Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 28, 2009

THE ROOT-FOR-FAILURE CAUCUS.... Ever since Rush Limbaugh argued that he hopes President Obama fails in office, there's been some interesting back and forth on whether conservatives should actively and publicly hope for the nation's decline.

It seems to have divided even the most radical of far-right Republicans. On the one hand, we have very conservative leaders like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and TV preacher Pat Robertson who reject such talk outright.

On the other, we have a small handful of figures willing to endorse the sentiment. Yesterday, it was former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who, when asked if he agreed with Limbaugh's remarks hoping for presidential failure, said, "Well, exactly right."

Today, ThinkProgress chatted with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and radio host Mark Levin, who joined the caucus.

TP: What do you think about what Rush said about, I mean, do you hope, should we hope that President Obama fails?

LEVIN: Yes.

TP: Yes?

SANTORUM: If ... absolutely we hope that his policies fail.... I believe his policies will fail, I don't know, but I hope they fail.

It's possible that my memory is off, but I can't recall ever hearing so many prominent political figures hoping for American leaders' failure like this, especially not in the midst of a crisis.

That it's coming from ideologues who believe they have the edge on "patriotism" -- and insist that Bush's liberal critics were guilty of "treason" -- just makes this all the more bizarre.

About a half-century ago, actor John Wayne, who was very conservative, was asked for his thoughts after JFK defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. "I didn't vote for him," Wayne said, "but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job."

It's the kind of sentiment that seemed obvious up until about, say, a month ago.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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MAYBE IT'S NOT SO 'WASTEFUL' AFTER ALL.... On Tuesday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) decried the economic stimulus package, insisting that it's "larded with wasteful spending." To bolster his case, the governor pointed to, among other things, "$8 billion for high-speed rail projects."

Some of Jindal's other examples ("something called volcano monitoring") have already been proven worthwhile, and in retrospect, the governor probably should have left out HSR, too.

Louisiana's transportation department plans to request federal dollars for a New Orleans to Baton Rouge passenger rail service from the same pot of railroad money in the president's economic stimulus package that Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized as unnecessary pork on national television Tuesday night.

The high-speed rail line, a topic of discussion for years, would require $110 million to upgrade existing freight lines and terminals to handle a passenger train operation, said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Asked about the apparent contradiction, the governor's Chief of Staff complained about the Vegas-to-Anaheim HSR project that wasn't in the stimulus package, and "did not address the Louisiana proposal."

That Jindal speech is just the gift that keeps on giving.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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OBAMA TO LOBBYISTS: BRING IT ON.... President Obama made a pitch for his budget proposal in his weekly address, and positioned himself nicely as "a threat to the status quo in Washington." The NYT described the president as casting himself as "a populist crusader willing to do battle with special interests to expand health care, curb pollution and improve education," and that sounds about right.

After touting the virtues of his plan -- on taxes, energy, healthcare, and education -- Obama acknowledged all of the many interests that aren't going to be pleased: "I know that the insurance industry won't like the idea that they'll have to bid competitively to continue offering Medicare coverage, but that's how we'll help preserve and protect Medicare and lower health care costs for American families. I know that banks and big student lenders won't like the idea that we're ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that's how we'll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable. I know that oil and gas companies won't like us ending nearly $30 billion in tax breaks, but that's how we'll help fund a renewable energy economy that will create new jobs and new industries."

And then the president's rhetoric took on a more confrontational tone: "...I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I. The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don't. I work for the American people. I didn't come here to do the same thing we've been doing or to take small steps forward, I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November."

Works for me.

The "so am I" rhetoric is less than subtle. There's going to be a fight over the direction of the country, and the president is signaling his intention to mix it up a bit. This is a different message than the one preceding the debate over the economic stimulus, and may reflect the White House's judgment that the administration was not as aggressive as it could (should?) have been in mounting a defense.

It also reinforces a subtle point from Obama's address to Congress this week, pre-emptively tackling the arguments likely to come from detractors. By characterizing his opponents -- not Republicans, but special interests -- as agents of the status quo, the president is laying the groundwork for the rest of the debate. When we hear conservative talking heads on the cable channels, we're supposed to see them as "the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business," while Obama and his allies are delivering on much-needed change.

The president seems to like his chances. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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BOEHNER RESENTS THE REPUBLICANS' 'TOUGH JOB'.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) chatted with a group of reporters this week, at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. We learned a bit more than usual about Boehner's perspective on the political landscape.

The House Minority Leader, for example, feels a little left out of the legislative process, still believes it's a "center-right country," and didn't think Bobby Jindal's speech was all that bad.

But what was especially interesting was Boehner's complaint about the appeal -- or lack thereof -- of the Republican Party's message.

Democratic policies aren't better, they're just easier to market to the American people, House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said today.

"We have a tougher job than our friends across the aisle. They've been offering Americans a free lunch for the last 80 years, rather successfully," he told reporters at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "Those of us that believe in a smaller, more accountable government, we have a tougher time making our principles relevant to the American people. But it's our challenge, and we've got to do it."

Someone's going to have to explain this one to me, because Boehner's comments appear to be backwards. Eric Kleefeld noted, for example, "Boehner voted in 2003 for the Medicare drug bill, a mega-expensive expansion of entitlement spending with no method laid out on how to pay for it."

Quite right. Isn't the notion of a "free lunch" the underlying message of the Republican Party for the last generation? The federal government can, we've been told, recklessly cut taxes, spend whatever it wants, rack up huge debts ("deficits don't matter"), put wars on the national charge card, and encourage policies that contribute to global warming. No consequences, no accountability, no questions asked.

This is especially true on the issue of taxes, since a few too many Republican policymakers strongly believe in the Tax Fairy -- the more the government cuts taxes, the more revenue the government collects. That's insane, of course, but it's also a rather obvious example of ... wait for it ... a "free lunch."

As A.L. explained, it's especially misguided for Boehner to make this argument now.

[A]s we're faced with the worst recession in 70 years -- and every reputable economist in the world is telling us to deficit spend in order to stave off disaster -- the Republican party is suddenly suggesting the Democrats are the party of free lunch. And they're doing so while still advocating for additional massive tax cuts.

There are all sorts of fair criticisms that can be leveled against the Democratic party, but the Democrats have at least attempted to grapple with the revenue side of the equation over the years. Even the classic Republican charge that Democrats are "tax and spend liberals" acknowledges this. If the Democrats were the party of free lunch, why on earth would they ever suggest raising taxes? So they can be mercilessly attacked by Republicans?

I suspect Boehner's comments were just a moment of self-pity. If Republicans are losing, it's not the result of failure, but rather, the inherent burdens of the GOP's message of frugality and budget discipline.

The only real surprise was that Boehner was able to say it with a straight face.

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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MADNESS ISN'T ENOUGH.... On Thursday, Mike Huckabee offered the CPAC faithful the kind of rhetoric they want to hear.

"The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead," said Huckabee, "but a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born." Democrats, according to Huckabee, were packing 40 years of pet projects like "health care rationing" into spending bills. "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff."

The estimable Mark Kleiman, noting the bizarre remarks, said Huckabee may be "self-destructing" as a credible national figure.

Yes, yes, the CPAC crowd is the extreme of the extreme. But in the YouTube era you can't go around mouthing this stuff and be taken seriously as a candidate for President.

I'd really love to believe that, but I don't.

A prominent conservative Republican gives a public speech in front of a large audience. He compares the Obama administration to the USSR, lies about a few policy issues, throws around the word "socialist" a bunch of times, and then throws in a reference to Lenin and Stalin. This, by any sensible measure, is absurd. It's reasonable to think candidates for national office can't get away with such pathetic nonsense.

Indeed, I suspect that if a prominent Democratic office holder, in 2005, delivered a speech referring to George W. Bush's agenda as "fascism," comparing his administration to totalitarian regimes, and casually throwing in a reference to Hitler, that Democrat would have a very difficult time being taken seriously by the political establishment moving forward. Presidential ambitions would be largely out of the question.

But I find it very hard to believe Huckabee's future has been imperiled by simply saying crazy things. That's just not how modern conservative politics works. In Republican circles, there's no such thing as excessive rhetoric.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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KEEP ON TALKING, RUSH.... When Americans United for Change and AFSCME unveiled its new television ad this week, the groups not only went after congressional Republicans as the "party of 'no,'" they also emphasized an even more potent message: the GOP is beholden to Rush Limbaugh.

As Greg Sargent reported yesterday, we can expect to hear a lot more of this.

Top Democratic operatives are planning a stepped up campaign to promote Rush Limbaugh as the public face of the GOP -- an effort that will include recruiting Dem governors to make this case on talk shows, getting elected officials to pen Op eds arguing it, and running more ads pushing it, a senior Democratic operative says.

Key leadership staff in the House and Senate, and in all the political committees, have been encouraged by senior Dem operatives to push this message wherever possible, the operative says.

Paul Begala told Greg, "I'm encouraging every Democrat, every progressive, to be pointing out this powerful but painful truth: The party of Lincoln is now the Party of Limbaugh," Begala continued. "We should make every Republican answer this: Why do they want our president to fail?"

It's a strategy with all kinds of appeal. Limbaugh is not exactly a respected public figure (drug-addled shock-jock who's actively rooting for America's decline), but Republicans continue to hold him in high regard. With that in mind, Democrats and Limbaugh, oddly enough, have the same goal: convince the general public that he's the ostensible head of the Republican Party.

It's ironic, in a way, that every time Limbaugh makes another disgusting comment -- which happens with some regularity -- Democrats grit their teeth and quietly thank the host for making their job easier.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a major kerfuffle that broke out after Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, who converted to Roman Catholicism while serving in Congress, questioned the religious commitment of prominent Catholic Democrats.

It started with a fundraising letter on the Freedom of Choice Act, printed on an official-looking letterhead that reads "United States Senator Sam Brownback (Republican-Kansas)," and featuring Brownback's signature.

"Real Catholics need a new voice -- not the likes of Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi who have campaigned as Catholics while voting to undermine the values we hold most dear," Brownback wrote in a letter on behalf of Catholic Advocate, a project of the conservative Washington-based Morley Institute for Church and Culture.

"The same can be said for the five 'Catholic' senators sponsoring the Freedom of Choice Act, namely John Kerry (D-MA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA)... You can't be both Catholic and Pro-Abortion!" [scare quotes and emphasis in the original]

For a prominent Catholic lawmaker to question his Catholic colleagues' faith, in writing, was understandably seen as both insulting and offensive. "This is an astonishing breach of the basic norms of civility long honored in the United States Senate," said Stephen Schneck, professor of political science and director of The Catholic University of America's Life Cycle Institute. "Regardless that FOCA is horrible and -- for me -- immoral legislation, an affront like this between senators is unfathomable."

Initially, Brownback's spokesperson claimed that the senator's office "had never seen, heard of, or approved" the letter. Then Brownback's office changed its story, saying that the letter had been approved by an unnamed, since-departed campaign aide. Then the story took another turn when the group that sent out the letter said the screed had been "sanctioned by Brownback."

The heat on Brownback is increasing, and I doubt we've heard the last of it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Vatican's decision to elevate Timothy Dolan as New York's new Archbishop may have a much broader significance.

* The White House really shouldn't be in the business of "vetting" prayers before presidential events.

* It's not too late to book your trip on the Creation Studies Institute's "Ice Age Fossil Adventure."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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NEWT GOES OFF-MESSAGE.... Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received a hero's welcome at the Conservative Political Action Conference in D.C. yesterday, and proceeded to blast "the Bush-Obama big spending program."

It's a phrase Gingrich is clearly very fond of. Indeed, the ethically-challenged former Speaker seems really intent on connecting President Obama's economic policies to George W. Bush's. Two weeks ago, Gingrich had an op-ed in the Washington Times in which he used the phrase "Bush-Obama" four times in four paragraphs.

And while the phrase hasn't caught on as a conservative talking point, ol' Newt isn't giving up on his argument.

...Mr. Gingrich gave voice to the lingering ire many conservatives still harbor over the fiscal policies of the President George W. Bush, tracing the lineage of Mr. Obama's stimulus package and budget back to what he stated flatly were a string of "failed" spending and bailout plans hatched during the final months of the Bush administration.

"The great irony of where we are today is that we had a Bush-Obama big-spending program that was bipartisan in its nature," Mr. Gingrich said....

I understand the point he's trying to get across. Bush increased spending, Obama is increasing spending. Bush's policies were a disaster for the economy, so Obama's policies....

It has a certain child-like appeal, just so long as no one thinks about it too much.

But the reason this isn't a compelling argument -- aside from the fact that it has no relation to reality -- is that Gingrich's point undermines the other Republican talking points. The principal complaint from the right about Obama's spending plans is that they're "radical." The spending is "unprecedented." The agenda represents "socialism."

And despite all of this, Gingrich nevertheless argues that Obama's spending "is more of the Bush-Obama continuity and represents more of the same instead of 'change you can believe in.'"

This just doesn't add up. Either Obama's approach is a radical change or it's Bush's agenda warmed over. It can't be both.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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BUNNING THREATENS TO BOLT.... Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky hasn't been getting along with his party lately. Convinced that his erratic behavior, bizarre comments, poor fundraising, and weak poll numbers all but guarantee his defeat next year, the Republican Party has been pushing Bunning to retire, and quietly reaching out to other potential GOP candidates.

Bunning has responded with varying degrees of outrage. He's no longer talking to most of his Republican colleagues. He announced this week that he no longer trusts NSRC Chairman John Cornyn. On Tuesday, Bunning talked openly about suing the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

This, however, would represent a whole new level of spite.

Already in conflict with his party's leaders, Sen. Jim Bunning has reportedly said privately that if he is hindered in raising money for his re-election campaign he is ready with a response that would be politically devastating for Senate Republicans: his resignation.

The Kentucky Republican suggested that possible scenario at a campaign fundraiser for him on Capitol Hill earlier this week, according to three sources who asked not to be identified because of the politically sensitive nature of Bunning's remarks.

The implication, they said, was that Bunning would allow Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, to appoint his replacement -- a move that could give Democrats the 60 votes they need to block Republican filibusters in the Senate.

"I would get the last laugh. Don't forget Kentucky has a Democrat governor," one of the sources quoted Bunning as saying.

"The only logical extension of that comment is, '(Make me mad) … enough and I'll resign, and then you've got 60 Democrats,' " said another source who was present at the event.

The Courier-Journal found three sources who corroborated the story, and the Politico also confirmed Bunning's comments. (For what it's worth, yesterday, Bunning denied having made the remarks.)

In the big picture, it's in Bunning's interest for people to believe he really might resign if he deems the support he receives from the party insufficient. He's giving himself quite a bit of leverage -- give me what I want or I'll walk and give the Dems #60. It would destroy his career in Republican politics, but if he's retiring anyway, that may not matter.

It seems like a far-fetched scenario, but given what we've seen from Bunning in recent years, he may be just crazy enough to try it.

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

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February 27, 2009
By: Hilzoy

"We Will Bring Our Troops Home"

I find it hard to express how happy this makes me:

"Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq. We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government. There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.

After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its Security Forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country. As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.

Through this period of transition, we will carry out further redeployments. And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."

It's worth reading the speech in its entirety, because there are other very good things in it. President Obama addressed the people of Iraq directly, and I thought that both what he said and the fact that he spoke to them were very good. I was moved by his words to the men and women who have served in Iraq, and by this promise: "You and your families have done your duty - now a grateful nation must do ours." I was also very glad that he mentioned the nearly five million Iraqi refugees:

"Diplomacy and assistance is also required to help the millions of displaced Iraqis. These men, women and children are a living consequence of this war and a challenge to stability in the region, and they must become a part of Iraq's reconciliation and recovery. America has a strategic interest - and a moral responsibility - to act."

But the announcement of a date certain for the withdrawal both of combat troops and of all troops means more to me than anything. This horrible mistake of a war has cost so many people so much. It should never have been started. It will not be over for the Iraqis in 2011. But it will, at last, be over for us.

Hilzoy 11:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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

* Good: "The Obama administration has lost its argument that the state secrets privilege is a good enough reason to stop a lawsuit over the government's warrantless wiretapping program."

* This could have been worse: "The Treasury Department confirmed early Friday that taxpayers could take a 36 percent stake in Citigroup Inc. through a complex swap process designed to shore up the once-grand banking institution."

* California's unemployment rate has hit 10.1%. Ohio's is up to 8.8%.

* President Obama's policy in Iraq is generating positive reviews among Iraqis.

* The lobbying is bound to be intense in opposition, but the White House's budget "aims to foster generic competition for costly biotech drugs used to treat cancer and other intractable ailments."

* Several conservative senators, primarily in the South, are talking about turning down unemployment aid from the stimulus package. Some of the unemployed, oddly enough, aren't happy about it.

* It's a good thing Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew from cabinet consideration, or his latest scandal might be really damaging.

* This should be interesting: "The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to launch an investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation programs under President George W. Bush, setting the stage for a sweeping examination of some of most secretive and controversial operations in recent agency history."

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) argued yesterday, "Every major tax cut we've had in history has created more revenue." It's really annoying how often Republicans repeat this transparent nonsense.

* The good news is, George Will has finally responded to the controversy surrounding his misguided column on global warming. The bad news is, the conservative columnist is still wrong.

* The conservative Washington Times has a headline this morning that reads, "Obama's budget to raise small-business taxes." That's wildly misleading.

* Wanted: Diversity on the WaPo op-ed page.

* Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have no interest in renewing the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004

* I'll never understand what Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grose was thinking.

* And for the record, if I had a choice between hanging out with Paul Krugman and Robert Reich or with Rush Limbaugh, I wouldn't have to think twice.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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A FOOL AND HIS MONEY.... Jonah Goldberg explains his opposition to President Obama's economic agenda, and what he wants to do about it.

I just don't want to pay for it. It's not that I don't want government to do nice things for deserving people in certain circumstances. It's not necessarily that I'm hostile to this group of beneficiaries or that (though I am in fact hostile to some). It's that I think most of Obama's ideas will not work, will be a waste of money and will hurt the economy. And, flatly, I don't want to pay for it. I don't want to break the law. I don't want pull a Geithner or a Daschle or anything like that. But I don't want to pay for it. I will look for every means within the boundaries of the law to minimize what I pay in taxes and I make no apologies for that whatsoever.

Goldberg was a little vague as to what "it" is he doesn't like. Infrastructure investment? Student loans? Food stamps?

In any case, I found this interesting, in part because I know some friends who expressed a very similar sentiment a few years ago. It's not that they didn't want the government to have a military; it's that they thought Bush's policy in Iraq would not work, it would be a waste of money, and it would undermine U.S. national security interests. And, flatly, they didn't want to pay for it.

But they did anyway, because they're law-abiding citizens living in the United States. We're not given the option to pick and choose which programs get our tax dollars and which do not. We elect people who make these spending decisions on our behalf, and if we don't like those decisions, we vote for someone else.

Goldberg concludes, however, that he's looking for guidance about how to follow the law while also denying the government funding. The available options are limited, but off the top of my head, and motivated solely by my desire to help Jonah Goldberg, I can think of two alternatives.

First, most of the money Goldberg pays to the government comes by way of income taxes. As such, if he wants to undermine the government's economic policies, he'll need to make less money. In fact, I suspect Goldberg is compensated fairly well, so he'll have to cut back a lot. By writing much less, he'll pay the government much less, and in turn, he'll have far less to do with whatever "it" is he doesn't want the Obama administration to do.

Second, he can leave the country. If an American citizen is really offended by the decisions of the U.S. government, and his or her preferred candidates keep losing elections, he or she can withhold financial support by going to some other country, whose economic policies they find more appealing.

Beyond those options, I'm afraid Goldberg's out of luck. Am I missing any alternatives?

Update: To clarify a good point Atrios raised, when I said Jonah "can leave the country," I should have said, he can "become a citizen of some other country." It's not enough to just move, because Americans working outside the country are still taxed. Goldberg would have to give up his citizenship altogether and find some low-tax, small-government country. I hear New Zealand is a favorite of the tort-reform crowd.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (187)

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STUDENT-LOAN SILLINESS.... This is one of those strange stories in which Democrats want to spend less money and make a federal system more efficient, and conservatives are livid.

The situation is pretty straightforward. When Clinton was elected, the student-loan system was burdened by a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. Higher-ed students would get a loan from a private lender, but it was effectively a no-risk system -- the federal government would guarantee the loan in the event of default. The industry was getting government subsidies to provide a service the government could perform for less. Clinton wanted to streamline the process and make it cost less -- the government would make the loan, cut out the middleman, and save billions.

Conservatives and loan industry lobbyists went nuts, forcing Clinton to backtrack. The eventual compromise led to two types of student loans -- direct loans and guaranteed loans. Colleges were allowed to choose the system they preferred. (They preferred the direct loans until lenders started bribing college-loan administrators.)

Sixteen years later, the Obama administration wants to save $4 billion a year, end subsidies to lenders, and make the process more efficient. The White House and Department of Education have apparently come to the conclusion that there's no point in laundering loans through lenders, who make a tidy profit, for no reason.

And once again, conservatives are livid. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) railed against a "government takeover of the private-sector-based student loan program."

Matt Yglesias' response was spot on:

The government is not, however, "taking over" anything. The government already completely controls the industry since its existence is predicated on the existence of federal subsidies. Obama is simply proposing to cut out the middle man and save some money. [...]

The interesting thing here is not just the particulars of the policy, but the bizarre view of the role of government that Howard is espousing. Rather than a debate between progressives who want the government to provide a public service and conservatives who want the service to exist just insofar as it can be supported by the private market, we have a debate where both sides agree that the service ought to exist but the right thinks it's important that it be done in a less efficient more costly manner because doing it that way generates profits for people who in turn give them money in some kind of nutty sense is supposed to preserve the integrity of the private sector.

Republican lawmakers love cutting spending, improving efficiency, and streamlining government programs. Except when they don't.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ABOUT THAT BOAT STORY (PART II).... On Tuesday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) told a national audience an interesting anecdote from 2005. Jindal said that "during Katrina," he visited with a New Orleans sheriff, who was yelling into his phone. The sheriff, Jindal said, had organized volunteers in boats to rescue people from rooftops. "Some bureaucrat" forbade it, "unless they had proof of insurance and registration."

Jindal, the story went, defended the sheriff's position, and the sheriff "ignored the bureaucrats and started rescuing people."

Zachary Roth did some digging and found that some of the story didn't quite add up. Jindal couldn't, for example, have seen the sheriff arguing during the crisis, since Jindal wasn't in New Orleans while people were stranded on roofs.

Ben Smith talked to the governor's spokesperson, Melissa Sellers, today, and she clarified some of the details. For example, when Jindal told the nation that he was in the sheriff's office "during Katrina," he didn't mean "during Katrina." Days later, well after the incident with the boats, Jindal visited with the sheriff.

When Jindal said he'd "never seen [the sheriff] so angry" as he "was yelling into the phone" about rescuing people, that wasn't exactly right, either. Jindal heard about the story after the fact.

Zachary Roth, responding to the new information, added:

This is no minor difference. Jindal's presence in Lee's office during the crisis itself was a key element of the story's intended appeal, putting him at the center of the action during the maelstrom. Just as important, Jindal implied that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. But it turns out Jindal wasn't there at the key moment, and played no role in making the rescue happen. [...]

[T]he key elements of Jindal's story were that he was in Lee's office during the crisis itself, and that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. Neither of those things was true, it now seems.

There was, it seems, an honest way to tell the story. If Jindal wanted to complain, for whatever reason, about the perils of red tape, he could have talked about the New Orleans sheriff who was forced to deal with a burdensome bureaucracy during a crisis. But the governor apparently wanted to add some "flair" to the anecdote.

Ed Kilgore added, "I have no idea how somebody as smart and experienced as Bobby Jindal would let these lines get into a featured place in his first nationally televised appearance, before a vast audience pre-assembled by Barack Obama. But it's not only a gaffe of a high order; it also sears into the popular and media memory Jindal's blunder in bringing up Katrina in the first place. He's digging himself quite a hole here."

Post Script: It's also worth remembering that if the larger story is true -- "some bureaucrat" really did raise questions that could have interfered with rescue efforts -- it's a reminder of the inefficiencies of Bush's FEMA operation, not evidence of the inherent shortcomings of the federal government.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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ENDING THE WAR IN IRAQ.... It's going to take some time, but President Obama is bringing the war in Iraq to an end.

In his remarks at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Mr. Obama said, "Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

"As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq," he said. "We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government. There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed."

He added: "Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."

After August 2010, a residual force (35,000 to 50,000 troops) -- the administration refers to them as a "transition force" -- would remain in Iraq "to advise and train Iraqi security forces, conduct discrete counterterrorism missions and protect American civilian and military personnel working in the country." The number of U.S. troops in Iraq would then fall to zero by the end of 2011.

As we discussed the other day, military commanders and national security advisers differed on strategies, and responded to the president's request with a series of alternatives. The 16-month withdrawal process was weighed against a 23-month timeline. As Obama is often inclined to do, he reportedly chose a 19-month strategy as a compromise. The result is a withdrawal timeline that reportedly satisfies the concerns "of all of Mr. Obama's national security team," including the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno.

What's more, after years of passionate opposition to any kind of withdrawal timeline, Republican lawmakers appear to support the Obama policy, which the president presented to lawmakers at a White House meeting last night. John McCain, for example, called the president's plan "reasonable" (though he credited George W. Bush for making it possible). John Boehner also extended his tacit support.

And with that, as Spencer Ackerman explained, "The Iraq debate is over."

Well, at least the debate as we've seen it in the halls of Congress in recent years. Several Democratic leaders have voiced strong concerns about the size of the "transition force." What's more, for all of the success in reducing violence in Iraq, long-term political progress remains elusive, and will have to be a high priority for the administration.

Still, Obama has outlined the beginning of the end. It's about time.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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DOBSON RESIGNS.... One of the religious right movement's most powerful and prominent heavyweights is exiting stage right.

The Associated Press has learned that James Dobson has resigned as chairman of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

Jim Daly, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry, said Friday that Dobson will continue to host the organization's flagship radio program and speak out on moral issues.

The departure of the 72-year-old Dobson as board chairman is part of a succession plan. He founded the group in 1977.

Dobson has had some health problems in recent years, so it was only a matter of time before he transitioned from chairman to retirement. He'd already given up his CEO position several years ago.

Dobson's far-right legacy is, of course, hard to ignore. While some televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell became prominent partisans, Dobson was always more comfortable in the role of radical ideologue. Robertson wanted a seat at the table; Dobson wanted to chair the meeting and bark orders to everyone at the table.

Few modern figures on the political scene hate quite as many people, with quite as much intensity, as James Dobson. Gays, minority faiths, the First Amendment, Girl Scouts, SpongeBob Squarepants ... if you don't think, act, or believe as Dobson does, you're an enemy. (One of my personal favorites is when Dobson insisted that gay marriage "will destroy the Earth." He wasn't kidding.)

Dobson's departure from the Focus on the Family empire he built reinforces the fact that the old guard in the religious right is in need of successors. The fight to fill the vacuum will be interesting to watch.

As for Dobson, his contributions to the discourse and political world have been nothing short of toxic. He's been a force for division and animosity, cloaked in vaguely theocratic terms.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Jim.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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IS THIS 'BEYOND CUTTING-EDGE'?.... Following up on Hilzoy's item from earlier, I want to offer the Republican Party some simple and friendly advice: stop trying so hard to be cool. It's backfiring.

The catalyst for all of this is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) telling RNC Chairman Michael Steele last night, "Michael Steele! You be da man! You be da man."

Of course, this followed Steele's speech to the CPAC banquet, during which he told the far-right crowd:

"What a house tonight. Are there any conservatives in the house tonight?"

"Tonight we tell the American people: We know, in the past, that we did wrong. My bad."

"Young people in the house stand up! Young people in the house stand up!"

This comes a day after Steele told ABC News that he sends "some slum love out to my buddy, Gov. Bobby Jindal." Steele added that Jindal is "doing a friggin' awesome job in his state."

We've heard about "bling, bling." We've been promised a Republican Party that's "off the hook." We've been told the GOP will mount a comeback "with the Twittering." We've seen candidates for the RNC chairmanship argue over who has more Facebook friends. The Republican Party, rumor has it, is going to go "beyond cutting edge."

Enough. This is embarrassing. These guys are making The Daily Show's "Reagraham Lincool" skit look like it was sincere.

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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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.

* Americans United for Change and AFSCME have a good new television ad out today, hitting congressional Republicans as the "party of 'no'" and beholden to Rush Limbaugh.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he's "pretty confident" Al Franken will soon be a senator, and may seat the Minnesota Democrat as soon as early April.

* Speaking of Reid, his re-election prospects in Nevada got a boost yesterday when Sid Rogich, a leading Republican fundraiser in the state, said he's going to support Reid in 2010. Republicans have not yet recruited a top-tier candidate for the race.

* Sen. Robert Bennett (R) appears to be well on his way to winning re-election in Utah next year.

* As far as former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) is concerned, Bobby Jindal's national address this week dooms his presidential aspirations.

* And rumor has it that CNN will release its first 2012 poll today, measuring who Republicans prefer as their next presidential nominee. It's obviously ridiculously early, but in case you're wondering, the poll shows Sarah Palin out in front, with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney close behind.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE LONG-AWAITED INTRA-PARTY FRICTION?.... After the 2008 elections, there were some expectations, here and elsewhere, that Republican infighting would be relatively intense. When a party fails that spectacularly, at so many levels, finger-pointing and a fierce fight to fill a leadership vacuum is almost inevitable.

That never came to pass, at least not in earnest. GOP lawmakers kept most of their leadership in place in both chambers; there was very little blame directed at John McCain; and while there was some squabbling in the race to be the next RNC chairman, all of the candidates were effectively offering the same thing.

Just over the last week or so, the fissures have been slightly more evident. Matt Yglesias flagged these comments from Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a conservative Republican from a conservative Republican state.

Q: In December you talked about people 40 and under having a very different view on the environment. Is there a similar generational gap on gay rights?

A: You hit on the two issues that I think carry more of a generational component than anything else. And I would liken it a bit to the transformation of the Tory Party in the UK.... They went two or three election cycles without recognizing the issues that the younger citizens in the UK really felt strongly about. They were a very narrow party of angry people. And they started branching out through, maybe, taking a second look at the issues of the day, much like we're going to have to do for the Republican Party, to reconnect with the youth, to reconnect with people of color, to reconnect with different geographies that we have lost. [emphasis added]

Huntsman made similar comments to the Washington Times this week.

Now, I've seen quite a few descriptions of the Republican Party of late, but "a very narrow party of angry people" is one of the more apt. Matt also noted that Huntsman's contingent also probably includes Charlie Crist and David Brooks, making up a reformist branch looking for a bigger, more inclusive party.

What's striking, though, is just how small the contingent is. Just a couple of weeks ago, 95% of the Republicans in Congress voted for a stimulus package that didn't include any stimulus. Rush Limbaugh said no one should criticize far-right Republican Bobby Jindal's national address, not because it was good, but because he's a far-right Republican. RNC Chairman Michael Steele is openly discussing the possibility of withholding support from Republican lawmakers who stray from the conservative line. A GOP leader in the House is openly discussing emulating the Taliban, and no one in the party denounced the comments. It's the Palin-Pence-Plumber Party.

Huntsman's perspective stands out in large part because most of the party isn't even willing to consider the possibility of veering from its current course.

If there's a Republican "civil war" for the party's future, Huntsman/Crist/Brooks doesn't stand a chance.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Hilzoy

Michele Bachman: Keeping It Real

From CNN, via TPMDC:

"As he concluded his remarks, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- the event's moderator -- told Steele he was "da man."

"Michael Steele! You be da man! You be da man," she said."

Dat Michele Bachmann is sho' nuff hep to da black man's lingo. She down with Malcolm and the Panthers. Any moment now she gwine get wise to da special secret code words like 'bling' and 'bitch' and 'chill' and 'whack'.

She keep conversatin like dis, black folks gwine realize dat Barack Obama ain't the only hep cat on da scene.

Hilzoy 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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FALLING OFF A CLIFF.... About a month ago, initial estimates showed that the U.S. economy shrank by 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2008. One analyst, at the time, described it as an economic "train wreck."

GR2009022701010.gif

If 3.8% was a train wreck, we're going to need a whole new list of adjectives to describe the new numbers.

The fourth-quarter estimate was revised this morning, and as it turns out, the economy shrank by 6.2%. This graph, by way of the Washington Post, helps drive the point home nicely.

It was the worst economic showing in a quarter-century.

There was, alas, no silver lining. The Post reported, "Nearly every segment of the economy contracted sharply during the fourth quarter, the data show. Consumer spending fell 4.3 percent, compared with 3.8 percent in the third quarter. Investment in office buildings, shopping centers and other nonresidential structures sank 5.9 percent, compared with an increase of 9.7 percent in the previous quarter. Real exports of goods and services plummeted 23.6 percent, compared with an increase of 3 percent in the third quarter. As tax revenue plunged, state and local government spending also fell 1.4 percent, after rising 1.3 percent in the period from July through October. For all of 2008, the economy grew 1.1 percent, in contrast to an increase of 2 percent in 2007."

Dean Baker added, "I've been pretty pessimistic all along, but [the numbers] came in worse than I expected and that's pretty bad. You worry this is just a free fall."

I have a hunch a spending freeze and a capital gains tax cut probably won't help.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE PROBLEM WITH THE PORK PUSHBACK.... For GOP lawmakers anxious to push back against the Obama administration's agenda, the answer isn't to engage in a debate over the role of government. Rather, the Republicans have decided the way to win the broader policy debate is to find individual spending proposals that sound funny.

The strategy hasn't been especially effective. The money for marsh-mouse preservation turned out to be a lie. The money linking Vegas to Disneyland by way of high-speed rail was also non-existent. The volcano-monitoring program turned out to be a pretty good idea.

But now they've got a new one. Republicans, Fox News, the New York Post, and Drudge have found a $200,000 provision in the omnibus spending package for "tattoo removal." How can anyone defend that?

It's actually pretty easy to defend. Greg Sargent looked into it.

[A] little reporting reveals that that this "tattoo removal" program is an anti-crime program in the San Fernando Valley that re-integrates reformed gang members and makes it easier for them to find jobs. Two Los Angeles law enforcement officials I just spoke to -- one who identified himself as a "conservative Republican" -- swore by the program for reducing crime and saving lives.

The chief of San Fernando Police Department told Greg that the program is "important" and "reduces attacks." A local probation officer added, "This program is one of the best life-saving and life-changing programs out here. I am about as right wing a conservative as you would ever find."

In other words, it's another example of the sad spectacle of foolish Republican talking points.

Looking at the big picture, it's amazing the right would choose to be this foolish, on purpose. Conservative David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, recently explained the seriousness and scope of the current crisis, and the fundamental shift the Obama administration is pursuing. He added that Republican obsession over trivial expenditures makes the party look ridiculous: "Could we possibly act more inadequate to the challenge? More futile? More brain dead?"

Apparently not.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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A DETOUR ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL.... Yesterday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, right-wing activist Cliff Kincaid suggested that "President Obama is a communist, then suggested Obama was not born in the United States -- to which the crowd cheered wildly."

It's a reminder that conservatives, anxious to reclaim their forgotten glory, haven't quite adjusted to the current political landscape.

I'm not at CPAC this year, but I've been fascinated by the reports from the convention. It's not just the breathtaking right-wing worldview -- though the ugliness and hatred is interesting -- it's also the fact that a lot of conservatives just aren't ready to face a new day. They liked the old day just fine, thank you very much, are content to stay there, even as the country moves forward.

What was the message on CPAC's first day? Government is still the enemy; Iran still wants to kill us; it's still a conservative country; tax cuts will still solve every problem; Democrats are still radicals; the media is still victimizing the right; and Republicans can still win if they shift from being a conservative party to an extremely conservative party.

Attendees could attend a panel discussion on, "Al Franken and Acorn: How Liberals are Destroying the American Election System," and listen to Samuel Wurzelbacher explain why reparations for African Americans are a bad idea: "[Y]ou can't whine and cry about it these days. I mean, Jews were slaves, but they're not asking for compensation from Egypt."

Jonathan Stein reported:

[Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)] ended by saying, "With CPAC's leadership, we can revitalize this movement." And that's the problem. This year's CPAC is supposed to begin conservatism's comeback. But can rebirth be achieved when the ideas being spouted by Bolton, Ryan, and others are the same as the ones pushed for the last eight years?

Probably not. All the talk last year about "change" has missed this crowd altogether. They don't need change, they demand more of the same (only slightly further to the right, please).

They've stuck their fingers in their ears, and their heads in the sand. For these far-right activists, this isn't a time for introspection and reevaluation; it's time to pretend 2008 and 2009 are mere figments of the reality-based community's imagination.

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

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NYUK, NYUK, NUKE.... What is it about conservatives and their attitudes about attacks on U.S. cities?

A few years ago, TV preacher Pat Robertson said he welcomed a nuclear attack on the State Department, telling a national television audience, "Maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up." A couple of years later, Bill O'Reilly welcomed a terrorist attack on San Francisco. The Fox News personality told al Qaeda, "You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead."

And yesterday, the Bush administration's former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, generated wild applause joking about a nuclear attack on Chicago.

"The fact is on foreign policy I don't think President Obama thinks it's a priority," Bolton said. "He said during the campaign he thought Iran was a 'tiny' threat. Tiny, tiny depending on how many nuclear weapons they are ultimately able to deliver on target. It's, uh, it's tiny compared to the Soviet Union, but is the loss of one American city -- pick one at random, Chicago -- is that a tiny threat?"

Jonathan Stein noted, "Bolton wasn't the only one who thought this was funny. The room erupted in laughter and applause. Was this conservative catharsis, with rightwingers delightfully imagining the destruction of a city that represents Obama? Or perhaps they were venting vengeance with their laughter."

Either way, it's evidence of a twisted ideology. I find it hard to believe Bolton sincerely wants to see Chicago hit by a nuclear strike, but if the right would stop welcoming cataclysmic attacks on Americans, I'd feel a little better about their seemingly sick psyches. (I also shudder to think what the reaction would be if, say, a prominent official from a Democratic administration appeared at the Take Back America conference and joked about a nuclear attack on an American city.)

Post Script: By the way, Bolton took Obama's "tiny" quote out of context. He's not only joking about domestic terrorism and the death of millions; he's lying about it, too.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION.... It's probably fair to say that there's been some concern about whether President Obama would be as "audacious" as Candidate Obama. He'd talk about bold and systemic change, but would he be limited by timidity? Would the president prefer slower, incremental change?

The answer has become overwhelmingly clear over the last few days.

We got a very good hint on Tuesday night about where this White House was headed, with an ambitious speech to Congress. But the point was driven home yesterday, with the release of the administration's budget outline, which presents a sea change in the way the federal government would operate in the future.

Looking for change you can believe in? I think we've found it.

The NYT explained that Obama's proposal is "nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters." The budget is "a bold, even radical departure from recent history," which would "lay the groundwork for sweeping changes in health care and education," and "reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years."

The LAT reported, "Not since Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt has a president moved to expand the role of government so much on so many fronts -- and with such a demanding sense of urgency." Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "It changes the whole paradigm." USA Today described the budget as "unprecedented in size, breathtaking in scope and sure to have a major impact on millions of Americans."

Paul Krugman, who's been less than enthused by the president's vision of late, seems to be thrilled, saying Obama's plan "looks very, very good."

Elections have consequences. President Obama's new budget represents a huge break, not just with the policies of the past eight years, but with policy trends over the past 30 years. If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course.

The budget will, among other things, come as a huge relief to Democrats who were starting to feel a bit of postpartisan depression. The stimulus bill that Congress passed may have been too weak and too focused on tax cuts. The administration's refusal to get tough on the banks may be deeply disappointing. But fears that Mr. Obama would sacrifice progressive priorities in his budget plans, and satisfy himself with fiddling around the edges of the tax system, have now been banished.

Robert Reich added that the budget "represents the biggest redistribution of income from the wealthy to the middle class and poor this nation has seen in more than forty years."

Once in a while, elections really do have consequences.

Steve Benen 7:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Hilzoy

Now That's What I Call Toxic!

During the past year or so, I have sometimes wondered exactly how toxic all those toxic assets really are. It's hard to tell, since they differ from one another, and are not traded that often. However, the Financial Times (h/t) has some answers:

"In recent weeks, bankers at places such as JPMorgan Chase and Wachovia have been quietly sifting data trying to ascertain what has happened to those swathes of troubled CDO of ABS. [Ed.: collateralised debt obligations of asset-backed securities.]

The conclusions are stunning. From late 2005 to the middle of 2007, around $450bn of CDO of ABS were issued, of which about one third were created from risky mortgage-backed bonds (known as mezzanine CDO of ABS) and much of the rest from safer tranches (high grade CDO of ABS.)

Out of that pile, around $305bn of the CDOs are now in a formal state of default, with the CDOs underwritten by Merrill Lynch accounting for the biggest pile of defaulted assets, followed by UBS and Citi.

The real shocker, though, is what has happened after those defaults. JPMorgan estimates that $102bn of CDOs has already been liquidated. The average recovery rate for super-senior tranches of debt -- or the stuff that was supposed to be so ultra safe that it always carried a triple A tag -- has been 32 per cent for the high grade CDOs. With mezzanine CDOs, though, recovery rates on those AAA assets have been a mere 5 per cent.

I dare say this might be an extreme case. The subprime loans extended in 2006 and 2007 have suffered particularly high default rates and the CDOs that have already been liquidated are presumably the very worst of the pack.

Even so, I would hazard a guess that this is easily the worst outcome for any assets that have ever carried a "triple A" stamp. No wonder so many investors are now so utterly cynical about anything that bankers or rating agencies might say these days."

If I'm reading this right, within four years of being issued, two thirds of these CDOs are in default, and their recovery rates are very, very low. That's just staggering. It's actually hard to understand how the banks managed to do this badly: you'd think they could have done better hiring people off the street and paying them to put all those nice little loan documents into piles at random, or tossing mortgages down the stairs and bundling them based on how they landed. They certainly didn't need to hire people with advanced math degrees and pay them seven- or eight-figure salaries to get these kinds of results.

And how about those ratings agencies? They would have done a better job using a Magic 8-Ball to rate the CDOs. ("Signs point to junk!")

I have been hearing for years and years about how the financial services sector pays such exorbitant wages because the people who work there are so immensely talented that they are cheap at $50 million a year. I never particularly bought that line before. But I never imagined that all those Masters of the Universe would do quite this badly. If we had paid them $50 million a year to go far, far away and leave our financial system alone, it would have been a bargain.

The column ends with a very important observation:

"Those American officials who are implementing flashy new "stress tests" of banks would do well to take note."

Word.

Hilzoy 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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February 26, 2009

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

* President Obama unveils his budget and posts it online.

* AP: "New-home sales tumbled to a record-low annual pace in January and there's no relief in sight as mounting damage from the collapsed housing market pushes the country deeper into recession."

* Senate approved a bill this afternoon to give D.C. a vote in the House. It passed 61 to 37, and 36 of the Senate's 41 Republicans voted against it.

* GM lost $30.9 billion in 2008.

* Jobless numbers continue to rise.

* What do you know, Roland Burris' situation can look worse.

* Blue Dogs sure can be tiresome.

* Obama and senior administration officials have begun receiving "a daily CIA report" on the global economic crisis, reinforcing the belief that the economy will have a direct impact on national security.

* Daily Kos, the Service Employees International Union, and some of the best bloggers in the business are teaming up to create Accountability Now.

* As of Friday, the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest newspaper, will be no more.

* The latest evidence on media bias will not make conservatives happy, but that doesn't mean it's wrong.

* Ratings for the president's speech on Tuesday night were pretty impressive.

* Obama staffers are serious about limiting access to lobbyists.

* Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) loves free-market principles, except when he doesn't.

* "False equivalency" stories are the traditional media's most annoying bad habit.

* U.S. News tries to make amends.

* Recessions are "a part of freedom"?

