Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Souter Will Resign

From the NYT:

"Justice David H. Souter has indicated that he plans to retire at the end of the term in June, giving President Obama his first appointment to the Supreme Court, three people informed about the decision said Thursday night.

Justice Souter, who was appointed by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush, but became one of the most reliable members of the court's liberal wing, has grown increasingly sour on Washington and intends to return to his home state, New Hampshire, according to the people briefed on his plans. His decision was first reported by National Public Radio.

The decision opens the first seat for a Democratic president to fill in 15 years and could prove a test of Mr. Obama's plans for reshaping the nation's judiciary. Confirmation battles for the Supreme Court in recent years have proved to be intensely partisan and divisive moments in Washington, but Mr. Obama has more leeway than his predecessors because his party holds such a strong majority in the Senate.

Two friends of Justice Souter, 69, said Thursday night that he had often spoken privately of his intentions to be the court's first retirement if Mr. Obama won the election last fall. He has told friends that he looked forward to returning to his native New Hampshire while he was still able to enjoy climbing mountains and other outdoor activities.

Replacing Justice Souter with a liberal would not change the basic breakdown on the court, where he and three other justices hold down the left wing against a conservative caucus of four justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate Republican appointee, often provides the swing vote that controls important decisions."

I've always had a soft spot for Justice Souter, who struck me as a sweet, shy guy who would rather have stayed in New Hampshire had he not had a sense of duty. May he have a wonderful retirement, many happy trips up and down mountains, and a long series of glorious New England autumns.

Hilzoy 11:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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

* The H1N1 numebrs increase: "Confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide increased to 236 on Thursday, up significantly from the previous day's total of 147, the World Health Organization reported." There are 109 confirmed cases in the U.S., but for now, most are considered mild.

* A very disappointing result on cramdown: "The Senate has defeated legislation that would have let hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden homeowners seek mortgage relief in bankruptcy court." The measure drew 45 supporters, all from the Democratic caucus.

* A security aide to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, recently in Mexico City, reportedly contracted the H1N1 virus, as did three members of his family.

* After talks broke down last night, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy today, and entered into an alliance with the Italian automaker Fiat.

* Rumor has it that Sen. Arlen Specter is a Democrat now. Given his voting record over the last two days, I find that hard to believe.

* A law to allow marriage equality in Maine passed the state Senate today, and the state House is expected to take up the bill next week.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates does not have high hopes about a military strike on Iran's nuclear program.

* Former FEMA chief Michael "Brownie" Brown went on Fox to bash the Obama administration's handling of the N1H1 public health emergency. Oddly enough, this gives me more confidence in Obama's team, not less.

* CNN's Ed Henry's question last night about the Freedom of Choice Act would have made more sense if the bill had even been introduced in Congress.

* Yesterday, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said Matthew Shepard's murder was a "hoax." Today, Foxx, a right-wing Republican, said she used a "poor choice of words." She added, however, that she still questions whether Shepard was brutally murdered because of his sexual orientation.

* Confirm Dawn Johnsen.

* Elizabeth Edwards thinks John Edwards shouldn't have run for president in 2008. You don't say.

* Veridian Dynamics: "When Presidents Talk, Americans Get Hurt." (It's a parody ad from a great TV show that was preempted last night.)

* Conservative bloggers are still talking about people "going Galt"? I thought that was a March fad.

* Ta-Nehisi Coates has a very good item following up on Byron York's piece from yesterday.

* Right-wing talk-show hosts are back to ranting about the Panama Canal? It's as if they're trying to look ridiculous.

* And in case the previous National Organization for Marriage ads weren't quite bad enough, the conservative group is now launching a new campaign starring a Miss USA contestant who has become a cause celebre in Republican circles for her anti-gay attitudes.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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MEET THE NEW GOP, SAME AS THE OLD.... While Republicans try to reconsider their relevance in American politics, there's talk of GOP leaders "rebranding" and reevaluating where the party wants to go in the future.

But some habits -- such as the Republicans' twisted demagoguery and fear mongering -- are hard to break.

House Republicans want to know: Do you feel safer?

