people around the world become more free. Instead, he debased words that ought to mean something: words like honor, decency, freedom, and compassion.

To this day, I do not think he has the slightest conception of the meaning of the words he took in vain.

Sometimes, when I write things like this, people think I am trying to excuse Bush -- as though I cannot condemn him unless I take him to be a scheming leering monster. I disagree. I think that when someone who is not mentally incompetent gets to be Bush's age, if he has no conception of the meaning of honor or decency, he has no one to blame but himself. And to say of a person that he does not understand those things -- that he could stand before the nation and speak the words Bush spoke in 2000 with so little sense of what they meant that it's not clear that we should count him as lying -- is one of the worst things I think it's possible to say about a person.

Especially if you add one further point: the one and only thing that might have mitigated Bush's failings would have been for him to be sufficiently self-aware not to have assumed responsibilities he could not fulfill. Obviously, Bush did not have that kind of self-awareness. But it amazes me to this day that becoming President did not force him to recognize the nature of the responsibilities he had been given, and to try his best to live up to them. Honestly: I don't know how it's possible to become President and, not try your absolute best to appoint really competent people ('Heckuva job, Brownie!'), to ask obvious questions that people don't seem to have focussed on, like 'have we actually planned for the occupation of Iraq?', and so forth -- not to do any of those things, but instead to just go on being the same petulant lazy frat boy you've always been.

Apparently, though, it is possible. And we all get to pay the price.

PS: Special Peggy Noonan flashback:

"Mr. Bush's eyes filled with tears as he took the oath of office--quite possibly a historical first--and people have discussed why. Family redemption, old losses now avenged. Maybe. But I suspect they were the tears of a 54-year-old man who hadn't amounted to much in his first 40 years--poor student, average athlete, indifferent businessman, all of this in contrast to his father's early and easy excellence. He had struggled to find himself and his purpose; amazing and fantastic things had happened, and he had gone on to make himself a president--"Called to do great things."

I think as he stood with his hand held high he felt deep gratitude, deep love, and a hunger to do right, to actually serve and not only dominate his country."

If only.

Hilzoy 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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January 17, 2009

MAYBE HE CAN EMBELLISH HIS RESUME.... George W. Bush will join the ranks of the unemployed in about 71 hours. And while presidents often enjoy lucrative opportunities after leaving office, Daniel Gross notes that this president might have a much tougher time.

For many of President Bush's critics, the fact that he is now seeking work in the worst job market in a generation is poetic justice. As Bush noted in his farewell press conference, he is too much of a Type A for "the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach." (He might want to reconsider: Thanks to the recession, tropical resorts are running great promotions.)

Given recent history, B