* And Fox has renewed "The Simpsons" for (at least) two more seasons. Next year, it will become the longest running prime-time show in U.S. television history.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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FAIRNESS DOCTRINE FIGHT REACHES SENATE FLOOR.... Before the Senate can vote on whether to give D.C. residents a voice in Congress, Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) had a not-at-all-related amendment for the chamber to consider.

The Senate voted Thursday in favor of an amendment to the District of Columbia voting-rights bill that would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which critics say would decimate conservative talk radio.

The Senate passed the measure 87-11.

So, to review, the Senate today approved an amendment to a bill about D.C. voting rights prohibiting the FCC from bringing back an old broadcast policy that the FCC wasn't considering and which the Obama administration does not support. Congress at its finest.

But since it passed overwhelmingly, at least we won't have to hear the right complain about this anymore, right? If only it were that simple. The measure would still have to be approved by the House, which isn't interested in holding a vote.

In response to the DeMint/Thune measure, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed "a rival amendment that he said essentially reaffirmed existing law, which calls for the FCC to encourage diverse media ownership." It passed 57 to 41. Despite the fact that Durbin's measure simply re-stated current law, every Republican in the Senate voted against it.

DeMint told reporters that Democratic efforts to legally encourage diverse media ownership open a "back door to censorship."

I have no idea what DeMint is talking about. Come to think of it, neither does he.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE 'IDIOT' STRIKES BACK.... About a month ago, Rush Limbaugh proudly boasted that he hopes President Obama "fails" in office. More recently, Limbaugh added, "I want the stimulus package to fail." This sparked a fair amount of controversy, since it's odd for high-profile Americans to publicly root against the country.

Yesterday, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), without mentioning Limbaugh's name, said, "Anybody who wants [the president] to fail is an idiot, because it means we're all in trouble."

Today, the "idiot" responded.

"I am told that South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford called me an idiot, not by name. But he said, 'Anybody who wants Obama to fail is an idiot.' Well, I don't know anybody else who said it, so I guess he's talking about [me].... [P]oliticians have different audiences than I do and they've got to say things in different ways. So, after he said, 'Anybody who wants Obama to fail is an idiot,' then went on in his own way to say, 'Gosh, I hope this doesn't work.' ... He just had to say, 'We don't want the president to fail.'

"Hell we don't! We want something to blow up here politically. We want something to not go right.... We're talking about freedom that is under assault!"

Ryan Powers added that Sanford's communications director said the governor wasn't "referring to anyone" in specific when he talked about "idiots," and was not aware of Limbaugh's comments on the issue.

That's certainly possible. The question Sanford was referring to didn't mention Limbaugh by name, and maybe the governor missed the hullabaloo over Limbaugh's anti-American sentiment. As responses go, the rejoinder from Sanford's spokesperson is plausible.

But it does, however, lead to a follow-up question. Now that Sanford knows what Limbaugh has said, and now that Limbaugh has called the governor out on the air, does Sanford still believe those who want Obama to fail are idiots or not?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Hilzoy

Al-Marri Will Face Trial

Good news:

"Federal prosecutors are preparing to charge Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri with providing material support to al-Qaeda terrorists in a groundbreaking move that would put the alleged sleeper agent under the jurisdiction of the U.S. court system, according to sources familiar with the issue.

Indicting Marri in a federal court marks a significant change from the policies of the Bush administration, which had argued that al-Marri should be tried in a military tribunal proceeding and that he could not use American courts to contest his legal status.

Marri is the last remaining "enemy combatant" in the United States and has spent 5 1/2 years in a military brig in South Carolina. The criminal charges, which sources said also could include conspiracy, will be among the most early and critical signals about the Obama administration's approach to handling alleged terrorism suspects."

One more person moved out of legal limbo and into our normal court system. One less person about whom people could argue that he somehow must be tried under a whole new legal system, those that have served us well for over two centuries being somehow inadequate to his case. And one less blot on our commitment to the rule of law.

***

UPDATE: Jane Mayer reports that al-Marri has been indicted, and adds:

"An indictment would signal a major shift in legal policy from the Bush years. It would also fulfill President Obama’s campaign pledge to restore traditional American legal practices by treating terror suspects as common criminals, rather than stripping them of standard legal rights and classifying them neither as criminal defendants nor prisoners of war."

Hilzoy 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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HOLDER TO END MEDICAL MARIJUANA RAIDS.... Just two days after President Obama's inauguration, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a medical marijuana dispensary in northern California. The move was at odds with Obama's policy, at least as it was articulated during the campaign.

Today, we received some welcome clarification.

Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference Wednesday that the Justice Department will no longer raid medical marijuana clubs that are established legally under state law. His declaration is a fulfillment of a campaign promise by President Barack Obama, and marks a major shift from the previous administration.

After the inauguration, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continued to carry out such raids, despite Obama's promise. Holder was asked if those raids represented American policy going forward.

"No," he said. "What the president said during the campaign, you'll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we'll be doing in law enforcement. He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy."

My friend Alex Koppelman adds some helpful context:

It's a common misperception that, in states like California which have passed measures legalizing it, medical marijuana is completely legal. It's not. Federal law takes precedence, and federal authorities have made no secret of their belief that any user or distributor -- even one authorized by the state -- can be arrested at any time.

That's been the policy for the last three administrations. Not anymore.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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PENTAGON CHANGES POLICY ON FLAG-DRAPED COFFINS.... A couple of weeks ago, CNN's Ed Henry asked President Obama about the Defense Department policy banning coverage of flag-draped coffins from coming into Dover Air Force Base: "You've promised unprecedented transparency, openness in your government. Will you overturn that policy, so the American people can see the full human cost of war?"

The president said his administration was "in the process of reviewing those policies." Today, with the review complete, the Pentagon is lifting the ban.

News organizations will be allowed to photograph the homecomings of America's war dead under a new Pentagon policy, defense and congressional officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to allow photos of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base, Del., if the families of the fallen troops agree, the officials told The Associated Press.

I can appreciate concerns about privacy, but I think this is the right call. The Bush administration was adamant about this, and while the policy dates back to 1991, Bush 41 and Clinton would make exceptions. Bush 43 would not, and it seems likely that politics helped drive his thinking.

But hiding images of the flag-draped coffins was a mistake. As Kevin Drum recently noted, "These are American soldiers fighting an American war, and the American public has a right to see the price of that war."

It's less clear exactly how the new policy will be implemented. Based on the AP report, it seems as if the Defense Department will make sure that the families of the fallen are comfortable with photographers being present when the caskets arrive home. It may prove difficult, though, if families with loved ones on the same plane disagree.

In either case, though, I'm glad the administration is making a change.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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ABOUT THAT BOAT STORY.... There were obviously quite a few problems with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) speech the other night, but there's one nagging question that hasn't gotten enough attention.

Jindal, hoping to make a point about how awful government is, told an interesting tale:

"During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: 'Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!' I asked him: 'Sheriff, what's got you so mad?' He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration.

"I told him, 'Sheriff, that's ridiculous.' And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: 'Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!' Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people."

Jindal has told the same story quite a few times.

Now, the governor bringing up Harry Lee is itself problematic, given the former sheriff's controversial background with racism. But then there's that other issue: did any of this actually happen? Was Lee fighting a bureaucracy in the midst of a crisis? Did Jindal come to his aid? Did "some bureaucrat" interfere with a rescue effort?

We can't ask Lee for his version of events; he died in 2007. But there's ample evidence that Jindal has ... how do I put this gently ... taken some liberties.

Zachary Roth did some digging and found some interesting details. First, for example, Lee later acknowledged that he "didn't find out about the license and registration issue until about seven days after the incident." Second, Jindal couldn't have seen Lee arguing during the crisis, since Jindal wasn't in New Orleans while people were stranded on roofs. Third, as Roth documents, details of Jindal's story have "evolved" over time.

Jindal's anecdote is, to be sure, a great story. It'd be even better if it were true.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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STRAW MEN.... About three years ago, the AP noted that George W. Bush had a nasty "straw man" habit. He'd start sentences with "some say," the AP noted, omitting "an important nuance" or substituting "an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position." Bush would then "strongly disagree" with the non-existent position of his rival, "conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making."

I thought of this old AP piece this morning when I saw Karl Rove, of all people, complaining that President Obama "routinely" relies on "the lazy rhetorical device of 'straw men.'" He argued, "Everyone resorts to straw men occasionally, but Mr. Obama's persistent use of the device is troubling."

There are two broad angles to this. The first is the hypocrisy. As A.L. noted, "[O]n a hypocrisy scale of 1 to 10, [Rove's column] is about an 842.... Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to politics over the last eight years knows that straw man argumentation is Karl Rove's specialty. He took the practice to never before seen heights during his years in the White House."

But there's also the specifics of Rove's accusations.

[T]here's Mr. Obama's description of the Bush-era tax cuts. "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy," he explained in his Tuesday speech, after earlier saying, "tax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems -- especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few."

The Bush tax cuts were not targeted to "the wealthiest few."

Actually, they were.

In his inaugural address -- which was generally graceful toward the opposition -- Mr. Obama proclaimed, "We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." Which Republican ran against him on fear, conflict and discord?

If Rove really doesn't remember, Glenn Greenwald offers a refresher: "How about the people who accused him of 'pallin' around with Terrorists' or who said: 'Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay - he wants to meet them without preconditions. Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America - he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?' or who accused him of being a 'Marxist' and a 'Communist' and his wife of being an angry America-hater and who circulated a campaign to convince Americans that he was a secret Muslim and an anti-Semite."

A lot of writers publish misleading and hypocritical columns occasionally, but Mr. Rove's persistent habit of writing drivel is troubling.

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WHEN THE GOP GIVES UP ON FEDERALISM.... The residents of the District of Columbia pay federal taxes, but have no voice in Congress. A measure is finally near passage that would, at long last, give D.C. a vote in the House of Representatives.

But before that happens, Senate Republicans want to ignore their professed principles and tinker a bit with the city's governance.

Opponents of a bill that would award the District its first seat in the House of Representatives fought back yesterday with a blitz of amendments in the Senate, including one to repeal the city's gun-control laws that appeared to have significant support. [...]

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he was introducing the amendment [to undo the city's gun laws] because the D.C. Council "has continued to enact onerous and unconstitutional firearms regulations" despite the Supreme Court decision last year overturning the city's ban on handguns.

He produced a large chart on the Senate floor that showed the city's murder rate over the years.

"Can you honestly tell me that gun control in D.C. has been effective?" Ensign asked.

Think about that. A lawmaker from Nevada will be gracious enough to let 600,000 American taxpayers have a vote in the House, but only if he approves of their local gun-control laws.

This is absurd. Just as a thought experiment, imagine what Ensign would say if Democrats said, "We'll let Carson City residents have a voice in Congress, but only if they pass stricter gun-control laws." Ensign would be apoplectic, and give impassioned speeches about "local control," "federalism," and Congress intervening on an issue that local representatives can address without federal mandates. And he'd be right.

But Republican principles suddenly disappear when it comes to D.C. As Clay Risen noted, "And Republicans wonder why D.C. votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Maybe it's because for all their talk of states' rights and federalism, when it comes to Washington the GOP is aggressively paternalistic, to the point where a senator from Nevada can, with a straight face, presume to tell Washingtonians the best way to run their city."

If John Ensign wants to shape D.C.'s gun laws, he has another option. He can move to Washington, run for city council, and introduce a proposal to change the city's existing policy.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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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.

* Bill Clinton talked to Greg Sargent about Obama, the state of the GOP, Jindal, the economy, and all sorts of other topics.

* The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gets underway in Washington today. The event is the largest in the nation for the far-right.

* Camp Coleman is talking more and more about asking for a whole new election.

* Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) said Sen. Jim Bunning (R) should not seek re-election, calling him an "embarrassment" to the state. Mongiardo is, of course, a likely Democratic opponent for Bunning next year.

* As expected, it appears Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco has the edge against Democrat Scott Murphy in New York's 20th. The special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, however, is still more than a month away.

* In the race for Ohio's soon-to-be-open Senate seat, there's already a crowded Democratic field, but it got a little bigger yesterday when State Rep. Tyrone Yates threw his hat into the ring.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.), his political fortunes in decline, shook up his top political staff yesterday.

* Actor Val Kilmer is moving forward with his plans to run for governor of New Mexico.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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SUPREMES DISAPPOINT SUMMUM.... There's been a quirky legal fight out of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, that's been unfolding for several years, and which the Supreme Court wrapped up yesterday. The conclusion is a little unsatisfying, though.

If you're just joining us, a small park across from the town's city hall has about a dozen objects, including a wishing well, a millstone from the city's first flour mill, and a Ten Commandments monument. In 2003, a religious group called the Summum asked the city to let them erect a monument with its Seven Aphorisms in the park. The city rejected the request, and the Summum filed suit.

The not-especially-liberal 10th Circuit ruled with the Summum and gave local officials a choice: allow all faith to erect their own displays in the park, or remove the other monuments. (Conservatives, both in Utah and across the country, who say we need more religion in the public square, refused to come to the Summum's defense. I wonder why.)

Yesterday, the Supreme Court weighed in and reversed the appeals court's ruling.

A public park in Utah that includes a monument to the Ten Commandments need not make room for a similar monument reflecting the beliefs of an unusual religion called Summum, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

Permanent monuments in public parks are not subject to the free speech analysis that applies to speeches and leaflets in public forums, the court ruled. Instead, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for eight justices, such monuments are "best viewed as a form of government speech."

Since the government is free to say what it likes, Justice Alito said, the Summum church's right to free speech under the First Amendment was not violated by the city's rejection of its monument.

The decision was unanimous but fractured. In four concurring opinions, six justices set out sharply contrasting views about the decision's scope and consequences.

It's unsatisfying because the case wasn't even considered on the grounds of religious liberty. I'd hoped the high court would have some thoughts on whether public officials could promote (endorse?) one religion's sacred text, while turning down another faith's "aphorisms." Why let public officials play favorites among faiths on public property?

Alas, the justices didn't address this at all, basing the decision on free-speech grounds. That said, Justice Souter was wise to raise a red flag:

Justice David H. Souter, who joined the court's decision but did not adopt Justice Alito's reasoning, was not so sure. If the Ten Commandments monument is now understood to be government speech, he said, "the specter of violating the Establishment Clause will behoove" the city "to take care to avoid the appearance of a flat-out establishment of religion."

One solution, Justice Souter said, is "safety in numbers, and it will be in the interest of a careful government to accept other monuments."


Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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JOE THE AFTERTHOUGHT.... On the homepage of the Politico right now, there's a headline that reads, "Joe laughs at Obama speech," above a picture of Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. The headline leads to a story -- and video -- in which we learn the former campaign prop didn't care for President Obama's address to Congress this week.

Apparently, the fact that Wurzelbacher "did not have many nice things to say about Obama's speech" is newsworthy.

It's worth noting, though, that while Wurzelbacher remains important in some circles, his public "following" appears to be dwindling.

Joe the Plumber (no longer a plumber; first name actually Samuel) popped into [Washington, D.C.] yesterday evening to sell his new book and to remind people that he's still a plain and simple guy. Mission accomplished, on at least one of his missions.

About 11 people wandered into the rows of seats set up hopefully in the basement of a downtown Border's bookstore to hear Joe speak. Joe addressed them from behind a lectern and with a microphone, but that seemed unnecessarily formal.

At least a few of the 11 didn't actually show up for Wurzelbacher, but were in the store anyway. One was reading "Dreams From My Father" upstairs and thought it was an amusing coincidence that "Joe the Plumber" was in Borders at the time.

Wurzelbacher was scheduled to speak and sign books for three hours. He left after 55 minutes when no one else showed up.

John McCain wasn't there. Neither were any other members of Congress, Hill staffers, think-tank aides, conservative media personalities, etc. The whole event sounds kind of depressing. It was a reminder that as campaign props go, Wurzelbacher has become something of an afterthought.

So, why is his take on a presidential address worthy of a piece at the Politico? Your guess is as good as mine.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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'NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES'.... This is an unusually instructive look into the far-right's perspective on sexual health.

Democrats were outraged Wednesday morning when [Colorado] Republican state Sen. Dave Schultheis said he planned to vote against a bill to require HIV tests for pregnant women because the disease "stems from sexual promiscuity" and he didn't think the Legislature should "remove the negative consequences that take place from poor behavior and unacceptable behavior." The Colorado Springs lawmaker then proceeded to cast the lone vote against SB-179, which passed 32-1 and moves on to the House.

Schultheis, it's worth noting, is the state senator for James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

I can't relate to an ideology that can fairly be described as "twisted," but let's be clear. Schultheis believes it's important for women to face "negative consequences" for sexual behavior that he considers "unacceptable." If that means more women and children become HIV positive, he's fine with that.

It's a perspective that effectively argues, as my friend Morbo once put it, "They sinned, now let them suffer for it."

It's the same rationale that led many conservatives to oppose initiatives to combat the human papillomavirus (HPV), which increases a woman's chances of developing cervical cancer. A vaccine that immunizes against HPV infection has been developed, but some far-right groups, most notably the Family Research Council, have opposed making it widely available to young women. As an FRC representative said a while back, the vaccine "could be potentially harmful" to women "because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."

It's practically identical to Schultheis' take. The key is to discourage sex. If the discouragement leads to "negative consequences" -- cancer, HIV, etc. -- so be it.

Remember, these folks like to consider themselves "pro-family." No, I don't understand it, either.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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KRISTOL'S ADVICE SOUNDS FAMILIAR.... In his inaugural column for the print edition of the Washington Post, Bill Kristol offers some advice for his Republican brethren: obstruct as much as humanly possible.

...Obama's aim is not merely to "revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity." ... Conservatives and Republicans will disapprove of this effort. They will oppose it. Can they do so effectively?

Perhaps -- if they can find reasons to obstruct and delay. They should do their best not to permit Obama to rush his agenda through this year. They can't allow Obama to make of 2009 what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965. Slow down the policy train. Insist on a real and lengthy debate. Conservatives can't win politically right now. But they can raise doubts.... Only if this happens will conservatives be able to get a hearing for their (compelling, in my view) arguments against big-government, liberal-nanny-state social engineering -- and for their preferred alternatives.

It seems like an odd thing for Kristol to put in writing. Generally, Republicans say they want to at least try to have a constructive role in public policy. Kristol counsels the opposite -- Obama is poised to "make history," so Republicans need to "obstruct and delay." The GOP, Kristol insists, needs to "find reasons" to do. Obstruct for obstruction's sake, and figure out the rationale later.

What's striking is how predictable Kristol's advice has become. This was the strategy Kristol recommended during the fight over the economic recovery package, and more importantly, it was the advice he offered Republicans in the early 1990s, when they confronted the Clinton White House. Indeed, in December 1993, Kristol wrote a strategy memo to congressional Republicans, urging them to "kill" any effort at healthcare reform -- "sight unseen" -- because it would help the Democratic Party.

Jonathan Chait noted this morning, "His current advice is equally disingenuous. Kristol is saying that Republicans should raise objections about the speed of legislation, pick fights, point to foreign policy -- but not because they actually care about the speed of the legislative process or the other fights they're going to pick. It will all be a pretext to stop Obama's agenda. Is this the kind of thing he should be admitting in public?"

Probably not. The minority party is going to oppose the majority party's ideas. That's expected; it's what the minority party is supposed to do. But Kristol's advice helps end the charade -- Republicans, if they take the columnist's advice, won't play a constructive role and won't make good-faith compromises to advance a policy agenda.

That's largely in line with expectations, but it's nevertheless interesting to see in print.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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THE APOLOGY WILL COME IN 3...2...1.... Real Clear Politics chatted with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) yesterday, and asked the governor about the "view that perhaps Republicans are rooting for President Obama to fail." Given the notoriety of Rush Limbaugh announcing his hope that Obama fails, the RCP question was almost certainly in reference to the radio host's infamous remarks.

Lee Fang noted Sanford's response:

"I don't want [Obama] to fail. Anybody who wants him to fail is an idiot, because it means we're all in trouble."

As it happens, this is a rare point of agreement for me when it comes to Mark Sanford. Americans who root for American failure are idiots.

But the angle to keep an eye on here is what Sanford will do when Limbaugh hears about this.

Last month, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) offered subtle criticism of Limbaugh, dismissing the right-wing talk-show host for finding it "easy" to "throw bricks" from the outside. About a half-day later, Gingrey was groveling for forgiveness, apologizing to Limbaugh in writing and on the air. It was one of the more pathetic displays for a member of Congress in recent history, but it was also a reminder -- there aren't many lines Republicans fear crossing, but Limbaugh criticism is verboten.

So, will Sanford apologize this morning or this afternoon? Directly or indirectly? Will he try to finesse it -- "Only some of those rooting against Americans are idiots; I didn't mean Rush" -- or will Sanford just make a complete reversal?

The leader of the Republican Party is waiting, and Sanford is planning to run for president. Let the groveling commence.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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HE'S GOING FOR IT.... In his address to Congress this week, President Obama said, "Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year." Apparently, he meant it.

President Obama is proposing to begin a vast expansion of the U.S. health-care system by creating a $634 billion reserve fund over the next decade, launching an overhaul that most experts project will ultimately cost at least $1 trillion.

The "reserve fund" in the budget proposal being released today is Obama's attempt to demonstrate how the country could extend health insurance to millions more Americans and at the same time begin to control escalating medical bills that threaten the solvency of families, businesses and the government.

Obama aims to make a "very substantial down payment" toward universal coverage by trimming tax breaks for the wealthy and squeezing payments to insurers, hospitals, doctors and drug manufacturers, a senior administration official said yesterday.

Embedded in the budget figures are key policy changes that the administration argues would improve the quality of care and bring much-needed efficiency to a health system that costs $2.3 trillion a year.

The White House first step doesn't include the details of a reform proposal, and that's a deliberate part of the broader strategy -- the president intends to move forward with the down payment on a plan, while working cooperatively with Congress to shape the plan itself.

Paying for the investment is, of course, the tricky part (at least, one of the tricky parts). The administration has sketched out a proposal that would "reduce the value of itemized tax deductions for everyone in the top income tax bracket, 35 percent, and many of those in the 33 percent bracket -- roughly speaking, starting at $250,000 in annual income for a married couple." This would cover about half of the healthcare fund, with the other half coming from "proposed cost savings in Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs."

The administration seems well aware of the fact that a $634 billion over 10 years would not cover literally everyone. Neera Tanden, a top Obama health adviser, acknowledged, "We know that this is not enough to achieve our overall goal of getting health care for every American, but it is a significant down payment."

It is, indeed. And while the down payment may only be the first step, this isn't incrementalism -- it's a significant step forward. Jonathan Cohn noted, "How big an investment is that? It's pretty big -- more, I believe, than any president has proposed setting aside for coverage expansions to the non-elderly since Clinton tried for universal health insurance in the 1990s. And it confirms that Obama is serious about pursuing health care reform, beyond small incremental steps."

Igor Volsky emphasized how different this approach is from the early '90s: "Overall, the fund is a good start, but it's certainly not enough to reach universal coverage. Still, the Obama administration has learned from the mistakes of past reform efforts. Unlike the Clinton strategy, which didn't include any money for health reform in the budget, and left Congress to digest a 700+ page health plan, Obama and Congress will fill in the details of reform."

And publius highlighted the broader significance: "Obama is pushing for national health care reform -- the crown jewel of the progressive legislative agenda -- while simultaneously trying to break down the modern political coalitions that Nixon and Reagan built. This guy is swinging for the fences -- and swinging hard."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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INTELLECTUAL LAZINESS.... Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) nationally-televised address on Tuesday has been widely panned, and for good reason. As political speeches go, it was a train wreck. It's rare when political observers from across the ideological spectrum can agree on something subjective, but there was near-universal agreement on this one -- Jindal blew it.

Two dissenters, however, stood out. For example, Rush Limbaugh insisted that conservatives who noticed Jindal's awful speech should keep their mouths shut: "[I]f you think -- people on our side I'm talking to you -- those of you who think Jindal was horrible, you think -- in fact, I don't ever want to hear from you ever again.... I've spoken to him numerous times, he's brilliant. He's the real deal.

Of course, this isn't really a defense, so much as it's a call to "clap louder." Limbaugh thinks Jindal's speech should be free of criticism because Jindal is a far-right Republican. That's hardly a mature way to assess a speech, but Limbaugh is Limbaugh.

The far more fascinating response came from blogger Ann Althouse, who noted the "instinctive revulsion" towards Jindal.

Why are all these people so confident that they are not manifesting racism? There's just something about this man that doesn't seem right, that you don't care to examine exactly what it is, but you know it deep down in your gut somehow. Seriously. How do you know this is not racism? [italics in the original]

Now, I saw quite a few negative reactions to Jindal's speech, from the left, right, and center, but I didn't notice a single critique that incorporated racism, even subtly. Indeed, Althouse didn't offer any examples to bolster her claim; she just seems to believe that some unnamed observers might be motivated by racism.

This is pretty disturbing, and by some measures, offensive. Jindal gave a bad speech. Political observers noticed and then commented on it. That's what political observers do. The response wasn't "instinctive," but rather, "descriptive." Throwing around casual accusations of racism, without evidence, has no place in serious discourse.

There's a certain intellectual laziness at play, and I'm afraid we've seen it before. If you don't like a Roman Catholic judicial nominee, you must be anti-Catholic. If you vote against a woman candidate, you're likely a misogynist. If you were unimpressed by an Indian-American's speech, you might, "deep down in your gut," be "manifesting racism."

How sad.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Hilzoy

A Change Of Pace

Yesterday, the House passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would make it illegal to "import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce" any nonhuman primate. (Humans are covered by the 13th Amendment.) This is one of those small-bore but really, really good bills that I've been rooting for for years. I wrote about it back in 2005; since I rather like my original post, here's a compressed and updated version, rather than a whole new one.

Owning primates as pets is a bad idea. Unlike dogs and cats, who have had thousands of years to adapt to us, nonhuman primates have the psyches they need to survive in a jungle or on a savannah, not in a human home. Most people buy them when they are cute little babies. At this point, like infants of most (mammalian) species, they are tractable and submissive. However, this (predictably) doesn't last. When they hit puberty, many of them become aggressive, and try to start dominance fights with members of what they think of as their pack (i.e., your household.) Sometimes they start with the pack's weakest members (i.e., your children.) Since most apes and monkeys are very strong, and have vicious bites, this is not pleasant.

Moreover, they are agile, athletic, clever, inquisitive, and have opposable thumbs. As someone who has owned cats and dogs, I have often been very grateful that they had neither the intelligence nor the opposable thumbs required to do things like open cupboards and turn doorknobs. Monkeys do. And they love to tear things apart for fun -- the contents of your pantry, your tax files, your clothes, the curtains, whatever. From the owner of a Capuchin monkey -- small as primates go:

"He can unlock windows and would open them all of the time, which is fine with the bars but not fine for my electric bill. So I rigged them shut. Well, he figured that out and broke the windows completely. So I had to get a screened-in patio that cost me 11 grand so that the mosquitoes would not infest his room and my house. The electric bill stays at a ridiculous rate.

He managed to pick at the walls enough until he could get his hands into it and then eventually tore giant holes around his room. He pulled out all of the insulation and the wiring. I had to contain him for a week while construction workers came in to rebuild the walls with a cement board, which, fortunately, he hasn't been able to destroy yet."

More fun: when you're up in the trees, you don't need to care where you pee, so most nonhuman primates don't. You can put diapers on them, but they can take them off again. Consider the implications for a monkey-owner's carpeting, furniture, etc. Consider the fact that almost every animal gets diarrhea sometimes. Yuck.

Third, they are not very trainable. Lots of people confuse intelligence with tractability, but the two are very different. Apes and monkeys are smart, but not tractable, except when they are young. Most of the chimps you see on TV are (in chimp terms) young children; by the time they get anywhere near adolescence, they are generally unusable as performers, since (understandably) they are more concerned with things like establishing dominance over other primates than with pleasing us.

For these reasons, nonhuman primates make really, really bad pets. They are destructive and at times vicious, and, as I said, they bite hard. As a result, most people who own them end up keeping them in cages. This is really dreadful for very intelligent, very social, emotionally complicated animals. And it's even worse when you consider that nonhuman primates tend to live from fifteen to thirty years; chimps in captivity live until around sixty. That's a very long time to be in prison.

Besides that, they are also a public health hazard. As I said earlier, primates bite:

"It is not reasonable to expect that you will never be bitten by any monkey. The relatively docile youngster eventually turns from play-aggression to the serious aggression of an adult. Proper management techniques go a long ways in coping. The larger the monkey, generally speaking, the bigger the problem. Yet it is hard to prepare someone for the onslaught of mature aggression in a monkey. Have you ever seen a rabid dog in the throes of an attack--the pursuit of an angry bull in a bull ring, the vicious ripping power of a lion's canine teeth? A mature monkey, even one who was hand-raised, can attack a friend or stranger with equal vengeance. An angry monkey has the cunning and dexterity to leap into the air and accurately take a swipe an the human eye, or to bite the human body in the most vulnerable places, the jugular vein, the veins of the wrists, the nerve-filled fingers of the hand. It almost takes the discipline of a professional trainer to deal with the personalities of some individual monkeys in a constructive way as they mature."

This is a danger to members of one's household, and to anyone a primate encounters if he or she escapes, since biting is one of their normal reactions to stress. (And they are very good at escaping. Here's a partial list of incidents involving escaped primates. And here's an article on someone who was attacked by chimps a few years back, with a picture of what remains of his face over sixty surgeries later.)

Besides the bites themselves, monkeys and apes also carry diseases. Since they are a lot more like us than cats or dogs are, they are susceptible to many more human diseases, and we are susceptible to more of theirs. Here is an article on all the diseases one can get from nonhuman primates, including ebola, Marburg, monkeypox, viral hepatitis and all sorts of delightful things. One that's particularly worth noting is Herpes B, which is widespread in many species of macaques. They tend to be asymptomatic, but when humans get Herpes B, they usually die. (And ask yourself this: how would a human doctor even know to look for a disease normally found only in macaques?)

So, to summarize: owning nonhuman primates as pets is bad for the owner, really bad for the primate, and bad for public health. Bad, bad, bad. And what do you do with your pet primate once you've decided you don't want to care for him or her any more? If you're lucky, you can find a sanctuary that takes them in, but there are very few of these, and they are generally full. You certainly can't reintroduce them into the wild after bringing them up as a sort of peculiar and hairy human child and expect good results. Most often, people either keep them in cages for the duration, abandon them, or euthanize them. All told, it's a sad, sad story.

Which is why the fact that the House passed this bill is a very, very good thing. The Humane Society reports that Sens. Boxer and Vitter plan to introduce it in the Senate soon. Write to your Senators and ask them to support it.

***

Postscript: Does anyone have any idea why Democrats voted for this bill 247-2, while Republicans voted against it 76-93? I didn't realize that this was a partisan issue.

Hilzoy 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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February 25, 2009

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

* The Treasury Department is starting to outline the "stress test" mechanism.

* Third time's the charm: President Obama nominated former Washington State Gov. Gary Locke as the new head of the Commerce Department. "Now, I'm sure it's not lost on anyone that we've tried this a couple of times, but I'm a big believer in keeping at something until you get it right," Obama said today.

* Ben Bernanke offered his definition of "nationalization."

* Bipartisanship! The House passed its $410 billion omnibus spending package today, 245 to 178. Sixteen Republicans voted with the majority.

* DHS still wants to have a system in which all cargo entering the U.S. is screened, but it won't meet the deadline.

* Will Obama face any heat from the left on its Iraq withdrawal timeline? Not really.

* What did Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) really say about the president's birth certificate?

* Americans invented all kinds of cool stuff, but Obama was wrong to credit us with inventing the automobile and solar energy.

* Harry Reid intends to tackle healthcare this summer. Good.

* Chris Bowers wants to see David Sirota get the 10 p.m. slot on MSNBC; Ezra Klein wants to see Chris Hayes get the gig. Those both sound like good chioces, but in the meantime, the network still hasn't called me about my audition.

* Jindal's getting some good advice on how to recover from last night.

* On a related note, the timing on Michael Gerson's latest column could have been much better.

* I can't imagine what the mayor of Los Alamitos was thinking.

* The San Francisco Chroncile is in big trouble.

* And finally, Drudge sure does play funny games with headlines.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... George Will's understanding of social norms is on par with his understanding of global warming.

Asked for a "final thought" on the president's speech last night, conservative columnist George Will chose to focus on the fact that Obama was able to wrap his arms around another man, in friendship. "I don't know when men started to hug each other, but hug they do, and look at that," he said.

Really? I don't recall him complaining when George W. Bush kissed Joe Lieberman after a State of the Union address a couple of years ago.

Adam Serwer, who was kidding, responded, "Well I don't know when it started, but it needs to stop. Don't people know that men hugging other men puts you on the lonely path to sin?"

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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WHAT'S THE OPPOSITE OF A RUBBER-STAMP?.... Senate Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has noticed that the White House has appointed a series of policy "czars" in the Obama administration cabinet, covering issues as diverse as healthcare and climate change. Byrd has also noticed that these "czars" don't need Senate confirmation and may be protected, in theory, by executive privilege.

And he's not happy about it.

"Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process," Byrd wrote in the letter.

"As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president," he continued. "In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability."

Byrd also urged the president to prohibit the right of executive privilege from appointees' in agencies overseen by the Senate.

Two quick things. First, Byrd is probably right. The "czars" operate, as practical matter, as heads of offices that sort of look like presidential taskforces. Obama has vowed transparency and accountability, and I suspect he means it, but this current mechanism could be improved to satisfy the needs of congressional oversight.

And second, good for Byrd for calling Obama out on this. Congress is ... what's the phrase I'm looking for here ... an independent branch of the government. The concept of oversight was effectively banished from 2001 to 2006, and the "rubber-stamp" phenomenon took hold. Congressional Republicans simply did what Bush and Cheney told them to do. It led to almost comical levels of secrecy and abuse, with no accountability at all.

I don't doubt the new majority party will work with the White House on the president's agenda. They're largely on the same page, have the same goals, and are content to let Obama take the lead in establishing priorities. All of that's fine. In a time like this, I'm thrilled there's a president and a Congress ready to work together on an ambitious policy agenda.

But checks and balances still count, and Congress still has oversight responsibilities. It's good of Byrd to remember that.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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IS IT MULTIPLE CHOICE AFTER ALL?.... Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) insisted governors don't really have a choice when it comes to the stimulus package. As far as the law is concerned, this is an all-or-nothing proposition.

This sounded great. The problem is, his argument may have been incorrect.

In a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag. Schumer said, "Section 1607(a) of the economic recovery legislation provides that the Governor of each state must certify a request for stimulus funds before any money can flow. No language in this provision, however, permits the governor to selectively adopt some components of the bill while rejecting others. To allow such picking and choosing would, in effect, empower the governors with a line-item veto authority that President Obama himself did not possess at the time he signed the legislation."

My friend Sarabeth, however, alerted me to a piece from Donny Shaw, who read the relevant portion of the bill, and noticed a competing detail that Schumer overlooked.

[H]ere's Section 1607 of the stimulus bill:

SEC. 1607. (a) Certification by Governor - Not later than 45 days after the date of enactment of this Act, for funds provided to any State or agency thereof, the Governor of the State shall certify that: (1) the State will request and use funds provided by this Act; and (2) the funds will be used to create jobs and promote economic growth.

(b) Acceptance by State Legislature - If funds provided to any State in any division of this Act are not accepted for use by the Governor, then acceptance by the State legislature, by means of the adoption of a concurrent resolution, shall be sufficient to provide funding to such State.

That language about funds to a state "in any division" suggests the law does allow for governors to take (and, presumably, reject) portions of the funding, in which case Schumer's mistaken.

To be sure, states should take federal stimulus aid. The point here, though, is whether Schumer's argument is right or wrong.

Anyone have a different read on this?

Update: Jack Balkin tackled this last week, and has a very helpful post on the subject.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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SOCIAL SECURITY.... The president told Congress last night, "To preserve our long-term fiscal health, we must also address the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security." This, apparently, was not what Republicans wanted to hear.

The GOP liked a lot of what it heard in President Obama's address Tuesday night about deficit reduction and personal responsibility.

But Republicans didn't like what they didn't hear: talk about Social Security reform. Obama zipped past the issue with a one-line reference.... The way to kill an issue in Washington is to suggest we begin to talk about it. Republicans took notice.

After hoping that Obama might be open to some sort of bipartisan reform that would reduce benefits and raise the eligibility age -- and perhaps plant the seeds for private accounts -- Republicans are now less hopeful that he'll come their way.

"I was not happy," Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told the Huffington Post. "That was the one area of his speech I was not happy with. He appears to be backing away from what I thought was an earlier commitment to tackling Social Security reform."

It wasn't just McConnell. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Obama talked too much about healthcare and not enough about weakening Social Security. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said something similar. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said Republicans will work with the White House if the president is ready to embrace their ideas about Social Security.

Frankly, if these guys are "not happy," the rest of us should be rather pleased.

I'm not entirely sure what GOP lawmakers were expecting on this issue. Last month, pressed on entitlements, the president told Washington Post editors, "'Social Security, we can solve,' he said, waving his left hand. 'The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable....'" Obama made similar remarks throughout the campaign.

Given the kvetching, congressional Republicans make it sound as if they expected Obama to endorse an "ownership-society agenda" and embrace benefit cuts that aren't needed anyway. If that's what they're waiting for, they're going to be waiting a very long time.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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GOP EARMARKS.... Last night, appearing once again on CBS News, John McCain complained about something he heard in President Obama's address to Congress.

"[W]hen he says that there's no earmarks, I just picked up a bill that we're going to take up tomorrow, that has 9,247 earmarks in it, in the omnibus appropriations bill. So, what am I supposed to believe here?"

McCain is confused. When the president talked about the lack of earmarks, he was talking about the economic stimulus bill. In fact, Obama wasn't vague: "I'm proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks." The omnibus appropriations bill is a different piece of legislation -- a detail McCain is probably aware of -- and Obama didn't (and couldn't) promise that every spending bill would be earmark-free forevermore. "What am I supposed to believe here?" Reality would be a good place to start.

That said, McCain's observation is at least partially right -- there are earmarks in the appropriations bill. And why is that? Because many of McCain's Republican colleagues put them there.

Republicans are expected to deliver a daylong rant Wednesday against Democratic spending legislation, yet the bill is loaded with thousands of pet projects that Republican lawmakers inserted.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, included $142,500 for emergency repairs to the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Austin Bonham, Texas. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., joined state colleagues to include $1.425 million for Nevada "statewide bus facilities." The top two Republicans on Congress' money committees also inserted local projects.

In all, an estimated $3.8 billion worth of specific projects, called "earmarks," are in the $410 billion spending bill that the House of Representatives is to vote on Wednesday.

According to two separate estimates, earmarks inserted by GOP lawmakers amount for 40% of the total.

Texas' Hall, in particular, is an interesting case. While writing up earmarks, he also boasts on his official website, "I support efforts to eliminate wasteful spending and slow the rate of growth in government."

To borrow a phrase, what am I supposed to believe here?

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE BENEFITS OF TRAGEDY PREVENTION.... Of all the remarks Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) made last night, the one that stands out the best was his complaint about "wasteful spending" in the economic recovery bill. He specifically pointed to "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring,'" adding, "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC."

Now, at first blush, there is some irony here. Jindal, the chief executive of a state ravaged by natural disasters, is mocking research funds that monitor natural disasters.

But the substance matters here. Andrea Thompson took a closer look at exactly what that $140 million is for, and explained that "volcano monitoring" helps scientists better understand the inner workings of volcanoes and offers information about impending eruptions. The federal funds saved jobs and will go to update equipment for the United States Geological Survey. (via Yglesias).

When [John Eichelberger, program coordinator for the USGS's Volcano Hazards Program] heard Jindal's remarks, Eichelberger said he "was frankly astonished" that the governor would use this particular example, given his own state's recent brush with a catastrophic natural disaster.

Among the scenarios in which the USGS's monitoring can assist - the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, which killed 57 people (including a geologist monitoring the mountain) and was the deadliest and costliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history ($2.74 billion in 2007 dollars). This event was preceded by thousands of earthquakes in the two months before the volcano blew its top; some of these prompted the governor of Washington to declare a state of emergency and many residents were evacuated from a designated danger zone.

"This is a hazard we can do something about," Eichelberger said. "We can spend a modest amount of money and prevent a tragedy."

Ironically, within a few hours of Jindal's speech, a volcano in Chile forced evacuations. (If Jindal is only concerned about U.S. disasters, there are 65 active volcanoes in the U.S., and they are of particular concern in Alaska.)

Jindal seemed to dismiss the entire field of research, calling it "something called 'volcano monitoring,'" as if the science was on its face silly.

Paul Krugman concluded, "The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead."

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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KRISTOL IS AS KRISTOL DOES.... We talked earlier about President Obama facing at least some pushback for putting the economy in front of foreign affairs in his address to Congress. I should have realized similar criticism from Bill Kristol wouldn't be far behind.

Kristol, now a contributor to Time the New York Times the Washington Post, argues today that the president only devoted a "few sentences" to foreign policy last night, adding, "The treatment of foreign policy was perfunctory at best." That's a subjective question, I suppose, but Obama devoted nine paragraphs, totaling about 600 words, to the issue, and outlined an entirely new approach to international affairs. Kristol may not approve of the vision, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

But more importantly, Kristol wasn't too terribly concerned with the extent of Obama's comments on foreign policy, or where they were included in the speech, but he seemed quite troubled over what the president didn't say.

The only particular place mentioned by Obama, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, was Israel: "To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort." The Israeli-Arab dispute and its envoy merits a mention. Yet Iran and its nuclear program does not?

This was not the speech of a man who even contemplates the possibility of using force within the next year to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Kristol seems to think this is criticism, as if asking, "Where was the belligerent saber-rattling at Tehran?" is necessarily evidence of some kind of presidential omission. Obama probably won't attack Iran in 2009 -- and we're supposed to think that's a bad thing.

How odd.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SPENDING FREEZE.... On Monday, RNC Chairman Michael Steele appeared on Fox News, calling for a "spending freeze." It was relatively easy to dismiss, since Steele has no formal policy role, and is easily confused over policy details.

But actual Republican policymakers are apparently serious about pursuing such a freeze. David Weigel reports:

House Republicans have responded with a change of subject: they have proposed a "spending freeze," a controversial idea among economists during an economic downturn. [...]

"We're advocating that Congress freeze all federal spending immediately," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the chairman of the House Republican Conference, during a Tuesday luncheon at the conservative Heritage Foundation. [...]

Pence's argument for a spending freeze is widely accepted within the Republican conference. On Monday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked Democrats to "abandon their plans" to push through an omnibus bill "and instead pass a clean bill that freezes spending at current levels."

It's hard to overstate how incredibly foolish this is. It's a Neo-Hooverism approach in its most obvious form. Weigel noted that Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist who wrote a book critical of George W. Bush's spending, "could not name many peers who believe that smaller deficits and less spending are the way to combat economic downturns."

For Republican officials -- who spent freely, cut taxes, and produced massive debt during Bush's presidency -- the way to respond to an economic crisis is to spend less money. It's what "people out there" do, so it's what the federal government should do. (It's as if they've never even heard about the differences between micro- and macro-economics.)

The sensible debate right now is whether the feds should spend, spend more, or spend a lot more. GOP lawmakers have given up on credibility and seriousness, and are moving in the opposite direction, calling for a freeze that would only exacerbate the crisis. Indeed, demonstrating a painful incoherence, Republicans are, simultaneously, calling for a spending freeze, deficit reduction, and more tax cuts.

When John McCain inexplicably called for a spending freeze six months ago, it was a spectacularly bad idea. Pat Garofalo explains it's slightly worse now: "The economic stimulus package's main purpose is to close the GDP gap and jumpstart the economy by spurring spending by households, government and the private sector. A spending freeze would act as an 'anti-stimulus,' cutting spending precisely when it's too low and the economy is moving too slowly."

I received a very sincere note the other day from a long-time reader who thinks I've been too "shrill" lately in describing Republican policy ideas. That may or may not be true -- it's certainly not conscious on my part -- but if I seem more frustrated, it's because in the midst of a very serious crisis, the best the minority party's leaders can come up with is truly nonsensical ideas like these. With so much on the line, it's a little hard to take.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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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.