In a remarkable video just released by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and ranking intelligence committee member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), images of Obama "bowing" to Saudi officials and shaking hands with Hugo Chavez are interspersed with footage of the Pentagon exploding and terrorists doing bad things. All of it is back-dropped by frightening music.

Eek! Obama is keeping his promises and closing Gitmo! He's honoring the rule of law and forbidding torture! 9/11, 9/11, 9/11! Run for your lives!

Honestly, the video is genuinely pathetic. It's not the kind of clip that comes from a party anxious to become a national force; it's the kind of clip a desperate campaign runs with five days to go before the election, down by 25 points in the polls.

The irony is, the Republican video is intended to make Americans afraid. What the video shows, however, is a Republican Party that's panicking.

A spokesperson for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Greg Sargent the new GOP video is "forward looking," adding, "The events of September 11th happened, and pretending they didn't won't make America any safer."

Um, guys? Trying to scare the bejesus out of Americans with images from 9/11 is not "forward looking." It was offensive in 2002, and insulting in 2004. It's just cheap in 2009.

I can't help but wonder if this some sad effort at reclaiming an old mantle. The geniuses in Boehner's office might have gotten together and thought, "Pictures of explosions and Middle Easterners paid off a few campaign cycles ago; maybe we should go back to that."

In other words, the day Republicans announce an effort to rebuild their disgraced brand with an eye on 2010 is same day the same Republicans engage in ridiculous demagoguery better suited for 2004.

The GOP's road to recovery and relevance runs in the other direction.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WHAT THE NCNA DOESN'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT.... When prominent Republican leaders leaked word of their "National Council for a New America," we got a glimpse of the party's latest rebranding initiative.

At least that's what it seemed like this morning. This afternoon, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Fox News, "[I]t's not a rebranding effort. What this is, is an attempt to engage and begin a conversation with the American people." I don't know what this means. Neither, I suspect, does Cantor.

In either case, we're starting to get a sense of what this "conversation" will focus on. Cantor's office sent Ben Smith the NCNA's "policy framework," which highlights five areas of interest.

Economy: Real Solutions for Economic Recovery: As the country battles through the worst economic crisis in a generation, we must remain focused on the foundations and institutions that have made us the most prosperous people in the world and the ideas that create jobs and grow our economy....

Healthcare: Building a 21st Century, Patient-Centered System: ...All Americans deserve access to high-quality, affordable care. But such coverage cannot come at the expense of their ability to choose their own doctor and have access to the right care, at the right time, in the right setting without waiting in line while sick....

Education: Preparing Our Children to Succeed: A high-quality education should not be dependent upon a parent's income or address.... We must return power from Washington to parents and well-paid teachers who know what's best for our children.

Energy: Solutions for Energy Independence: ...We must implement a comprehensive energy policy that includes traditional fuels, alternative energy, and conservation resulting in affordable, reliable domestic energy....

National Security: Defending American Liberty and Freedom: The threats posed to our nation are more varied and evolving more than perhaps at any other time in our history. Modern communications, technology and the proliferation of weapons of all types have empowered our enemies and those who support them....

OK, so Republicans want tax cuts, school vouchers, and pretty much everything Republicans have pushed for a couple of decades now. The NCNA may not be rebranding initiative, but it certainly sounds like yet another weak attempt to tell Americans, "Don't believe your lying eyes; the Bush/Cheney agenda really works."

But what may be the most interesting thing about this new group's "policy framework" is what it doesn't say. There's no mention of gays, abortion, state-sponsored religion, guns, or immigration. It's almost as if Republicans don't feel like fighting a culture war anymore.

Hey, activists in the GOP base, is sounds like the Republican Party is trying to throw you under the bus. Are you going to take this lying down?

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

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ASSESSING THE PRESIDENT'S 'SWAGGA'.... If you missed this segment on CNN yesterday, you missed one of the more cringe-worthy moments in recent news history.

I've watched it a couple of times -- like a car crash, it's hard to look away -- and I still can't imagine what Kyra Phillips was thinking.

As Alex Leo put it, "We all expect a bit of fluff from cable news considering they have 24 hours a day to fill and there are only so many events to be "rocked" by, but when we hit a point at which CNN is spending Obama's 100th day in office 'assessing his swagga' something is amiss."