* Things continue to not go well for Norm Coleman. On the other hand, he is the only non-senator allowed to attend the Senate Republicans' weekly caucus meetings.

* Pennsylvania's Republican Committee Chairman suggested yesterday that the state party may not support Sen. Arlen Specter's (R) re-election campaign.

* On a related note, Specter expects to have a primary opponent, though it's not yet clear who that might be.

* In an unusual twist, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is "praising House Democrats for voting in favor of the economic stimulus measure that passed two weeks ago."

* Tony Perkins, the very conservative head of the Family Research Council, continues to explore a possible primary challenge against Sen. David Vitter (R) in Louisiana. Perkins served in the state legislature and ran against Vitter in the 2002 Senate primary.

* And Ben Smith has an interesting item on Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, and Mark Sanford making an appearance earlier this week "at the regular gathering of Legacy, a group of mostly 40-and-under Republicans with roots in Texas but membership across the country. The well-heeled group strives to avoid media attention and does not let reporters attend their meetings."

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

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MAKING THE CASE FOR GOVERNMENT.... In early January, when then-President Elect Obama delivered a speech to unveil his stimulus plan, he offered a rather explicit defense of government: "It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy...."

It was the first hint of a fundamental shift. Reagan told us that government "is the problem." Clinton told us the "era of big government is over." And Obama wants America to know that government is the "only" institution that's capable of addressing an economic crisis of this severity.

The president carried this idea forward last night, delivering a national address that was, at its core, a full-throated defense of government intervention. The NYT noted that Obama "proposed a more activist government than any other since Lyndon B. Johnson."

Alex Massie had a good piece, describing the address, accurately, as an "ambitious, liberal speech."

It was a speech that would have been too bold for Clinton and too grand for Carter. Obama is the heir to LBJ American liberals have been waiting for. Anyone who feared that the present economic turmoil would be used to justify any manner of government initiatives -- in the name of Not Doing Nothing -- had those suspicions confirmed last night. The era of Big Government (by American standards) is back.

But it's back with a poise and a coolness and a demeanour that, allied with the present uncertainty, make it a much more palatable proposition than at any time since the Great Society itself.

E. J. Dionne Jr. was thinking along the same lines.

President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over.... [Obama] has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.

Tuesday night's speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. "We will rebuild," he declared, "we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism.

And that's ultimately why I liked it so much. The president wasn't apologetic about his use of government, it was just a matter of fact. These are times that demand an ambitious federal response and Obama is going to deliver one. We tried pretending that the government is a tool to be mistrusted and used sparingly, and now we're going to try something different.

I'm 35 and I haven't seen a president endorse this kind of progressive vision in my lifetime. It is, however, what I'd hoped for when I voted in November.

Update: Rich Lowry, intending this as criticism, noted that Obama is "trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

Yep.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THE FOREIGN/DOMESTIC BALANCE.... The last several State of the Union addresses have been broken up into two parts -- a look at domestic policy and a look at foreign policy. Given the economic crisis and the public's concerns, it seemed obvious that President Obama would start with the home front, and he did.

I'm a little surprised to see him face some criticism for this. Around 10 p.m. last night:

* The Politico's Glenn Thrush had an item noting, "It took President Obama 46 minutes to mention terrorism, the military or foreign affairs."

* Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) used his Twitter feed last night to complain, "We are at war -- seems to me honoring our troops should come on page one rather than the end of the speech."

* ABC News' "The Note" asked, "Took a LONG while to get to foreign policy, no?"

The problem isn't what Obama said about foreign policy and national security; the problem, apparently, is when he said it.

In the midst of an economic collapse, the president is facing criticism for starting with the economy in a national address? Really?

For what it's worth, the Republican response from Bobby Jindal was more than 2,000 words long, but only mentioned foreign affairs briefly, in passing, towards the end of his remarks. Unlike the president, the Louisiana governor didn't mention Iraq, Afghanistan, or al Qaeda at all.

Update: The Politico's Glenn Thrush follows up, noting that his observation was not necessarily intended as criticism: "I made no judgment, just wanted to point out how thoroughly domestic issues and the economic crisis dominated the speech -- a stark contrast to the Bush years."

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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DETACHED.... Following up on an earlier item on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) speech last night, I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention some of the specific highlights.

I promise not to fact-check the entire address -- it's tempting, but I'll resist -- but let's touch on a few key points. Here's Jindal, for example, explaining his concerns about government.

"Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts."

That doesn't make any sense. In fact, it's backwards -- the government failed to act in New Orleans, and a result, people suffered. Had a competent and effective federal response been in place, lives would have been saved. Jindal has learned the wrong lessons -- the families devastated by Hurricane Katrina needed more from Washington, not less. (And did you catch Jindal leaving my friend Rachel Maddow completely speechless on this point? Good stuff.)

"While some of the projects in the [stimulus] bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a 'magnetic levitation' line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."

First, the "Las Vegas to Disneyland" line is still ridiculous. Second, marveling at the very idea of high-speed rail, as if it were some kind of fanciful magic, does not reflect well on the governor's appreciation of infrastructure innovation. And third, since when is monitoring volcanoes a bad thing? Does Jindal think monitoring hurricanes is wasteful spending? The governor of a state ravaged by a natural disaster shouldn't mock programs that can save people from natural disasters.

"A few weeks ago, the president warned that our nation is facing a crisis that he said 'we may not be able to reverse.'"

Actually, no, he didn't.

A speech can be judged from a variety of different angles -- content, accuracy, tone, delivery, context, audience, etc. Jindal's was one of those rare gems that failed practically every test.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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EARLY REVIEWS.... Most of the reactions to President Obama's speech last night and this morning seem pretty positive, but there's often a disconnect between the observations of political observers and the public in general. How did the address play nationwide?

A CNN poll found a combined 92% of the country had a positive response to the president's remarks.

A new national poll indicates that two-thirds of those who watched President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress reacted favorably to his speech.

Sixty-eight percent of speech-watchers questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey Tuesday night had a very positive reaction to the president's address, with 24 percent suggesting they had a somewhat positive response and 8 percent indicating they had a negative reaction.

CNN acknowledged that the sample was "8 to 10 points more Democratic than the general public." However, when the majorities are this overwhelming -- 85% said Obama made them more optimistic, 82% said they back Obama's economic plan -- the lean doesn't matter as much. Subtract 8 to 10 points and the support is still very strong.

A CBS poll also offered encouraging numbers for the White House.

CBS News and Knowledge Networks held a nationally representative poll of 534 people who watched President Obama give his address to Congress to gauge their reaction in the minutes after the president's speech.

Eighty percent of speech watchers approve of President Obama's plans for dealing with the economic crisis. Before the speech, 63 percent approved.

All the usual caveats apply, of course. Polling immediately after a speech, with modest sample sizes, is tricky. But given Obama's popularity going into last night, and the traditional bounce that comes with a State of the Union address*, the poll results sound about right.


* I know it wasn't literally a State of the Union, but for all intents and purposes....

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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A PRE-EMPTIVE REBUTTAL.... One of the things I've always liked about Barack Obama speeches is that he refuses to talk down to the public. As Ezra Klein, reflecting on last night's speech, noted that the address "was an explanation. The president told us what he was planning to do. And the speech was written as if he believed that we could understand him."

Quite right. The president also seemed conscious, though, of the idea that there are some in our public discourse that may sow the seeds of confusion, and treat voters in a less respectful way. Earlier this week, speaking to the nation's governors, Obama emphasized his desire to engage in an "honest debate" -- it was a phrase he used the phrase a few times in a brief speech on Monday -- as if to underscore his concern that some are being less than sincere.

Re-reading last night's address again this morning, I noticed that Obama was speaking right past the lawmakers in the room, and effectively telling the public, "You're going to hear some nonsense on the talk shows, but don't believe it."

At times, it was practically pre-emptive in its intentions. We might hear that Obama spent too much time looking backwards, so he said:

"Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities -- as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament."

We might hear that Obama is just an old-school, big-government liberal, so he said:

"As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited -- I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships."

We might hear that Obama's housing plan is directed at those who least deserve help, so he said:

"It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values."

We might hear that Obama's financial plan rewards failed bankers, so he said:

"I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I. So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you -- I get it.... It's not about helping banks -- it's about helping people."

We might hear that government is bad and should just get out of the way, so he said:

"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity. For history tells a different story....In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive."

We might hear that Obama is going to raise our taxes, so he was explicit about the point:

"In order to save our children from a future of debt, we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. But let me perfectly clear, because I know you'll hear the same old claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut -- that's right, a tax cut -- for 95% of working families. And these checks are on the way."

To this extent, Obama was taking the offensive, knocking down arguments before they're even made.

It was an implicit acknowledgement of the ways in which the political discourse can stray from the factual path. The president had the bully pulpit, and he was determined to use it to set the record straight -- before it got corrupted by those less interested in "honest debate."

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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SO MUCH FOR THE JINDAL BREAKTHROUGH.... Expectations were high for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) last night, delivering the Republican response to the president's address to Congress. Practically every feature on the young governor includes the words "rising star" and "2012," and this was going to be his chance to shine on the national stage.

Instead, we're left with five simple words: "not ready for prime time."

To be sure, it's a tough -- and risky -- gig. These response speeches are very difficult to pull off, and very few manage to appear impressive. (Jim Webb was great a few years ago, but he was more the exception than the rule.) Jindal not only was given a tough assignment, he had to try to follow President Obama, who had just set a very high bar by delivering a terrific national address.

But context notwithstanding, Jindal was something of a disaster. The delivery was awkward and sing-song (comparisons to Kenneth from "30 Rock" are ubiquitous). The arguments were tone-deaf and tiresome. The anecdotes were long and pointless. Jindal hadn't quite practiced enough with a teleprompter. He not only seemed like a guy selling a bad product in an infomercial, Jindal seemed like he was new at it.

It was painful to watch, both because the speech was bad and because it was hard not to feel bad for the guy embarrassing himself on national television.

On one of the cable networks, viewers were told that Jindal was "almost childish," and this "was not Bobby Jindal's greatest oratorical moment." The network? Fox News.

I was under the impression that the whole point of inviting Jindal to offer the Republican response was to present the public with something new and different. But as bad as Jindal's performance was, his ideas were even worse -- tax cuts, drilling, school vouchers, spending bad, government bad. Why bother picking a fresh face if all the party has to offer is stale ideas? Why ask a young governor with a reputation for innovation to present the same old agenda that the GOP has pitched for a generation?

Consider David Brooks' take from last night on PBS:

"You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician, and I oppose the stimulus because I thought it was poorly drafted. But to come up at this moment in history with a stale 'government is the problem,' 'we can't trust the federal government' -- it's just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea that we're just gonna -- that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this, that -- in a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff, to just ignore all that and just say 'government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,' it's just a form of nihilism. It's just not where the country is, it's not where the future of the country is. There's an intra-Republican debate. Some people say the Republican Party lost its way because they got too moderate. Some people say they got too weird or too conservative. He thinks they got too moderate, and so he's making that case. I think it's insane, and I just think it's a disaster for the party."

My friend Tom Schaller added, "Someday, when scholars are trying to fingerpoint the nadir of the post-Bush Republican Party, they may arrive at Jindal's speech tonight. Though it was a tough moment for any Republican to give the opposition response, his speech came across as unserious in content and condescending in its tone."

Politicians can recover from awful speeches, but it'll be a while until Jindal lives this one down. A few years from now, when Jindal gets ready to run for president, conservatives will express excitement -- and then hesitate when they remember just how bad he was in late February, 2009.

Steve Benen 7:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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February 24, 2009

SPEECH OPEN THREAD.... I'll have more on the president's speech in the morning, but my quick reaction is that this was a very impressive address. Obama had a needle to thread, acknowledging the scope of the crisis, but also striking a hopeful note for the future.

To my ear, the speech was pitch-perfect. He made the quintessential case about turning crisis into opportunity.

That said, I thought I'd open the floor to some discussion. What'd you think?

Steve Benen 10:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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SPEECH LIVEBLOGGING.... President Obama will be heading into the House chamber in about 10 minutes, and I'll be sharing some reactions along the way. Here it goes....

8:55: Attorney General Eric Holder is the cabinet official who'll be at an undisclosed location tonight. FYI.

9:00: Capt. Sully and the crew of 1549 get a hearty round of applause.

9:03: Justice Ginsburg gets some deserved love from lawmakers on her way into the chamber. (Justice Thomas rushed past her like he had somewhere to go.)

9:06: I don't see Bachmann along the aisle this year. Just as well; she was always a rather odd presence there.

9:13: Did Shelby just say something about the weekend's controversy?

9:17: The speech is bound to begin eventually.

9:19: "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." (It's not "state of the union is strong," but it's in that spirit.)

9:20: "What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

9:21: "It is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament." Good idea.

9:22: "Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here." I think that was an applause line.

9:24: Hmm, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is only drawing applause from one half of the chamber.

9:26: "Because nobody messes with Joe." Cute.

9:28: That's a good explanation of why the the credit crisis matters.

9:29: Santelli pre-emption: "We have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and re-finance their mortgages. It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford...."

9:31: "I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over." I hope he means it.

9:33: "I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you -- I get it." Keep repeating that.

9:34: "It's not about helping banks -- it's about helping people." It was worth saying twice, because it's what people need to hear.

9:38: Making the case for government intervention. It's an important case to make: "Government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive."

9:39: "I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders -- and I know you don't either. It is time for America to lead again."

9:41: Cap and trade? "I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America."

9:42: Recommitting to the auto industry: "We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it."

9:43: Sobering healthcare numbers: "This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance."

9:44: "Scary but true: Already, we have done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last thirty days than we have in the last decade."

9:45: Healthcare reform is "a step we must take if we hope to bring down our deficit in the years to come.... The cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough." Expect to hear this a lot in the coming months.

9:46: "Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year." That should resolve some lingering doubts about the president's commitment to the issue.

9:49: "Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country -- and this country needs and values the talents of every American." Good stuff.

9:50: That sounds pretty ambitious: "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

9:52: Republicans, $5 trillion in eight years later, love talk about debt reduction.

9:54: Sorry, Halliburton: "We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq."

9:55: The benefit of the Bully Pulpit becomes clear: "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime."

9:56: Tax-free universal savings accounts? Is that new?

9:57: "For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price."

9:59: Message to the troops: "We honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support."

10:00: It's easy to say you support the troops, follow-through matters: "To keep our sacred trust with those who serve, we will raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned."

10:01: We've been waiting a long while to hear talk like this: "Living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture."

10:04: Leonard Abess gave away how much?

10:06: "We are not quitters." Four simple words, one great message.

10:08: "Every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done."

10:09: Big wrap-up: "If we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered.'"

Steve Benen 8:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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

* For a welcome change, the markets rallied today.

* Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes the stimulus package could lead to some economic growth next year, but a full recovery will take "more than two or three years." Bernanke also spoke against the idea of governors rejecting unemployment insurance.

* The Senate confirmed Hilda Solis as Labor Secretary, 80 to 17. It's about damn time.

* Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) today to resign from the Senate. Burris refused.

* AIG wants more money.

* News from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is even more discouraging.

* There will be a White House envoy to Darfur.

* US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger not only made the case for more and stronger unions, he also made the case against deregulation.

* In a surprise move, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the New York Post, personally apologized for the controversial chimp/stimulus cartoon.

* A step closer on D.C. voting rights.

* Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D): please stop talking.

* Can someone please hire some capable staffers for Tim Geithner at the Treasury Department?

* I wonder what the New York Times' editors were thinking.

* Given that we're talking about "the single most pressing fiscal challenge we face by far," the AP really should be more careful.

* And finally, Fox News' John Gibson is feeling litigious.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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TROOPS OUT OF IRAQ BY AUGUST 2010.... The official announcement should come later this week, but in the meantime, the AP has this report:

The United States plans to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq by August 2010, 19 months after President Barack Obama's inauguration, according to administration officials. The withdrawal plan would fulfill one of Obama's central campaign pledges, albeit a little more slowly than he promised. He said he would withdraw troops within 16 months, roughly one brigade a month from the time of his inauguration. [...]

The U.S. military will leave behind a residual force, between 30,000 and 50,000 troops, to continue advising and training Iraqi security forces, the two officials said. Also staying beyond the 19 months will be intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft, they said.

A further withdrawal will take place before December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all American troops.

According to the AP report, military commanders and national security advisers differed on strategies, and responded to the president's request with a series of alternatives. The 16-month withdrawal process was weighed against a 23-month timeline. As Obama is often inclined to do, he reportedly chose a 19-month strategy as a compromise.

Joe Klein added, "[T]he situation in Iraq has improved and a fairly rapid draw-down is not only practicable but necessary. The Army and Marines remain over-deployed, there are budgetary considerations and the Af/Pak situation obviously has become a higher military priority. There are still serious problems in Iraq, especially along the Arab-Kurd border in the north, but nothing like the chaos that existed two years ago.... [A] dreadful chapter in the history of American policy -- a bloody war of choice launched thoughtlessly -- seems to be coming to a close."

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE STIMULUS IS NOT 'MULTIPLE CHOICE'.... Chuck Schumer thinks it's time for Jindal, Sanford, et al, to cut the nonsense. Good for him.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a message for Republican governors hemming and hawing over whether to accept the stimulus money Uncle Sam is mailing to each state: Take it or leave it.

Several GOP governors, including Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and South Carolina's Mark Sanford, have cited ideological differences with the stimulus spending and suggested they may take some parts of it and decline the rest. For Schumer, it's all or nothing.
"No one would dispute that these governors should be given the choice as to whether to accept the funds or not. But it should not be multiple choice," Schumer writes in a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag.

Schumer's argument is two-fold. One, the effectiveness and "integrity" of the program is dependent on states accepting the entire package. Two, states can't legally cherry-pick from the stimulus package: "Section 1607(a) of the economic recovery legislation provides that the Governor of each state must certify a request for stimulus funds before any money can flow. No language in this provision, however, permits the governor to selectively adopt some components of the bill while rejecting others. To allow such picking and choosing would, in effect, empower the governors with a line-item veto authority that President Obama himself did not possess at the time he signed the legislation."

Kevin Drum raises a very good point: Schumer is, in at least one respect, doing the far-right governors a favor. Jindal, Sanford, and their cohorts know their states need the stimulus, know that unemployment insurance delivers a very effective bang-for-the-buck stimulus. and know that their pathetic posturing puts their constituents at risk. Schumer is effectively giving them an out -- they'd love to turn down some of the money, but the Big Bad Democrats wrote the bill in such a way as to make that impossible.

"I guess that's OK," Kevin noted. "A bit of Republican theatrics won't hurt us, and at least this means that Louisianans will get the unemployment benefits that Jindal tried to deny them. Which is not only good for them, but good for the economy too."

On a related note, Jindal used to think very differently about unemployment insurance. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) noted today, "In the wake of a natural disaster after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, then-Congressman Jindal cosponsored and supported legislation to expand unemployment benefits and inject federal dollars into Louisiana's unemployment trust fund. Yet today in the face of a financial disaster and record unemployment, he opposes similar action under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What changed?"

What a good question.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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'UNIVERSAL' HEALTH CARE.... Back during the Democratic presidential primaries, one of the few areas of major disagreement between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was healthcare mandates. Clinton said individual mandates were key to achieving universal coverage. Obama, in the least attractive part of his campaign platform, disagreed. It was pretty obvious throughout the debate that Clinton was right, and that Obama would have to switch if elected.

And sure enough, that may be poised to happen.

After speaking with administration officials, Ezra Klein reports this afternoon that the administration's budget will remain deliberately vague, directing Congress to make coverage "universal."

The budget -- and I was cautioned that the wording "is changing hourly" -- will direct Congress to "aim for universality." That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they have it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of "universality" is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, "it will cover everybody. And I don't see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate." [...]

The administration is bringing itself into alignment with senators like Max Baucus. Though they're not proposing an individual mandate in the budget, they are asking Congress to fulfill an objective that they expect will result in Congress proposing an individual mandate. And despite the controversy over the individual mandate in the campaign, they will support it. That, after all, is how you cover everybody.

Does this count as a flip-flop over the policy details? Probably, but it's nevertheless an improvement that makes the broader goal more likely. I was always under the impression that Obama got boxed in on opposing mandates for political purposes, and never quite believed his own campaign rhetoric anyway.

The president also probably figures the mechanism lets him off the hook, at least a little -- he's not proposing universal coverage through individual mandates; he's letting Congress do it and merely going along.

As this moves forward, though, expect congressional Republicans to use every criticism Obama uttered during the Democratic primaries to undermine the initiative.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THERE ARE OTHER SENATORS.... A press release just arrived via email:

Katie Couric will speak to Senator John McCain in a live web exclusive interview tonight (24) on CBSNews.com and CNET.com at approximately 10:30 PM, ET, immediately following CBS News broadcast coverage of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. The Webcast includes live response to viewer questions....

It occurred to me that Katie Couric had just interviewed McCain on the "CBS Evening News," and sure enough, she did. It happened right around the time McCain was interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation," which occurred right around the time McCain was interviewed on the "CBS Morning Show."

So, naturally, when CBS News looks for someone to offer some analysis of a presidential address to Congress, Katie Couric turns, once again, to John McCain. It will be his fourth interview in three weeks on just this network.

Atrios noted last week, "I do wish President McCain [was] on my teevee a bit more often."

Perhaps CBS didn't pick up on the sarcasm.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DEPT. OF POTS AND KETTLES.... Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) still hasn't figured out the benefits of quiet time.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), who survived a 2007 sex scandal, called on Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) to resign Tuesday for his ethical shortcomings.

Oh my.

To be sure, Burris' problems are overwhelming, and he'd do well to step down from the Senate seat he never should have agreed to accept in the first place. No doubt, it's time for him to go.

But hearing Vitter complain about another senator's ethical shortcomings is pretty amusing. It's as if he has an incredibly short memory -- or he assumes we do.

We are, after all, talking about a far-right Republican, known for his "family values" platform, who got caught up in a prostitution ring just two years ago. Vitter, who's has spent years lecturing others about morality and the "sanctity of marriage," arranged extra-marital liaisons while on the floor of Congress. The only reason Vitter wasn't prosecuted is that the statute of limitations had come and gone.

I can appreciate the notion of Senate Republicans calling for Burris' ouster. But if the caucus nominated Vitter to take the lead on this, they clearly chose the wrong guy.

Indeed, Vitter is facing a tough re-election fight next year. The more he talks about others' ethical shortcomings, the easier it is to remind voters of his own unpleasant background with a certain D.C. madam.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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BUNNING THREATENS NRSC LAWSUIT.... In light of Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ky.) increasingly erratic behavior, and likelihood of defeat next year, the Republican establishment has practically been begging Bunning to retire. So far, he's only responded angrily and refused to back down.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, worried about losing a winnable seat in a deep "red" state, is quietly making alternate arrangements. Just this past weekend, NRSC officials met with State Senate President David Williams (R) over the weekend, apparently to talk about a primary challenge to Bunning.

Today, Bunning said he's prepared to sue his party.

Sen. Jim Bunning is vowing to fight back as his feud with Republican leadership over his 2010 re-election bid spills into the national political scene.

If Republican campaign organizations tried to recruit another candidate to run in Bunning's stead, "I would have a suit against the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) if they did that," Bunning told reporters on Tuesday. "In their bylaws, support of the incumbents is the only reason they exist."

For what it's worth, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas said the party would back Bunning in a contested primary, just as it would with any incumbent. But in some ways, Bunning is missing the point. The NRSC doesn't have to officially throw its backing (and resources) to a primary opponent; it will probably just signal its support for the challenger, making it clear to the Republican rank and file that Bunning has lost the respect and support of his party.

By threatening a lawsuit, Bunning is making the NRSC's job easier, reinforcing fears that the senator's behavior has become something of an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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RNC TO CONSIDER PUNISHING SENATE CENTRISTS.... Three Senate Republicans -- Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Arlen Specter (Pa.) -- were the only members of the minority party to cross party lines and vote in favor of the stimulus package. Yesterday, RNC Chairman Michael Steele suggested they'll be rewarded with primary challengers, and possibly a withdrawal of support from the national party.

Greg Sargent flagged this clip from Fox news yesterday, during which Neil Cavuto asked, "Will you, as RNC head, recommend no RNC funds being provided to help them?" Steele said he'd "talk to" state party officials in Maine and Pennsylvania about the possibility. When asked if he was at least open to withholding party support to three incumbent Republican senators, Steele added, "Oh, yes, I'm always open to everything, baby, absolutely."

Steele was probably hoping to send a message to GOP lawmakers who may be thinking about working with the White House on controversial policies, but it's an odd kind of threat. For one thing, Steele's comments probably won't mean much to Sens. Snowe and Collins. Snowe won 74% of the vote in her last campaign, and isn't up for re-election until 2012. Collins was just elected to a third term with 62% of the vote, and isn't up again until 2014. Are they going to be afraid of Michael Steele? I doubt it.

For that matter, the RNC chairman's threat is probably hollow. The Republican Party has to worry about every single seat, especially vulnerable incumbents like Specter. Steele isn't going to stand behind him next year because he endorsed a recovery plan during an economic crisis? It seems unlikely. (Note to Steele: you shouldn't promise the base one thing on Fox News, and then deliver another thing when votes are on the line.)

Post Script: In the same interview with Cavuto, Steele added that the way to improve the economy was to signal that "the state and the federal government will spend no more money."

Steele added, "[T]e inflationary effect, the deflationary effect, all of those things are going to come to head at some point." I have no idea what this means. I'm fairly certain Steele doesn't either.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE LOW ROAD TO HIGH OFFICE.... When I think back to the fight for the Republican presidential nomination last year, I tend to think of Mike Huckabee as a radical ideologue with a very pleasant veneer. I disagreed with him on practically every issue under the sun, but I seem to recall him being rather nice about his vacuous, far-right, vaguely-theocratic worldview.

I don't recall him being such a hack.

Ex-AR Gov. Mike Huckabee has recorded an automated telephone call warning pro-lifers that Democrats and President Obama plan to eliminate all state and federal laws restricting abortion. The calls have been reported in Virginia and Washington State. The caller identification traces the origin of the recording to a Northern Virginia telephone number ... used by FiSERV, Inc. an automated call center used by conservative groups. Huckabee's statement refers to the Freedom of Choice Act, which President Obama has promised to sign into law, although it has not yet been introduced in the new Congress.

This comes just two weeks after Huckabee attacked the stimulus package as "anti-religious," because of a provision that, it turned out, doesn't exist.

Now he's running robocalls attacking Democrats over legislation that hasn't even been introduced? Amy Sullivan recently had a good item about the Freedom of Choice Act, which Huckabee may want to read.

A Freedom of Choice Act was introduced in the 108th and 110th Congresses (from 2003 to '05 and '07 to '09, respectively) by Representative Jerold Nadler, a New York Democrat. It was developed at a time when the future of Roe was in doubt because it was unclear if George W. Bush would have the opportunity to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court. But FOCA had a hard time gaining traction — even under Democratic control of Congress, the bill not only was never voted on but never made it out of committee. And now abortion-rights advocates are breathing easier with Obama in the White House — so much so that when a coalition of 63 organizations sent the Administration its top 15 priorities for reproductive rights and health, FOCA did not even make the list.

Congressional Democrats have also been less than enthusiastic about the proposal. A spokesman for Nadler says that while he expects the legislation to be reintroduced, "it won't be anytime soon." Even if FOCA is reintroduced in the current Congress, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has indicated she has no intention of bringing it up for a vote. And even if she did, there are not enough votes in Congress to pass the bill.

So why is Huckabee bothering? Because he needs to find a way to stay relevant to far-right activists, and he'd like to scare them into taking his warnings seriously.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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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.

* Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) doesn't want to resign, but is reportedly prepared to say he won't run again in 2010.

* Norm Coleman's lawyers signaled they could wrap up the current phase of their ongoing lawsuit this week. (This would not include the appeal, of course.) In the meantime, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) believes the lack of representation in the Senate is hurting the state.

* The DCCC's Frontline program, designed to bolster at-risk incumbents, identified its 40 most vulnerable freshmen yesterday.

* Americans United for Change's Brad Woodhouse is leaving the organization to take over as communications and research director at the Democratic National Committee.

* Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is gearing up for a primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), and right now, he's losing. A PPP survey shows Hutchison leading Perry, 56% to 31%, among Texas Republicans.

* Former President Bill Clinton will headline a fundraiser for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) next month in NYC.

* Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) said yesterday he doesn't bother to deal with congressional leaders from his own party. "I don't even know the congressional leadership," Huntsman told the Washington Times. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential -- completely."

* With the DCCC targeting 12 House Republicans who voted against the stimulus package, Mitt Romney's political action committee is sending $1,000 checks to each of the dozen GOP lawmakers. Romney, who is almost certainly planning another presidential run, praised the Republicans for "standing up for fiscal responsibility."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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IT'S NOT A 'NATION OF SANTELLIS'.... Josh Marshall flagged this graphic from the Politico home-page last night, warning the White House about a "nation of Santellis." The reference was to CNBC's Rick Santelli, who launched a bizarre class-war tirade last week in reference to the Obama housing policy (and who has since become kind of paranoid).

politico-santelli-blog.jpg

The argument is pretty straightforward, and has been reinforced by media adulation for Santelli's rant -- the president's mortgage adjustment program is widely disliked. The rage Santelli expressed was endorsed by far-right blogs and talk-radio hosts precisely because it tapped into a simmering anger over the White House proposal.

It's worth remembering, then, that Santelli and his admirers haven't exactly swayed the electorate. The Washington Post found that 64% of Americans support Obama's mortgage proposal. In the New York Times poll, the support was 61%. A CNN poll found similar results.

There is a Rasmussen poll, which was the basis for the Politico article, which shows far more opposition. But while the other polls simply asked whether the public liked Obama's idea or not, the Rasmussen poll asked, "Some people say that having the government subsidize mortgage payments for financially troubled homeowners puts the government in the position of rewarding bad behavior. Is the government rewarding bad behavior when it provides subsidies to those who are most at risk of losing their homes?"

A 55% majority said the government is rewarding bad behavior. Given the wording of the question, I'm a little surprised the number wasn't even higher.

Taken together, is there really a "nation of Santellis" out there? Not so much.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SO MUCH FOR JUAN WILLIAMS' 'LIABILITY' THEORY.... About a month ago, Fox News contributor Juan Williams went after Michelle Obama, describing her as a political "liability" for the president. As Williams argued, the First Lady has "got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going," which may make her "something of an albatross."

As is often the case, there's a big difference between Williams' take and the public's attitudes.

A month into her husband's presidency, Michelle Obama is viewed more positively than were other first ladies in the past 28 years at similar stages, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Over all, 49 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mrs. Obama, 5 percent view her unfavorably and 44 percent do not yet have an opinion.

In a February 1993 Times/CBS poll, 44 percent expressed a favorable view of the first lady at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, while 16 percent viewed her unfavorably. And early into Ronald Reagan's first term in office, 28 percent rated Nancy Reagan positively and 10 percent negatively, with the rest offering no opinion.

Polls conducted just before their husbands assumed office also showed 3 in 10 offering a favorable opinion of Laura Bush, and a third expressing a positive view of Barbara Bush. Nearly all of the rest had no opinion yet.

Now, one assumes the 44% who do not yet have an option will include plenty of detractors, who the right wants to influence. As Adam Serwer explained very well, "It doesn't matter if the American people see Michelle Obama the way The Corner does, the point is to make it true through incessant repetition. But to suggest that Michelle is currently a political liability to the president because everyone sees her as a secret black radical is the opinion of a small, vocal fringe."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WHAT SHE 'REPRESENTS'.... I'm not sure what this means.

The mainstream media made it a mission to destroy the vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor says in a new documentary released Monday. [...]

"'We are going to seek and we are going to destroy this candidacy of Sarah Palin's because of what it is that she represents,'" the former vice presidential candidate described as the attitude members of the press adopted.

Now, I expect Palin to say she was picked on for being a far-right Republican. Or perhaps she prefers to think she drew gender-based criticism. Maybe Palin believes reporters simply failed to appreciate the depth of her insightful responses to policy questions. (Vladimir Putin has flown over her house, you know.)

But news outlets tried to "destroy" her because of "what it is she represents"? What is it, exactly, that Palin thinks she "represents"?

I don't have my Palin Translation Guide handy, but I suspect this relates to Palin's perception of media elitism. About a month before the election, she railed against "those Washington elite who don't like the idea of just an everyday working class American running for such an office."

As messages go, this is pretty weak. The Palins are pulling in a quarter-mil, own a plane and two boats, and live in a half-million-dollar, custom-built lake house. She also happens to be the chief executive of a state. Is this why campaign journalists tried to "destroy" her?

Or maybe Palin meant something else entirely. With her, it's hard to say for sure.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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CIVIL UNIONS MUST NOT BE CUTTING EDGE.... Last week, RNC Chairman Michael Steele said he's committed to an "off the hook" public relations offensive that will appeal to voters, especially younger Americans, who've rejected Republicans. "We're going beyond cutting-edge," Steele promised.

He added, "[W]e need to uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets."

In Steele's embrace of modernity, gay Americans apparently fall somewhere below one-armed midgets. Here's the Republican National Committee head talking to conservative talk-show host Mike Gallagher yesterday:

GALLAGHER: Is this a time when Republicans ought to consider some sort of alternative to redefining marriage and maybe in the road, down the road to civil unions. Do you favor civil unions?

STEELE: No, no no. What would we do that for? What are you, crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country? I mean this isn't something that you just kind of like, "Oh well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage." [...]

GALLAGHER: So no room even for a conversation about civil unions in your mind?

STEELE: What's the difference?

Keep in mind, this represents another step backwards for the Republican Party. After all, both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have publicly expressed their support for civil unions, as have most Americans, and even conservative governors of very "red" states.

It is an entirely mainstream position. And yet, for the chairman of the RNC, to even ask about Republicans "considering" civil unions is "crazy."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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MCCAIN'S SALVO FALLS FLAT.... At the closing session of the "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House yesterday, President Obama graciously introduced John McCain and invited him to go first in raising a point or asking a question.

McCain apparently thought he'd get in a little dig at his former campaign rival, and began talking about the bloated Pentagon budget. "We all know how large the defense budget is," the Arizona Republican said. "We all know that the cost overruns, your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers enormous amount of money."

The president, taking away the senator's fun, agreed.

"I've already talked to [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. So, you know, maybe -- maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amuck, and we're going to have to fix it."

This almost certainly isn't what McCain had in mind. At a White House gathering on fiscal responsibility, McCain wanted to needle Obama on wasting federal funds on a new Marine One helicopter. Instead, the president voiced his agreement.

Jonathan Chait noted, "This is Obama at his most appealing. He makes a gracious introduction of his rival, who in turn tries to stick in the knife by painting him as wasting taxpayer dollars on needless luxuries. Obama, rather than sniping back, turns around and agrees with McCain while making the point that he's hardly accustomed to extravagance."

There's also the larger issue of the Defense budget, and McCain's comment may have helped the administration's goals on the issue. As Sam Stein added, "On a broader level, there are a variety of political difficulties involved in tightening up on defense procurements: thousands of jobs are tied to the spending, and it opens up a president to charges that he's underfunding the Pentagon. If Obama wants to tackle these issues now, it seems that McCain could serve as a useful bipartisan ally in the Senate."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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A RUDE AWAKENING.... Congressional Republicans seem to be feeling pretty good about themselves. They're voting in lock step, dominating the cable chatter, and releasing Aerosmith-backed videos bragging about their opposition to the economic recovery package. The GOP had discovered its mojo and was finally where it wanted to be.

But while Republican policymakers have clearly impressed each other, they haven't quite connected with everyone else.

President Obama is benefiting from remarkably high levels of optimism and confidence among Americans about his leadership, providing him with substantial political clout as he confronts the nation's economic challenges and opposition from nearly all Republicans in Congress, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

A majority of people surveyed in both parties said Mr. Obama was striving to work in a bipartisan way, but most faulted Republicans for their response to the president, saying the party had objected to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan for political reasons. Most said Mr. Obama should pursue the priorities he campaigned on, the poll found, rather than seek middle ground with Republicans.

The NYT poll found that three-quarters of Americans believe the president has been trying to work with Republicans, but only 3 in 10 said Republicans were doing the same. Indeed, 63% of poll respondents said Republican opposition to the stimulus package was about politics, not policy, and 79% said Republicans should give up on its agenda and start working more with Democrats.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed similar results. The president enjoys a 68% approval rating; congressional Democrats have 50% support, and congressional Republicans' rating is just 38%.

Head to head ... Americans put far more faith in Obama than in congressional Republicans: Sixty-one percent said they trust Obama more than the GOP on economic matters; 26 percent side with the Republicans in Congress. On that question, Obama's advantage is bigger than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush ever had over the opposition party in the legislature.

Overall, Democrats maintain an edge of nearly 2 to 1 over Republicans as the party that Americans prefer to confront "the big issues" over the next few years.

Somehow, "back in the saddle" isn't the first phrase that comes to mind.

Now, publius makes the point that the GOP isn't necessarily striving for short-term gains, and is thinking more about positioning for 2010 and 2012. There's certainly something to that -- Republicans want to be able to say, "We told you so," if the economy continues to struggle in the coming years.

But I also think Republicans expected some kind of boost out of the recent economic fight, which featured a very aggressive p.r. push on GOP economic ideas. If the new poll results are any indication, their efforts haven't worked at all.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Hilzoy

Habeas Rights At Bagram

From last Friday's NYT:

"The Obama administration has told a federal judge that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush's legal team.

In a two-sentence filing late Friday, the Justice Department said that the new administration had reviewed its position in a case brought by prisoners at the United States Air Force base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital. The Obama team determined that the Bush policy was correct: such prisoners cannot sue for their release. (...)

The closely watched case is a habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of several prisoners who have been indefinitely detained for years without trial. The detainees argue that they are not enemy combatants, and they want a judge to review the evidence against them and order the military to release them.

The Bush administration had argued that federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear such a case because the prisoners are noncitizens being held in the course of military operations outside the United States. The Obama team was required to take a stand on whether those arguments were correct because a federal district judge, John D. Bates, asked the new government whether it wanted to alter that position.

The Obama administration's decision was generally expected among legal specialists. But it was a blow to human rights lawyers who have challenged the Bush administration's policy of indefinitely detaining "enemy combatants" without trials."

I am very much of two minds about this. I explain why below the fold.

On the one hand, had anyone asked me in, say, 1991 whether Iraqi prisoners whom we were holding in Kuwait were entitled to file habeas petitions in US court, I would have said: of course not. They are entitled to lots of things, many of them detailed in the Geneva Conventions. But it would have seemed bizarre to me to suggest that they were entitled to habeas rights.

I still feel this way about those detainees at Bagram who were captured on or near an actual battlefield. To say that I do not think they are entitled to habeas rights is not to say that I do not think they are entitled to anything. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Its soldiers are entitled to the rights of prisoners of war. Any civilians we capture are likewise entitled to those rights until "a competent tribunal" determines that they are not prisoners of war.

However, not everyone at Bagram was captured in or near a battlefield. Consider, for instance, Amin Al Bakri (pdf):

"Almost six years ago, Mr. Al Bakri, a citizen of a friendly nation, Yemen, was abducted by Respondents during a brief business trip to Thailand -- thousands of miles from any battlefield. Since their illegal seizure of Mr. Al Bakri, Respondents have secreted him between various locations known only to them in order to evade their legal obligations under domestic and international law. At their sole discretion, Respondents finally rendered Mr. Al Bakri unlawfully to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where they continue to hold him subject to their complete jurisdiction and control."

I have no idea whether, under (what look to me to be) the most obvious precedents, someone like Amin Al Bakri is entitled to habeas rights. (In what follows, I am only discussing those prisoners at Bagram who, like Al Bakri, were not captured on or near a battlefield.) In Eisentrager, the Supreme Court held that the enemy aliens who had brought that case were not entitled to petition for habeas corpus. In Boumediene, the Court found that some Guantanamo detainees were. Here is the Court in Boumediene discussing Eigentrager:

"In addition to the practical concerns discussed above, the Eisentrager Court found relevant that each petitioner:

"(a) is an enemy alien; (b) has never been or resided in the United States; (c) was captured outside of our territory and there held in military custody as a prisoner of war; (d) was tried and convicted by a Military Commission sitting outside the United States; (e) for offenses against laws of war committed outside the United States; (f) and is at all times imprisoned outside the United States." 339 U. S., at 777.

Based on this language from Eisentrager, and the reasoning in our other extraterritoriality opinions, we conclude that at least three factors are relevant in determining the reach of the Suspension Clause: (1) the citizenship and status of the detainee and the adequacy of the process through which that status determination was made; (2) the nature of the sites where apprehension and then detention took place; and (3) the practical obstacles inherent in resolving the prisoner's entitlement to the writ."

It was important, in Boumediene, that the detainees who had brought suit were held at Guantanamo: a site that belonged to Cuba, but that was under complete US control. This is not true of Bagram. The practical obstacles to granting habeas rights are also (I assume) greater in the case of detainees at Bagram. One might distinguish detainees at Bagram from those at Guantanamo on either of those grounds.

On the other hand, the "status of the detainee and the adequacy of the process through which that status determination was made" were also important to the Court in Boumediene:

"The petitioners, like those in Eisentrager, are not American citizens. But the petitioners in Eisentrager did not contest, it seems, the Court's assertion that they were "enemy alien[s]." Ibid. In the instant cases, by contrast, the detainees deny they are enemy combatants. They have been afforded some process in CSRT proceedings to determine their status; but, unlike in Eisentrager, supra, at 766, there has been no trial by military commission for violations of the laws of war. The difference is not trivial. The records from the Eisentrager trials suggest that, well before the petitioners brought their case to this Court, there had been a rigorous adversarial process to test the legality of their detention. The Eisentrager petitioners were charged by a bill of particulars that made detailed factual allegations against them. See 14 United Nations War Crimes Commission, Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals 8-10 (1949) (reprint 1997). To rebut the accusations, they were entitled to representation by counsel, allowed to introduce evidence on their own behalf, and permitted to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. See Memorandum by Command of Lt. Gen. Wedemeyer, Jan. 21, 1946 (establishing "Regulations Governing the Trial of War Criminals" in the China Theater), in Tr. of Record in Johnson v. Eisentrager, O. T. 1949, No. 306, pp. 34-40.

In comparison the procedural protections afforded to the detainees in the CSRT hearings are far more limited, and, we conclude, fall well short of the procedures and adversarial mechanisms that would eliminate the need for habeas corpus review."

On this score, Bagram detainees are even worse off than detainees at Guantanamo, as far as I can tell. (From the NYT about a year ago: "Bagram prisoners have fewer privileges, less ability to contest their detention and no access to lawyers. Some detainees have been held without charge for more than five years, officials said.") Insofar as this consideration motivated the Court, it would seem to support the extension of habeas rights to Bagram detainees.

If I were either on the Supreme Court or in the Obama administration, one other consideration would weigh strongly with me. The best reason not to extend habeas rights to non-citizens at Bagram, I think, is that it is a prison in the middle of a war zone, many of whose prisoners are prisoners of war. As I said above, I do not think that prisoners of war (in the normal sense of that term) are entitled to habeas rights. Moreover, other things equal, I would rather not have federal courts scrutinizing the workings of prisons run by the military in the middle of a war zone. I think it's a good thing that we have a system of military justice set up for that purpose, and my presumption would be that it, rather than the federal courts, should deal with prisoners in theaters of war.

However, it was neither me nor the federal courts that muddied the distinction between the jurisdictions of the federal and military courts, thereby making it impossible for the federal courts to simply defer to the military in these matters. It was the Bush administration. They were the ones who sent CIA agents all over the world kidnapping people, flew those people from places like Thailand into a war zone, and then turned around and said: heavens, you cannot scrutinize what we did -- you'd be interfering with the conduct of the military in wartime!

As far as I can tell, it was not the military that captured Amin Al Bakri. He was not captured within a thousand miles of a battlefield. He was moved to a battlefield. And some detainees were moved to Bagram rather than Guantanamo precisely because the Court had ruled that detainees at Guantanamo had rights the Bush administration did not want to give them:

"Other military and administration officials said the growing detainee population at Bagram, which rose from about 100 prisoners at the start of 2004 to as many as 600 at times last year, according to military figures, was in part a result of a Bush administration decision to shut off the flow of detainees into Guantanamo after the Supreme Court ruled that those prisoners had some basic due-process rights."

If I were either the Obama administration or the Court, I would hold that anyone our government detains for any substantial period of time (say, a couple of weeks -- long enough to exclude cases in which, say, DEA agents capture someone in Colombia and turn that person over to the Colombian government ASAP, but not longer than necessary) has the right to file for habeas corpus unless s/he was detained in the course of military conflict. I'm not sure how the boundaries between military conflict and everything else should be defined, but I think it cannot possibly extend to the kidnapping of people over two thousand miles away, in a peaceful country.

If the Bush administration had not decided to start kidnapping people and moving them into military prisons in war zones, we would not have had to decide these questions. We could have assumed that the people in those prisons were actual prisoners of war, especially if the Bush administration had also allowed the Army to set up the kinds of tribunals it usually uses to decide which people were rightly detained and which were not.

Now, unfortunately, the Courts have to decide whether or not to allow the government a way of circumventing the law and the Constitution, at least as regards non-citizens: kidnapping them abroad, moving them into the middle of a war zone, and then arguing that any judicial intervention into their captivity would constitute interference with the military's conduct of a war. The Bush administration was reckless enough to use the military as a kind of legal shield. It is up to the Courts to prove them wrong.

All that said, I don't see this decision by the Obama administration as a complete calamity. The question whether detainees at Bagram have habeas rights is, I think, genuinely difficult. Moreover, habeas rights are not the only remedy for these cases. If the Obama administration establishes a decent system for deciding which Bagram prisoners were rightly detained and which were not, a system within which the prisoners have roughly the same rights as the plaintiffs in the Eisentrager case, I will be content -- especially if they also declare that the Bagram inmates are prisoners of war and treat them accordingly, and double especially if they make it clear that according to the US, people who are imprisoned by the government must either fall under one of the Geneva Conventions or be tried in civilian court (or be deported, or some other normal thing.)

Because what matters most to me is that there be no category of people who have no legal rights, and no place where we can hold them with impunity; and that people we imprison should have the right to contest their detention in a fair proceeding, unless we have granted them the rights afforded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

Hilzoy 2:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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February 23, 2009

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

* It was yet another dreadful day on Wall Street, with the Dow and S&P dropping to their lowest levels in 12 years.

* Bloodshed in Baghdad: "The U.S. military in Iraq says three U.S. soldiers and an interpreter have been killed in combat north of Baghdad. A statement says the soldiers and their interpreter were killed Monday in Diyala province."

* Karl Rove didn't show up for today's House Judiciary Committee hearing on the U.S. Attorney purge scandal.

* Former Gov. Gary Locke (D) of Washington state has emerged as the likely choice to be Commerce Secretary.

* Officials from across the country seem pretty anxious to claim the stimulus money a handful of far-right Republican governors don't want.

* CNBC's Rick Santelli, following up on last week's bizarre class-war tirade, is now sounding kind of paranoid.

* Fascinating story in the NYT today about U.S. "military advisers and technical specialists" working with the Pakistani military on fighting in lawless tribal areas of the country. The initiative began several months ago and "is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged."

* Sounds like the Pentagon owes stop-loss troops some bonus money.

* Philadelphia Newspapers L.L.C., which owns The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, has filed for Chapter 11.

* I can't quite figure out the rationale for this: "The Obama administration, siding with former President George W. Bush, is trying to kill a lawsuit that seeks to recover what could be millions of missing White House e-mails."

* Do the hosts of "Morning Joe" listen to their own show?

* President Obama's approach to budget honesty, at this point, strikes me as very encouraging.

* Where is this "do-over" talk coming from?

* When a cabinet nominee is confirmed 75 to 21, only Fox News could characterize that as getting in "by the skin of his teeth."

* And on a personal note, today is, for lack of a better word, my "Blogoversary" -- I started blogging exactly six years ago today. Given the relative youth of the medium, I guess this means I've been at it for quite a long while. Whether you've been reading for six days or six years, my most sincere thanks for the support.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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BUNNING 'APOLOGIZES'.... We talked earlier about Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ken.) medical diagnosis of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The good news is, Bunning apologized this afternoon. The bad news is, his apology left much to be desired.

"I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsberg [sic]," Bunning said. "That certainly was not my intent. It is great to see her back at the Supreme Court today and I hope she recovers quickly. My thoughts and prayers are with her and her family."

First, if you're going to apologize for predicting a Supreme Court justice's death, please try to spell her name correctly.

Second, the point isn't that Bunning "offended" Ginsburg. In fact, as far as I can tell, the high court justice hasn't said anything about this. The reason the senator's comments became newsworthy is that he gave a stump speech about Ginsburg dying, delivering remarks that were wrong, crass, and insensitive. That he doesn't understand that suggests his "apology" doesn't mean much.

Josh Marshall concluded, "Most people who do rotten things have redeeming qualities if you look hard enough. Then there are the really low and vile characters like Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY).... Truly a rotten person. No wonder his own party is trying to find someone to run against him."

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING.... At this point, I kind of hope South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) continues to strive for the national spotlight. The governor, who appears to be mad as a hatter, keeps saying crazy things that make for fun blog posts.

Here's his latest new gem:

"[Y]ou know, people who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it.

"The Golden Gate Bridge was a Hoover-era infrastructure project designed to get the economy going. The L.A. aqueduct system was a Hoover-era, you know, infrastructure program designed to get the economy going. The Hoover Dam was a Depression-era, you know, project designed to get the economy going."

First, Sanford claims to oppose government spending in the midst of a crisis, so I'm not sure why he'd point to public works projects like these. Second, as my friend Alex Koppelman explained, the Golden Gate Bridge wasn't a Hoover-era infrastructure project; it was originally proposed before Hoover was even born, and began being built six years before Hoover became president. For that matter, the Hoover Dam wasn't a "Depression-era project," either.

What was that the governor was saying about those who don't learn from history?

On a related note, during a C-SPAN appearance this morning, Sanford received a call from a man from Charleston who lost his job because he's been taking care of an ailing mother and sister. The man relies on unemployment insurance, and Sanford is "wrong" to decline the unemployment money in the stimulus bill. The governor's response? Sanford said his "prayers are going to be with him and his family because it sounds like he is in an awfully tough spot." As Ben Armbruster added, "Sanford offered no other alternative solution for his constituent."

And just for good measure, Sanford, appearing on Fox News yesterday, was asked about his decision to turn down unemployment insurance for struggling South Carolinians. He responded that the stimulus package "at times it sounds like the Soviet grain quotas of Stalin's time -- X number of jobs will be created because Washington says so."

The easiest way to make this guy appear foolish is to hand him a microphone and get out of the way.

Just keep on talking, gov.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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HSR LIE JUST WON'T GO AWAY.... Once a claim makes its way onto the approved list of Official Republican Talking Points, it's there to stay. Even after a claim has been exposed as completely false -- sometimes, especially after it's been proven false -- GOP figures will just keep repeating it.

When it comes to the stimulus package, we have a few too many examples to choose from. The marsh-mouse preservation spending is obviously a good one, but the notion of Harry Reid securing an $8 billion earmark for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is a genuine Republican classic.

Here's reality: as negotiations on the package wrapped up, Rahm Emanuel secured an extra $8 billion for high-speed rail. The Maine and Pennsylvania Republican "centrists" approved, and the bill progressed. The $8 billion is not directed at any specific state or project.

Regardless, conservatives quickly began arguing that the $8 billion was Reid's idea, and would go exclusively to connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas with HSR. "Tell me how spending $8 billion," House Minority Leader John Boehner asked, "in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district." The argument doesn't really make any sense -- not every infrastructure bill is going to benefit every worker in every district -- but more importantly, the $8 billion earmark doesn't exist in reality.

And yet Boehner and his cohorts kept repeating the lie, and now it won't go away. Here's John McCain today:

"So, we will be seeking fair and transparent use of the money. I believe that Arizona can compete with any other state or locality to get the much-needed money. Already we're seeing a good example. There was $2 billion in the Senate bill of the stimulus package for light rail; there was zero in the House. It came out of conference -- only Democrats, no Republicans in the room - with $8 billion for light rail. And guess where it's going to go? A light rail between Las Vegas and L.A. Everybody knows that.

"Could we have competed for that money? Maybe so. So it's business as usual in Washington, and I think that Americans are generally very disappointed. Sorry for the long answer."

He should be "sorry," but the problem isn't the length of the answer, it's the blatant dishonesty of his answer.

It's certainly possible that McCain just doesn't know what he's talking about. Maybe he saw someone repeat the lie on Fox News, and assumed it was true. McCain has never been especially detail-oriented, which is why he manages to make patently false claims with some regularity.

But this one is especially egregious, and not just because there is no $8 billion for light rail between L.A. and Vegas. As Matt Yglesias explained, "The thing that John McCain wants where different states can compete for the high-speed rail money is what the bill already says. Except McCain has piled ignorance onto dishonesty by confusing high-speed rail (advanced passenger trains that run between cities) with light-rail (relatively low-capacity trains used for intra-city mass transit)."

So, in this case, McCain is not only lying, he's confused about the subject on which he's lying. He then insists, "Everybody knows that," as if those who accept reality are somehow ignorant.

It's a helpful reminder of why policy debates with congressional Republicans don't usually go well.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE REVOLVING DOOR.... The Politico's Michael Calderone had an interesting item last week on "at least a half-dozen prominent journalists" who've left their jobs in media over the last three months, to start working for the federal government. For many on the right, seeing professionals make the shift from major news outlets to Democratic offices is evidence of widespread media bias.

But is it also bias when prominent political figures make the transition from Republican offices to major news outlets?

Conservatives have complained for years that there are too many liberals in the mainstream media. Starting Monday, though, they'll have at least one of their own at CBS News.

Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox Jew and political and communications consultant whom The Forward called "the architect of Bush's 2004 re-election effort in the Orthodox community," is the new senior vice president for communications at CBS News. He starts Monday and, according to a CBS press release, will be in charge of "all media relations and public affairs for CBS News, including strategy and planning, day-to-day publicity, internal and external communications" and coordination with the CBS News website. [...]

Ballabon said CBS reached out to him and it was an "irresistible offer" to "help CBS News regain its standing as the Tiffany news network."

Ira Forman noted today that, during a public debate several years ago, Ballabon claimed that Democrats are inherently bad people. More recently, during the 2008 election, Ballabon added, "Obama is incredibly dangerous."

Greg Sargent talked to Ballabon this morning, and he insisted, "I never said Democrats are evil." Asked if he still believes the president is "incredibly dangerous," Ballabon declined comment.

If Jay Carney making the switch from Time to Joe Biden's office is evidence of some kind of systemic predisposition in American media, what are we to assume about CBS News making Jeff Ballabon its new senior vice president for communications?

And for those keeping score at home, Ballabon's move from Bush's team to traditional major media outlets is hardly unusual. He joins Michael Gerson (Washington Post), Sara Taylor (MSNBC), Tony Snow (CNN), Frances Fragos Townsend (CNN), Nicole Wallace (CBS News), Dan Bartlett (CBS News), and, of course, Karl Rove (Fox News, Newsweek, and Wall Street Journal).

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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WHAT ABOUT THE 'REAL' FILIBUSTERS?.... One of the more common arguments in the debate over filibusters is the fact that actual filibusters never actually happen anymore. Gone are the days in which senators would stand, reading from phone books and reciting recipes, literally talking a bill to death. If we're not going to get rid of the tactic, can we at least discourage their frequency by making senators launch real filibusters?

Ryan Grim reports today that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is well aware of these questions, and has looked into the procedure. It's not going to happen, or more accurately, it can't happen.

Reid's office has studied the history of the filibuster and analyzed what options are available. The resulting memo was provided to the Huffington Post and it concludes that a filibustering Senator "can be forced to sit on the [Senate] floor to keep us from voting on that legislation for a finite period of time according to existing rules but he/she can't be forced to keep talking for an indefinite period of time."

Bob Dove, who worked as a Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001, knows Senate rules as well as anyone on the planet. The Reid analysis, he says, is "exactly correct."

To get an idea of what the scene would look like on the Senate floor if Democrats tried to force Republicans to talk out a filibuster, turn on C-SPAN on any given Saturday. Hear the classical music? See the blue carpet behind the "Quorum Call" logo? That would be the resulting scene if Democrats forced a filibuster and the GOP chose not to play along.

As both Reid's memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

The presiding officer would then be required to call the roll. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over. At no point would the obstructing Republican be required to defend his position, read from the phone book or any of the other things people associate with the Hollywood version of a filibuster.

"You cannot force senators to talk during a filibuster," says Dove. "Delay in the Senate is not difficult and, frankly, the only way to end it is through cloture."

But what about some of the historic filibusters, that lasted hours upon hours? Those senators were, Dove said, "making a point." They didn't have to keep talking, but they did.

Good to know. Now, can we talk about getting rid of the filibuster altogether?

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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IN SEARCH OF AN HONEST DEBATE.... President Obama hosted the nation's governors in the East Room this morning, and, among other things, announced that $15 billion to cover states' Medicaid costs would begin reaching capitals this week. The result is 20 million Americans nationwide who'll be able to keep their coverage.

But towards the end of his remarks, the president stopped looking at his notes and started responding directly to some of the recent talk about some governors rejecting some federal stimulus aid. Most notably, Govs. Jindal, Sanford, and Barbour have raised concerns about unemployment benefits for part-time workers.

Obama didn't mention any names, but he nevertheless made clear that now would be a very good time for everyone to cut the nonsense.

"I think there are some very legitimate concerns on the part of some about the sustainability of expanding unemployment insurance. What hasn't been noted is that that is $7 billion of a $787 billion program. And it's not even the majority of the expansion of unemployment insurance," Obama said. The president added, "If we agree on 90 percent of this stuff, and we're spending all our time on television arguing about 1, 2, 3 percent of the spending in this thing, and somehow it's being characterized in broad brush as 'wasteful spending,' that starts sounding more like politics. And that's what right now we don't have time to do."

Obama went on to say, "I will always be open to honest disagreements, and I think that there are some legitimate concerns that can be raised on a whole host of these issues. You're responsible at the state level. If the federal government gives you something now, and then two years later it's gone, and people are looking to you and starting to blame you, I don't want to put you in that position. You need to think about how this money's going to be spent wisely.

"What I don't want us to do, though, is just get caught up in the same old stuff.... There's going to be ample time for campaigns down the road. Right now, we've got to make sure we're standing up for the American people and putting them back to work."

He wasn't calling out Jindal, Sanford, and Barbour specifically, but the message was hard to miss. Obama wants to engage in an "honest debate" -- he used the phrase a few times this morning -- and some Republicans with their sights on 2012 aren't offering one.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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IT'S NOT 1993.... Congressional Republicans, hoping to find a way back to the comeback trail, have apparently focused their attention on the last time Democrats controlled the White House, Senate, and House. This includes taking direction from Newt Gingrich, but as Jeanne Cummings noted in a good piece today, it goes further than that.

Republicans are hatching a political comeback by dusting off a strategic playbook written nearly two decades ago.

Its themes: Unite against Democrats' economic policy, block and counter health care reform and tar them with spending scandals.

Those represent the political trifecta that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bet on in 1994 to produce a historic Republican takeover of Congress.

Now, some Republicans believe President Barack Obama's one-two push on the economy and health care reform is setting the stage for a new round of significant gains, if not a total takeover.

We'll see, of course, whether this strategy has merit, but I'm skeptical. Cummings did a nice job highlighting some of the reasons 2009 bears little resemblance to 1993, and why the differences matter when hoping to apply the old strategy to a new political landscape.

Indeed, the similarities are easily outnumbered. There were, in both instances, young and dynamic Democratic presidents, but Barack Obama enjoys broader and deeper support than Bill Clinton did at this stage, and unlike Clinton, Obama won a healthy electoral majority in the popular vote. For that matter, just as Republicans hope to capitalize on the GOP gains of the early '90s, Obama has assembled a team that also learned lessons from the same era.

Also note the kind of Democratic majorities from each period. By June 1993, Clinton saw a Democratic caucus in the Senate with 55 members, two of whom not only opposed most of Clinton's agenda, but would also soon leave the party altogether. Obama, in contrast, has a caucus with 58 (with Minnesota, 59) members.

But putting aside the numbers, what Gingrich's modern acolytes probably don't realize is that theirs is a party in decline. In 1992, Clinton won, but it was Republicans who made gains in House and gubernatorial elections. 2008 couldn't have been more distinct -- the GOP suffered electoral humiliation at nearly every level, saw its numbers plunge to their lowest point in decades, and effectively became a regional party. The early '90s were a period of Republican ascendency. That's long gone.

Making matters even worse, the agenda Republicans are fighting -- most notably, on economics and healthcare reform -- enjoys strong support nationally. In a battle of ideas, the GOP is shooting blanks.

Stan Greenberg noted, "We are in a different game, and they are playing by the old rules."

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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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.

* Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) "hopes" to see Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) resign this week. We'll see.

* How anxious is the Republican establishment to get rid of Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in Kentucky? Officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee met with State Senate President David Williams (R) over the weekend, apparently to talk about the race.

* The Star Tribune notes today that Norm Coleman's chance of winning his latest legal fight is remote. "Coleman is in a bubble running out of oxygen," said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor.

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sees Gov. David Paterson's (D) dropping statewide support, and she's getting awfully nervous about next year.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal were all asked over the weekend if they planned to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Each was noncommittal.

* Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has picked up his first Republican opponent for 2010, but it's not former Rep. Rob Simmons; it's state Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri.

* How solid are John McCain's re-election chances next year? Seyward Darby takes a closer look at the Arizona Republican's prospects.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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BIGGEST. TAX CUT. EVER. PART III.... I had a hunch we'd hear more about this one; it's just a little sooner than I expected.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, headed by Chris Van Hollen, will start pumping new robocalls later today into the districts of a dozen House Republicans, attacking them for voting against the economic recovery plan and reminding voters that it was supported by business groups.

The calls also hit the Republicans for voting "against the largest tax cut in history," a reference to the tax cuts in the bill that the GOPers opposed, and an early clue to an attack line the Dems will be using in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections.

CNN, which has the full list of the targeted GOP lawmakers, adds that this new initiative will include robocalls, emails, and text messages, "directly to targeted Republicans' constituents."

It strikes me as a fairly compelling talking point. It may seem unusual, but it turns out that President Obama proposed and passed one of the largest tax cuts in American history -- $282 billion over two years -- without Republican support. Just as importantly, unlike other recent tax cuts, this one was targeted specifically at working and middle class families. When the DCCC accuses GOP lawmakers of rejecting "the largest tax cut in history," it has the benefit of being true.

But it's also an argument with political risks. Brian Beutler noted last week, "The government's eventually going to have to raise taxes to pay for all this.... Democrats will almost certainly be the ones to do this and there's no reason they should be sabotaging public support for those increases years in advance."

It's a good point. The more Democrats fuel Tax Cut Mania, the more, shall we say, awkward it will be when the party pushes through a tax increase. As far as the politics are concerned, though, it's likely to come down to who's affected most -- Obama just cut taxes on work and middle class Americans, but he's also poised to call for raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year.

It is exactly what the president told voters he'd do during the campaign, and it's the kind of dynamic that offers at least some cover to the party come election time. Democrats in Congress seeking re-election will vote for Obama's plan to raise taxes on those making more than a quarter-million, but they'll also tell voters, "I voted for the biggest middle-class tax cut in American history."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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AFTER A MONTH.... Gallup released its latest survey this morning, showing President Obama's approval rating at 63%, "down slightly from his initial 68% rating in January."

I should note from the outset that a modest drop in a president's first month isn't worth getting too excited about. A 63% approval rating is still, obviously, quite strong, and higher than most modern presidents at this point in their first terms.

What's interesting, though, is why Obama dropped a bit.

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If Gallup's numbers are right, Obama has seen his support go up over his first month with Democrats and Independents, but his overall number fell because he's lost Republican support. The report noted, "More precisely, the steepest drop in approval of Obama has come from conservative Republicans, whose support descended from 36% in his first, partial week on the job (Jan. 21-25) to 22% by his fourth week (Feb. 9-15)."

This is to be expected. Obama enjoyed some GOP support early on, but it dissipated once the president started governing and Republican lawmakers (and their allies) started criticizing. Since the president's numbers actually improved among everyone else, it shouldn't trouble the White House too much to lose support from, as Eric Kleefeld noted, "people who were unlikely to have approved of him in the first place."

I'm skeptical that the president's overall numbers have too big an impact right now. A month is, after all, only a month. But if Republicans were watching these numbers, hoping to see a decline they could exploit in the wake of the stimulus debate, they're probably disappointed right now.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE SHOCKING MARSH-MOUSE TRUTH.... The New York Times had an item yesterday, describing the Republican Party's vision of a "loyal opposition." It noted Newt Gingrich, emphasizing the partisan benefits of rejecting the majority party's agenda.

"Mr. Gingrich sees the stimulus bill as his party's ticket to a revival in 2010," the NYT's Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote, "as Republicans decry what they see as pork-barrel spending for projects like marsh-mouse preservation."

The Times neglected to mention, of course, that there was no pork-barrel spending for marsh-mouse preservation. It's a Republican talking point that isn't true. Stolberg simply passed this along as if it were fact. It's not.

This comes up quite a bit. MSNBC's "Morning Joe" has been repeating the marsh-mouse claim quite a bit lately, and to its credit, the show invited PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair on to the show this morning to scrutinize the story. Asked if MSNBC was "unfair" to go after this story, Adair said, "You were.... This one gets a 'false' on the Truth-o-Meter.... The reality is, the money is just not in the bill to do this the way that they said."

Joe Scarborough said he'd talked to a Republican House member about this, who defended the claim. Adair said the GOP lawmaker "lied to you."

But what I found most interesting about this wasn't just the fact-checking, which was welcome, but the response from the "Morning Joe" crew, which was flabbergasted when confronted with reality. Take a listen around the 45-second mark, and note the amazement and incredulity when Adair started to explain why this bogus talking point isn't grounded in reality.

It apparently never occurred to the on-air crew that the talking point they'd repeated ad nauseum might not be truthful, so they were stunned by the facts. Perhaps they should have had Adair on sooner.

Update: Greg Sargent thinks it's even worse: "I actually think it’s more cringe-worthy than this. The Morning Joe dudes were noting ironically that they were surprised that the mouse money talking point was not true. It just wasn’t a big deal to them at all that this had happened."

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE CARRY.... There's no reasonable explanation to justify the hedge fund tax loophole. It's a straightforward problem: the tax rates on hedge-fund managers' income are, inexplicably, lower than the rates on everyone else's income.

The debate is not about taxing capital gains like regular income. Rather, it's a system that allows hedge-fund managers to pay capital-gains rates (15%) on their income, while everyone else pays income-tax rates.

The Obama administration apparently intends to address the "carried interest" loophole in his budget proposal.

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

As Noam Scheiber noted, "I wasn't sure Obama had it in him to close the loophole and am delighted to see that he might. (We'll obviously have to wait and see if he fights for the measure, and if Congress signs on. But it's a good start.)"

It is, indeed. Both parties have known about this costly loophole (more than $6 billion a year) for years, and both parties have been reluctant to address it (Chuck Schumer, I'm looking in your direction).

Paul Krugman, who called this "a crystal-clear example of unjustified privilege," explained a while back why this should be a no-brainer.

[T]he salaries that pension fund employees receive for managing other peoples' money are taxed as ordinary income, at rates up to 35 percent. But if that money is invested with a hedge fund -- and 40 percent of the money in hedge funds comes from public, corporate and union pension plans -- the fees the hedge fund manager receives for his services are mainly taxed as capital gains, with a maximum rate of 15 percent.

The arguments usually made on behalf of this unique privilege make no sense. We're told that the tax rate on hedge fund managers has to be kept low to encourage risk-taking. But the managers aren't risking their own money. The only risk they face is the uncertainty of their fees -- and as any waitress who depends on tips or salesman who depends on commissions can tell you, most people with uncertain incomes don't get any special tax breaks.

We're also told that management fees would rise, reducing returns to investors, if the privileged status of fund managers is eliminated -- as if someone with a $100-million-a-year hedge fund job would walk away if his take-home pay fell from $85 million to $65 million.

I'm glad the White House has the good sense to take this seriously. Here's hoping Congress does the same.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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REMOVING ALL DOUBT.... Five years ago, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ken.) won re-election despite odd and erratic personal behavior. Now, in advance of another re-election fight, Bunning is acting strangely again.

Last month, Bunning decided not to show up for work for a while, and refused to say publicly where he was. More recently, the Kentucky Republican has been more tight-lipped, at least until this weekend.

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning predicted over the weekend that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months.

During a wide-ranging 30-minute speech on Saturday at the Hardin County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning said he supports conservative judges "and that's going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg ... has cancer."

"Bad cancer. The kind that you don't get better from," he told a crowd of about 100 at the old State Theater.

"Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live after (being diagnosed) with pancreatic cancer," he said.

And here I thought Bill Frist was the only Republican comfortable making medical diagnoses from afar.

There are a few angles to this. First, Bunning -- whose background is in professional baseball, not medicine -- doesn't really know what he's talking about. Ginsburg's cancer was caught early and she had surgery to remove a small tumor that had not spread. It's obviously a serious, life-threatening matter, but the American Cancer Society notes that "people diagnosed with Stage 1 pancreatic cancer have between a 21 and 37 percent chance of living for more than five years with the disease."

Second, shouldn't Bunning, when speaking publicly, show a little more respect? Predicting the death of a Supreme Court justice, in the context of judicial politics, doesn't exactly scream "class."

It's a reminder of why Republican leaders on the Hill, while generally discouraging retirements, would love to see Bunning go away.

Note to Bunning: better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.

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

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WILL LAMENTS EXCESSIVE DEMOCRACY.... The Washington Post's George Will, who's been on a roll lately, had another interesting piece yesterday, blasting Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) for his proposed constitutional amendment on prohibiting gubernatorial Senate appointments. At first blush, that's not entirely unreasonable -- Feingold's proposal is provocative.

But Will goes to surprising lengths in his criticism. While Feingold's measure would alter the 17th Amendment, which transferred power from state legislatures to voters in selecting U.S. senators, Will argues it would be "better to repeal" the 17th Amendment altogether.

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy, as well as Feingold.

This kind of thinking is pretty simplistic -- state legislators occasionally chose good senators, and voters occasionally choose bad ones, therefore legislators are better suited to select senators.

I suppose Will deserves some credit for outside-the-box thinking -- most political observers have gotten past the fight over the 17th, which was resolved 96 years ago. Will is also one of those rare establishment figures willing to argue that the American electorate should have less say over who represents them in Congress.

But on the merits, publius explains why Feingold's proposal goes the furthest to add legitimacy to the process.

The problem with governor appointments is a structural one -- one that goes beyond the individual moral failings of people like Blago. We currently have a vacancy appointment system in which the Blagos of the world have incentives to do funny business (demanding money; extracting concessions, etc.). As long as the incentives are there, future Blagos will inevitably reappear.

Providing state legislatures this authority raises all the same problems. In appointing Senators, state legislators would have all kinds of incentives to engage in corruption in exchange for a Senate appointment. And because those incentives are there -- and because we must assume people will be bad when thinking of constitutional structure -- corruption would inevitably occur.

The solution, then, is letting voters have their say. Democracy isn't "always wonderful," but for accountability and legitimacy, it's tough to beat.

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

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February 22, 2009

JINDAL.... Time's Joe Klein caught Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) on "Meet the Press" this morning, and wasn't impressed.

At one point in the interview, Jindal -- who seems to be running for President -- trotted out the standard Republican boilerplate about the need for a package with more tax cuts, especially in the capital gains tax. David Gregory pointed out that we'd just had eight years of that philosophy, and it hadn't done very much to help job creation or median incomes. Jindal resorted to the Republican fantasy playbook -- to the Kennedy and Reagan tax cuts, which allegedly helped boost the economy. (Actually, it was the Carter-Volcker monetary reforms that set the economy on a more stable path for growth in the early 1980s.) Needless to say, Jindal didn't mention either the Reagan tax increases (proportionately the largest in U.S. history) or the slightly smaller Clinton increases, which led to the lowering of interest rates and the economic boom of the 1990's. Nor did he mention the 30 years of neglect the nation's infrastructure has suffered during the Reagan era -- not just the neglect of roads and bridges and levees, but also of the sorts of high-tech and green infrastructure programs (including mass transit and high-speed rail) that will lay the basis for a more efficient economy in the future.

In other words, Jindal -- the alleged voice of the GOP future -- had absolutely nothing new to say. And what he did say, about the stimulus, was purposefully misleading. I'm not sure how well the Obama stimulus, banking and budget plans will work. No one does. But I do know how the philosophy and the misleading politics that Jindal offered today has worked in the recent past.

It's been a disaster.

This seems to happen a lot. A "rising star" in Republican politics decides he or she should be on the national stage; drops any pretense of intellectual seriousness; and trades the respect of credible observers for the adoration of the Republican base.

In this case, Klein has always found Jindal to be "very smart," "quite creative," and "always intellectually honest." Then Klein saw the new, more hackish Jindal, and is left wondering where that credible guy went. In Klein's case, respect has turned to scorn.

We saw this same pattern with John McCain, who also quickly made a similar transition in preparation for 2008, and even George W. Bush in 2000, who had plenty of admirers in the political establishment, which characterized Bush as having a reputation as a moderate, pragmatic governor.*

The difference seems to be that Jindal is trading his reputation for seriousness and intellectual honesty much sooner than seems necessary.

* edited slightly for clarity

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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SCHWARZENEGGER.... Sounds like he's new to Republican politics.

Schwarzenegger said Republicans in Washington must put aside their ideology and work with President Barack Obama on solving the economic crisis.

"You know, you've got to go beyond just the principles. You've got to go and say, 'What is right for the country right now?'" he said. "I think that, if they -- they should make an effort to work together and to find what is best for the people, because by derailing everything, it's not going to help anybody, and it creates instability and insecurity."

"They," in this case, is in refence to congressional Republicans.

I wonder if there's an excommunication process in place at the Republican National Committee....

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE RACE TO BE THE CRAZIEST.... Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has said he'll reject some of unemployment insurance from the federal stimulus package. Not to be outdone, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) said he'll not only reject unemployment insurance, but will also "not take $42 million in funding for green buildings."

Yes, because there's nothing worse than paying construction crews to make buildings more energy efficient.

There's apparently a race among some far-right Republican governors -- all of whom are already eyeing the 2012 presidential race -- to see who can be slightly crazier than the other. Jindal is clearly a contender, and Sarah Palin and Mississippi's Haley Barbour are obviously in the mix, but Sanford seems especially driven to get out in front of the pack.

It's leading him to make unusually ridiculous decisions affecting the people in his state, while making truly odd policy prescriptions.

Sanford, asked about the stimulus, said he would probably reject some of the funds. "I think it's a bad idea," he said of the package. "Period. Exclamation point."

"Good medicine to the wrong patient ultimately makes the patient sicker," Sanford continued. "What we're dealing with here is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem."

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) told the WaPo, "I think people will ... understand that it's political posturing and you're playing with people's lives, and that's a very, very dangerous game."

That's true, but for Sanford, it's a dangerous game he can win by losing -- he "wins" by currying favor with unhinged Republican activists, while "losing" as his state's economy deteriorates and his constituents suffer.

As for Sanford's notion of a "fundamental misdiagnosis," what does the South Carolinian believe is the wisest course of action? "When times go south you cut spending," Sanford recently explained. "That's what families do, that's what businesses do, and I don't think the government should be exempt from that process."

It is Neo-Hooverism in its most obvious form.

Sanford added, by the way, that supporters of the economic recovery package are "the real fringe" in American politics. Got that? The "fringe" includes the popular president, a majority of the Senate, a majority of the House, a majority of the governors, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and 60% of the American people.

Perhaps it's best to assume that whatever Mark Sanford says, the opposite is true.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY.... Why is it so painfully difficult to take the Republican Party seriously in the 21st century? Because they haven't quite figured out that credibility comes with a degree of political maturity. Take Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama, for example. (via Ben Smith)

Another local resident [in Cullman County, Alabama] asked Shelby [yesterday] if there was any truth to a rumor that appeared during the presidential campaign concerning Obama's U.S. citizenship, or lack thereof.

"Well his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven't seen any birth certificate," Shelby said. "You have to be born in America to be president."

According to the Associated Press, state officials in Hawaii checked health department records during the campaign and determined there was no doubt Obama was born in Hawaii.

The nonpartisan Web site Factcheck.org examined the original document and said it does have a raised seal and the usual evidence of a genuine document. In addition, Factcheck.org reproduced an announcement of Obama's birth, including his parents' address in Honolulu, that was published in the Honolulu Advertiser on Aug. 13, 1961.

This kind of stupidity took a right turn at annoying quite a while ago, and now rests comfortably in the realm of madness. When Alan Keyes launches into a ridiculous tirade about the president's birth certificate, it's not especially surprising -- Keyes, based on all available evidence, is apparently not well. Anyone looking for lucidity from the poor man is bound to be disappointed.

It's far more annoying to have elected Republican officials in Tennessee signing on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit "aimed at forcing" the President to "prove he is a United States citizen."

But the Shelby example is a different magnitude of idiocy. Shelby isn't just some random yahoo with a right-wing radio talk-show; he's a four-term United States senator. He's the ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, for crying out loud. It's incumbent on him to be somewhat coherent and conduct himself with at least a little sanity.

In the broader context, the Republican Party is still unsure how to get back on the road to electoral success after years of failure and defeat. While the party mulls its options, we have a leading House Republican comparing the GOP to the Taliban; a prominent Senate Republican wanting to position the party as "freedom fighters" taking on the "slide toward socialism"; and a leading Senate Republican publicly questioning the President of the United States' birth certificate.

What an embarrassment.

It seems a little early in Obama's presidency to see Republicans become this deranged. I shudder to think how unhinged they'll be in, say, a year.

Update: Shelby's office says the local news account isn't a full reflection of the senator's comments, and that the senator "doesn't have any doubt" about Obama's citizenship and eligibility.

Second Update: While Shelby claims the local paper misconstrued his comments, the paper stands by its story. There are rumors that a video might be available. I'll keep you posted.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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KEEPING HEALTHCARE REFORM ON TRACK.... There's been ample speculation as to whether the Obama administration will pursue healthcare reform this year, but as the White House budget comes together, the issue remains very much on the frontburner.

"The budget will kick off or facilitate a focus on getting health care done this year," the senior official said, adding that the White House is planning a health care summit. The event has been delayed by former senator Thomas A. Daschle's decision to withdraw from consideration as health secretary because of tax problems, a move that left Obama without a key member of his health team.

Administration officials and outside experts say the most likely path to revamping the health system is to begin with Medicare, the federal program for retirees and people with disabilities, and Medicaid, which serves the poor. Together, the two programs cover about 100 million people at a cost of $561 billion in 2007. Making policy changes in those programs -- such as rewarding physicians who computerize their medical records or paying doctors for results rather than procedures -- could improve care while generating long-term savings, experts say.

Obama's budget request would create "running room for health reform," the official said, by reducing spending on some health programs so the administration would have money to devote to initiatives to expand coverage. The biggest target is bonus payments to insurance companies that run managed-care programs under Medicare, known as Medicare Advantage.

The Bush-era program has attracted nearly a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries to private health insurance plans that cover a package of services such as doctor visits, prescription drugs and eyeglasses. But the government pays the plans 13 to 17 percent more than it pays for traditional fee-for-service coverage, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare financing issues.

On a related note, the Politico reported that the White House is "considering dumping its newly created Office of Health Reform," which Tom Daschle was slated to lead. Does that mean Obama's team is backing off on the broader initiative? Ezra Klein explains that just the opposite appears to be true. The Office of Health Reform was going to be Daschle's baby and "filling that spot with someone else would actually undermine the original intent of the office."

Ezra concluded, "If they decide to dump the Office of Health Reform, it's not because they've abandoned health care reform. It's because they haven't, and they're building a post-Daschle strategy."

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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UNEMPLOYED BUSHIES.... Alberto Gonzales' difficulties in finding a job in the legal world are well known, but it appears he's not the only one from the previous administration struggling.

The jobless rate is hanging high -- for many of the roughly 3,000 political appointees who served President George W. Bush. Finding work has proved a far tougher task than those appointees expected. [...]

Only 25% to 30% of ex-Bush officials seeking full-time jobs have succeeded, estimated Eric Vautour, a Washington recruiter at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. That "is much, much worse" than when Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton left the White House, he said. At least half those presidents' senior staffers landed employment within a month after the administration ended, Mr. Vautour recalled.

Moving beyond any sense of Schadenfreude here, there's an interesting aspect to this that warrants attention. As Paul Krugman explained, there's a "wingnut welfare" system in place that, ordinarily, practically guarantees full employment for experienced Republican officials who lose their jobs in government. GOP benefactors are supposed to help "take care of" Republicans like this, through think tanks and related outlets.

Now, however, it appears the system isn't working as it used to.

Thus, lose an election, and a think tank with the usual funding sources will create an America's Enemies program for you to direct. Mess up the occupation of Iraq, and you'll be appointed to run the World Bank; mess up there, and there's still a chair waiting for you at AEI.

But it appears that wingnut welfare is breaking down when it comes to former Bush officials. Is this the beginning of the end for movement conservatism?

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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IRONY WATCH.... The very first sentence of George Will's new column reads:

A simple apology would have sufficed.

Oh, George, the irony is rich.

In context, Will's column blasts Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) for his proposed constitutional amendment on prohibiting gubernatorial Senate appointments. The "simple apology," in Will's mind, should come from Feingold for his campaign-finance reform efforts.

More to the point, though, there's still no word on when Will might offer a "simple apology" for his factual errors in last week's column on global warming.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OBAMA EYES DEFICIT REDUCTION.... Just yesterday, in his weekly address, President Obama said he is determined to "get exploding deficits under control." He previewed a federal request budget, due out this week, that is "sober in its assessments, honest in its accounting, and lays out in detail my strategy for investing in what we need, cutting what we don't, and restoring fiscal discipline."

The president added, "[W]e can't generate sustained growth without getting our deficits under control."

To that end, the White House is "putting the finishing touches on an ambitious first budget" that aims to cut the deficit in half over the next four years. Republicans who opposed the economic stimulus plan built their arguments around fears of long-term debt (I believe "generational theft" was the phrase of choice). So, will the GOP be thrilled to hear Obama's deficit reduction plan?

Probably not.

To get [to a projected $533 billion deficit -- 3% of GDP -- in 2013], Obama proposes to cut spending and raise taxes. The savings would come primarily from "winding down the war" in Iraq, a senior administration official said. The budget assumes continued spending on "overseas military contingency operations" throughout Obama's presidency, the official said, but that number is lower than the nearly $190 billion budgeted for Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

Obama also seeks to increase tax collections, mainly by making good on his promise to eliminate some of the temporary tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. While the budget would keep the breaks that benefit middle-income families, it would eliminate them for wealthy taxpayers, defined as families earning more than $250,000 a year. Those tax breaks would be permitted to expire on schedule in 2011. That means the top tax rate would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the tax on capital gains would jump to 20 percent from 15 percent for wealthy filers and the tax on estates worth more than $3.5 million would be maintained at the current rate of 45 percent.

Obama also proposes "a fairly aggressive effort on tax enforcement" that would target corporate loopholes, the official said. And Obama's budget seeks to tax the earnings of hedge fund managers as normal income rather than at the lower 15 percent capital gains rate.

This is, of course, entirely in line with the agenda presented to the electorate in 2008. As David Axelrod told the NYT, "This is consistent with what the president talked about throughout the campaign," and "restores some balance to the tax code in a way that protects the middle class."

We'll have a better sense of the details on Thursday, when the White House will release a 150-page "Economic and Budget Policy" report. This outline will be followed by the complete budget for the 2010 fiscal year, released in April, though the outline will "make clear" that the president "intends to push ahead on promises to contain health care costs and expand insurance coverage, and to move toward an energy cap-and-trade system for controlling emissions of gases blamed for climate change."

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

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By: Hilzoy

Obama's Housing Plan: The Second Time As Farce

One of the dumbest things I've heard about Obama's housing plan was on CNN last night (AC 360 2/20/2008; transcript accessed via Lexis/Nexis):

"TOM FOREMAN: Many who oppose the bill, however, seem to understand it fine. They just think it's wrong.

(on camera) Opponents argue this plan simply has no clear way to determine if a troubled homeowner added to his mortgage problems by spending too much money on other things, for example, sending his kids to private school or buying expensive cars or taking lavish vacations."

Anyone who thinks that the mortgage plan should have a way to determine whether the people it's trying to help sent their kids to private schools or took expensive vacations or put in marble countertops is presumably willing to spend the large sums of money it would take to find that sort of thing out about the 3-4 million people the loan modification program is designed to reach. Moreover, s/he should be willing to accept the serious intrusion into people's privacy that this sort of investigation into people's past spending would entail. And s/he should also be prepared to reach many fewer people, since presumably a number of people would not be able to document that all their spending fell within whatever guidelines we deem acceptable.

Back in the Reagan era, I used to marvel at people who would first rail about the excessive size of government bureaucracies and then complain about, say, welfare fraud. (I was all for managing bureaucracies more effectively; it was the people who seemed to resent their very existence who puzzled me.) If you want a program to be able to distinguish the people who actually qualify for welfare from those who don't, I thought, someone needs to be going through their casefiles. And if you fire all those government bureaucrats, is it any wonder that the people who remain don't do as good a job making those distinctions?

Same here. If we base decisions about who qualifies for the loan modification program on relatively simple criteria -- income, size of loan, other debts and assets -- then we can carry it out relatively simply. But if we insist on figuring out whether each and every applicant spent too much on their vacation in the recent past, or renovated their bathroom without a government-approved reason, or violated the Guidelines on Acceptable Countertop Materials that the Department of Housing would need to draw up, or sent their kids to private schools, we should be willing to pay for the army of bureaucrats who will need to pore over people's financial histories in order to make that kind of determination.

Personally, I'm not willing to pay for any such thing. I'd rather keep my money, or else spend it on something worthwhile, like upgrading the electricity grid or providing better medical care for vets. That means that I need to accept the fact that some deserving people will not be helped, and some undeserving people will be. The best we can do is try to design the best simple way of deciding who will be eligible that we can, while accepting that any simple criterion will get things wrong, and then try to figure out which side we think we should err on.

There are circumstances in which I'd be in favor of erring on the side of letting people who deserve help go unassisted. But for the reasons stated in my last post, these aren't them.

Hilzoy 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: Hilzoy

Obama's Housing Plan

I've been puzzled by the response to Obama's housing plan. There seem to be a whole lot of people who think that it's mainly designed to help out people who knowingly got themselves into trouble by living beyond their means, while those of us who were financially responsible are left out in the cold. (There's a decent sample of these reactions here. Sample: "Obama has one word for those who didn't get in over their heads during the recent housing boom and have paid their mortgages on time: Suckers!")

I just don't get this. Obama's plan is not primarily aimed at people who acted irresponsibly. Recall that it has three main parts (pdf):

(1) It rewrites regulations to allow people whose mortgages are with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and who owe 80-105% of the value of their home, to refinance. These are not necessarily people who are in trouble; the value of everyone's home is going down, and it's easy for someone who got a prudent mortgage with a good chunk of money down to find him- or herself in this category. In fact, people who really borrowed more than they could afford will, in many parts of the country, be too far underwater to take advantage of this provision.

Moreover, this costs the taxpayer virtually nothing. President Obama: "The estimated cost to taxpayers would be roughly zero. While Fannie and Freddie would receive less money in payments, this would be balanced out by a reduction in defaults and foreclosures."

(2) The loan modification program. This costs taxpayers $75 billion, which will be used to provide incentives to banks and mortgage servicers to modify at-risk loans. This program does not require that the borrower be in default, or late making payments. People who are in trouble, but who have managed to stay current with their payments, are not left out in favor of people who are facing foreclosure. It does, however, exclude people who will not commit to staying in their home -- e.g., speculators and flippers.

(3) Increasing funding for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and purchases of their mortgage securities. The purpose of this is to keep the mortgage market liquid. This step will lower mortgage rates, which will help new homebuyers and people who refinance. But it does nothing (directly, at least) for people who took out mortgages they cannot afford.

The second of these steps is the only one that could possibly be said to help people who took out loans they cannot afford at the expense of the rest of us. (The first and third are aimed at different problems entirely.) You don't have to be in default, or late making payments, in order to qualify for it. You do, however, have to be paying more than you can realistically afford.

Some people are paying more than they can afford because they knowingly took out mortgages that were too big -- perhaps counting on being able to refinance or sell their home once their teaser rates ended. Some are paying more than they can afford through no fault of their own: they lost their jobs, had unexpected health crises, etc. Some are probably in between these two camps: people who talked themselves into accepting loans that they probably couldn't afford, or could afford only if everything went right, and then things went wrong. And some were probably defrauded.

Under normal circumstances, I'd be opposed to the government stepping in to encourage banks to modify these loans, except in cases of fraud. But these are not normal circumstances. The economy is melting down, and foreclosures are a big part of the reason why. Foreclosures always impact people other than the people foreclosed on, for instance by driving down neighborhood property values. But now, of all times, they are having massive impacts on the rest of us. And the Obama plan, which does not just wave a magic wand and make people's excess debt disappear, seems to me like a good start on addressing them.

Hilzoy 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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February 21, 2009
By: Hilzoy

More Daycare

Steve noted this poll from USNews' Washington Whispers site:

Photobucket

He asked: "Would it ever occur to them, even for a moment, to ask who would run the best daycare center: Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, or John Boehner?"

Well, no. But let's take this a bit further. Here are some other polls I do not expect to see on the Washington Whispers page:

If you needed some yard work done, would you hire Mel Martinez, Henry Cisneros, Xavier Becerra, or Bill Richardson?

If you needed a rap DJ for a party, would you hire Barack Obama, Charlie Rangel, John Lewis, or Michael Steele?

If you needed an interior decorator, would you choose Jim McGreevey, Barney Frank, Larry Craig, or the disinterred corpse of Harvey Milk?

It's not just that the people who make up polls for the Washington Whispers page would not expect John McCain to run a daycare center. It's that they would probably recognize any of these other appeals to stereotypes as offensive. And yet, oddly enough, asking which one of four prominent women we'd like to have running our children's day care center is A-OK.

Hilzoy 8:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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JINDAL TO TURN DOWN STIMULUS AID.... I can only assume this is some kind of bizarre kickoff of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Saying that it could lead to a tax increase on state businesses, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Friday that the state plans to reject as much as $98 million in federal unemployment assistance in the economic stimulus package.

Jindal, who has emerged as a leading Republican critic of the $787 billion spending and tax-cut bill signed into law this week by President Barack Obama, said the state would accept federal dollars for transportation projects and would not quarrel with a $25-per-week increase in unemployment benefits.

Both of those items are financed entirely with federal dollars and require the state only to accept the money. The part that Jindal rejected would require permanent changes in state law that the governor said makes it unacceptable. [...]

But U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., disputed the governor's interpretation and said the new unemployment benefits are designed to be temporary. "This bill is an emergency measure designed to provide extra help during these extraordinarily tough times," Landrieu said. "To characterize this provision as a 'tax increase on Louisiana businesses' is inaccurate."

Apparently, Jindal's position is he'd rather limit unemployed assistance now than worry about a possible tax increase on businesses three years from now.

The Politico reports that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) "said he, too, would likely decline funds for broadening access to unemployment insurance." South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) may do the same, but hasn't "made any decisions on any part of the stimulus yet."

Ryan Powers explained, "[I]t is not clear why participating in the expanded unemployment insurance program would result in tax increases for business. By Jindal's own estimate, the recovery package would have funded his state's unemployment expansion for three years, at which point the state could -- if it chose to do so -- phase out the program."

Well, sure, if you're going to let facts drive the process. But Jindal & Co. aren't worried about reality -- and they're certainly not worried about the unemployed -- when there's political grandstanding to be done.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a look at an interesting meeting in Rome between the Pope and the U.S. Speaker of the House, who happens to be a devout Catholic.

Pope Benedict XVI made clear to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Wednesday that she cannot advocate for abortion rights and still be a good Catholic.

After meeting with Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the Vatican, the pontiff stressed that Catholic politicians are required to work to outlaw abortion, and stressed that church teachings are "consistent" on the matter.

Both seem aimed directly at Pelosi's public positions. Though she considers herself an "ardent" Catholic, she is also a vocal supporter of abortion rights. She tangled with church officials last year about whether church teachings on abortion have been consistent.

After their meeting the Vatican issued a statement that read:

"His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church's consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development."

Pelosi, soon after, issued her own statement, praising the Vatican's "leadership in fighting poverty, hunger, and global warming." The Pope's public statement neglected to mention any of these issues.

The issue of whether political leaders can separate their church's mandates from their official responsibilities isn't exactly new, and the Speaker has received "direction" from church leaders before. Pelosi, however, shows no signs of yielding to pressure -- and continues to receive communion.

For his part, Pope Benedict has expressed support for excommunicating elected officials who support abortion rights, though his spokesman later said he has no plans to formally punish anyone in specific.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Frank Page, a very conservative pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, would ordinarily keep his distance from President Obama. But this week, the White House invited Page to be on an advisory council for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and he accepted.

"I was assured by [Joshua] DuBois that this was bipartisan and that they wanted people of varying viewpoints and needed involvement of people of various political and theological differences," Page said. "And so I prayed about it, talked to some friends about it and felt led to be a part." He added that he's taking heat for working with Obama's team from some of his allies.

* And finally, Fred Phelps, best known for picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. troops and generally recognized as the most loathsome man in America, tried to enter the United Kingdom this week to protest a play about the death of Matthew Shepard. A U.K. Border Agency said Phelps and his daughter "have engaged in unacceptable behavior by inciting hatred against a number of communities," and were prohibited from entering the country.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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CALIFORNIA GOP TO PUNISH MODERATES.... It's amusing to consider how the beginning of this excerpt relates to the end of this excerpt. (thanks to reader G.B. for the heads-up)

The 1,400 Republican activists heading to Sacramento this weekend for the twice-yearly GOP convention will be united by a single concern: how to lift the state party out of the deep hole it's dug in recent years.

Reeling from their failed attempt to block tax increases in the state budget, their worst presidential defeat in decades, losing seats in the Legislature and watching party membership shrink, California Republicans know something has to be done soon if the party wants to hang on to what's left of its statewide clout.

"We have to get out of the doldrums from the November election," said Tom Del Beccaro of Lafayette, the party's vice chair. "We need to rally people."

That won't be easy. The convention opened Friday, just a day after Democrats -- and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- steamrolled over GOP opposition and managed to pass a state budget plan that included tax hikes opposed by all but a handful of Republican legislators.

Convention delegates are expected to vote Sunday on a motion to censure the six Republicans who voted for the tax increases.

I'm not generally in the habit of giving state Republican Parties advice, but if the California GOP wants to understand why it's in a deep hole, it need look no further than the vote on a censure resolution, punishing six Republican state senators for doing the right thing on the state budget.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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JOHN GIBSON AND LOW EXPECTATIONS.... There was an unfortunate incident this week involving a doctored Fox News clip and John Gibson. The original piece reported:

At the end of a long and pointless conversation between two Fox News reporters covering a zoo escape, John Gibson compared Attorney General Eric Holder to a monkey.

A monkey escaped from the Woodland park Zoo in Seattle and despite the fact that authorities are "taking this very seriously," Julie Banderas and Harris Faulkner were not, cracking jokes about the monkeys' bright blue scrotum.

At 2:48, they toss to John Gibson who complains that he can't get away with saying "bright blue scrotum" on the radio then follows that up by saying, "We were talking about Eric Holder today on the radio and his bright blue scrotum."

Though this quickly made the rounds, Gibson did not say anything of the sort. The video spliced together two unrelated halves of different Gibson sentences. He was justifiably furious, and those who'd published the story ran retractions and apologies.

But what I found interesting about the unpleasant episode was how very easy it was to believe Gibson made the comment. No one, anywhere, heard this story and assumed something was amiss.

Put it this way: if we saw a report saying that ABC News' Charles Gibson had told a national television audience, "We were talking about Eric Holder today on the radio and his bright blue scrotum," many of us would have been pretty skeptical. When told that Fox News' John Gibson made the comment, we thought, "Yeah, that sounds like something he'd say."

Media Matters has done a great job for years of highlighting some of Gibson's more jaw-dropping remarks, but who could forget his insults of Heath Ledger after his death? Or his concerns about "black devils" who "wanna fight the white devil"? Or how about his requests to white people to "make more babies"?

My personal favorite, as long-time readers may recall, was the time he lost it on the air while debating my friend Rob Boston over the "war on Christmas" -- and then called Rob at home to threaten him personally.

No question, Gibson was treated unfairly this week. He was wronged, and the apologies were warranted. But I wonder if Gibson might take this opportunity to ponder why so many were willing to believe the unfair misquote in the first place.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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WOMEN = DAYCARE?.... Jamison Foser flags the online poll running right now on U.S. News' "Washington Whispers" website. It asks readers:

Who'd run the best daycare?

If you had a choice of four daycare centers run separately by Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi, which would you choose for your kids?

The poll features a picture of bobble-head dolls for each of the women, in front of a movie poster for "Mister Mom."

I can't imagine what U.S. News was thinking. Would it ever occur to them, even for a moment, to ask who would run the best daycare center: Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, or John Boehner?

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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ARE WE STILL STUCK IN OCTOBER?.... Watching conservatives talk about the economic crisis, the arguments start to have a certain "Groundhog Day" quality.

On MSNBC, Pat Buchanan perpetuated the myth that government efforts to expand affordable housing to underserved communities caused the financial crisis, a charge that has frequently taken the form of attacks on the Community Reinvestment Act. In fact, as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has stated: "Our own experience with CRA over more than 30 years and recent analysis of available data, including data on subprime loan performance, runs counter to the charge that CRA was at the root of, or otherwise contributed in any substantive way to, the current mortgage difficulties."

Karl Rove blasted President Obama on Fannie and Freddie from 2005. Phil Gramm insisted he's not to blame, but CRA and Fannie/Freddie are. Last night, Bill O'Reilly blasted Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) for "pumping it that poor people ought to be given mortgages 'cause everybody has a right to a house."

All of these arguments, from just the past few days, are obviously wrong. But more importantly, these are the same arguments the same characters were making in October, when they were also debunked and proven baseless.

When I saw Media Matters' item noting Pat Buchanan blaming "minority communities" for the financial crisis, I had to triple-check the date to make sure it wasn't a piece from last year.

Didn't we already have this debate? Isn't it already clear that the conservative talking points were wrong in October, and haven't improved with age?

I suspect most of these conservative media personalities know their arguments are wrong, but haven't quite come up with anything new yet. So, they recycle the old talking points, discredited though they may be.

It's kind of sad, really.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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BUTTARS PUNISHED FOR ANTI-GAY TIRADE.... Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars (R) generated some attention for himself this week with a breathtaking anti-gay tirade in which he called gay people "the greatest threat to America going down I know of." He went on to compare homosexuality to alcoholism, and described gay people as "the meanest buggers I ever seen. It's just like the Moslems." Buttars concluded, "It's the beginning of the end.... Sodom and Gomorrah was localized. This is worldwide."

In an unexpected move, state officials in Utah actually chose to do something about this.

Utah Senate leaders stripped Sen. Chris Buttars of his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday in response to outrage and embarrassment from Buttars' anti-gay tirade to a documentary filmmaker.

Indeed, Senate President Michael Waddoups, a Republican, decided to "boot Buttars off of two committees -- the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee -- both of which Buttars leads." Waddoups said that the state Senate "stands behind Senator Buttars' right to speak," but that action was necessary so that the chamber could function effectively.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, isn't this a little unusual? Unfortunately, far-right Republican lawmakers at the state level (and occasionally at the national level) say ridiculous and hateful things about gay people all the time. It's routine, and rarely comes with consequences. Buttars was more idiotic than most, but he's hardly the first GOP official to launch into a bigoted tirade about Americans he hates.

With that in mind, I like to think this result is a sign of real progress. A Republican elected official in Utah was punished -- by other Republicans -- for anti-gay vitriol.

What a pleasant surprise.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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GRAMM SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED OUT TO PLAY.... Time magazine, highlighting some of those most responsible for the economic crisis, recently singled out former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), and for good reason. Few deserve as much blame as the former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Gramm "played a leading role in writing and pushing through Congress the 1999 repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks from Wall Street," Time explained. "He also inserted a key provision into the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act that exempted over-the-counter derivatives like credit-default swaps from regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Credit-default swaps took down AIG, which has cost the U.S. $150 billion thus far."

More recently, as part of his audition to be John McCain's Treasury Secretary, Gramm said the nation was only in a "mental recession," and that the United States is really a "nation of whiners." Soon after, Gramm quietly disappeared for a while.

Now, however, Gramm seems to believe he's a credible public figure again. He had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, explaining how twisted worldview and painful culpability isn't such a big deal.

His defense was as predictable as it was tiresome:

[M]ortgage lending was becoming increasingly politicized. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requirements led regulators to foster looser underwriting and encouraged the making of more and more marginal loans. [...]

Countrywide Financial Corp. cloaked itself in righteousness and silenced any troubled regulator by being the first mortgage lender to sign a HUD "Declaration of Fair Lending Principles and Practices." Given privileged status by Fannie Mae as a reward for "the most flexible underwriting criteria," it became the world's largest mortgage lender -- until it became the first major casualty of the financial crisis. [...]

Yet it is amazing how well the market for credit default swaps has functioned during the financial crisis.

Yes, Gramm's pitch includes discredited Republican talking points about CRA and Fannie Mae, followed by a defense of credit default swaps.

Two things. First, Gramm's completely wrong.

Second, Gramm's return from exile is entirely too soon. For a man principally responsible for helping destroy our economy, we'd all benefit if Gramm just went away for a very long while.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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February 20, 2009

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

* It was an "erratic" day on Wall Street.

* Roland Burris' chief of staff abruptly resigned today. Another very bad sign for the Illinois senator's already-bleak future.

* On a related note, the White House would like Burris to take the weekend to think about the benefits of resignation.

* To have been a fly on the wall for these talks: "Since last fall, many of the leading figures in the nation's long-running health care debate have been meeting secretly in a Senate hearing room. Now, with the blessing of the Senate's leading proponent of universal health insurance, Edward M. Kennedy, they appear to be inching toward a consensus that could reshape the debate."

* Another tragedy: "A suicide bomber attacked the funeral of a slain Shiite Muslim leader in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing 28 people and triggering deadly rioting, officials said."

* The New York Post has kinda sorta apologized for its controversial political cartoon.

* Will the recession lead to a crime wave?

* Oops: "National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has closer ties to Allen Stanford and his financial empire than his office previously has acknowledged."

* It would be must-see-TV: "In an unusual move, one of the country's most powerful labor leaders, SEIU chief Andy Stern, has just issued a public challenge to Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, daring the influential business leader to debate him publicly over the Employee Free Choice Act."

* John Boehner doesn't seem to know what he's talking about.

* Larry Kudlow doesn't seem to know what he's talking about (probably because he's getting his talking points from John Boehner).

* Malkin doesn't seem to believe comparing Obama to Hitler is "out of bounds." Wow.

* Why the White House welcomes the chance to push back against that ranting guy on CNBC.

* Great item from John Judis on the "fiscal equivalent of war."

* The ongoing problem of military readiness.

* And here I thought Leon Panetta was supposed to be unpopular at Langley.

* John Gibson was misquoted, but given his track record, it's easy to see how a mistake like this can happen.

* Good piece from A.L. on the six far-right governors "considering" turning down stimulus aid.

* The line between the actual Republican Party and the "SNL" parody really is easily blurred.

* The right wing is already selling bumper-stickers calling for Obama's impeachment. That didn't take long.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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IF IT'S GOOD FOR DERIVATIVES TRADERS.... Given the attention CNBC's Rick Santelli's right-wing tirade has received, it wasn't too surprising that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs came prepared to the briefing room, ready to address his concerns.

Ben Smith posted this clip, and I think it shows Gibbs availing himself rather well by pointing to, you know, reality.

Gibbs dismisses the "adage that if it was good for a derivatives trader it was good for Main Street." Nicely played.

And pay particular attention to the end, when Gibbs offers to buy Santelli a cup of coffee: "Decaf."

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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RECEIVERSHIP.... White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today, "This administration continues to strongly believe that a privately held banking system is the correct way to go, ensuring that they are regulated sufficiently by this government. That's been our belief for quite some time, and we continue to have that."

The number of key officials who've reached a different conclusion, however, continues to grow.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) told Bloomberg News that a short-term take-over of Citigroup and Bank of America may be necessary. "I don't welcome that at all, but I could see how it's possible it may happen," Dodd said. "I'm concerned that we may end up having to do that, at least for a short time."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had distanced himself from such an approach as recently as Sunday, told the Huffington Post something similar. Ryan Grim reports that Scheme "believes that failed 'zombie' banks, no matter what their size, should be taken over by the government, which should then wipe out shareholders, fire management, clean up the banks and quickly resell them into the marketplace."

Schumer added, "'Nationalization' means many different things to many different people, and somebody needs to clear it up." Yes, perhaps by using a more specific word.

Please stop using the highly inaccurate term "nationalization" which connotes permanent government takeover of the banks. The correct term is receivership, which is by definition temporary and a routine staple of our capitalist economy and banking regulatory system. Using the term nationalization plays into the propaganda of the far right.

As Atrios summarized, "It isn't about taking over the banking system permanently, it's about wiping out the shareholders, temporarily taking control, and either selling off the assets or selling what's left to another entity."

Krugman clarifies further:

We are not talking about fears that leftist radicals will expropriate perfectly good private companies. At least since last fall the major banks -- certainly Citi and B of A -- have only been able to stay in business because their counterparties believe that there's an implicit federal guarantee on their obligations. The banks are already, in a fundamental sense, wards of the state.

And the market caps of these banks did not reflect investors' assessment of the difference in value between their assets and their liabilities. Instead, it largely -- and probably totally -- reflected the "Geithner put", the hope that the feds would bail them out in a way that handed a significant windfall gain to stockholders.

What's happening now is a growing sense that the federal government, in return for rescuing these institutions, will demand the same thing a private-sector white knight would have demanded -- namely, ownership.


Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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SANTELLI'S CLASS WAR.... I'm behind on this one -- the video went viral yesterday -- and I assume most of you have already seen CNBC's Rick Santelli's right-wing temper tantrum. As Santelli sees it, families facing foreclosure are "losers," and the Obama administration's housing plan encourages Americans to stop paying their mortgages.

As David Sirota explained, Santelli was "literally on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange surrounded by multimillionaire traders railing on the Obama administration for trying to help struggling homeowners, and berating people who are getting foreclosed on as 'losers.'"

In the midst of Santelli's tirade, threats about another "tea party," and genuinely frightening screaming, it didn't seem to occur to him that he sounded ridiculous. A $700 billion bailout for a financial industry on the verge of collapse? No problem. A $75 billion housing policy to stem the foreclosure crisis? Grab the pitchforks, show your unbridled rage, and prepare for a class war against those low-income families who've let down the Wall Street traders who've done so much to improve the nation's economy.

No wonder some of the less sensible among us fell in love with Santelli's faux-populism. It's the precisely the kind of class warfare Republicans have always dreamed of -- the wealthy whining incessantly about struggling families getting to keep their homes.

As dday put it, "The revolution has begun. These workaday stock traders are going to take back this country for the laissez-faire capitalists who are entitled to it."

Not incidentally, now might also be a good time to point out that Santelli's fury doesn't stand up well to fact-checking. He made it sound like "losers" who bought homes they couldn't afford are poised to get a bailout from the feds. That might be the prevailing judgment of furious traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but it's not reality.

The right is going to need a new cult hero. This guy doesn't seem to know what he's talking about.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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WELCOME BACK, BUDGET SANITY.... President Obama has only been in office for a month, and I'm already tired of the phrase "change you can believe in." When he does something great, his supporters use it ("That's change we can believe in!"). When he does something misguided, his detractors use it ("Whatever this is, it's not change we can believe in"). This has become rather tiresome.

That said, the whole point of "change you can believe in," when it was used during the presidential campaign, was to highlight Obama's commitment to changing the way the system works. Americans had been misled so often about so many aspects of government over the last eight years, Obama wanted to return some integrity and intellectual honesty to the political process. The cliche was practically intended to be literal -- he would change the system, so that we could believe in it again.

And with that in mind, this is exactly the kind of change Obama promised to deliver.

For his first annual budget next week, President Obama has banned four accounting gimmicks that President George W. Bush used to make deficit projections look smaller. The price of more honest bookkeeping: A budget that is $2.7 trillion deeper in the red over the next decade than it would otherwise appear, according to administration officials.

The new accounting involves spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Medicare reimbursements to physicians and the cost of disaster responses.

But the biggest adjustment will deal with revenues from the alternative minimum tax, a parallel tax system enacted in 1969 to prevent the wealthy from using tax shelters to avoid paying any income tax.

While budget sleight of hand and "magic asterisks" had become the norm, OMB Director Peter Orszag explained, "The president prefers to tell the truth, rather than make the numbers look better by pretending."

It's about damn time. The smoke-and-mirrors approach to which we've grown accustomed was ridiculous. It was a problem policymakers recognized, but didn't want to talk about, and had no interest in fixing. It's not only heartening to see Obama bring some sanity to the process, it will also have key practical consequences -- honest budgets lead to better policy making.

Noam Scheiber added that it will be "kinda helpful to have a budget that actually means something when you're debating public policy," and added the political upside to using honest budget numbers for a change: "Why not make the long-term deficit look as large as possible at the beginning of your term? Not only can you fairly blame your predecessor at that point; the bigger the deficit looks, the easier it is to show progress, which Obama will need to do as he runs for re-election. To take one example, you can't claim savings from drawing down in Iraq if you don't put Iraq spending on the budget in the first place (which Bush mostly didn't)."

I think that's largely right, but the politics might be more complicated than that. By bringing some integrity to the budget, Obama will also show some steep deficits, which will likely cause a major-league trantrum on the Hill.

John Cole offers the administration some excellent advice:

The very first thing I would do if I were Peter Orszag and company, and this is one of the very few times I actually hope someone in government listens to me, is to go back and re-score the last decade or so of budgets using the new accounting system, so when they roll this out they can say "Here is what this year's budget would have looked like under the old system. Here is what it looks like under the new system. Here are the past ten years worth of budgets under the old system. Here they are under the new system." For political reasons, this simply has to be done.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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QUINN CALLS FOR BURRIS RESIGNATION.... Now would probably be an excellent time for Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) to update his resume.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) on Friday called on his "good friend" Roland Burris (D-Ill.) to step down from the Senate and said the Illinois legislature should immediately take up a bill to require special elections to fill Senate vacancies. Quinn declined to criticize the appointed senator, saying he would go down as a "great Illinois citizen," but he said Burris has a "cloud over his head."

He said Burris, whom he has known for 37 years, never should have accepted the appointment from embattled former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and that Senate business is too important right now to have a senator with so many questions to answer. He said Burris would be doing the state a service by stepping down.

He pointed to the recent economic stimulus bill, which passed with the minimum 60 votes in the Senate.

"It needed every single vote in order pass," Quinn said. "The United States Senate at this time in our history is vitally important to deal with the economic challenges that we all face."

I'm not sure if that last argument is necessarily persuasive. What does Burris' possible resignation have to do with the significance of each and every vote in the Senate? For that matter, it still might be difficult to push Democrats in the Illinois legislature to set up a special election, especially with the prospect of a Republican winning the seat.

Nevertheless, Quinn's statement makes Burris' future that much more bleak. The senator hasn't said much lately, and it's certainly possible he'll wait and see if the storm blows over. Whether he realizes it or not, the landscape is unlikely to get better for him -- Burris is already under investigation for possible perjury -- but he, like Blagojevich, probably doesn't see an upside to stepping down before he's forced to do so.

If Burris hopes to function as a productive senator, though, he should lower his expectations considerably.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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AN OBAMA CEO SNUB?.... The Politico's Eamon Javers has a 1,200-word piece today, noting the lack of CEOs in the Obama cabinet. I'm sure that's right, but I'm not sure why it matters.

In President Barack Obama's Cabinet, there is a Nobel Prize winner, a former mayor and a veteran CIA agent. Surrounding him in the White House West Wing are a former four-star general, one of the nation's most eminent economists and a handful of this generation's most talented political operatives.

This constellation of talent, however, has something of a black hole. There is virtually no one on Obama's team with outsized achievements or a high-profile reputation earned in the world of business.

There are no former CEOs in the Obama Cabinet. And among the people who make up his daily inner circle, there is only a dollop or two of top-level private sector experience.

This is a notable absence, particularly for an administration whose domestic reputation will hinge on whether it can reverse one of the steepest economic downturns in decades.

I suppose there's a kernel of an argument in there -- we're in the midst of an economic crisis, so the president should be talking to people who've run businesses.

But this doesn't quite add up for me. First, when facing economic collapse, I like the idea of a president talking to competent economists, not necessarily CEOs.

Second, it's a mistake to assume boardroom experience matters in government. Both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney ran businesses before 2000. How'd that work out for us?

Indeed, Javers concedes that several business leaders who served in recent administrations were "ostentatious flops," and it is "hard to argue that there is a close correlation between success in business and success in Washington."

The article, then, seems similar to the recent hand-wringing about the lack of Southerners in the cabinet -- look through Obama's team, look for a group or constituency that isn't represented, and then speculate about the "snub."

It all seems a little thin. OK, more than a little. Obama and his team have reached out aggressively to the business community, worked with CEOs on the stimulus package, and the White House has been open to the business community's ideas.

It's true, there are no CEOs in the cabinet, at least not yet. Who cares?

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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

* In another painful twist for Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), his press secretary abruptly quit yesterday. That's rarely a good sign.

* Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.) had told reporters he was likely to vote for the economic stimulus package, but then reversed course under pressure from his fellow Republicans. Cao, who represents a heavily Democratic district, now faces a recall petition, which was initiated by a group of ministers in New Orleans.

* Sen. George Pataki? Apparently, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has approached the former New York governor about running against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) next year.

* Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appears to be well positioned for re-election, should she seek a fourth term next year. It's obviously still very early, but a new poll shows her leading her next closest competitor, Rep. Dave Reichert (R), by 15 points, 54% to 39%.

* Former Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman is apparently planning to run for the Senate next year, taking on House Minority Whip Roy Blunt in a Republican primary. "Roy Blunt is another white guy in a suit, and I think the public wants change," Steelman said.

* The Republican National Committee isn't impressed with President Obama, and CNN's political blog did an item about the latest RNC press release. I'm not sure why.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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JUST SAY 'YES'.... It's very hard to believe that any sitting governor, no matter how severe his or her far-right ideology, would reject federal stimulus aid in the midst of an economic crisis. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an aggressive critic of the recovery policy, called the very idea of cash-strapped states turning down the money "crazy."

And yet, at last count, there were six conservative Republicans -- Govs. Perry (Texas), Barbour (Mississippi), Jindal (Louisiana), Sanford (South Carolina), Palin (Alaska), and Otter (Idaho) -- who have at least raised the possibility of turning down federal stimulus.

Slate's Christopher Beam takes a look at what these six are considering rejecting.

Say all six governors ... rejected the stimulus outright. They would be saying "no" to a collective 424,000 jobs, according to White House estimates. They'd also be sniffing at a total of $3.8 billion for highways and bridges, $559 million for public transit, and $1.5 billion for education. And that's not including state-specific projects like Louisiana's $460 million for flood protection efforts, which include building locks and dams as well as coastal restoration. All told, they would be rejecting an estimated $69 billion.

You'd have to be crazy to turn down that kind of money, especially when states are so strapped. (Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year.) And so many of the GOP governors have backtracked. As much as it might offend them ideologically, they are willing to accept this federal largesse for the greater good of the citizens of [insert state here], who face unprecedented hardship as blah blah blah.

As it turns out, the decision is not entirely up to the governors. When South Carolina's Mark Sanford started popping off about leaving his state out of the recovery mix, House Majority Whip James Clyburn added language to the bill that empowers a state legislature to accept the stimulus aid if a governor fails to act within 45 days.

I really doubt it will get to that, even in these six states. We're talking about some genuine ideologues, but no one seriously wants to play Russian Roulette with their own state's economy. As Beam added, "A state economy can plummet within that time, and no chief executive wants to take the blame for calamity."

That these six are even exploring the possibility out loud, however, is a reminder of just how far gone some GOP contingents really are, and just what some 2012 hopefulls will stoop to in order to patronize the far-right Republican base.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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REVERSING COURSE ON DISCRIMINATION.... In December, as Ben Armbruster explained, "France and the Netherlands co-sponsored an unprecedented U.N. declaration calling for a worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality." The United States, with our long tradition of championing human rights, was supposed to join our allies in supporting the measure.

The Bush administration had other ideas, and sided with China, the Vatican, and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in opposition.

As Mark Goldberg noted yesterday, the Obama administration is putting things right.

This is now: At the so-called "Durban Review Conference" on racism and xenophobia underway in Geneva, Europe again put forward language condemning "all forms of discrimination and all other human rights violations based on sexual orientation." According to UN Watch, "The Czech Republic on behalf of the E.U., with the support of New Zealand, the United States, Colombia, Chili on behalf of the South American states, the Netherlands, Argentina and a few others, took the floor in support."

The efforts to include language on discrimination based on sexual orientation ended up failing for lack of support from non-western countries. Still, it's relieving to see that the United States is now back on the side of the enlightened on this issue of basic human rights.

Quite right. Ideally, of course, the measure would have passed. But it's nevertheless encouraging to have the United States doing the right thing again on the international stage.

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

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RICHARD PERLE PLAYS MAKE-BELIEVE.... Neocon mastermind Richard Perle spoke in D.C. yesterday, and argued, with a straight face, that neoconservatives don't actually exist. And if they did exist, they wouldn't deserve the blame for the Bush administration's foreign policy failures.

Dana Milbank, who was on hand for Perle's remarks, said the experience of listening to all of this was like "falling down the rabbit hole."

"There is no such thing as a neoconservative foreign policy," Perle informed the gathering, hosted by National Interest magazine. "It is a left critique of what is believed by the commentator to be a right-wing policy."

So what about the 1996 report he co-authored that is widely seen as the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy? "My name was on it because I signed up for the study group," Perle explained. "I didn't approve it. I didn't read it."

Mm-hmm. And the two letters to the president, signed by Perle, giving a "moral" basis to Middle East policy and demanding military means to remove Saddam Hussein? "I don't have the letters in front of me," Perle replied.

Right. And the Bush administration National Security Strategy, enshrining the neoconservative themes of preemptive war and using American power to spread freedom? "I don't know whether President Bush ever read any of those statements," Perle maintained. "My guess is he didn't."

It was apparently quite a performance, which literally drew laughter when Perle insisted, "I've never advocated attacking Iran." He added that he doesn't "accept" the notion that there's even a "neoconservative school of thought," and said his book, "An End to Evil," is actually a text devoted to realism. "There's hardly an ideology in that book," Perle said.

As Milbank reminds us, the book argues, "There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust. This book is a manual for victory." No, no ideology there.

Apparently, at the end of yesterday's event, the moderator thanked Perle for being there: "You certainly kept us all entertained."

And that, I'm afraid, is perhaps the only option still available to the rest of us: laughing at Richard Perle for being such a transparent joke.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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WHERE HAD SCIENCE BEEN?.... In his latest Weekly Standard piece, Fred Barnes assess President Obama's first month in office, and wouldn't you know it, he's unimpressed. Barnes' complaints vary from odd to predictable -- apparently, the president travels too much and gets along too well with congressional Democrats -- but one concern in particular stood out for me.

Obama may not be eloquent, but he is glib and clever and at times persuasive. One of his favorite rhetorical devices is setting up a straw man, then knocking it down. He invoked this classic ploy subtly in his inaugural address, crudely in his press conference. "We will restore science to its rightful place," Obama said at his inauguration. Really? Where had science been?

Let's put aside whether the president is, in fact, "eloquent." I suspect most of the planet would disagree with Barnes' assessment, but never mind.

As for where science disappeared to, if Barnes really wants to know:

More than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement yesterday asserting that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry at home and abroad.

The sweeping accusations were later discussed in a conference call organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent organization that focuses on technical issues and has often taken stands at odds with administration policy. On Wednesday, the organization also issued a 38-page report detailing its accusations.

The two documents accuse the administration of repeatedly censoring and suppressing reports by its own scientists, stacking advisory committees with unqualified political appointees, disbanding government panels that provide unwanted advice and refusing to seek any independent scientific expertise in some cases.

''Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systemically nor on so wide a front,'' the statement from the scientists said, adding that they believed the administration had ''misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies.''

Does Barnes not know this, or is he pretending not to know this?

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

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WHEN THE MESSAGE REACHES THE INTENDED AUDIENCE.... Michael Tomasky makes the case this week that when President Obama reached out to Republicans during the debate over economic stimulus, the minority party wasn't the intended audience.

The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.

But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.

But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.

True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.

Kevin finds this more persuasive than I do, arguing that the efforts at bipartisanship were "almost entirely about optics," allowing the president to "bask in warm national glow of having tried his best."

But putting aside whether this was the deliberate strategy the White House had in mind, if it was the goal, did it have the desired effect? Apparently, yes.

A national AP poll (pdf) released yesterday found that 62% of Americans believe the president is doing enough to reach out to congressional Republicans. In contrast, the same poll found that only 27% of the public believes the GOP is doing to enough to cooperate with Obama. (On a related note, congressional Democrats enjoy a 49% approval rating; for congressional Republicans, it's 33%.)

Even Fox News' latest poll (pdf) showed similar results. Asked if the president "has sincerely tried to reach out to Republicans and be bipartisan," 66% of respondents said he has. Asked the same of Republicans, only 33% agreed. (The same poll found congressional Democrats with a 46% approval rating, 12 points higher than the GOP's 34%.)

If the intended audience is the electorate, the White House is probably pleased. And if congressional Republicans think they're finally scoring points ("Back in the Saddle") with their tactics, they're mistaken.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE JESUS ARGUMENT?.... Two weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) told his colleagues, as part of an argument against the economic stimulus package, "If you started the day Jesus Christ was born and spent $1 million every day since then, you still wouldn't have spent $1 trillion."

It was, of course, a very foolish argument. For one thing, the package is nowhere near $1 trillion. For another, it's not even a policy argument -- McConnell's point was that the proposal was big. The natural response was, "Yes, it is. So?"

And yet, some on the right seem to believe this criticism is so brilliant, it belongs in commercials.

After watching liberal allies of President Barack Obama flood the airwaves in support of the stimulus bill, a conservative third-party group is countering with a provocative new commercial using Jesus Christ to emphasize the scale of the $787 billion package.

The American Issues Project, which briefly aired a TV spot in last year's presidential race, will go up on Friday with a TV spot that marks the dollars spent with the passage of time.

"Suppose you spent $1 million every single day starting from the day Jesus was born -- and kept spending through today," says the announcer as an image of the three wise men flashes on the screen. "A million dollars a day for more than 2,000 years. You would still have spent less money than Congress just did."

According to Chris LaCivita, an AIP consultant, they are spending just under $1 million on the ad, which will be aired on national cable.

I'm not saying there aren't legitimate criticisms of the recovery package; I'm saying conservatives are foolish for ignoring the good arguments and embracing transparent nonsense.

Look, to hear these guys tell it, the stimulus package is big. And big recovery packages are necessarily awful because, you know, they're big. That's about the depth of the thinking here.

Note to the American Issues Project: the package is supposed to be big. When there's a $1 trillion hole in the economy, we need an ambitious response. That's the point.

On a related note, if the American Issues Project sounds familiar, it's because the group invested $2.8 million on a rather disgusting ad last fall tying Obama to Bill Ayers.

As right-wing attack dogs go, we're not dealing with the sharpest crayons in the box.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Hilzoy

The Washington Post's "Multi-Layer Editing Process"

I haven't written about George Will's factually challenged column from last Sunday, but I have been following the various refutations of mistakes he made. I have also been following the various requests for comment from the Washington Post, and wondering when the Post might respond. Now they have:

"Thank you for your e-mail. The Post's ombudsman typically deals with issues involving the news pages. But I understand the point you and many e-mailers are making, and for that reason I sought clarification from the editorial page editors. Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will's column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn't agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that "Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,"

Best wishes,

Andy Alexander

Washington Post Ombudsman"

Until I read this, I had been under the impression that newspapers didn't do as much fact-checking as magazines, because of deadline pressure; and I had imagined that the inaccuracies in George Will's column might result from applying standards designed for reported stories to columns. But on reading that Will's column had been subjected to a "multi-layer editing process", and that this "process" had checked the facts "to the fullest extent possible", I realized that I had been wrong. Naturally, I clicked the link Mr. Alexander provided, and read it. Did he? I don't know what would be worse: that he did, and takes it to support Will, or that he didn't take his job seriously enough to bother.

Here's how George Will cited the Arctic Climate Research Center:

"As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

Here's the statement Mr. Alexander cites as "one of" Will's sources, including the sentence he specifically references. It's a response to an article in the Daily Tech called "Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979":

"One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator. Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice. (Details: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630064726.htm )

Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N.Hemisphere reduction."

Where I come from, when someone writes something of the form: "P is not evidence for Q, and here's why", it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q. If one of my students did this, I would grade her down considerably, and would drag her into my office for an unpleasant talk about basic scholarly standards. If she misused quotes in this way repeatedly, I might flunk her.

Will does this more than once. Since it's Will's only citation of a peer-reviewed journal I recognize, I checked the quote from Science in this passage:

"Although some disputed that the "cooling trend" could result in "a return to another ice age" (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated "a full-blown 10,000-year ice age" involving "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation" (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively)."

It's from this paper (pdf, subscription wall.) Here is the bit Will cited in context:

"Future climate. Having presented evidence that major changes in past climate were associated with variations in the geometry of the earth's orbit, we should be able to predict the trend of future climate. Such forecasts must be qualified in two ways. First, they apply only to the natural component of future climatic trends -- and not to such anthropogenic effects as those due to the burning of fossil fuels. Second, they describe only the long-term trends, because they are linked to orbital variations with periods of 20,000 years and longer. Climatic oscillations at higher frequencies are not predicted.

One approach to forecasting the natural long-term climate trend is to estimate the time constants of response necessary to explain the observed phase relationships between orbital variation and climatic change, and then to use those time constants in an exponential-response model. When such a model is applied to Vernekar's astronomical projections, the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate."

So that "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation" is (a) supposed to happen "over the next 20,000 years", not imminently, and (b), more importantly: it's a prediction that does not take into account anthropogenic changes in climate, like, um, those "due to the burning of fossil fuels". Which is to say, the kind of global warming we're now talking about.

The fact that this prediction specifically excludes anthropogenic climate change means that you cannot use it to say: those silly scientists; they used to believe that the earth was cooling, and now they think it's warming. When scientists say "if we don't take man-made changes to climate into account, the earth will get cooler over the next 20,000 years", this is completely consistent with saying: "however, when you factor in those man-made changes, the earth will get warmer", or "when you factor in those changes, we don't know", or any number of things.

If Will actually read these two articles, it's hard to see how he's not being deliberately deceptive by citing them as he did. If, as I suspect, he just got them from some set of climate change denialist talking points and didn't bother to actually check them out for himself, he's being irresponsible. All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will's article as part of the Post's "multi-layer editing process" -- "people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors" -- should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently. These are hard times for newspapers; I wouldn't have thought they could afford more than one layer of an editing process that produces no discernible improvement in quality.

And Andy Alexander? He should read the cites George Will gives him before he sends them out, under his own name, in support of his paper's decision to publish Will's piece, if he doesn't want to be embarrassed like this again.

Hilzoy 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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February 19, 2009

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

* The Dow Jones closed down at its lowest level in six years.

* Disaster averted in California.

* The FBI tracked down R. Allen Stanford in Virginia today, and "served him with civil legal papers filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission."

* Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) has emerged as "the president's top choice" for HHS Secretary.

* I don't know who's idea it was to have former Sen. George "Macaca" Allen help with Republican outreach to minority communities, but someone clearly wasn't thinking.

* Apparently, a CNBC personality said something on the air today that has conservatives worked up.

* Words of wisdom from Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) about the stimulus package: "I didn't vote for it, but I support it."

* Today, Limbaugh compared Democrats to murderers, rapists, and "this Muslim guy" that "offed his wife's head" Classy.

* Remember Vicki Iseman? She's dropped her $27 million lawsuit against the New York Times.

* It looks like Freedom of Choice Act will replace the Fairness Doctrine in some far-right circles.

* Only the Washington Times could suggest to readers that right-wing activist Jerome Corsi is a liberal blogger.

* For someone who takes religion as seriously as Rick Santorum, he seems to get easily confused about theological details.

* I know I'm not the only one who'd be thrilled to see Phillip Carter as the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for detainee affairs.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is bad at arithmetic, too.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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HOUSE GOP DISCOVERS THE IMPORTANCE OF WH EMAILS.... I'm sorry, the Irony-O-Meter I keep on my desk just burst into flames.

A California Republican congressman has called on President Obama to put in place a system that ensures all White House emails be preserved even if official business was done through private e- mail accounts.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made the request in a February 19 letter to White House Counsel Greg Craig.

Issa specifically mentioned the new administration's brief use of Gmail accounts after Obama was sworn in last month, as they waited for the official White House e-mail accounts to become active.

"As you know, any e-mail sent or received by White House officials may be subject to retention under the Presidential Records Act (PRA)," Issa wrote Craig in the letter.

"The use of personal e-mail accounts, such as Gmail to conduct official business raises the prospect that presidential records will not be captured by the White House e-mail archiving system. Consequently Gmail users on the President's staff run the risk of incorrectly classifying their e-mails as non-records under the [Presidential Records] Act."

Issa, easily a #2 seed on my bracket for Most Ridiculous Member of Congress competition, also asked the White House to respond to a series of additional questions about the administration's email archiving. He said the answers are due in two weeks.

The irony, of course, is that Issa couldn't care less about an actual scandal regarding White House emailing archiving. Bushies lost untold thousands of emails, with no archive or backups. Indeed, the former president's team deliberately created a "primitive" email system that created a high risk that data would be lost -- there was "no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved."

Perhaps most startling of all, the Bush Administration managed to dismantle, apparently on purpose, the Clinton Administration's email archive system -- which worked just fine -- without replacing it with anything at all.

When Henry Waxman raised concerns about all of this, Darrell Issa dismissed the questions as partisan sniping.

But now Issa is worried about the Obama White House failing to fully comply with the Presidential Records Act. Funny, up until recently, Issa preferred to pretend the Presidential Records Act didn't exist. I wonder what changed his mind?

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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MEGYN KELLY'S DEFINITION OF 'REASONABLE'.... Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a powerful speech yesterday on civil rights. Fox News' Megyn Kelly, while chatting with Juan Williams this morning, apparently found Holder's remarks kind of scary.

KELLY: [Holder] said [the DoJ] has a special responsibility in addressing racial ills. That -- that strikes fear down the spines of many conservatives in this country, because they don't want the Justice Department taking us back to the day when they get heavily involved in things like affirmative action, and things like voter registration rights. [...]

WILLIAMS: What you will see I think is more aggressive enforcement in terms of existing civil rights laws. And that was the fear that the existing civil rights laws were not being enforced by the Bush justice department.

KELLY: Well a lot of people thought that the Bush Justice Department sort of got us back to the point where we were -- we were being reasonable.

I suppose it depends on the meaning of "reasonable." When it came to civil rights, Bush's Justice Department endorsed re-redistricting schemes that undermined minority communities, launched absurd inquiries into a non-existent epidemic of voter fraud, and purged the Civil Rights Division of those deemed insufficiently Republican.

Indeed, Ali Frick noted that the former head of the Voting Rights section found that Bush's Justice Department "notably shirked" its duties when it came to protecting minority voting rights.

But Fox News' Megyn Kelly seems to think the Justice Department was "being reasonable." What's more, she seems genuinely worried we might have a DoJ that starts taking civil rights seriously again.

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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ALBERTO GONZALES WILLING TO 'COOPERATE'.... We don't yet know whether, and in what form, there will be an investigation of alleged Bush administration wrongdoing. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has raised the specter of a "truth commission," but nothing's imminent.

David Weigel caught up with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales today and asked whether he would participate in a probe along the lines of what Leahy has proposed.

"My view has always been to be as cooperative as possible," said Gonzales, "and that's what I've been with respect to everything. As far as I'm concerned I've got nothing to hide and I'll cooperate. Every time I've been asked to cooperate, I've cooperated. In terms of what happens in the future, I'm not going to comment on that, but that is what I've done in the past."

Gonzales went further: "I think only a fool would be unconcerned about any kind of commission or investigation in this political town and in this political climate. Having said that, again, because I feel like I've got nothing to hide and I've done nothing wrong, I'm not worried about the truth, so long as what we're talking about is the truth and things don't become politicized."

Interesting. As Greg Sargent noted, "Obviously Gonzo couldn't have answered this question with, 'Cooperate? No bleep-ing chance. Now beat it.' But still, he's on record now, so that's something."

Agreed. My biggest concern, though, is what Alberto Gonzales considers "cooperation." As I recall, he thought he was "cooperating" with the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007, when he started having memory trouble.

Explaining his role in the botched firing of federal prosecutors, Gonzales uttered the phrase "I don't recall" and its variants ("I have no recollection," "I have no memory") 64 times. Along the way, his answer became so routine that a Marine in the crowd put down his poster protesting the Iraq war and replaced it with a running "I don't recall" tally.

So, when the disgraced former A.G. says, "I've cooperated ... in the past," and vows to offer similar "cooperation" in the future, it may not be as encouraging as it sounds.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE DELAY ON STEM-CELL POLICY.... Two weeks ago, President Obama "guaranteed" that he will sign an executive order overturning Bush's ridiculous policy on embryonic stem cells. Obama has been consistently critical of the existing restrictions -- in the Senate and as a presidential candidate -- so I'm not concerned about him ending up with a bad policy.

I'm not sure, however, what's taking so long.

At the National Institutes of Health, officials have started drafting guidelines they will need to start funding human embryonic stem cell research that has been off-limits for nearly eight years.

At the University of California at San Francisco, scientists are poised to dismantle the cumbersome bureaucracy they created to segregate experiments that were acceptable under the federal restrictions from studies that were not.

At the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Mass., graduate students and other scientists paid with federal grants are eagerly awaiting the day when they can contribute their eureka moments to projects that are forbidden under the current policy.

But in the month since Inauguration Day, the moment they have been awaiting has not come, prompting some to ask: When will President Obama deliver on his campaign promise to lift one of the most contentious policies imposed by his predecessor?

"Everyone is waiting with bated breath," said George Daley, a leading stem cell scientist at Children's Hospital in Boston. "We're all waiting to breathe a huge sigh of relief."

I'm a little surprised it hasn't happened yet. I'd heard rumors that this would be one of those first-week executive orders, but so far, nothing.

As I understand it, Obama prefers Congress re-pass the legislation Bush vetoed on stem-cell policy. If large, bipartisan majorities in both chambers support DeGette-Castle, then, the president figures, there's no need for an executive order that future presidents can easily reverse. Send him the bill and he'll sign it.

But Congress can be a little slow. Why not sign the executive order in the short term, and then work with lawmakers on codifying the changes into law?

Just today, six "centrist" House Republicans sent a letter to the White House, urging the president to "immediately lift the current federal restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research." They added, "After the current restrictions are lifted, we stand ready to work with you and our colleagues in Congress on adopting complimentary legislation."

Here's hoping the president takes them up on their offer -- sooner rather than later.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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FOX NEWS POLL.... Most national polls from major outlets include predictable, straightforward questions. It's always fun to go through Fox News polls, however, because their standards for objectivity don't exist.

A new Fox News poll (pdf), for example, asks respondents:

* Do you think the economic recovery legislation that passed last week is better described as a stimulus bill or a spending bill? (A 52% majority said "spending bill.")

* Do you think Americans are starting to rely too much on the government and
not enough on themselves? (A 76% majority said we're relying too much on government.)

* President Obama wants the White House to take greater control over the Census Bureau, which traditionally has reported solely to the Commerce Department. The results of the census affect the balance of political power in Congress and the distribution of federal funds and therefore the Census Bureau is typically managed by non-elected officials. Do you think it would be appropriate or inappropriate for the White House to take greater control over the Census? (A 58% majority said this is "inappropriate.")

It's almost as if Fox News were testing Republican Party talking points in a national poll. Perish the thought.

I was surprised, though, to see the same poll read a list of items to respondents, asking them whether it should be a "responsibility of the federal government." The results weren't what I was expecting:

* 88% said the federal government has a responsibility to help rebuild communities affected by natural disasters.

* 68% said the federal government has a responsibility to make sure all Americans have food.

* 66% said the federal government has a responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care.

* 52% said the federal government has a responsibility to provide housing to those who cannot afford it.

* 51% said the federal government has a responsibility to make sure all Americans who want a job have a job.

For a "center-right nation," most Americans seem to have a pretty ambitious vision for what the federal government has a "responsibility" to provide to its citizens.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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BOB MCDONNELL'S BAD MEMORY.... It'll generate more attention as the election gets closer, but Virginia is home to a competitive gubernatorial race this year, and Sean Trende has a rundown of the various factors in the open-seat contest. There's one angle, though, that stood out.

Ed Kilgore directed our attention to this item from Trende's overview, regarding former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the likely Republican candidate.

Regardless of who the Democrat is, much will depend on the performance and perception of Bob McDonnell. As mentioned above, McDonnell avoids many of the problems that have beset previous Republican nominees. But there is one potential problem -- he is a bona fide social conservative. McDonnell will likely be attacked for his law degree from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), and comments he made while he was a Delegate to the effect that anyone engaging in oral or anal sex could be found in violation of Virginia's "crimes against nature" law (he also claimed not to remember whether he had ever violated the law).

Kilgore noted, "Yeah, I don't think it will be too long before every late-night comic in the world has some high-profile fun with McDonnell's 2003 comment that he doesn't really recall whether he's ever violated the state's sodomy laws. And he's not well positioned ideologically to claim that this is a 'private' or 'family' matter."

Right. McDonnell insisted that those who engage in oral or anal sex should be eligible for prosecution. Asked if he'd ever personally committed this "crime," McDonnell told reporters, "Not that I can recall."

So, McDonnell might have violated Virginia's "crimes against nature" law; he's just not sure. It is, by my standards, slightly worse than, "I didn't inhale."

To be sure, I don't care what McDonnell does (or has done) in his bedroom, and there are going to be far more important policy issues at stake in the election. But given that the likely Republican candidate, who got his degree from a radical televangelist, believes in prosecuting Virginians based on their sexual practices, and isn't sure whether he's personally committed this same "crime," I wouldn't be surprised if voters heard more about this as the Virginia campaign progresses.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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TACKLING CARBON EMISSIONS.... Nearly two years ago, the Supreme Court surprised the Bush administration with a ruling that ordered the EPA to determine whether public health and welfare are being harmed by greenhouse gas pollution. In the wake of the decision, the Bush administration "walked a tortured policy path" to "defer compliance with the Supreme Court's demand."

Where the Bush gang fell down, the Obama administration is stepping up.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

The decision, which most likely would play out in stages over a period of months, would have a profound impact on transportation, manufacturing costs and how utilities generate power. It could accelerate the progress of energy and climate change legislation in Congress and form a basis for the United States' negotiating position at United Nations climate talks set for December in Copenhagen. [...]

Lisa P. Jackson, the new E.P.A. administrator, said in an interview that she had asked her staff to review the latest scientific evidence and prepare the documentation for a so-called endangerment finding. Ms. Jackson said she had not decided to issue such a finding but she pointedly noted that the second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. E.P.A., is April 2, and there is the wide expectation that she will act by then.

The result of Jackson's reporting will largely be the beginning of the process, not the end. As the NYT noted, if the EPA finds that "carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, it would set off one of the most extensive regulatory rule makings in history." For that matter, it would also offer Congress a swift kick in the backside.

David Roberts has a very good piece on this, and explains the possibility of a sea-change with the new regulations: "This element of Obama's impending energy policy hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. If he does it right, it could be the secret weapon that kills new coal plants for good -- with far greater certainty than a middling cap-and-trade program.... [H]ow the Obama EPA chooses to play this card will have huge, huge effects, not only on its efforts to reduce emissions generally but on its efforts to build support for a carbon pricing system specifically. This is one to keep a very close eye on."

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

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STILL WAITING.... George Will's column on Sunday about global warming included some demonstrable falsehoods. The need for a correction was obvious and mandatory.

And yet, as Matt Corley noted, we're still waiting.

On Sunday, the Washington Post printed a climate change denial column by George Will that contained several demonstrable falsehoods. Despite the loud chorus of critics pointing out Will's factual flaws, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has refused to comment on the errors and the column has not received a correction. Will has another column in the Post today, but it too has no correction attached to it for his last column's obvious factual mistakes.

This is a little surprising. The Washington Post runs corrections all the time, and has published several in recent days. I honestly assumed there'd be a couple of lines at the end of Will's column today, noting his error. There wasn't. The paper hasn't made any acknowledgement of the problem since the column was published.

So, what's the hold up? There are a few possibilities: 1) the Post doesn't consider Will's factual errors to be factual errors; 2) the Post considers factual errors made in opinion columns inconsequential; or 3) the Post knows Will's wrong and wants to run a correction, but doesn't want to endure a "tantrum" from the columnist.

Any other possibilities here?

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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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.

* Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a former member of the House GOP leadership who was ousted after electoral failures, announced this morning that he is running for Missouri's open Senate seat next year. In his announcement, instead of reaching out to a broad audience, Blunt said he's running to battle the "liberal monopoly in Congress." Blunt may face former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman in a Republican primary. The Democratic favorite in the race is Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

* Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois came close to calling for Roland Burris' resignation late yesterday, saying in a press release, "These news reports and the public statements by Roland Burris himself are troubling and raise serious questions which need to be looked at very carefully."

* Norm Coleman's lawyers are continuing to lay the groundwork for an appeal, calling the ongoing court case a "legal quagmire," and questioning the possibility of a "legitimate" result to this election.

* In a bizarre move, Republican James Tedisco, running in the special election in New York's 20th, is refusing to take a position on the recently-passed economic stimulus package.

* Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has raised more than $3 million in his first year in office, a record for Louisiana governors, and the kind of total that may discourage challengers in 2011, should he seek a second term.

* New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reaching out to a variety of political parties, hoping to convince them to put his name in their ballot slots in November. The outreach to the Republican, Independence, and Working Families Parties is reportedly not going well so far.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY SUMMIT.... Whenever President Obama or anyone associated with his administration utters the phrase "entitlement reform," it generates an audible gasp. The fear, of course, is that the White House might buy into conservative rhetoric about weakening Social Security.

Those concerns are especially acute now, on the eve of next week's "fiscal responsibility summit," which may include some high-profile figures who see entitlement "crises" where none exist.

For what it's worth, I'm not worried. Obama has always been entirely consistent on the issue -- Social Security isn't a crisis; Medicare needs to be addressed in the context of the healthcare system's larger problems.

Those close to the president keep saying the same thing. OMB Director Peter Orszag, who'll help lead the "fiscal responsibility summit," said all the right things to Ben Smith yesterday.

Orszag's long-running project -- something that has made the Left's favorite Cabinet member -- has been replacing talk of an "entitlement crisis" with his argument that Social Security requires only modest tax hikes and benefit cuts, while Medicare and Medicaid have much more dramatic fiscal woes.

"Social Security faces an actuarial deficit over the next 75-100 years. In the past I've resisted the term 'crisis' to describe that kind of situation," he said. "This is not quantitatively as important as getting healthcare done."

Ezra Klein spoke to administration sources who said progressives really don't have anything to worry about. "The most likely outcome at this point," one senior administration official told him, "is that we focus on health care, given that it's the key to our fiscal future."

The administration does not think about the "entitlement question." Rather, there are two sets of programs. One is Social Security. There's a tendency for post-Bush progressives to quake when Social Security's finances are called into question. But the Obama administration includes two of the economists most closely associated with the effort to beat back Social Security privatization (others were Dean Baker, Brad DeLong, and Paul Krugman). Peter Orszag, now head of OMB but then at Brookings, and Jason Furman, the staff economist for the National Economic Council but then allied with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, both helped craft and coordinate the response to Bush's proposal, and were central to the effort to warn moderate Democrats off of the President's plan.

There is no replay of Bush's crisis-mongering the offing. No commission headed by Kent Conrad with a mandate to cut the program. Any fixes would look more along the lines of, well, the Orszag-Diamond proposal -- which most liberal embraced as the responsible alternative in 2005 -- than the Pete Peterson plan.

If anything, the "fiscal responsibility summit" appears to be a vehicle for advancing the Obama healthcare agenda. Works for me.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Hilzoy

Free The Uighurs

Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled (pdf) that it cannot order the release of the seventeen Uighurs who remain at Guantanamo, and that no court has the power to do so. The case will presumably be appealed to the Supreme Court. But there is absolutely no reason for President Obama to wait on the courts' rulings.

The Uighurs have been cleared of all charges. Uighur communities in this country are prepared to help them out if they are released. The Uighurs are not, and never were, enemy combatants. Some of them are starting their eighth year of captivity. During much of that time, their families did not know whether they were alive or dead. Some of them have children they have never met.

President Obama does not need the court's permission to order their release. He could do it today, and he should.

Seven years of wrongful captivity is more than enough.

Hilzoy 11:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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'THEY SHOULD STAY IN THE SUNDAY SCHOOL'.... Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke at the University of Arlington-Texas this week, and during the Q&A, was asked for his take on the conservative push on the state Board of Education to undermine lessons on evolution in Texas high school classrooms. (via Blue Girl)

"I think they should stay in the Sunday school," Tyson said. Calling intelligent design theory a "philosophy of ignorance," he argued that a lack of appreciation for basic scientific principles will hurt America's scientific output, which has been the largest economic engine in the country's history.

"If nonscience works its way into the science classroom, it marks...the beginning of the end of the economic strength this country has known," Tyson said.

Tyson, who spent time in Washington, D.C. after being appointed to committees by then-President George W. Bush, went on to say that he always knew a Republican judge in Pennsylvania would ultimately side with evolution backers in the high-profile Dover education case in 2005. The judge understood that respecting science is good for the US economy, Tyson said.

"What I learned from my tours of duty in Washington is no Republican wants to die poor," Tyson said.

I'm glad to see him put it this way. For many conservative activists, the push to undermine curricula relating to modern biology is about religion and culture. For the rest of us, it's largely about science and reason, but it's also about national competitiveness. A "philosophy of ignorance" is always a mistake, but especially right now, we really can't afford it.

To care about American economic competitiveness is to care about science. To push pseudo-science is to hold the nation back.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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HIGH BRODERISM.... It is, in some ways, as predictable as the sunrise -- David Broder will write a column touting the benefits of bipartisan cooperation, criticizing those who believe otherwise. Today's installment is more of the same, urging President Obama to look beyond "the Democratic side of the aisle."

[T]he real reason Obama should ignore this advice is that he will need Republican votes to pass the remaining parts of his program.

Broder proceeds to run through a litany of policy areas -- energy, healthcare, immigration, entitlements, trade, and foreign policy -- where, he argues, the president will be well served by engaging Republicans directly, at least if he intends to get anything done.

I think Broder misunderstands the criticism. The problem isn't that bipartisanship is inherently bad, or that President Obama might simply blow off the failed minority party altogether. Putting aside concerns about propriety, so long as Republicans mandate a Senate supermajority to pass any and all legislation, that's not even a practical option available to the White House.

Rather, the concern here is two-fold. First, while the president shouldn't give up on reaching out to Republicans, he should de-emphasize it. The goal has to be the value of the policy, not the nature of the process. Republicans oppose the president's agenda. Given the GOP's role, they're supposed to oppose the president's agenda. Why, then, govern with their wish list in mind? This isn't to say the White House should disregard Republican input altogether, it's simply a reminder that putting "bipartisanship" at the top of the priority list doesn't make sense.

Second, it's only prudent to recognize that the Republican minority has no apparent interest in being a credible governing partner, and no intention to negotiate honestly. After the last couple of weeks, I'd hoped that was obvious. As Joe Klein recently argued, the president "should have no illusions about the good faith of his opponents."

Broder, naturally, wants to see Republican outreach. I don't doubt that this will happen. In fact, since governing with Democratic votes exclusively isn't a realistic option right now, Broder is offering a prescription to a problem that doesn't really exist.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE 'GREATEST THREAT TO AMERICA'.... Roll Call reported the other day that Republicans on Capitol Hill have put the culture war on the backburner. To a large extent, with the GOP lacking access to the levers of power, that's true. Republicans can't start meaningful battles over gays, abortion, and religion from the minority.

But outside the beltway, it's a different story.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R) surprised a lot of people about two weeks ago when he announced his support for civil unions for gay couples. This isn't going over well with Utah Republicans, most notably state Sen. Chris Buttars.

If Buttars' name sounds familiar, it's because he has a knack for drawing attention to himself. In 2006, he blasted the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as "wrong to begin with." Last year, Buttars raised a few eyebrows by launching an initiative to use the state government to "encourage" private businesses to promote "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."

This week, Buttars shared his thoughts on gay Americans. Ali Frick has some of the highlights:

* "To me, homosexuality will always be a sexual perversion. And you say that around here now and everybody goes nuts! But I don't care."

* "They say, 'I'm born that way.' There's some truth to that, in that some people are born with an attraction to alcohol."

* "They're mean! They want to talk about being nice -- they're the meanest buggers I ever seen. It's just like the Moslems. Moslems are good people and their religion is anti-war. But it's been taken over by the radical side. And the gays are totally taken over by the radical side."

* "I believe that you will destroy the foundation of American society, because I believe the cornerstone of it is a man and a woman, the family.... And I believe that they're, internally, they're probably the greatest threat to America going down I know of. Yep, the radical gay movement."

Buttars added, "Sodom and Gomorrah was localized. This is worldwide."

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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STEELE VOWS TO GO 'BEYOND CUTTING-EDGE'.... The more RNC Chairman Michael Steele talks, the better Democrats have to feel about the future.

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an "off the hook" public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings."

The RNC's first black chairman will "surprise everyone" when updating the party's image using the Internet and advertisements on radio, on television and in print, he told The Washington Times.

Steele said the party needs "messengers" who can capture a "region" made up of "young, Hispanic, black, a cross section." He added, "We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings.... [W]e need to uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets."

Steele went on to explain his public-relations vision, saying, "It will be avant garde, technically. It will come to table with things that will surprise everyone -- off the hook."

Asked if he imagines a cutting-edge approach, Steele replied, "I don't do 'cutting-edge.' That's what Democrats are doing. We're going beyond cutting-edge."

Raise your hand if you think Michael Steele has the foggiest idea what he's talking about.

Look, Steele seems to believe the Republican Party will do really well with a fresh coat of paint on a rusted, broken-down car that's already been driven into a ditch. For the RNC chairman, the problem is about branding. If only the party can put together a song about capital gains tax cuts that sounds like Lil Wayne, younger voters will swoon.

Far be it for me to give the Republican National Committee advice, but if Steele believes he can ignore the party's systemic failures and thrive by "going beyond cutting-edge," he's even more foolish than he sounds.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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VACUOUS MEDIA: A CASE STUDY.... Following on an item from yesterday, the Washington Times ran a fairly long article about President Obama making public appearances in front of American flags. The point of the piece ... well, actually, it wasn't entirely clear why the article was published. Apparently, the Times, an unabashed conservative paper and a project of cult-leader Sun Myung Moon, found it necessary to connect bogus flag-pin talking points, bizarre Michael Savage rhetoric, and the routine practice of flags at presidential events.

What I didn't realize yesterday was how fascinating the Villagers would find this nonsense.

Despite the inanity of the Times' pointless piece of "journalism," ABC News' The Note described the piece as a "must read." It didn't say why. The Politico's Mike Allen noted, "Cable's gonna go cuckoo over this." As Greg Sargent explained, the Times "made a valiant grab for a Drudge link," and predictably enough, got one.

Remember, the article didn't actually say anything. It was 743 words about the President of the United States making public appearances with American flags. That's it.

Matt Yglesias explained why this is so painfully stupid.

Naturally, it got its Drudge link. All for a story about nothing. Allen's response is, I think, the most infuriating. Everyone knows that Mike Allen is an important political reporter. His morning "Playbook," in particular, helps set the agenda for the whole next day of moronic political buzz. When he writes up a stupid story, he's not passively predicting that people will be buzzing about it, he's helping to make it happen. In this case, it didn't work. Today's cable news has, overwhelmingly, been about an actual policy question -- Obama's housing plan. And good for cable. But no thanks to Mike Allen.

It seems we've reached a point in which pseudo-journalists create pseudo-news content for the sole purpose of drawing the attention of people like Drudge, Allen, and the people behind The Note. Indeed, they've apparently learned quite well exactly what works -- publish a news-free article about the president and flags, and wait for the chatter.

To paraphrase the "Field of Dreams," if you write it, they will link.

Want to appreciate just what's wrong with the insular culture of the political media? This is a good place to start.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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February 18, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Signs Of The Times

That the Financial Times has a headline that reads "Greenspan Backs Bank Nationalization" is truly a sign that we live in strange, strange times. Any moment now the sun shall become as black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become as blood, and the stars of heaven shall fall unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind, and the seas shall turn to blood, and we shall hear an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!

But in the general amazement, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that Alan Greenspan is not just one of the last people on earth I would have expected to endorse nationalization. He's also one of the people most responsible for the calamity that makes nationalization necessary (though as Yves Smith reminds us, he is not alone.) " "Greenspan Backs Bank Nationalization" is not like "Hayek: Keynes Was Right!". I've been trying to figure out what it is like, and I've come up with a few possibilities:

"Kaiser Wilhelm Backs Surrender To France, Allies:
Wars Of Aggression Wrong, German Monarch Claims"

"Typhoid Mary: Attention To Hygienic Food Preparation Vital To Public Health"

"Mao Zedong Backs Privatization:
'Great Leap Forward' An Act Of Idiotic Hubris That Cost Millions Of Lives For No Earthly Reason, Dictator Concedes
Backyard Smelters 'Particularly Boneheaded'"

"Sherman To Atlanta: Oops! My Bad!"

"Alaric: Great Cities Should Be Left Unmolested:
'I Liked Rome Better Before We Sacked It', Visigoth Laments"

"Satan Backs Christ's Effort To Redeem Mankind On Cross:
Regrets Involvement In Fall"

Want to add any of your own?

Hilzoy 11:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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

* The Federal Reserve released its new economic projections for 2009. The central bank is even less optimistic than it was before.

* And speaking of '09 pessimism, Gen. David McKiernan, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon today, "Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you, 2009 is going to be a tough year."

* Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) continued to insist today that he's done nothing wrong. Around the same time, Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) became the first member of Congress to call on Burris to resign.

* Alan Greenspan, oddly enough, conceded yesterday, "It may be necessary to temporarily nationalize some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring. I understand that once in a hundred years this is what you do."

* Banks with TARP money aren't lending the way they're supposed to.

* The New York Post caused quite a stir today with a controversial political cartoon.

* Attorney General Eric Holder gave a provocative speech on race today.

* A federal judge yesterday denied a motion to "dismiss charges against five Blackwater guards accused of killing Iraqi civilians in a bloody rampage at a busy traffic circle in Baghdad in September 2007."

* The North Dakota House voted yesterday to define "any organism with the genome of homo sapiens" as a person protected by rights granted by the North Dakota Constitution and state laws. The measure is intended to serve as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

* Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is opposed to hold the Bush administration accountable for alleged wrongdoing because the economy is bad.

* Marc Morano, a press flack for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), has quite a propaganda operation.

* The Washington Post reported in September that Sarah Palin had "billed taxpayers for 312 nights spent in her own home during her first 19 months in office, charging a 'per diem' allowance intended to cover meals and incidental expenses while traveling on state business." Tax experts said at the time that Palin was supposed to pay taxes on the money, but hadn't. It turns out, they were right.

* "The Big Stone Wall" -- the nine Bush administration officials who refused to cooperate with Justice Department investigations.

* Responding to Juan Williams' recent foolishness, Gwen Ifill told ThinkProgress, "Since Juan was one of the people who criticized my book before it was published, I really -- I just leave it at that. I think that people really should make a better effort to know what they're talking about."

* And finally, House Republicans had to pull their "Back in the Saddle" video yesterday after Aerosmith expressed its disapproval. Sometimes, it seems those poor GOP lawmakers just can't do anything right.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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BIGGEST. TAX CUT. EVER. (REDUX).... We talked a week ago about the tax-cut provisions of the economic stimulus package, and how it turns out that President Obama proposed and passed one of the largest tax cuts in American history -- $282 billion over two years -- without Republican support.

I'm glad to see some others are picking up on this. Yesterday, Marc Ambinder noted:

Don't know if anybody has yet noticed in the Republican Party but President Obama was presented last week a major talking point for 2012.

He'll sign today one of the largest tax cuts in history.

In spite of the White House pointing this out to journalists, it is funny how little remarked-upon this is.

It's hard imagine we won't hear about this four years from now. And if that's not boxing a future Republican candidate in ahead of time, I don't know what is.

Chris Hayes had a similar observation.

On the politics side of the ledger, Ben Smith notes Obama's emphasis on the tax cuts in the bill. I'm not necessarily a fan, though politically it's true that every single Republican member of congress can now be accused of "Voting against the biggest tax cut in history" come next election." Clearly, this hasn't escaped the White House's notice.

It's good to see this observation gaining some traction, but I'd just reiterate one angle to this that shouldn't be overlooked: Obama's tax-cut plan in the recovery package is not only arguably bigger than any previous plan, but it's also better targeted. George W. Bush's tax cuts were long-term income-tax rate cuts, which amounted to a generous break for those at the top, since the wealthy pay most income taxes. A.L. reminds us today, "The Bush tax cuts were skewed dramatically toward the wealthy. In 2004, 60% of the tax cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners with over 25% going to the top 1% of income earners. Those numbers have increased since then as the cuts to the estate tax have taken effect."

Obama's tax cuts, meanwhile, are short-term refunds paid directly to working and middle class families (some of which Republicans have denounced as "welfare").

As such, GOP lawmakers have rejected one of the largest, if not the largest, tax cut ever proposed by a president -- which just so happens to be targeted at the working and middle class families Obama vowed to look out for.

Expect to hear this point again at some point in the future.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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OBAMA STILL OPPOSES FAIRNESS DOCTRINE.... One would like to think a development like this one would put the matter to rest.

President Obama opposes any move to bring back the so-called Fairness Doctrine, a spokesman told FOXNews.com Wednesday.

The statement is the first definitive stance the administration has taken since an aide told an industry publication last summer that Obama opposes the doctrine -- a long-abolished policy that would require broadcasters to provide opposing viewpoints on controversial issues.

"As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

Alex Koppelman asks the right question: "Can we stop talking about the Fairness Doctrine now?" The answer is, "I'm afraid not."

For one thing, the conservatives terrified of the non-existent campaign to bring the Fairness Doctrine back aren't persuaded by today's statement. Isn't it possible that Obama's consistent, principled opposition to the policy is really just an elaborate ruse, intended to obscure his secret support for the policy? The president might spring the policy on them when they least expect it.

For another, the embarrassing right-wing paranoia will just adapt and manufacture new angles to the old story. The American Spectator, for example, claims that it spoke to a staffer on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who said Democrats not only want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but also want to extend it to the Internet.

"It's all about diversity in media," the Spectator quoted the committee staffer as saying. "Does one radio station or one station group control four of the five most powerful outlets in one community? ... Does one heavily trafficked Internet site present one side of an issue and not link to sites that present alternative views?"

Now, the notion that Democrats actually want to do this is obviously silly. The notion that a Democratic staffer who works with Henry Waxman would share an imaginary, nefarious scheme with the right-wing American Spectator is even sillier.

But it's a reminder that Fairness Doctrine hysteria isn't about what's real; it's about what keeps conservatives excited.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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REPUBLICANS ENDORSE SOME OF THE STIMULUS.... On Friday, McClatchy ran an interesting item, noting some House Republicans who were bragging about expenditures in the economic stimulus package, without noting their opposition to it.

It's apparently a pretty common phenomenon right now. On the one hand, GOP lawmakers are thrilled with themselves for their unanimous rejection of the recovery bill. On the other, these same Republicans would really like the voters back home to credit them for the good stuff in the bill.

Even though their party almost completely opposed the massive economic stimulus package, some Republicans are racing to embrace funding in the measure even as the national party sticks to their strategy of slamming Democrats who voted for the bill.

Now that the massive $787 billion package has passed the House without a single Republican vote and cleared the Senate with just three centrist Republicans in favor, a number of GOP members of Congress have seemingly changed their tunes and are now touting money that will flow into their districts.

It initially appeared that we were only looking at a handful of GOP lawmakers who were engaged in this stunt. But in the five days since the bill passed both chambers, it's become increasingly common. The Hill noted some of the House members bragging about the bill they opposed, and Ali Frick and the DCCC highlighted several others.

To be fair, I understand the Republican argument, and it's not completely unreasonable. They disapprove of the spending measures in the legislation overall, but they proudly support the money headed for their districts. If they could have voted for just those expenditures, they would have done so. But since it was a yes-or-no proposition on the whole package, they felt compelled to reject it. That's fine; it's what the opposition party is expected to do.

But the result nevertheless leaves Republicans in a very awkward spot -- they're bragging about the measures in a bill they opposed. They're effectively telling their constituents, "Look at all the great stuff in this bill I just voted against!"

It's not complicated -- lawmakers shouldn't take credit for legislation they reject.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MOST U.S. ATTORNEYS TO STICK AROUND -- FOR NOW.... Initially, the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva reported that the White House had decided to keep 51 Bush-appointed U.S. Attorneys on at their posts. Given the expectation that new presidents replace the full slate at the start of their terms, this seemed like a very odd decision. Would President Obama and A.G. Eric Holder really want more than half of the nation's U.S. Attorneys to come from the previous administration?

As it turns out, no. The initial report neglected to mention that the arrangement is temporary.

With all the controversy surrounding the Bush administration's firings of several U.S. attorneys, the question for the Obama administration became: What now?

And with all the muck that the hard-charging Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has stirred not only in Chicago, but also in Washington, the question became: How now?

The Obama White House has effectively, and somewhat quietly, answered that question -- for now: With Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explaining that the Justice Department has allowed all the chief federal prosecutors who have not already left in the changing of the presidential guard to remain at their posts, at least temporarily.

Of the 93 U.S. attorneys who served under the previous administration, Gibbs said aboard Air Force One en route to Phoenix with President Barack Obama, 51 remain.

The White House also says that, at the start of the administration, all 93 were allowed to serve temporarily. Thirty resigned before Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, and 12 more have left since then. And the 51 still serving are technically there on a temporary basis -- Obama hasn't decided that all will remain.

Patrick Fitzgerald appears to be the exception to all of this -- he's been invited to stay on in his current role indefinitely.

But as for those other 50 federal prosecutors, their terms are very limited. This announcement is little more than an acknowledgement that administration officials have not yet selected a full slate of U.S. Attorneys . Until they do, Bush's U.S.As can keep the seat warm.

This is something of a relief. As has been well reported, the Bush gang worked aggressively to identify which U.S. attorneys were "loyal Bushies." Those who were deemed unworthy were purged from the Justice Department for having professional ethics and a commitment to applying the rule of law in a non-partisan fashion. Indeed, it seems that the way to become and stay a U.S. attorney over the last eight years was to be a committed, partisan Republican.

The notion of several dozen Monica Goodling-approved prosecutors enjoying another term seemed frightening. Fortunately, that's not the case.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PALIN'S PROBLEMS.... Oddly enough, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was not only in over her head on the national stage, she's also struggling in Alaska.

A couple of weeks before the Alaska legislature began this year's session, a bipartisan group of state senators on a retreat a few hours from here invited Gov. Sarah Palin to join them. Accompanied by a retinue of advisers, she took a seat at one end of a conference table and listened passively as Gary Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate, a former college history professor and a low-key Republican with a reputation for congeniality, expressed delight at her presence.

Would the governor, a smiling Stevens asked, like to share some of her plans and proposals for the coming legislative session?

Palin looked around the room and paused, according to several senators present. "I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot," she said finally, as the room became silent.

Gone was the self-assurance that Alaska had come to know in its young Republican governor, well before her life and career were transformed by Sen. John McCain's selection of her as his vice presidential running mate. "She looked ill at ease, more defensive than we've been accustomed to seeing her," said one legislator who was there and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he might need to work with Palin.

The governor, apparently, isn't having any fun anymore.

It's hard to say with any certainty what Palin's plans are for the future, but she seems anxious to maintain a national profile -- she created a leadership PAC, she's on Fox News, she made an Alfalfa dinner appearance, she's weighing in on Republican primary contests far outside Alaska, etc. Jason Zengerle suggests Palin, if she's serious about seeking national office, should "give up her position as partisan firebrand, focus her attentions on being Alaska's governor, remake herself as more of a pragmatic executive (which, prior to the '08 campaign, is what many thought she was), and then return to national politics."

In other words, Palin would be more credible if she demonstrated a capacity to take government seriously for a while. Somehow, that seems highly unlikely.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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OBAMA'S HOUSING PLAN.... The details will, of course, make all the difference, but at first blush, the policy looks like a good one.

Seeking to stabilize the foundering housing market, President Obama is offering a plan to help as many as nine million families refinance their mortgages or avoid foreclosure, according to a summary released by the White House on Wednesday morning.

The plan, which is more ambitious than expected, would spend $75 billion to help keep as many as four million families in their homes, and would help as many as five million more refinance their mortgages to take advantage of lower interest rates. [...]

The administration's initiative, called the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, is an effort to slow the rapid decline in the housing market. As the economy drops deeper into a recession, home values are falling faster and faster, and more Americans are losing their houses to foreclosures or distressed sales.

The plan would allow four million to five million homeowners refinance mortgages guaranteed by the government-controlled housing giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The administration said allowing people to refinance at lower mortgage rates would reduce monthly payments and save families thousands of dollars every year.

It also seeks to allow judges to modify mortgages in bankruptcy court for homeowners "who have run out of options" -- a controversial provision opposed by lenders and many financial institutions.

The policy is aimed at offering lenders incentives into lowering rates, while making it easier for homeowners to lower their mortgages and monthly payments. (The White House published a helpful Q&A.) What's more, by reducing foreclosures, administration officials believe the plan can stop the slide in home prices by up to $6,000.

Atrios summarized it this way: "Basically it tells Fannie and Freddie to refinance loans they have for certain borrowers at a lower rate, and uses various carrots to encourage other lenders to also do so."

Tim Fernholz spoke to the Center for American Progress' David Abromowitz, a housing policy expert, who also sounded encouraged by the outline of the policy: "The plan clearly places foreclosure prevention at the forefront of the overall economic recovery battle. Rather than hoping the modifications might occur as a benefit that would somehow flow from pumping more funds into banks, the plan plainly recognizes the basic facts: If over 10 million more families face the loss of their homes, then surrounding neighborhoods with 5 or 10 times that many families are all cutting back spending and shrinking the economy rapidly. What companies will be borrowing and expanding to sell more products if consumers are still scrimping, cutting costs and staying home? Contrast this plan with, for example, the recent conservative rhetoric during the stimulus debate acknowledging that foreclosures and vacant homes are the problem, but then proposing to reduce everyone's' mortgage rate to 4% regardless of whether they need it or not. This plan instead is targeted to where we most need to focus our efforts."

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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SO GOES CALIFORNIA.... It's only the financial stability of the nation's most populous state. That's hardly a reason for state Republican lawmakers to act responsibly.

A delicate budget fix crafted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders was on the brink of collapse early Wednesday after Republicans in the Senate ousted their leader. The late-night coup could derail already strained budget talks by requiring them to renegotiate with a new Republican leader.

The current package containing billions in tax hikes, spending cuts and borrowing took leaders more than three months to put together as the state tries to pass a midyear budget fix and avoid fiscal calamity.

Lawmakers viewed the leadership change as a major setback after they fell short by just one GOP vote, but Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said he didn't want to speculate what it would mean for the package.

''We're after one reasonable person who puts California first,'' Steinberg said as Republicans voted to remove Sen. Dave Cogdill.

Republicans replaced Cogdill with Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murietta, whom they saw as more capable of resisting tax increases.

Got that? The leader of the Republican caucus in the state Senate backed a compromise measure that would have resolved the budget crisis. So, naturally, the Republican caucus in the state Senate voted to kick their leader out of his post, and rally behind someone less reasonable.

Keep in mind, policymakers have worked for months to pull this package together. California needs just one more Republican in the state Senate to endorse the budget, but there isn't one.

Paul Krugman noted, "Everyone should be paying attention to the political/fiscal catastrophe now unfolding in California. Years of neglect, followed by economic disaster -- and with all reasonable responses blocked by a fanatical, irrational minority. This could be America next."

That's true, but as Scott Lemieux explained, it's not just unhinged Republicans acting irresponsibly, it's also a super-majority mandate for tax increases that gives irresponsible Republicans the power to shut down the process in the first place.

Kevin Drum concluded, "So it's back to square one with the flat earthers determined to wreck the state. A friend of mine emailed to say that my post the other day comparing California Republicans to lemmings and neanderthals was unfair to both lemmings and neanderthals, and I guess he had a point."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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

* Norm Coleman's lawyer argued yesterday that the election in Minnesota was "a fatally-flawed election," and hinted that he'd like to see a court-imposed do-over.

* Americans United for Change and AFSCME have unveiled an ad celebrating the passage of the stimulus bill.

* Almost simultaneously, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, both Democrats, announced yesterday they will run for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat.

* If the latest Quinnipiac poll in Florida is any indication, Tampa mayor Pam Iorio (D) may be a major factor in next year's open Senate race. The poll shows Iorio tied with Rep. Kendrick Meek as the Democratic favorite, though most voters are undecided. Iorio has not yet announced her intentions.

* Speaking of Florida, the same Quinnipiac poll shows Gov. Charlie Crist (R) well positioned for 2010, whether he seeks re-election or runs for the Senate.

* Might Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) face a further-right primary challenger next year? Attorney David Leavitt, who's already lost a few Republican campaigns, seems to be moving in that direction.

* Jill Hazelbaker, the former national communications director for McCain/Palin, has signed on to work for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's re-election campaign in New York City.

* Republicans wouldn't mind if Rep. Walt Minnick (D) of Idaho switched parties, but Minnick says he's sticking with the Dems.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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CAPTURE THE FLAG.... The Washington Times published a 743-word story today about President Obama making public appearances in front of American flags.

Oh, say -- can you see? Look. It's President Obama, and he's surrounded by American flags.

They're on the dais in star-spangled glory. They're at the town-hall meeting and the news conference, in bold folds of red, white and blue. The White House has rediscovered -- or possibly reinvented -- the patriotic cachet of Old Glory as a perfect frame for the new president.

That's the same president who once would not wear an American flag pin. Things have changed.

Three months after the election, and conservative news outlets are still talking about flag pins. Seriously.

The article also offers keen insights from luminaries.

"Neo-Marxists recognize the power of Old Glory as they steadfastly pursue their agenda," said talk-radio host Michael Savage. "As Castro taught them, 'hasta la victoria siempre,' always towards victory. As the street agitators themselves know, 'by all means necessary.' To them, our flag is just a rag."

Let's pause to appreciate how truly ridiculous this is. A newspaper ran an article today about the President of the United States making public appearances with American flags. To bolster the "premise" that this development is newsworthy, the newspaper quotes a lunatic who suggested the president is a Communist.

About a year ago, John Solomon, formerly of the Washington Post, took over the Times as its executive editor. Solomon vowed to take the paper -- a project of cult-leader Sun Myung Moon -- in a more credible and serious direction.

It looks like Solomon has quite a ways to go.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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A REVOLVING DOOR?.... The Politico's Michael Calderone has an interesting item today on "at least a half-dozen prominent journalists" who've left their jobs in media over the last three months, to start working for the federal government.

It's not too surprising -- if you're looking for job security, the government is obviously preferable to news outlets right now -- but it's drawing some predictable complaints from the usual suspects.

[C]onservative critics answer with a question: Would journalists be making the same career choices if John McCain had beaten Barack Obama in November?

"Obama bails out more media water-carriers," conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote upon hearing that the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman is taking a job with the Obama administration.

Blogs at both the Weekly Standard and the National Review are pointing to a "revolving door" that spins between the media and the Obama administration. And while Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, acknowledges that financial troubles may be forcing reporters out of newsrooms, he thinks it's worth noting where they're going.

"When some leave journalism because of a reduction in staff, what's the natural landing spot?" The Obama administration," Bozell charged.... "If you are in journalism, and you can so easily fit in the world of politics, it tells you something," Bozell said, "that you were not that detached from it when you were in journalism."

What Bozell may not realize is how true a different dynamic is: when some left the Bush administration, what was the natural landing spot? Major media outlets. I know of at least seven prominent examples -- Michael Gerson joined the Washington Post; Sara Taylor became a pundit for MSNBC; Tony Snow joined CNN; Frances Fragos Townsend also joined CNN; Nicole Wallace was hired by CBS News; Dan Bartlett was also hired CBS News; and Karl Rove became a Fox News "analyst," a columnist for Newsweek, and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

If there's a "revolving door" between government service and the media, there are quite a few Republicans taking a spin.

But putting all of that aside, the economics of this shouldn't be overlooked. Some of the reporters were about to get laid off, and making the jump to public service made situational sense -- ideological "bias" was irrelevant.

For that matter, note that one of the six examples from Calderone's piece has a reporter going from a newspaper to a Republican cabinet secretary. Again, not exactly an example of partisan partiality.

"Would journalists be making the same career choices if John McCain had beaten Barack Obama in November?" Almost certainly, yes. For one thing, economics would have been the overriding factor. For another, reporters have historically loved McCain, so I'm hard pressed to imagine why they wouldn't want to work for him.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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JINDAL CONSIDERS 'CRAZY' ALTERNATIVE.... Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), after railing against the economic stimulus package, said he would nevertheless support federal funds going to his home state. "[Y]es, South Carolina needs help," Graham told CNN. Asked whether state officials should "take the money," even in a bill he strongly disapproves of, Graham replied, "I think that, yes, from my point of view, I -- you don't want to be crazy here."

As it turns out, Graham doesn't want to be "crazy," and turn down federal recovery funds in the midst of an economic collapse, but that doesn't mean some of his Republican colleagues have rejected the "crazy" option altogether.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has suggested his state may not be interested in all of the roughly $4 billion allotted to it in the economic stimulus package to be signed by President Obama today.

"We'll have to review each program, each new dollar to make sure that we understand what are the conditions, what are the strings and see whether it's beneficial for Louisiana to use those dollars," Jindal said, according to CBS affiliate WWLTV.

Satyam Khanna added, "Louisiana faces a possible $2 billion budget shortfall next year, and the state is being hit hard by unemployment."

I'd be very surprised if Jindal actually follows through on this -- he has some real responsibilities to real families who are suffering -- but that he'd even talk about rejecting recovery funds is kind of scary.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S NO WAY.... George Will not only published an error-filled column on global warming, Brad Johnson notes that the conservative columnist "is also recycling his own work, republishing an extended passage from a 2006 column -- which Think Progress debunked -- almost word for word."

With this in mind, maybe now would be a good time to consider what George Will has written about bloggers.

There are, however, essentially no reins on the Web -- few means of control and direction. That is good, but it vitiates the idea that the Web's chaos of entertainment, solipsism and occasional intellectual seriousness and civic engagement is anything like a polity (a "digital democracy").

As Jonathan Chait noted, "If by 'no reins,' Will means that bloggers can publish outright falsehoods without consequence, then he's correct. But he might not be the best person to make this point."

And speaking of writers and "reins," Jonathan Schwarz passes along a great anecdote from Noam Chomsky that seems especially relevant given the events of the last few days.

[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called "Mideast Truth and Falsehood," about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, "Will has one statement of fact, it's false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down." Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek "Letters" column. She said: "We're kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?" So I told her, "Well, they're published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971"—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, "Yeah, you're right, we found it there; okay, we'll run your letter." An hour later she called again and said, "Gee, I'm sorry, but we can't run the letter." I said, "What's the problem?" She said, "Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he's having a tantrum; they decided they can't run it." Well, okay.

As far as I can tell, George Will's column, which ran on Sunday, still hasn't garnered a correction. Perhaps he's throwing a tantrum.

[Title typo corrected. --Mod]

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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A PEEK INTO THE MIND OF A NUT.... On Monday night, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball," and delivered a doozy of a performance. The former radio host and Abramoff pal initially said he'd like to see more of Bush's economic policies of the last eight years. Hayworth seemed pretty sincere about it.

But what was especially striking was Hayworth's argument that the real culprits behind the economic crisis were Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and George Soros: "I'll tell you what was bad -- the sneak attack on our economy, the dress rehearsal that was the debacle of IndyBank, when Chuck Schumer helped get that started, and the guy in the background, George Soros, manipulating all the currency."

As Steve M. noted, "[Hayworth argued] that our current economic situation has nothing to do with eight years of George W. Bush and quite a bit to do with two 'sneaky' gentlemen who just so happen to be of the Jewish persuasion.... Yup, a Jewish senator and a Jewish 'currency manipulator' made all this happen."

Keep in mind, Hayworth's background on alleged anti-Semitism isn't new. Steve also notes that Hayworth wrote a book in 2006 praising Henry Ford's vision of "Americanization," an idea Ford formulated as a counterweight to his paranoia about Jewish world domination. Hayworth and his aides tried to respond to the ensuing controversy at a synagogue in Scottsdale, Arizona, but only made matters worse. When there was fresh criticism from offended synagogue members, a surrogate for the then-congressman said, "No wonder there are anti-Semites."

Note to "Hardball" producers: giving Hayworth a national platform to spew ugly nonsense is a very bad idea. This clown left Congress as something of a disgrace; he has nothing of value to add to the public discourse.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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'HE'S IN DEEP SH*T'.... Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is probably still getting settled in as a new U.S. Senator. He was, after all, sworn in only 34 days ago. But before Burris finishes unpacking, it'd be best if he didn't get too comfortable in his new job.

In the latest in a series of shifting accounts of his conduct, Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) told reporters that he tried to raise money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the same time he was asking Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate.

Burris said he contacted "some people" about holding a fundraiser at the request of Blagojevich's brother, Robert, only to learn that no one was willing to help the governor. He said he later changed his mind, raised no money and contributed none.

The account to reporters in Peoria, Ill., was Burris's fifth version of his contacts with close associates of Blagojevich and the first time he acknowledged trying to raise money for the former governor, who was arrested and forced from office on corruption charges.... Burris, who has said he spoke with Blagojevich only once, when the governor offered him the job on Dec. 28, has given an evolving series of accounts of his contacts with the former governor's inner circle.

In general, "fifth version" and "evolving series of accounts" are phrases controversial politicians should try to avoid.

As of yesterday afternoon, Burris is under investigation by a state's attorney's office in Illinois and the Senate Ethics Committee. Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) has said publicly that Burris owes voters an explanation.

The Chicago Tribune has called for Burris' resignation. So has the Washington Post. Expulsion seems unlikely, but it's on the table.

George Stephanopoulos noted that Burris is poised to face some intense pressure from every corner, and quoted one Democratic source saying, "He's in deep sh*t."

I should note, no one has accused Burris of corruption, per se. The problem here is that he wanted the Senate seat, and was apparently afraid if he disclosed his contacts with Blagojevich's office and attempts to raise money for him, Burris would be tainted by the impeached governor's scandal. The senator seems to have decided, then, to hide relevant details, even when asked about contacts under oath.

This won't end well for him.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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February 17, 2009

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

* Ouch: "Investors around the world are betting that even with government stimulus and bailout programs, the global recession will just have to run its course. The problems that slammed stocks last year -- ailing banks, foundering automakers, tumbling home prices and cash-strapped consumers -- haven't let up. Instead, the issues have festered, and are threatening to push U.S. stocks back to levels not seen since the late 1990s."

* Chrysler wants another $5 billion in loans. GM will likely make a request of its own fairly soon.

* President Obama has reportedly approved "an increase in U.S. forces for the flagging war in Afghanistan."

* Busted: "Federal authorities today charged a prominent Texas businessman and three of his companies with carrying out a 'massive, ongoing fraud' involving the sale of $8 billion in certificates of deposit, one of the largest alleged financial frauds in U.S. history. R. Allen Stanford and two colleagues, working through a web of firms in Houston and the Caribbean, lied to customers about how their money was being invested and how the firms' investment portfolios had performed in the past, the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a complaint."

* And guess who took a Caribbean junket on Stanford's dime?

* The Recovery.org project gets underway.

* Good move: "The Obama administration on Tuesday agreed to review whether it should regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, portending a major reversal of the Bush administration's policy on global warming."

* "Political Animal" didn't make the cut on Time's list of the Top 25 blogs, but I sincerely appreciate those of you who gave us a shout-out in the comments section over there.

* House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hasn't seen the Obama administration's new housing plan, but he's already knows he's opposed to it. (Note to Cantor: you probably shouldn't have spoken out against the GOP becoming the "party of 'no.'")

* I can only assume that George W. Bush gives Fred Barnes some kind of monthly stipend. No one would choose to be this big a hack for free.

* Tonight's "Frontline" special, "Inside the Meltdown," looks like it'll be a good one.

* I find The Trilogy Meter fascinating, especially the fact that the third movie so frequently seems to be the worst.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE STIMULUS LAW.... This obviously wasn't a surprise, but it at least marks a shift in the debate. Instead of asking whether the economy recovery package should be law, the political world can now debate efficacy of the law itself.

President Barack Obama put his own indelible imprint on the nation's distressed economy Tuesday, signing the huge recovery package into law, readying a $50 billion proposal to help homeowners fend off foreclosure and awaiting emergency restructuring plans from flailing automakers. Obama said the sprawling legislation, which congressional Democrats pushed to passage last week over near-unanimous opposition from Republicans, would "set our economy on a firmer foundation."

Obama's first major piece of legislation, it's a $787 billion mix of tax cuts and one of the biggest public spending programs since World War II.

"I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems. Nor does it constitute all of what we have to do to turn our economy around. But today does mark the beginning of the end, the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs," Obama said.

For historical context, we talked on Saturday about this package serving as a presidential achievement for Obama that "few of his predecessors achieved at any point in their tenure." The WaPo went on to note, "In size and scope, there is almost nothing in history to rival the economic stimulus legislation that Obama shepherded through Congress in just over three weeks." It added that we haven't seen a legislative win for a president on this magnitude since FDR's banking system overhaul in 1933.

The New York Times' report on today's bill signing also noted that the White House "has not ruled out a second stimulus package."

I don't imagine the right will respond well to those eight words.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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IN SEARCH OF MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY.... Over the weekend, George Will's Washington Post column was devoted to his rejection of climate science and global warming. As one might expect, given the topic and direction, Will had several errors of fact and judgment.

Given that Will's piece -- which was, by the way, syndicated nationally -- carelessly misled readers, Zachary Roth contacted both Will and Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to see what went wrong here. How could Will make such obvious mistakes? And how did they escape the editor's scrutiny and fact-checking process?

Will's assistant told us that Will might get back to us later in the day to talk about the column. And Hiatt said he was too busy to talk about it just then, but that he'd try to respond to emailed questions. So we emailed him yesterday's post, with several questions about the editing process, then followed up with another email late yesterday afternoon.

But still nothing from either of them, over twenty-four hours after the first contact was made. Nor has the online version of Will's column been updated, even to reflect the fact that the ACRC has utterly disavowed the claim Will attributes to it.

We're hearing that the Post's editing process for opinion pieces is virtually non-existent. Maybe that makes sense in some cases -- it certainly seems reasonable to give most columnists a freer hand than straight news reporters get. But it's difficult to know for sure when the Post won't talk about it. And that approach sure didn't serve the paper well here.

I chatted last night with a couple of people I know who've written items for both the Post and the New York Times, and they agreed that the WaPo editors checked for grammar and spelling, but made no meaningful effort to scrutinize the content. The NYT, meanwhile, was far more stringent. Given Will's background and specific claims, this casual disregard is a very bad idea.

Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, points to the ideological dynamic at play: "The point of giving columns to Will and Charles Krauthammer and now hiring Bill Kristol is to show that Fred Hiatt and The Washington Post believe that whatever random crap the conservative movement wants to make up on any given day will get a hearing in The Washington Post. They're not interested in informing their audience, they're interested in showing that they'll bend over backwards to be fair to the right wing. Publishing error-free articles by movement icons serves that purpose, but publishing sloppy error-filled ones serves that purpose even better."

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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IT'S ALL OBAMA'S FAULT.... In general, I avoid commenting on Michelle Malkin posts -- there's rarely any point -- but she had a gem today that's just too amusing to ignore. (via Memeorandum) The headline reads, "President Obama's 2,000-point tumble," and argues:

On Nov. 4, after Barack Obama clinched the White House, the market closed at 9,625.28.

In mid-morning trading today, the day President Obama signs his massive Generational Theft Act into law and a day before he unveils a massive new mortgage entitlement, the Dow dropped to to [sic] 7,606.53.

Now, imagine if President Bush had presided over a 2,000-point stock market tumble in the same time period -- during the first few months of his presidency.

Great start, O.

Note that for Malkin, the clock started on Nov. 4, the day of the presidential election. So, President Obama got off to a poor start 106 days before his inauguration. Indeed, his start began while voters were still at the ballot box.

(For anyone who's curious, the Dow Jones closed at 7,949 on Jan. 20. That's not 9,625.)

It's hard to even know where to start with such a silly argument. George W. Bush -- who left the country a $10 trillion debt, enough to earn a "President Generational Theft" award from Malkin -- saw the market go from around 14,000 to around 8,000 over 14 or so months. That's a "tumble."

Obama, meanwhile, took office in the midst of a global economic crisis. While Malkin referenced the "first few months" of a presidency, Obama has been in office for just 27 days, and has barely begun to implement an economic policy.

I can appreciate the fact that Malkin, Limbaugh, Coulter, et al, want to see Obama fail. I can even understand why. If they can just convince enough people that bad news is the president's fault, they might be able to get new leadership that can bring back the policies that contributed to this economic nightmare in the first place.

But blaming even a 300-point Dow Jones drop, over a month, on the new president is unusually foolish, even by far-right standards.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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BURRIS CONCEDES BLAGO FUNDRAISING EFFORT.... Part of Sen. Roland Burris' (D-Ill.) problem is the way in which his story has changed more than once. Initially, the newly-appointed senator said he hadn't spoken to Blagojevich or his aides about the Senate seat. Burris later said he'd been asked to help Blagojevich raise funds while under consideration for the Senate seat, but he declined.

Now, in what I believe is the fourth version of events, Burris has made yet another confession.

U.S. Sen. Roland Burris has acknowledged he sought to raise campaign funds for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the request of the governor's brother at the same time he was making a pitch to be appointed to the Senate seat previously held by President Barack Obama.

Burris' latest comments in Peoria Monday night were the first time he has publicly said he was actively trying to raise money for Blagojevich. Previously Burris has left the impression that he always balked at the issue of raising money for the governor because of his interest in the Senate appointment.

In comments to reporters after appearing at a Democratic dinner, the senator several times contradicted his latest under-oath affidavit that he quietly filed with the Illinois House impeachment panel earlier this month. That affidavit was itself an attempt to clean up his live, sworn testimony to the panel Jan. 8, when he omitted his contacts with several Blagojevich insiders.

So, to review, Roland Burris was pushing to be appointed to the Senate. At the same time, he sought to raise money for the governor, a truth that's at odds with previous claims. He also spoke to the governor's brother and gubernatorial aides about the vacant seat and Blagojevich fundraising, a truth that also contradicts previous claims.

Perhaps now would be a good time for Burris to think about spending more time with his family.

It's worth noting that Burris sought to raise money for Blagojevich, but didn't actually deliver. The senator worked on organizing a fundraiser on the former governor's behalf, but the event fell apart when donors said they weren't interested. As recently as the weekend, Burris said he "did not donate or help raise a single dollar" for the impeached governor, which might technically be true -- he didn't "help raise a single dollar," but he tried to -- but is obviously misleading.

Of course, Burris suggested he wouldn't even think about raising money for Blagojevich while under consideration for the Senate. He apparently only reached this conclusion after his organized fundraiser fell through.

And here I thought this mess couldn't get more ridiculous.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHEN PAT ROBERTSON BECOMES THE VOICE OF REASON.... When do you know Rush Limbaugh has gone too far? When TV preacher Pat Robertson questions his rhetoric and judgment. (via Faiz Shakir)

Robertson told U.S. News that he wants to give President Obama "the benefit of every doubt, and I definitely hope he succeeds." Dan Gilgoff followed up, asking, "So, you don't subscribe to Rush Limbaugh's 'I hope he fails' school of thought?" Robertson responded:

"That was a terrible thing to say. I mean, he's the president of all the country. If he succeeds, the country succeeds. And if he doesn't, it hurts us all. Anybody who would pull against our president is not exactly thinking rationally."

I'm not at all accustomed to agreeing with Robertson. It's a strange feeling.

As for Robertson's criticism of Limbaugh, I'm reluctant to get in the middle of that pie fight, but I'd note that this is the same Pat Robertson who blamed 9/11 on Americans, believes he has the ability to move hurricanes with his mind, welcomed a terrorist attack on the U.S. State Department, and once described Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists as "the spirit of the Antichrist."

When he says Limbaugh is not "thinking rationally," it's safe to assume Limbaugh has gone completely around the bend.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Hilzoy

Phoenix By Bus

Atrios links to a story about growth patterns in Phoenix. It quotes a woman who wishes she could walk to stores from her house:

"In Goodyear, for instance, the opening of the Estrella Falls mall was postponed last week for a second time. Shopping center developer Westcor now plans to open it in late 2011.

Another Goodyear shopping center, on Estrella Parkway, has only one tenant, a pizza parlor that opened last year. The center sits near hundreds of new homes. The next closest place to shop and eat is a few miles away along Interstate 10.

"Karen Madison lives in the neighborhood. She shares a car with her husband, who works during the day.

"I feel stranded most days because there's nothing close enough for me to walk to," said Madison, who sometimes walks a few miles, pushing her daughter in a stroller, to fill prescriptions. "We were so excited when we saw the shopping center go up just a few blocks away. But there's nothing there.""

As it happens, I know something about trying to get around Phoenix. In my youth I used to write for Let's Go, and one summer I had to cover Phoenix. Let's Go had, at the time, incredibly low per diems -- if memory serves it was $34/day for this leg of my travels -- so except for one day when I had to drive out to Tortilla Flats, I covered Phoenix on foot. It was horrible: there were very few bus routes, and most buses ran about once an hour, so if you missed one, you had to wait (in the Phoenix midday sun) for an hour until the next one arrived -- after having walked forever just to find the bus stop. If you had to change twice, the round trip could easily consume half of your day.

I decided to see how much things had changed in the intervening decades. Before I get to the bus schedules, though, those of you who live in a walkable city should know that blocks in Phoenix are huge. Here's the Google map of Phoenix, and here's a map of Atrios' own Philadelphia (link fixed) for comparison. Click down to about the fifth highest resolution; you can see that the blocks on Phoenix are considerably bigger. And that's downtown: click a few times in any given direction and it gets much more striking.

I checked the bus schedules for Phoenix. (Actually, since you have to check each route individually, I checked about fifteen, chosen at random.) For the most part they seem to run two or three times an hour, with some extra buses at rush hours; on weekends, it's once or twice an hour, and whereas on weekdays the system seems to operate until midnight, no bus I looked at runs after 10pm on Saturday or Sunday.

Here's a map (pdf) of public transportation in Phoenix. It doesn't provide any information about scale, but Google indicates that the distance between 7th St. and 7th Ave. in downtown is about a mile. Look at the map and note the place where it says 'see downtown insert'. There's a brownish line (8) running by the left side of the 'downtown insert' thingy, and an orange line (7) running right through it, between the o and the w in 'downtown. The distance between those is a mile.

That means that there are very few places in Phoenix where bus lines are less than a mile apart, and many places where they are further apart than that. And bear in mind that the bus line that runs half a mile from your house might not go where you want to go, in which case you would have to change lines, waiting for a significant chunk of time with each change.

Here, by contrast, is a map of the bus lines in central Philadelphia. Note the scale: as best I can tell, the area shown here is only slightly larger than the 'downtown insert' on the Phoenix map. It's absolutely crawling with bus lines. (And there's also the subway and regional rail.)

In Phoenix, getting around by public transportation is an ordeal. In Philadelphia, it's a whole lot easier. There are a lot of bus lines, so you don't have to walk forever just to get to a bus stop. They run more frequently, so you don't have to wait forever every time you miss a bus. In Philadelphia, you can use public transportation as your default method of getting around. In Phoenix, you'd have to be a masochist.

If you want to get a sense for why the woman in the article feels stranded, you can find her neighborhood, Goodyear, about 30-odd miles west of downtown Phoenix on the Google map. It is served by one (1) bus line (the 131), which runs to the Desert Sky Mall (about halfway between Goodyear and what Phoenix calls "downtown") 10 times every weekday, and not at all on the weekend.

And if you want to get a sense for just how much work it will take to get some American cities to be anything like walkable, looking at the Google map and the transit system for Phoenix is a pretty decent way to start. Goodyear is extreme even for Phoenix, but there are very few places in Phoenix in which it isn't incredibly hard to get by without a car.

Hilzoy 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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CONGRESS GETS APPROVAL BOOST.... Republicans have spent quite a bit of time lately criticizing Congress. By now, the arguments are probably familiar: the Democratic leadership hasn't been "bipartisan" enough. They completed a stimulus package behind closed doors. They passed a package filled with pork and radical policy ideas.

congress_approval.gif

With all of this in mind, I can only imagine how annoyed GOP leaders will be with the new Gallup poll.

Congressional approval ratings have been pretty abysmal for a while, but with the economic recovery package passing, Gallup found "a sharp 12 percentage-point increase from last month, rising from 19% to 31%." While 31% approval for the institution is still low -- along the lines of Bush-Cheney levels of popularity -- the 12-point boost gives Congress its best rating in nearly two years.

This has to be the opposite of what Republicans were hoping for. As Greg Sargent noted, "These numbers also should make one question whether the GOP Congressional leadership's strategy is working."

Indeed, to hear the GOP leaders tell it, a public backlash against Congress for its recent efforts was inevitable. Just the opposite has happened, at least for now.

I should add, in case there's any doubt, that the increase in support is not evidence of public approval of unanimous Republican opposition to the economic recovery plan. The poll bump came as a result of self-identified Democrats and Independents expressing new-found support, while Republicans are "now less likely to approve of Congress than they were in January."

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) is struggling badly in a new Quinnipiac poll, and would get trounced by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary next year.

* On a related note, Quinnipiac also found that newly-appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is also trailing a possible primary challenger, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island. The good news for Gillibrand is that the Quinnipiac poll showed the senator trouncing her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Peter King, by double digits.

* Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) announced that she is running for the Senate next year, hoping to fill the seat now filled by retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R). Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) is likely to face off against Brunner in a primary, though Fisher will enjoy the support of Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who'd urged Brunner not to run.

* Rep. Kendrick Meek's (D) Senate campaign in Florida got a boost yesterday, when he won the backing of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has considerable sway in Florida Democratic politics.

* The AP reports today that Sarah Palin's national ambitions may have to be curtailed in light of Alaska's budget problems. "Given these bad times, she's going to have a much more difficult time traveling outside Alaska," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "When times are good, people will let their governor roam. In bad times, citizens expect their governor to stay home and work on solving the problems." Lower gas prices have apparently hit Alaska's state budget pretty hard.

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

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THE DEBATE OVER FILIBUSTER REFORM.... There's been some good discussion over the last several days about the Senate filibuster and whether the process should be reformed. It seems, however, that some of participants have been talking past one another.

At The Moderate Voice, for example, Jazz Shaw complained about my tone, before warning Democrats, "Be careful what you wish for."

Listen, Democrats... you didn't like it when the GOP was running the table on you, stopping all of your agenda and building audition tapes for Legislators Gone Wild. If you didn't have the filibuster, what judges would be sitting on all the courts right now? What other legislation would be in place? [...]

Be calm. Take a deep breath.... If you get too greedy now, you're going to regret it down the road, and likely sooner than later.

BJ at Newshoggers says the status quo is "clearly problematic," but adds that Democrats should "think long and hard about what tools you want to hand the majority party when the scales ultimately shift again and you no longer agree with their agenda."

A Political Animal commenter added, "It is hypocritical in the extreme for Democrats to do an about face on this issue and now advocate changing the system simply because we have power. The filibuster was an important tool during the dark days of the Bush years that we were able to use to block controversial nominees (maybe leglislation [sic] as well, I just can't remember)... To now argue that the system is in need of reform is completely unprincipled and hypocritical."

These are fair observations, but they're looking at the issue in a fairly narrow way. When one likes the party is the majority, he/she hates the filibuster; when one's party is in the minority; he/she treasures it. This argument emphasizes the need to be consistent, and remember that majority status comes and goes.

I'm trying to look at this in a different way.

First, the notion that Democrats used filibusters to great effect is mistaken. Scott Lemieux notes that "apologists for the filibuster ... literally can't cite a single example of the filibuster working to good ends." (Hilzoy noted Janice Rogers Brown the other day, but Judge Brown is, as of now, enjoying her lifetime appointment to the federal bench.) Elena Schor added, "After researching the history of meritorious filibusters, however, I was amazed to see how few instances there are of a successful stalling of just-plain-bad legislation."

Second, when it comes to notions of consistency and hypocrisy, to help things along, I'll largely concede the point. I think there's a qualitative difference between previous (occasional) use of filibusters and the unprecedented, record-breaking system Republicans established in 2007, but let's put all of that aside. If it will lead to a more productive discussion, I'll plead guilty. I haven't gone back and looked through my old posts, but I suspect I've probably defended more than a few filibusters, when I thought the minority was right and majority was wrong. I've seen the error of my ways. Was blind, now see.

With that in mind, let's focus the discussion a bit. The status quo is a mess. The American electorate can give a party the White House and sizable majorities in both chambers, but that party will still struggle badly to pass its agenda. A 41-member minority party can block legislation -- controversial or not -- by abusing an obscure procedural tactic that was never intended to be used to necessitate supermajorities on literally every piece of legislation.

Is this good or bad? Defensible or indefensible? Consistent democratic principles and our constitutional system or not? Is this productive for the governing process or needlessly destructive? Was this the intended use of the rule, or has it been twisted beyond recognition?

Those who approve of keeping the filibuster around as a "check" -- despite the fact that it was never intended to block congressional majorities from passing legislation -- envision a cyclical dynamic: Republicans win voter approval, but are limited by the Senate minority. Democrats win voter approval, but are limited by the same obscure legislative tactic. Government through obstructionism. Everyone has a credible excuse for failing to deliver on a policy agenda.

What was once an exceedingly rare challenge, used under extraordinary circumstances, has become -- after no public discussion at all -- a mandatory supermajority simply to govern. Either one can defend this system, or they can call for reform.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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WHY GEITHNER'S PLAN LACKED DETAILS.... Last week, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner delivered a speech on the next steps in bringing stability to the financial and banking sectors. Listeners soon noticed that Geithner's plan lacked details, and made pronouncements about elements of the plan that we'd learn about eventually. Investors were not impressed, and the major indexes fell quickly.

As it turns out, there's an explanation for all of this. Apparently, Geithner decided, fairly late in the process, that the plan he'd been working on wasn't going to work. So, he scrapped it.

Just days before Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was scheduled to lay out his much-anticipated plan to deal with the toxic assets imperiling the financial system, he and his team made a sudden about-face.

According to several sources involved in the deliberations, Geithner had come to the conclusion that the strategies he and his team had spent weeks working on were too expensive, too complex and too risky for taxpayers.

They needed an alternative and found it in a previously considered initiative to pair private investments and public loans to try to buy the risky assets and take them off the books of banks. There was one problem: They didn't have enough time to work out many details or consult with others before the plan was supposed to be unveiled.

Once the Treasury secretary and his team realized they'd need a different approach, they had to decide how to present a plan that was still coming together. As they saw it, the Bush administration had a habit of presenting plans with details they had no intention of sticking to, which didn't exactly inspire confidence. Geithner preferred to "disappoint the markets with vagueness than lay out a lot of details they might have to change later."

There were other problems, too.

Meanwhile, the sources said, Obama's senior economic advisers were hobbled in crafting the plan by a shortage of personnel. To date, the president has not nominated any assistant secretaries or undersecretaries at the Treasury, and the handful of mid-level staffers who have started work were still finding their offices and getting their building passes and BlackBerrys.

Moreover, the department made a strategic decision to limit input from the financial industry and other outsiders, aiming to prevent leaks and avoid a perception they were designing the plan for the benefit of big banks. But that also meant they were unable to vet their plan with the companies involved or set realistic expectations of what would be announced.

This does help explain a few things.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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IT'S NOT THE ACCOUNT, IT'S WHAT YOU DO WITH IT.... The conservative Washington Times has a piece today, heralding the Republican Party's embrace of Twitter. The article suggests the trend is evidence of a modern GOP that's finally embraced technological advancements.

Republicans finally get it -- and have jumped on Internet technology in hopes of dominating it in the same way they used talk radio in the early 1990s to build a following.

"Every time I send out a tweet, I'm throwing another shovel of dirt to help bury the old media," said Rep. John Culberson of Texas, a 52-year-old Republican who became one of the most quoted speakers at the Republican National Committee tech summit Friday.

Of the 219 congressional Republicans, 49 were using Twitter, while 27 of 317 Democrats were using it as of Monday, according to Tweet Congress (www.tweetcongress.org). The site tracks use of Twitter, a social messaging Web site that allows microblog text entries of 140 characters or less, known as tweets.

Mr. Culberson is the most active congressional "tweeter" and the second-most-followed member of Congress, behind only Republican Sen. John McCain.

That would be the same McCain who recently said he doesn't know anything about computers, and described the vetting process for his running mate as "a Google." Perhaps he learns quickly.

Regardless, the Times is very impressed with Republicans' tweets and notes that "Republicans account for seven of the top 10 most followed Capitol Hill lawmakers."

What the fairly long article neglected to mention is the trouble Republicans have had with Twitter of late. Indeed, the examples keep piling up, as Pete Hoekstra, Jeff Frederick, and Jim Tedisco can attest.

Are Republicans making an effort to embrace a new medium? Sure. Are they doing it well? Not quite yet.

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

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IDIOCY WATCH.... A friend passed along an item from the weekend, with an audio clip of Michele Bachmann chatting with a conservative talk-show host in Minnesota. In the ongoing debate as to which member of Congress is the single most ridiculous, this interview is very compelling evidence that Bachmann is, at a minimum, near the front of the pack.

The whole interview is about 13 minutes long, but it's worth listening to, if only to appreciate just how truly disturbed some far-right members of Congress have become.

Bachmann "explained" to the host and Minnesota audience:

* ACORN is "under federal indictment for voter fraud," but the stimulus bill nevertheless gives ACORN "$5 billion." (In reality, ACORN is not under federal indictment and isn't mentioned in the stimulus bill at all.)

* many members of Congress have "a real aversion to capitalism."

* the stimulus bill includes a measure to create a "rationing board" for health care, and after the bill becomes law, "your doctor will no longer be able to make your healthcare decisions with you."

* the recovery package is part of a Democratic conspiracy to "direct" funding away from Republican districts, so Democratic districts can "suck up" all federal funds. Bachmann doesn't think this will work because, as she put it, "We're running out of rich people in this country."

* the "Community-Organizer-in-Chief" is also orchestrating a conspiracy involving the Census Bureau, which the president will use to redraw congressional lines to keep Democrats in power for up to "40 years." When the host said he was confused, noting that congressional district lines are drawn at the state level, Bachmann said Obama's non-existent plan is an "anti-constitutional move."

There's no point in trying to fact-check such unhinged stupidity, but I should note that none of this is in anyway grounded in reality. I should also note that we're not talking about some strange nut screaming on a street corner; this is all coming from an elected member of Congress.

At one point, Bachmann told the host, "We are literally losing our country."

Congresswoman, you've literally lost something, but I don't think it's your country.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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GOP GOVERNORS SING A DIFFERENT TUNE.... Congressional Republicans have the luxury of debating philosophy. Republican governors, however, are a little more concerned about practical impacts, and they're not nearly as obstinate when it comes to President Obama's economic agenda.

President Obama must wish governors could vote in Congress: While just three of the 219 Republican lawmakers backed the $787 billion economic recovery plan that he is signing into law on Tuesday, that trifling total would have been several times greater if support among the 22 Republican state executives counted.

The contrast reflects the two faces of the Republican Party these days.

Leaderless after losing the White House, the party is mostly defined by its Congressional wing, which flaunted its anti-spending ideology in opposing the stimulus package. That militancy drew the mockery of late-night television comics, but the praise of conservative talk-show stars and the party faithful.

In the states, meanwhile, many Republican governors are practicing a pragmatic -- their Congressional counterparts would say less-principled -- conservatism.

To be fair, it would be an exaggeration to say all Republican governors are on board with the White House's policies. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), for example, remains an enthusiastic proponent of Neo-Hooverism, insisting that the appropriate response to the economic crisis is severe cuts in governmental spending and more layoffs.

But unlike Congress, there are plenty of Republican governors who don't mind admitting that they think Obama's on the right track. Most notably, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida's Charlie Crist, Vermont's Jim Douglas, and Connecticut's M. Jodi Rell all expressed their support for the Democratic recovery package. These four alone represent a larger GOP contingent supporting the stimulus than the three out of 219 Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Crist told the New York Times, "It really is a matter of perspective. As a governor, the pragmatism that you have to exercise because of the constitutional obligation to balance your budget is a very compelling pull" generally.

Schwarzenegger, Crist, Douglas, and Rell co-signed a letter, along with 14 Democratic governors, endorsing the president's plan. The Times added, "Other Republicans would have signed on, said a person familiar with the letter's drafting, but for party pressure in their states."

It seems pretty obvious that Republicans in Congress don't much care whether GOP governors like the policy or not. But I still think this is an example of far-right lawmakers being isolated from the policy mainstream, whether that matters to them or not.

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

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DISAPPOINTING DICK.... For most of the last eight years, then-Vice President Dick Cheney probably grew accustomed to getting what he demanded. Given unprecedented authority by the president, Cheney was largely able to call the shots.

But not always.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney launched a last-ditch campaign to persuade his boss to pardon Lewis (Scooter) Libby -- and was furious when President George W. Bush wouldn't budge.

Sources close to Cheney told the Daily News the former vice president repeatedly pressed Bush to pardon Libby, arguing his ex-chief of staff and longtime alter ego deserved a full exoneration -- even though Bush had already kept Libby out of jail by commuting his 30-month prison sentence.

"He tried to make it happen right up until the very end," one Cheney associate said.

According to the report from Thomas DeFrank, whose Bush-related sources tend to be very solid, Cheney was not exactly passive about this, pushing Bush over and over again, in person and on the phone. A Cheney ally said the former VP was still pushing on Jan. 19, the day before President Obama's inauguration.

Eventually, Bush became "exasperated," and said he would no longer discuss the issue.

Someone close to Cheney said, "He's furious with Bush. He's really angry about it and decided he's going to say what he believes." (The day after leaving office, the former VP told the Weekly Standard, "Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision" about a Libby pardon.)

My perspective on this is obviously far afield from Cheney's, but I can't help but think Libby got off easy. As part of a White House scandal in which presidential aides leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. The president commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence before he even stepped foot in prison.

Cheney doesn't really have anything to be "furious" about.

Steve Benen 7:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Hilzoy

California Slides Into The Sea

It sounds as though California is finally melting down politically:

"The state of California -- its deficits ballooning, its lawmakers intransigent and its governor apparently bereft of allies or influence -- appears headed off the fiscal rails.

Since the fall, when lawmakers began trying to attack the gaps in the $143 billion budget that their earlier plan had not addressed, the state has fallen into deeper financial straits, with more bad news coming daily from Sacramento. The state, nearly out of cash, has laid off scores of workers and put hundreds more on unpaid furloughs. It has stopped paying counties and issuing income tax refunds and halted thousands of infrastructure projects.

Twenty-thousand layoff notices will go out on Tuesday morning, Matt David, the communications director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Monday night. "In the absence of a budget we need to realize this savings and the process takes six months," Mr. David said.

After negotiating nonstop from Saturday afternoon until late Sunday night on a series of budget bills that would have closed a projected $41 billion deficit, state lawmakers failed to get enough votes to close the deal and adjourned. They returned to the Capitol on Monday morning and labored into the evening but still failed to reach a deal. They planned to reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday to go at it again.

California has also lost access to much of the credit markets, nearly unheard of among state municipal bond issuers. Recently, Standard & Poor's downgraded the state's bond rating to the lowest in the nation.

California's woes will almost certainly leave a jagged fiscal scar on the nation's most populous state, an outgrowth of the financial triptych of above-average unemployment, high foreclosure rates and plummeting tax revenues, and the state's unusual budgeting practices. (...)

The roots of California's inability to address its budget woes are statutory and political. The state, unlike most others, requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass budgets and tax increases. And its process for creating voter initiatives hamstrings the budget process by directing money for some programs while depriving others of cash.

In a Legislature dominated by Democrats, some of whom lean far to the left, leaders have been unable to gather enough support from Republican lawmakers, who tend on average to be more conservative than the majority of California's Republican voters and have unequivocally opposed all tax increases."

They need three (3) Republican votes in each house. They can't get them. And this despite the fact that the Republicans who have been negotiating have gotten a lot, including, according to the LATimes, "tax breaks for corporations".

Really. I am not making this up. With the state budget $41 billion in deficit, Republicans held out for corporate tax cuts, and then aren't even supporting the resulting bill.

One detail is particularly telling: they're suspending a bunch of infrastructure projects. This is a bad idea in a recession, However, these aren't just any job-producing, demand-enhancing, public safety-promoting projects:

"The projects, which include upgrades to 18 bridges and roads in Los Angeles to protect them from collapsing in earthquakes and cost $3.8 billion, had been allowed to continue operating as others were suspended because the state was running out of cash.

The projects to be suspended today had been exempted from a November order to stop public works because of the significant financial cost of canceling contracts, the expense of resuming them or the public-health or public-safety ramifications. The list also includes work to eliminate arsenic in the City of Live Oak and half-built highway construction projects."

According to Calitics (h/t), it will cost California $191 million to shut the projects down, and $192 million to start them back up again once a deal is struck. So shutting down the government will mean spending nearly $400 million of taxpayers' money for nothing, and all in the name of fiscal responsibility.

It's been a while since I lived in Southern California. I remember some of the Southern California Republicans being a little on the nutty side. But this is flat-out insane.

Hilzoy 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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February 16, 2009

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

* The AP reports that the Pakistani government today agreed "to implement Islamic law across a large swath of northwest Pakistan on Monday in a concession aimed at pacifying a spreading Taliban insurgency." The announcement follows "talks with a pro-Taliban group from the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven in the northwest where extremists have gained sway through brutal tactics including beheadings and burning girls schools."

* President Obama has decided against the "car czar" idea, and will instead have Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers oversee the "Presidential Task Force on Autos."

* Obama is thinking long and hard about Afghanistan before ordering more U.S. troops into the country.

* It appears that military consultations between the United States and China will resume in a couple of weeks in Beijing.

* Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who promised to "fumigate" state government after the Blagojevich impeachment process, has fired for the remaining staffers from the former governor's team.

* Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez successfully led an effort to eliminate term limits from the country's constitution. It suggests Chavez will be able to hold office for the indefinite future, after his second term ends in 2013.

* It's hard to overstate how messed up the budget process is in California.

* Blackwater's solution for its public relations problems? Changing its name to "Xe." Seriously.

* I'm afraid some journalists are confused about why Juan Williams' criticism of Michelle Obama sparked a controversy.

* Last week, Fox News used official Republican talking points for an on-air script. The network later apologized -- not for the incident, but for a typo. Yesterday, Howard Kurtz did a good job calling the Republican network out.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MADNESS WATCH.... I'm reluctant, in a way, to promote the propaganda of very conservative religious-right activists, but this video is worth watching, if only to get a sense of just how twisted opponents of gay marriage really are.

The video, by way of Ben Smith, was created by wv4marriage.com, and warns that same-sex marriage in West Virginia is "a closer reality than you may think," because of activists who are "working tirelessly to redefine marriage away from God's design to favor the desires of adults over the needs of children."

At the 57-second mark, note the visual: gay people not only targeting traditional families, but are literally looking at these families through a rifle scope.

There's no point in trying to fact-check ridiculous propaganda like this. One could point out the many times throughout history in which marriage has been redefined. Or the fact that the species will continue just fine regardless of whether gay couples get married. Or the reality that "religious freedom" has nothing to do with whether two adults can get married. Or the fact that our economy is not dependent on keeping same-sex couples from receiving legal recognition. Alas, there's really no point. We're talking about far-right activists who are so far gone, reason stopped mattering a long time ago.

Christy Hardin Smith and Pam Spaulding have more about the groups behind the ad, and the broader campaign.

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

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ABOUT THAT CHURCHILL EXAMPLE.... Apparently, when the House Minority Whip isn't seeking guidance from Newt Gingrich, he's reading up on Winston Churchill.

...Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House minority whip who led the fight to deny Obama every GOP vote for the plan, is studying Winston Churchill's role leading the Tories in the late 1930s, a principled minority that was eventually catapulted into power over the Labor Party.

There's no direct quote in the paragraph, so it's not clear who's misstating history, but Josh Marshall sets the record straight.

In the late 1930s, of course, Great Britain didn't have a Labour government with a principled Tory minority. It had conservative Tory government with a Labour minority. And Churchill was on the outs with both, although on some fronts he was beginning to make common cause with some Labourites on his key issue, which was foreign policy. When Churchill eventually came to power it was in a national coalition government for the purposes of fighting the war. And when he eventually went to the voters as head of the Tory party toward the end of the war they got crushed by Labour in a landslide.

I say all this as a big Churchill fan. But, I mean, not only is Eric Cantor no Winston Churchill, I'm not even sure he's read a book about Winston Churchill.

Of course, if Cantor is "studying" the former Prime Minister, he'll probably realize one of these days that Churchill's example won't help Republicans now.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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DREAM ON.... The House Republican Whips released a video this morning, bragging like conquering heroes about their unanimous rejection of the economic stimulus package last week. It's possible the GOP base will love it -- rocking out to "Back in the Saddle" while reading party talking points -- but I found it kind of embarrassing. As Jason Zengerle explained, "[I]t's basically a litany of every tired, failed GOP buzzword (from ACORN to golf carts), all set to the tune of ... Aerosmith.... [Y]ears from now, when historians are trying to sort out what went so terribly wrong with conservatism in the early twenty-first century, I really hope this little video doesn't get overlooked."

Of course, it's not just the video. Whether you found merit in the stimulus plan or not, Republican efforts during the debate were a step backwards for the party on its road back to relevance. John Thune took to the floor of the Senate to explain how tall a pile of $100 bills would be if it totaled $1 trillion. Mitch McConnell told his colleagues, "If you started the day Jesus Christ was born and spent $1 million every day since then, you still wouldn't have spent $1 trillion." GOP lawmakers invested heavily in going after money relating to a salt marsh mouse in California, despite the fact that the bill didn't actually include such a provision.

It's not just that the arguments were wrong, the problem is that the arguments were ridiculous. Republicans knew this fight was coming, and struggled to get past their own nonsense. Conservative David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, found it painful to watch, calling the rhetoric from his own party "stupid." (via Jason Linkins)

The US economy has plunged into severe recession (94% of Americans describe economic conditions as "bad," according to the Feb 2-4 CBS poll, and 51% say conditions are getting even worse).

President Obama and the Democrats have responded by steering the US radically to the left. Since World War II, the federal government has most years spent less than one dollar in five of national income. Once the stimulus gets underway, the federal government will spend more than one dollar in four. The cost of everything the Democrats want to do comes closer to one dollar in three.

We're facing more regulation of everything from high finance to the ordinary workplace. The Democrats are expanding Medicaid to crowd out private insurance. The federal government wants a huge new role in redirecting private investment in transportation and energy in the name of "green jobs."

And facing all this -- we're talking about mice? Could we possibly act more inadequate to the challenge? More futile? More brain dead?

We in fact have a constructive solution to offer, one that would deliver more jobs faster: the payroll tax holiday, an idea endorsed by almost every reputable right-of-center economist. But that's not the solution being offered by Republicans in Congress. They are offering a clapped-out package of 1980s-vintage solutions, including capital gains tax cuts. Capital gains! Who has any capital gains to be taxed in the first place?

On the substance, I think Frum's wrong about the way forward, and I disagree completely about his take on excessive government, regulation, the value of a payroll tax holiday, etc. But at a minimum, his position is coherent, which is more than I can say for the policymakers in his party.

"Back in the Saddle"? More like, "Dream on."

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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BAD WILL HUNTING.... George Will, who has always presented himself as something of an intellectual among the conservative chattering class, seems to be struggling a bit now that there's a Democratic president. Some of his recent columns have varied between wrong and bizarre.

Last week, for example, Will wrote that if John McCain doesn't approve of a bill, congressional Democrats are guilty of "recklessness." This week, Will rejects the scientific consensus on climate change.

In the 1970s, "a major cooling of the planet" was "widely considered inevitable" because it was "well established" that the Northern Hemisphere's climate "has been getting cooler since about 1950" (New York Times, May 21, 1975). Although some disputed that the "cooling trend" could result in "a return to another ice age" (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated "a full-blown 10,000-year ice age" involving "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation" (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively). The "continued rapid cooling of the Earth" (Global Ecology, 1971) meant that "a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery" (International Wildlife, July 1975). "The world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next ice age" (Science Digest, February 1973). Because of "ominous signs" that "the Earth's climate seems to be cooling down," meteorologists were "almost unanimous" that "the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century," perhaps triggering catastrophic famines (Newsweek cover story, "The Cooling World," April 28, 1975). [...]

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979. [...]

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

These points might be compelling, if they were in any way accurate. The problem, of course, is that they're completely wrong.

Will is simply wrong about the "cooling" data from the 1970s, wrong about the research conducted by the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, and wrong about the reports from the U.N. World Meteorological Organization.

The Arctic Climate Research Center went so far as to publish a response online yesterday to Will's column.

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

It is, indeed.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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LIEBERMAN SAVED THE STIMULUS?.... Ryan Grim had an interesting item the other day, highlighting Joe Lieberman's role in the negotiations over the economic stimulus plan. Apparently, while it was Democrat Ben Nelson making concessions to Republicans like Susan Collins and Arlen Specter, it was Lieberman who intervened when the GOP "centrists" nearly walked away.

Indeed, Sens. Nelson, Landrieu, Reid, and Specter all credited Lieberman for making the compromise come together. Grimm reported that the bill will become law thanks to President Obama's "decision to pardon Lieberman for the sin of campaigning for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the presidential election."

It led Joe Klein to argue that the outcome makes Obama look pretty smart.

It seems Lieberman played a crucial role in talking several Republicans off the ledge, thereby vindicating President Obama's refusal to be vindictive toward the Connecticut Senator.... Lieberman has always been a moderate-progressive on economic issues so his vote should not be a surprise -- but his active lobbying for the bill has to be considered directly attributable to the grace with which Obama treated him. Those who wonder about the President's efforts to be nice to Republicans -- a singularly ungracious lot, cult-like in their devotion to failed economic policies past -- should bear this particular example in mind as we go forward.

Perhaps. But it also speaks to the unusual reality of politics in a chamber like the Senate. As Ezra explained very well yesterday: "[I]t's a bit weird to read senators basically saying that the largest economic recovery package in history was passed because Joe Lieberman is old friends with Arlen Specter. The possible of millions of lost jobs and years of recession wasn't enough to convince Republicans of the need for $800 billion in new spending. But Joe Lieberman's kind smile and warm wit? That was all the argument they needed."

What an odd club.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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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.

* Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) can probably forget about party support, should he decide to seek a full term in 2010.

* Norm Coleman's already-remote chances took another hit late on Friday, when a three-judge panel rejected the Republican's claim about a systemic error in counting absentee ballots.

* Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of Congress' most notorious buffoons, is considering running for governor in 2010.

* Jeff Frederick, Virginia's Republican Party chairman, is giving up his seat in the House of Delegates. He wants his wife to succeed him in the chamber.

* Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) is already a popular two-term incumbent, but he may go for a third term in 2010 by challenging the constitutionality of term limits. A similar court case recently struck down term limits for state lawmakers, and if Freudenthal tested the law as it relates to governors, legal experts expect he'd win.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), widely expected to run for president in 2012, took a few rhetorical shots at Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), a possible presidential rival, yesterday. Crist, Sanford said, isn't a real "fiscal conservative."

* David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, conceded last week that Sarah Palin helped the Democratic effort considerably during the 2008 race. "Vice presidential picks rarely but sometimes make an electoral difference," Plouffe said. "Our view was it probably wasn't going to matter that much. It's the most over-covered story in politics. This was the one exception to that. It did have an effect. She was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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GOVERNMENT AND HEALTHCARE.... Last week's conservative meme about medical records and government's heavy hand "guiding" physicians' practices was based on a blatant lie, but it was also intended to play on alleged fears of "government-run healthcare." For many on the right, it's supposed to be the ultimate trump-card -- throw around the word "socialized" a few times, and any proposal relating to healthcare is necessarily a bad one.

And to be sure, for certain Limbaugh-listening segments of the population, this might be effective. But Atrios and Yglesias are both noting a recent CBS/NYT poll (.pdf) showing the public's comfort with government playing a prominent role in the healthcare system. This was published a week before President Obama's inauguration:

Americans are more likely today to embrace the idea of the government providing health insurance than they were 30 years ago. 59% say the government should provide national health insurance, including 49% who say such insurance should cover all medical problems.

In January 1979, four in 10 thought the federal government should provide national insurance. Back then, more Americans thought health insurance should be left to private enterprise.

Indeed, public expectations about government's role has increased dramatically. As Matt explained, "It's important to understand that when people say that a move to a single-payer health care system isn't politically feasible, they don't mean that it would be unpopular. They mean that our political system is too broken and corrupt to deliver one."

I'd just add that the CBS/NYT poll isn't an aberration, and this trend isn't even new. This study from March 2006 still rings true:

Many adults in the United States believe their federal administration is not doing enough to help them with the cost of medical services, according to a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 70 per cent of respondents think the government spends too little on health care.

The disconnect between the right's fear tactics and the public's attitudes is pretty obvious.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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BEYOND PARODY.... Over the weekend, "Saturday Night Live" had a skit showing Republican officials scheming against President Obama. The GOP, of course, was made to look ridiculous -- mocking the president's substantive answers to questions, arguing over whether Limbaugh or Hannity is the "smartest man in America," and debating whether they should pursue impeachment now or in April.

As is often the case, the line between Republican satire and Republican reality is often blurred -- some of the president's GOP detractors really are nuts. (via Mahablog)

Four Tennessee state representatives, all Republicans, have signed up to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit against President Barack Obama, aimed at forcing him to prove he is a United States citizen by coughing up his birth certificate.

Let me just say what all the world is now thinking, including their fellow Republicans on the Hill: This is dumber than a box of rocks.

Tennessee Reps. Eric Swafford, Stacey Campfield, Glen Casada and Frank Nicely now have a giant "G" on their foreheads for "Gullible." The four were so willing to drink the craziest flavor of Kool-Aid, they've gotten themselves caught up in a national urban legend that has been thoroughly debunked.

What's next? A resolution honoring the Easter Bunny for doing such a great job with the annual colored egg delivery system? A proposed law asking these four to prove they have a brain?

Apparently, some yahoo in California is filing another lawsuit challenging Obama's presidential eligibility. Some Republican lawmakers in the Volunteer State, including the GOP caucus chairman of the Tennessee House, are using their positions to not only endorse the baseless case, but also pledging to be plaintiffs in the litigation.

It seems a little early in Obama's presidency to see Republicans become this deranged. I shudder to think how unhinged they'll be in, say, a year.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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HRC ON BUSH, NK.... Hillary Clinton, en route to Asia, talked about her goal of the "denuclearization of North Korea," but added some important context to the international dispute.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cast doubt Sunday on a claim by the Bush administration that North Korea had a clandestine program to enrich uranium, and she said she will focus on getting the Pyongyang government to give up its stock of weapons-grade plutonium.

"There is a debate within the intelligence community as to exactly the extent of the highly-enriched-uranium program," Clinton told reporters traveling with her to Asia on her first voyage as the chief U.S. diplomat.

In a slap at her predecessors, Clinton made it clear she believes that the Bush administration's decision to walk away from an agreement negotiated during her husband's administration -- the 1994 Agreed Framework -- helped create the current crisis over North Korea's stash of nuclear weapons.

"The Agreed Framework was torn up on the basis of the concerns about the highly-enriched-uranium program," Clinton said. "There is no debate that, once the Agreed Framework was torn up, the North Koreans began to reprocess plutonium with a vengeance because all bets were off. The result is they now have nuclear weapons, which they did not have before."

The Bush administration, following a policy that never made any sense, let North Korea get far more dangerous. Since Clinton is going to have to help clean up the mess, it's understandable that she call out those responsible for pushing the failed policy in the first place.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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HISTORIANS' RANKINGS.... C-SPAN's presidential rankings, based on surveys of historias, is one of those projects that's meant to be a conversation piece. The process is inherently subjective, but kind of interesting anyway.

Timed for Presidents Day 2009, C-SPAN today releases the results of its second Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership, in which a cross-section of 65 presidential historians ranked the 42 former occupants of the White House on ten attributes of leadership.

As in C-SPAN's first such survey, released in 2000, Abraham Lincoln received top billing among the historians, just as the nation marks the bicentennial of his birth. George Washington placed second, while spots three through five were held by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, in that order.

Based on the results of historians surveyed, George W. Bush received an overall ranking of 36. Among other recent Presidents, Bill Clinton who was ranked 21 in the 2000 survey, advanced six spots in 2009 to an overall ranking of 15; Ronald Reagan moved from 11 to 10; George H.W. Bush went from 20 to 18, and Jimmy Carter's ranking declined from 22 to 25.

The historians rated each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Setting An Agenda," "Pursued Equal Justice for All," and "Performance Within the Context of His Times."

George W. Bush finished near the very bottom on "economic management" and "international relations" (40th and 41st, respectively), but managed to secure 36th place overall, thanks to higher marks on "pursued equal justice for all" (24th out of 42), and "vision/setting an agenda" (25th out of 42). I'd also note that Bush finished two places lower than Herbert Hoover.

It's not altogether clear what's behind the changes since 2000, when the same historians took on the same project using the same standards. JFK now edges out Jefferson; Woodrow Wilson dropped from 6th to 9th, and Reagan and LBJ swapped places. Grant jumped 10 places to 23rd; Hayes dropped seven places to 33rd. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

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

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REMEMBER, HE LOST BADLY.... Watching CNN's John King interview John McCain yesterday was annoying on several levels. The obvious one was seeing the Arizona Republican take pot shots at President Obama, sounding terribly bitter, angry at the man who defeated him. The audience got to hear McCain say things like, "What I would have done..." and complain about the president not being "bipartisan" enough.

We also got to hear McCain lecture Obama on cabinet choices, saying Obama should "get outside of Washington" and "get people who have succeeded. Get the Meg Whitmans and the Carly Fiorina and the Fred Smiths and the John Chamberses." Given that the advice was coming from the man who picked Sarah Palin to be one heartbeat from the presidency, McCain will hopefully understand if we're skeptical about his personnel judgment.

But what really stood out yesterday was the media reaction to McCain's complaining. Here we had a conservative Republican going after a Democratic president with tired talking points and inane observations. Nothing especially surprising. And yet, by mid-day, the lead story on CNN's site read, "Obama off to a bad start, GOP senators say." Soon after, Mark Halperin's lead story was, "McCain: Bad Bipartisan Start for Obama."

Um, guys? McCain lost. Badly. His opinions and ideas were roundly rejected by the electorate. McCain has been reduced to whining about how much better he'd be if he were president. Why give his complaints more weight than they deserve? Republicans don't even think of McCain as being especially significant right now. As Atrios noted a couple of weeks ago, "The dude lost Indiana. No one cares what he thinks."

No one, that is, except the political reporters who consider his bitterness newsworthy.

For what it's worth, Democrats who thought McCain might re-embrace one of his previous personas, and go back to being a senator they can work with, are slowly realizing he's a lost cause.

Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated with the brash political attacks Sen. John McCain has launched against Barack Obama in the weeks since the new president took office. No one expected the Arizona Republican to be a legislative ally for this administration. But it was widely assumed that Obama's overtures to McCain in the weeks after the election would dull some of the hard feelings between the two. Now, they are realizing, it has not.

Alas, it was probably unrealistic to expect anything different.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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February 15, 2009
By: Hilzoy

In Praise Of Anxiety

Michael Isikoff in Newsweek:

"An internal Justice Department report on the conduct of senior lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. H. Marshall Jarrett, chief of the department's ethics watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility(OPR), confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos "was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys." According to two knowledgeable sources who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters, a draft of the report was submitted in the final weeks of the Bush administration. It sharply criticized the legal work of two former top officials -- Jay Bybee and John Yoo -- as well as that of Steven Bradbury, who was chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the time the report was submitted, the sources said. (Bybee, Yoo and Bradbury did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)"

Michael Mukasey had objections to the report, but it should be submitted to Eric Holder shortly.

"If Holder accepts the OPR findings, the report could be forwarded to state bar associations for possible disciplinary action. But some former Bush officials are furious about the OPR's initial findings and question the premise of the probe. "OPR is not competent to judge [the opinions by Justice attorneys]. They're not constitutional scholars," said the former Bush lawyer."

And I suppose it's unimaginable that they might consult with constitutional scholars in preparing the report. On reflection, it's a mystery how the OPR ever manages to assess lawyers' work, unless they have experts in every conceivable legal sub-field on staff. Plus, I'm sure the state bar associations are familiar with the Office of Professional Responsibility, and are, in addition, capable of reading the report for themselves. If the OPR is incompetent, that fact will probably not escape their notice. And the state bar associations should absolutely consider whether Yoo, Bybee, and Bradbury fell below minimal standards of competence and professionalism.

But this is the part that really warmed my heart:

"OPR investigators focused on whether the memo's authors deliberately slanted their legal advice to provide the White House with the conclusions it wanted, according to three former Bush lawyers who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing probe. One of the lawyers said he was stunned to discover how much material the investigators had gathered, including internal e-mails and multiple drafts that allowed OPR to reconstruct how the memos were crafted. In a departure from the norm, Jarrett also told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year he would inform them of his findings and would "consider" releasing a public version. If he does, it could be the most revealing public glimpse yet at how some of the major decisions of Bush-era counterterrorism policy were made."

Break out the popcorn.

Hilzoy 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Hilzoy

Filibusters Again

Steve, Matt Yglesias, and Kevin Drum are all calling for reform of the filibuster. I agree. I am of two minds on the question of eliminating it entirely. (To anyone who thinks it's just obvious that the filibuster should be eliminated, I have three words for you: Janice Rogers Brown.) But what seems absolutely clear is that if it is kept around, it ought to be transformed back into a tool that is actually painful for the minority to use, and that they will therefore use only when they feel very, very strongly. As Kevin wrote:

"The filibuster was never intended to become a routine requirement that all legislation needs 60% of the vote in the Senate to pass. But that's what it's become. It's time for reform."


I don't think it's enough, though, to say that Senators who want to filibuster should be made to actually stand up and speak for hours on end. To see why, consider this:

"While a filibuster would seem to be more taxing on the side doing the talking, that isn't necessarily the case. The filibusterers need only one person in the Senate chamber at any one time, prattling away. The other side must make sure a quorum -- a majority of all senators -- is on hand, a constitutional requirement for the Senate to conduct business. If there's no quorum after a senator has demanded a quorum call, the Senate must adjourn, giving those leading the filibuster time to go home, sleep, and delay things even more. To ensure a quorum during the rancorous civil rights filibusters, cots were set up in Senate anterooms, and majority senators presented themselves in bathrobes during early-morning quorum calls.

Those seeking a quorum can even demand that the Senate's sergeant at arms arrest senators who aren't present and drag them into the Senate chamber, a measure that has led to absent senators playing hide-and-seek with police officers around Capitol Hill. As recently as 1988, officers physically carried Sen. Robert Packwood onto the Senate floor at the behest of then-Majority Leader Byrd."

This means that the pain of filibusters falls disproportionately on the side that is trying to end debate, not on the side that is mounting the filibuster. Senators do not like to hang around the Senate all night long. Sometimes, they would rather catch up on their sleep, go to fundraisers, fly back to their districts, or do whatever else they feel like doing. As things stand now, only one Senator from the side mounting a filibuster has to give up the rest of his or her life in order to be present in the Senate. The rest of them can just catch up on their beauty sleep. The side that is trying to end the filibuster, by contrast, has to keep almost all its members around in case of quorum calls.

If we're going to reform the filibuster, this has to change. The Senate might make cloture votes require 60% of the votes of those who are present and voting, for instance. That would mean that the side that was mounting a filibuster would have to keep all its members around for the duration. Alternately, the Senate might adopt a rule that said that during filibusters, if a quorum was not present, the Senator who was speaking could decide to go on speaking or to allow a vote on cloture, to be decided by a majority of those present and voting. If s/he decided to go on speaking, s/he could do so, but no other Senate business could be conducted until the next business day. If s/he opted for the cloture vote, it would take place.

There might, for all I know, be problems with either of these proposals. And there's probably an even better proposal out there. But what has to change, I think, is the fact that Senators can now declare their intention to filibuster and either have their way (if no one forces an actual filibuster), or visit considerable inconvenience on their opponents (if a filibuster is forced), without having to suffer the same inconveniences themselves.

That's an incredibly perverse set of incentives. It might have been designed to create the idiotic situation we have now, in which a party that has seventeen fewer Senators than the other is nonetheless in a position to dictate what the majority party can pass, not just on issues on which they feel very strongly, but as a matter of course.

Hilzoy 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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LINDSEY GRAHAM THINKS WE'RE 'SCREWED'.... The Cult of Bipartisanship gets just a little nuttier.

Our "This Week" panel this morning got into a rousing debate over the stimulus bill, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C. and Rep. Peter King, N.Y., arguing the GOP was left out of the process.

"If I may say, if this is going to be bipartisanship, the country's screwed," Graham said.

I'm not even sure what this is supposed to mean.

The political parties disagree on the nation's future. One party is in the majority after winning national elections; the other party is in the minority after failing badly at governing. The president reached out to the failed party, sought their ideas, and accepted some of their demands. The minority party voted against the package anyway. That's fine; it's what the opposition party is supposed to do.

But the United States is "screwed" unless the failed minority party -- the one taking orders from Rush Limbaugh and comparing itself to the Taliban as a model for insurgency -- gets to help shape legislation even more in the future? Please.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE NEXT NEWT.... One would like to assume that Newt Gingrich, 10 years after being forced from power by his own Republican caucus and leaving Congress as something of a disgrace, would have very limited influence in the halls of Congress.

For reasons that I've never fully been able to grasp, that's not the case.

The last time Congressional Republicans were this out of power, they turned to a college professor from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, to lead the opposition, first against President Bill Clinton in a budget battle in 1993, and then back into the majority the following year.

As Republicans confronted President Obama in another budget battle last week, their leadership included another new face: Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who as the party's chief vote wrangler is as responsible as anyone for the tough line the party has taken in this first legislative standoff with Mr. Obama. This battle has vaulted Mr. Cantor to the front lines of his party as it tries to recover from the losses of November. [...]

Mr. Cantor said he had studied Mr. Gingrich's years in power and had been in regular touch with him as he sought to help his party find the right tone and message. Indeed, one of Mr. Gingrich's leading victories in unifying his caucus against Mr. Clinton's package of tax increases to balance the budget in 1993 has been echoed in the events of the last few weeks.

"I talk to Newt on a regular basis because he was in the position that we are in: in the extreme minority," he said.

Given the extent of Gingrich's failures, it seems odd that Republican lawmakers would turn to the former Speaker for guidance, especially now that the party is struggling so badly with message, direction, leadership, and public standing. Indeed, Gingrich led the fight against Clinton's economic policies -- he guaranteed they would lead to a recession -- which in retrospect only makes his judgment look even worse.

But I guess ol' Newt must be awfully persuasive behind the scenes, because Republicans keep reaching out to him for advice. Satyam Khanna notes, for example, that it was Gingrich who helped drive GOP opposition to the first TARP package in September.

I would just add that it was also Gingrich who pushed House Republicans to make "drill now" the centerpiece of its policy agenda (Gingrich encouraged the GOP caucus to shut down the government unless Pelosi expanded coastal drilling) last fall, and in June, counseled the Senate Republican caucus on exactly how they could reclaim the majority. (Remind me; how'd that work out for them?)

And now Eric Cantor seems anxious to take direction from Gingrich. I can only assume Democrats on the Hill are thrilled.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GRAFT.... Four years ago, the Washington Monthly ran a cover story by NBC investigative reporter Aram Roston, reporting on allegations of corruption by American officials in Iraq. Many of the allegations came by way of an arms dealer who was later murdered.

The story continues.

Federal authorities examining the early, chaotic days of the $125 billion American-led effort to rebuild Iraq have significantly broadened their inquiry to include senior American military officers who oversaw the program, according to interviews with senior government officials and court documents.

Court records show that last month investigators subpoenaed the personal bank records of Col. Anthony B. Bell, who is now retired from the Army but who was in charge of reconstruction contracting in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 when the small operation grew into a frenzied attempt to remake the country's broken infrastructure. In addition, investigators are examining the activities of Lt. Col. Ronald W. Hirtle of the Air Force, who was a senior contracting officer in Baghdad in 2004, according to two federal officials involved in the inquiry.

It is not clear what specific evidence exists against the two men, and both said they had nothing to hide from investigators. Yet officials say that several criminal cases over the past few years point to widespread corruption in the operation the men helped to run. As part of the inquiry, the authorities are taking a fresh look at information given to them by Dale C. Stoffel, an American arms dealer and contractor who was killed in Iraq in late 2004.

Before he was shot on a road north of Baghdad, Mr. Stoffel drew a portrait worthy of a pulp crime novel: tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad, and payoffs made in paper sacks that were scattered in "dead drops" around the Green Zone, the nerve center of the United States government's presence in Iraq, two senior federal officials said.

Joe Klein describes what transpired in Iraq as "free-range robbery." Given what we've learned, it's a painfully accurate phrase.

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

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TIME TO REFORM THE FILIBUSTER.... One of the striking aspects of the political process on the Hill is how quickly everyone has adapted to a once-rare tactic becoming routine. Senate filibusters used to be exceedingly rare -- a dramatic challenge only to be used under extraordinary circumstances. Only recently has the political world accepted, without so much as a discussion, the notion that literally every key measure must enjoy a 60-vote majority if it hopes to become law.

Take the fight over the economic stimulus bill. Early on, Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders said Republicans would not filibuster a rescue package in the midst of a global economic crisis. Soon after, the GOP changed its mind -- and no one seemed to think anything of it. There were no demands for an "up-or-down vote." There was no media coverage about Republican "obstructionism." It was simply assumed, without controversy, that Republicans would not only oppose the legislation, but also launch an effort to block the Senate from even voting on the bill in the first place.

Indeed, what should be seen as a radical break with political and legislative norms barely raises an eyebrow anymore. An important bill will come to the floor, will have the support of 58 senators out of 100, and will fail. Every important bill is shaped with a mandatory super-majority in mind. No one finds that odd in the slightest. If 41 senators don't like a bill, it won't get a vote. It's just accepted, fait accompli.

filibuster_chart.jpg

Perhaps now would be a good time to realize that the status quo is kind of ridiculous. Ezra Klein noted this week, "Far from being a sacrosanct feature of American politics, the filibuster is, every few generations, understood to be so detrimental to governance that it is radically weakened." Maybe this generation should be prepared to take the next step.

Calls for reform are becoming more common. Kevin Drum noted yesterday that there's a problem when "a party can win the presidency, the House, and the Senate by landslide majorities but still can't pass big parts of its program because it needs 60 votes in the Senate." The filibuster, he reminded us, was "never intended to become a routine requirement that all legislation needs 60% of the vote in the Senate to pass."

Matt Yglesias, highlighting this chart, explains the history of the tactic, and notes how this is something of an accident. He concluded, "None of this has ever been a good idea. But when it was genuinely reserved as an extraordinary measure, it was a bad idea whose badness could be overlooked. But as it's become a routine matter, it's become a bigger and bigger problem. It needs to be reformed."

Of course it does. Look at that chart again -- does anyone think last year was a fluke? Or is it more likely the Senate minority will meet or exceed the same number of filibusters in this Congress? And the next?

There are competing ideas. Maybe the number can be lowered from 60. Perhaps there can be some kind of limit on the number of filibusters (kind of like NFL coaches having a limit on how many times they can challenge a referee's call on the field). Maybe senators can be forced to actually filibuster bills, the way they used to before it became easy. Of course, the chamber can also scrap the filibuster altogether.

I don't doubt senators from both parties are reluctant to even consider reform. They should do it anyway.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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OBAMA AND CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS.... After the House and Senate had passed their respective economic stimulus bills, and negotiators sat down to work out a deal, Democratic lawmakers were inclined to follow the White House's lead. One House staffer told the Politico, "Basically it is whatever Obama wants."

A day later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, "The American people know, and historians are judging, that this is one remarkable president."

Democratic presidents have not always gotten along quite so well with Democratic lawmakers. Carter and congressional Dems repeatedly clashed, and Clinton, at least early on, occasionally struggled with his own party's caucuses, even on his prosperity-setting economic agenda in 1993. Obama is enjoying the kind of support a Democratic president hasn't seen since LBJ.

Ron Brownstein pondered why this is, and comes up with some compelling reasons.

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, formerly chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, offers several reasons why Democrats united more effectively for Obama's economic plan than Clinton's. For one thing, Obama won a stronger victory than Clinton, who managed just 43% of the vote in 1992's three way race. [...]

[Another] is the evolving nature of the Democratic caucus, especially in the House, as the electorate has ideologically resorted over the past generation. That "great sorting-out" has reduced the number of conservative Southern Democrats most likely to vote against the party majority during the Clinton era and added more Democrats from centrist non-Southern suburban districts more in tune with the party's overall thrust. [...]

Tom Bonier, targeting director at the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress notes that while the House Democratic caucus is almost as exactly as large now (257) as it was in 1993 (259), over that intervening period the party has lost 22 Southern and Border state seats and gained 21 everywhere else. "You had a lot more Democrats representing very Republican districts in conservative Southern and border state regions then and you don't have that now to the same extent," he says. Likewise, Democrats hold about the same number of Senate seats now (58 or 59, depending on Minnesota's final outcome) as they did in 1993 (57), but fewer are in the South. All of that suggests the party is more cohesive partly because more of its members are representing comparable constituencies and operating with common electoral incentives.

All of this sounds right, but I'd go a little further. The president is the first sitting senator since JFK to win the White House, so he's more attuned to the expectations of lawmakers. What's more, the West Wing is filled with aides who have extensive ties to Congress, who were hired specifically for their Hill work. Perhaps most importantly, Obama, far from barking orders, has invited lawmakers to be partners in governing (Obey, for example, helped write the stimulus bill).

Whatever the reasoning, modern Democratic presidents have butted heads with Democratic leaders on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, adding a governing complication for both Carter and Clinton. It's a problem that Obama, at this point, doesn't have to worry about.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN VOTE COUNTING.... The Senate Democratic caucus has 58 members. It should be 59, but what Minnesota's Norm Coleman lacks in votes he makes up for in lawyers.

The status quo, which could last quite a while longer, is a 99-member Senate, harder-to-break filibusters, and Minnesotans with less of a voice and fewer constituent services.

The Republican establishment is content to leave it this way indefinitely.

Having just seen what President Barack Obama can do with 58 Democrats in the Senate, Republicans are more determined than ever to keep him from getting a 59th. Especially if the 59th is Al Franken.

Franken, the former comedian, leads Republican Norm Coleman by 225 votes in a "Groundhog Day" of an election that dawned more than three months ago and shows no signs of ending soon.

Which is exactly how Senate Republicans want it. The National Republican Senatorial Committee held a ritzy fundraiser for Coleman in Washington this week, helping him raise the money he needs to keep his legal challenges alive through a trial and then a lengthy legal process if he loses.

How long should Coleman hold out? "However long it takes," says Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the NRSC. [...]

Republicans insist that they're simply helping a colleague fight to make sure that all the votes are counted.

Riiiiiight. Senate Republicans want to drag out the Minnesota fight for as long as humanly possible because of their deeply held commitment to vote counting. Of course they are.

There's no reason to doubt their love of democratic principles, is there?

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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BURRIS' NEW BLAGO BREAKDOWN.... It seemed like the story was just about over. Newly-appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) had disclosed his ties to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), and Blagojevich has been impeached. Attention then shifted to the disgraced governor's criminal charges and Burris' plans for 2010.

But as it turns out, there's one more wrinkle.

Senator Roland W. Burris of Illinois acknowledged in documents made public Saturday that the brother of former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich sought campaign fund-raising help from him in the weeks and months before his appointment to succeed Barack Obama as the state's junior senator.

Mr. Burris said he provided no money to Governor Blagojevich's campaign in response to the brother's request.

The disclosure was different from Mr. Burris's earlier descriptions, including one under oath, of his conversations with those closest to the former governor. It raised new questions about events that preceded Mr. Burris's unusual appointment in late December and prompted some Republican lawmakers in Illinois to immediately demand an inquiry into whether Mr. Burris committed perjury.

Now, this isn't a pay-to-play problem. There's no evidence that Burris gave Blagojevich any money, or agreed to do any fundraising. Burris, at this point, isn't accused of any corruption. For the senator, that's the good news.

The bad news is, this new revelation is the third version of events relating to his contacts with the impeached governor, and yesterday's acknowledgement appears to flatly contradict what Burris told the Illinois House impeachment committee -- under oath.

The AP noted that the impeachment panel "specifically asked if he had ever spoken to Robert Blagojevich or other aides to the now-deposed governor about the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama." Burris said he had not. Yesterday, he said Blagojevich's brother asked Burris for fundraising help -- three times -- while Burris was under consideration for a Senate appointment.

What's odd is that Burris probably had no reason to lie about this. By all appearances, the governor's brother sought fundraising help, Burris declined to play along, and Burris got the appointment anyway. There may be details we don't yet know, but so far, it seems Burris didn't have an incentive to hide his three conversations with Robert Blagojevich, but he did anyway.

The lead Republican on the impeachment committee is seeking an outside investigation into whether Burris committed perjury.

As for the senator's office, aides declined interview requests yesterday, but Burris issued a statement emphasizing the fact that he "did not donate or help raise a single dollar for the governor from those conversations and would never consider making a donation through a third party."

That's probably true. It also misses the point.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Hilzoy

One More Reason Why I'm Glad I'm Not An Ant

From the New York Review:

"Some ant species do not have queen ants in the strict sense. Instead, worker ants (which are all female) that have mated with a male ant become the dominant reproductive individuals. These are the gamergates, or "married workers," and their sex life can be brutal. In one species the gamergates venture outside of the nest to attract a male, engage him in copulation, then carry him into the nest before snipping off his genitals and throwing away the rest of his body. The severed genitals continue to inseminate the gamergate for up to an hour, after which they too are discarded."

I really wonder whether the argument from design would have survived a close acquaintance with the habits of insects around the world. This arrangement, at least, does not make the idea of a benevolent deity leap to mind.

Hilzoy 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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February 14, 2009

NUCLEAR LOAN GUARANTEES.... We talked a few weeks ago about nuclear power, and the piece from Washington Monthly editor Mariah Blake about why it's a bad idea to go back down this road. Blake wrote a post with relevant follow-up information, and the Center for American Progress noted the end result from the stimulus package.

Thankfully, the final bill excludes the Senate's $500 million allocation that would have provided up to $50 billion in loan guarantees for "low emission" electricity, predominately aimed at nuclear power. With a 50-percent default rate, these nuclear loans could have made taxpayers responsible for at least $25 billion in risky loans. This program would have created very few jobs because it takes a long time to finance and build a nuclear power plant.

Good move.

Steve Benen 11:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Hilzoy

Juxtaposition Of The Day

From National Review's list of the 25 best conservative movies:

"12. The Dark Knight (2008): This film gives us a portrait of the hero as a man reviled. In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain former president -- whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war -- don't mention it to the mainstream media. Our journalists know that good men are often despised by the mob; it just never seems to occur to them that they might be the mob themselves.

13. Braveheart (1995): Forget the travesty this soaring action film makes of the historical record. Braveheart raised its hero, medieval Scottish warrior William Wallace, to the level of myth and won five Oscars, including best director for Mel Gibson, who played Wallace as he led a spirited revolt against English tyranny. Braveheart taught that freedom is not just worth dying for, but also worth killing for, in defense of hearth and homeland. Six years later, amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Gibson's message resonated with a generation of American youth who signed up to fight terrorists, instead of inviting them to join a "constructive dialogue." Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since."

I have this quaint belief that freedom involves the rule of law: the idea that no one -- not the government, and not private vigilantes -- gets to spy on me, imprison me, or kill me without working through normal legal channels, whose content I get to influence by electing the people who write the laws. That the writers at the National Review take a different view has been obvious for a while -- see, for instance, Kathryn Lopez on McCain:

"I'm second to none in praising him on his surge leadership. But on a whole host of issues --including water boarding, tax cuts, and the freedom of speech -- he's not one of us."

I just liked this particular juxtaposition. According to the National Review, conservatives fight for freedom, but what they mean by "freedom" is wholly unclear. It's certainly nothing I recognize.

And when I read a sentence like "Our journalists know that good men are often despised by the mob; it just never seems to occur to them that they might be the mob themselves", I think: our National Review writers know that people can fight for tyranny and against freedom without ever admitting to themselves that that's what they're doing; it just never seems to occur to them that they might be those people.

Hilzoy 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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A 'HISTORIC' WIN.... Looking back over the last couple of weeks, I've complained a bit about aspects of the economic stimulus bill and the process in which it worked its way through Congress. It's not ambitious enough. There are too many tax cuts. President Obama overemphasized bipartisanship. The White House lost control of the message. House Democrats made too many concessions. Senate Democrats made far too many concessions.

You get the idea.

But the Washington Post has a good piece today that adds some perspective to what's transpired in recent weeks. It's a reminder that while the trees have been frustrating at times, the forest looks pretty impressive.

Twenty-four days into his presidency, Barack Obama recorded last night a legislative achievement of the sort that few of his predecessors achieved at any point in their tenure.

In size and scope, there is almost nothing in history to rival the economic stimulus legislation that Obama shepherded through Congress in just over three weeks. And the result -- produced largely without Republican participation -- was remarkably similar to the terms Obama's team outlined even before he was inaugurated: a package of tax cuts and spending totaling about $775 billion. [...]

[E]ven before the plan passed the Senate last night, the president's top advisers were crowing. "We've been in office, what, 2 1/2 , three weeks? We've passed the most major sweeping comprehensive legislation as relates to economic activity ever in a three-week period of time," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Thursday evening in the West Wing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) credited Obama's leadership on the legislation yesterday, saying, "The American people know, and historians are judging, that this is one remarkable president."

For historical parallels, the Post piece noted that we haven't seen a legislative win for a president on this magnitude since FDR's banking system overhaul in 1933, "which cleared Congress within days of his inauguration."

We heard a lot of talk after the election from the president and his team about hitting the ground running. I guess they meant it.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE ONES WHO MATTER.... If all you had to go by was Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard column, you'd likely think President Obama's presidency was off to a horrible start. In his new piece, Kristol calls the still-unsigned stimulus package a "debacle," and lists a series of what he sees as political fiascos, chalked up to a "lack of presidential leadership." Republicans, Kristol argues, "have some reason to cheer" and "are relieved by Obama's weak start."

My sense is that much of the political establishment agrees with this. A few days ago, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said he saw the president as being "off his game," before he looked at the polls and realized that it's possible the pundits "don't know what we're talking about."

It's a common problem. Ben Smith explains today that the "beltway chatter" is disconnected to public attitudes: "Obama's approval rating remains well above 60 percent in tracking polls. A range of state pollsters said they'd seen no diminution in the president's sky-high approval ratings, and no improvement in congressional Republicans' dismal numbers."

And that's before the stimulus creates billions of dollars in spending on popular programs, which could, at least temporarily, further boost Obama's popularity.

"It's eerie -- I read the news from the Beltway, and there's this disconnect with the polls from the Midwest that I see all around me," said Ann Seltzer, the authoritative Iowa pollster who works throughout the Midwest.

With the stimulus safely passed, [Obama's aides] say they're relying on the steady support of a populace that, after a closely watched election, is tuning out the Washington cut and thrust, and views Obama as a high-minded reformer and his Republican rivals as bitter partisans.

But what about the preoccupation with bipartisanship? For all the talk from the media establishment about Obama coming up short, voters aren't following Mark Halperin's lead -- a recent CBS News poll found 81% of Americans believing that the president is looking for bipartisanship. The number for congressional Republicans was half that. Pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal noted, "There have been a number of different surveys that have shown that Americans perceive that Obama is extending a hand of cooperation, a hand that the Republican leadership is not reciprocating -- that's very striking in the data."

What's more, Smith added that Republicans waiting for a public backlash against government spending may be waiting for a long while: "In opposing en masse a stimulus bill that means instant, massive national spending, the GOP is cast as the Grinch to Obama's Santa Claus."

Congressional Republicans will always have Bill Kristol columns to make themselves feel better, but if they're looking for opportunities to improve their public standing in reality, it's the minority party that's off to a "weak start."

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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ROOTING FOR FAILURE.... Rush Limbaugh caused a bit of a stir about a month ago, when he told his audience, "I disagree fervently with the people on our [Republican] side of the aisle who have caved and who say, 'Well, I hope [President Obama] succeeds.' ... I hope Obama fails. Somebody's gotta say it."

The right-wing host went on a similar tirade yesterday when talking about the economic recovery package: "I want everything he's doing to fail... I want the stimulus package to fail.... I do not want this to succeed."

Limbaugh is, without ambiguity, rooting for failure. In the midst of an economic crisis, Limbaugh quite openly admitted that if Obama's economic policies are successful, it would undermine the talk-show host's worldview. As such, Limbaugh wants desperately to see more Americans suffer, more workers unemployed, more businesses close up shop. The key here is philosophy -- if government spending can stimulate the economy, as it always does, then the right is wrong. Limbaugh would much prefer a suffering nation than a reevaluation of conservative ideas.

Keep in mind, of course, that such talk under Bush's presidency would force someone from the airwaves. If a prominent progressive figure said, just as the president was sending troops into war in early 2003, "I want everything he's doing to fail. I want the war in Iraq to fail. I do not want the president's national security agenda to succeed," he or she would lose all advertising revenue and be fired. In the midst of a crisis, Americans rooting against America, based on nothing but ideological rigidity, are pariahs.

Or, at least, they used to be.

Similar sentiments are even found coming from members of Congress. Take Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), best known for getting caught in a prostitution scandal, talking to a Federalist Society gathering this week.

According to Vitter, the GOP is basically betting the farm that the stimulus package is going to fail, and the party wants Democrats to go down with it. "Our next goal is to make President Obama and liberal Democrats in Congress own it completely," he said. Instead of coming up with serious measures to save the economy, the party intends to devote its time to an "we told you so" agenda that will include GOP-only hearings on the bill's impact in the coming months to highlight the bill's purportedly wasteful elements and shortcomings.

While Vitter seemed to think this was a brilliant new political tactic, voters might be less enthusiastic than Federalist Society members about politicians who spend the next 18 months rooting for the economy to get worse, just to prove a point.

But, in Vitter's world, that's the price you apparently have to pay for sticking to your principles, call girls be damned.

Remember, these clowns like to maintain the fiction that Republicans have the high ground on patriotism.

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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FAIRNESS DOCTRINE TALK CAUSES FAR-RIGHT HEARTBURN.... I've been on the Fairness Doctrine beat for quite a while, telling people that Republican hysteria about a possible reinstatement is wildly misplaced. And yet, as several readers have reminded me this week, a growing number of Democrats are talking more about the idea.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), for example, told CNN Radio this week, "I think the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated." Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) both expressed similar sentiments this week. None other than Bill Clinton said this week, "Well, you either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side, because essentially there's always been a lot of big money to support the right wing talk shows."

Given all of this, far-right activists, as you might imagine, are not pleased.

So, what about all of those posts I wrote, insisting that there's no chance that the Fairness Doctrine would be reinstated? They're still true. Craig Aaron had a good piece the other day on the larger dynamic.

As I've written here repeatedly, there is no chance the Fairness Doctrine will come back. There's no bill to reinstate it in Congress, no public interest advocates are campaigning for it, and the netroots aren't interested. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps doesn't want it back, and President Barack Obama is unequivocally opposed. [...]

[N]either [Stabenow nor Harkin] is in a position to actually bring back the Fairness Doctrine, unless the agriculture or banking committees are about to suddenly expand their jurisdictions. And it would seem the current Democratic president's views on the subject are more important than the last one's. But these factors won't keep the Fairness Doctrine from being topic No. 1 on talk radio and Fox News.

The recent statements are evidence that there are some Democrats who are open to the idea, but that doesn't point to a meaningful legislative push.

It's just not going to happen. As a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said in response to Republican fears about this, "We have enough real problems facing this country that we don't need to invent ones that don't exist."

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... I just knew, if I listened to RNC Chairman Michael Steele long enough, he'd eventually say something I can agree with.

Yesterday, for example, he chatted with Fox News' Glenn Beck about Republican credibility.

"You have absolutely no reason, none, to trust our word or our actions at this point."

Remember, that's from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, while talking to a Fox News personality who agreed with him.

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

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... This week, the God Machine turns its attention to Time magazine's cover story, titled, "The Biology of Belief: How Faith Can Heal."

The notion of spirituality having medicinal benefits has been studied for quite some time, but the results are always discouraging for the religious. Praying for good health falls comfortably in the realm of faith, not double-blind, peer-reviewed academic research.

It was odd, then, to see Time's Jeffrey Kluger present some unusual arguments in a major mainstream publication.

Here's what's surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don't attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it's hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. "Even accounting for medications," says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, "spirituality predicts for better disease control." It's hard not to be impressed by findings like that....

That's a strikingly bold claim -- AIDS will "back off" when "hit" with supernatural beliefs? -- which Time fails to back up.

Kluger briefly touches on reality, and makes note of real-world explanations. He quotes Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, an expert on the issue, saying, "Science doesn't deal in supernatural explanations. Religion and science address different concerns."

But the article nevertheless discounts this altogether. As Isaac Chotiner noted, "As best as I can tell, the point of the story is that while there is no existing scientific evidence showing the power of prayer, a certain placebo effect can occur; if you want to delude yourself, you may indeed become happier and healthier. In other news, people who convince themselves that they are dating Salma Hayek are also happier."

The Time article's conclusion was especially troubling:

Few people think of religion as an alternative to medicine. The frontline tools of an emergency room will always be splints and sutures, not prayers -- and well-applied medicine along with smart prevention will always be the best ways to stay well. Still, if the U.S.'s expanding health-care emergency has taught us anything, it's that we can't afford to be choosy about where we look for answers.

My general concerns here go beyond bizarre journalism. First, it's simply irresponsible to suggest to anyone that supernatural beliefs can protect against illness. When a person has a health problem, they should seek medical attention, and "seek answers" from medical professionals. Anything else is dangerous.

Second, it's articles like these that reinforce destructive spiritual beliefs -- when someone gets sick and prayer doesn't help, loved ones are led to believe their faith wasn't "strong enough" to make them better. After all, if religious belief makes you healthier, skepticism about the supernatural necessarily puts you at risk.

And third, there is an "expanding health-care emergency," but counting on spirituality to address it is bound to lead to disappointment.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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LESSONS LEARNED, REDUX.... As part of his ongoing offensive against the man who defeated him, John McCain continued to lash out at President Obama yesterday, blasting the economic stimulus package poised to become law. As the Senate debate was wrapping up, the Arizona Republican said, referring to the White House, "I hope they've learned a lesson."

On its face, I find this rather amusing. Obama got what he wanted -- an ambitious package with the spending-to-tax-cut ratio he envisioned from the outset. "I hope they've learned a lesson" is the kind of phrase that applies when one fails to get what they want. It's like telling the coach who just won the Super Bowl, "If you do things differently next time, you'll get a better result."

That said, it seems that the president and his team have, to borrow McCain's language, learned a lesson. On Thursday night, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel suggested the White House had overdone their initial outreach to Republicans, telling reporters Obama's aides got "ahead of ourselves" when it came to striving for bipartisan comity.

Yesterday, White House staffers were signaling that they wouldn't repeat this in the future.

Advisers concluded that they allowed the measure of bipartisanship to be defined as winning Republican votes rather than bringing civility to the debate, distracting attention from what have otherwise been major legislative victories. Although Mr. Obama vowed to keep reaching out to Republicans, advisers now believe the environment will probably not change in coming months.

Rather than forging broad consensus with Republicans, the Obama advisers said they would have to narrow their ambitions and look for discrete areas where they might build temporary coalitions based on regional interests rather than party, as on energy legislation. They said they would also turn to Republican governors for support -- a tactic that showed promise during the debate over the economic package -- even if they found few Republican allies in Washington.

The Center for American Progress' John Podesta said Obama and his team probably had unrealistic expectations -- he called it "wishful thinking" -- and moving forward, the president should expect more of what he's already seen. "What would make it change?" Podesta asked, referring to the Republican determination to challenge Obama. "If you're going to do this at the moment of greatest need, at the height of his popularity, what sort of thing would get you to change?"

And you know what? That's fine. Republicans are the opposition party; they're supposed to oppose. We have a political system in which one party wants to move the country in one direction, and a rival party wants to move in a different direction. Voters expressed a preference, picked one over the other, and so the majority party is moving ahead with its agenda, while the minority party screams bloody murder. That's pretty much how it's supposed to work.

I don't doubt that President Obama will continue to have a dialog with congressional Republicans. He'll keep them apprised of his intentions; he'll hear them out when they have complaints; and he'll maintain a respectful tone. But after the stimulus fight, the president, I suspect, has "learned a lesson" about how to engage a party that has philosophical, practical, and strategic goals that are wholly at odds with his own.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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PROFILES IN COURAGE.... Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was, of course, one of only three Republican lawmakers in Congress to support the economic stimulus bill. To hear him tell it, however, some of Specter's GOP colleagues wanted to vote for the package, but didn't think they could get away with it politically.