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BORED NOW.... President Obama covered a fair amount of ground in his White House press conference last night, talking about the economy, the impending flu pandemic, and the faltering U.S. auto industry. The president fielded questions about nuclear arms possibly falling into the hands of the Taliban, torture, violence in Iraq, and Arlen Specter's big party switch. Obama also addressed hot-button issues like abortion and immigration.

The problem, according to a variety of pundits, wasn't with the questions or answers, but rather, the fact that they found the hour-long Q&A insufficiently entertaining.

During the April 29 edition of Fox News' Hannity, contributor Karl Rove said that the press conference "was boring," "flat" and "dull." He later stated: "There were a couple of very important moments in it -- I don't deny that -- but it was a boring, boring news conference."

During CNN's coverage of the press conference, contributor Ed Rollins stated: "I thought his opening statement was perfect. You know, what bothers me a little bit about it: As it goes on, it gets a little bit more boring. And, you know, you need to hold that attention span a good half-hour, a good 45 minutes. The answers are a little long. He doesn't know how to turn and pivot off of them. But nothing incorrect that I heard, it just -- it gets a little boring."

On MSNBC's Hardball Late Night, host Chris Matthews asked political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell: "Why, Lawrence, are these press conferences that this guy holds so frighteningly boring?" He added: "Why does everybody act like they're in a sepulchre of some kind? They're so dutiful, it's boring beyond death."

During the April 30 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson stated, "I suddenly woke up from nodding off" when Obama was asked by a New York Times reporter "what had 'enchanted' him."

If this seems kind of familiar, conservative bloggers had the exact same response to last month's prime-time White House press conference.

I find all of this quite strange. Sure, if a junior-high-school civics class were assigned to watch the press conference, I can imagine the teenagers saying, "A president discussing current events? While 'American Idol' is on? Spare me." 13 year olds tend to have short attention spans and little patience for a discussion about whether the Pakistani government is likely to survive.

But folks like Rove, Rollins, Matthews, and Carlson, among others, are ostensibly media professionals, paid to, you know, cover politics. When the president of the United States, in the midst of several ongoing national and international crises, talks to the nation about current events, the appropriate response from on-air analysts shouldn't be, "Bo-ring."

It's their job to find stuff like this interesting, or barring that, important. What do these guys want? A laser-light show? Hand puppets? Back-up dancers?

Note to conservative media personalities: grow up.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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SENTENCING SANITY.... There's probably very little political upside to this, and it's the kind of decision that will generate all kinds of conservative rhetoric about "soft on crime" and the importance of the "war on drugs." I'm glad the Obama administration is doing the right thing anyway.

Justice Department officials yesterday endorsed for the first time a plan that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities between possession of powdered cocaine and rock cocaine, an inequity that civil rights groups say has affected poor and minority defendants disproportionately.

Lanny A. Breuer, the new chief of the criminal division, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders convicted of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity.

Good. The problem is with the "100-to-1" ratio for cocaine sentences. As the AP noted, "[A] person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine."

And because the vast majority of crack convictions involve African Americans, while powder cocaine convictions tend to involve whites, there's also an obvious racial component to the sentencing disparity.

All of this discussion occurred at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime and drugs, chaired by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), an enthusiastic supporter of correcting the disparity.

Will anything come of this? I'm cautiously optimistic. Durbin has apparently helped persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and the administration is committed to working with lawmakers on a legislative fix. The issue was of particular interest to the president and vice president, the NYT noted, who "co-sponsored legislation to eliminate disparity, fund treatment, and increase funding and penalties for high level convictions" while they were in the Senate.

It may be enough to actually change the law.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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RICE PULLS A NIXON.... There are all kinds of problems with the "Frost/Nixon" movie, but it's hard to miss the significance of the disgraced president saying, "[I]f the president does it, that means it's not illegal." It's one of those iconic phrases the political world recognizes as the height of abuses of power. Illegal acts are not made legal by virtue of a leader's whims.

It's the kind of thing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should probably be aware of. And yet, there was Rice speaking with some students at Stanford University, when she was asked if waterboarding is, in her opinion, torture. Rice replied:

"[T]he United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture."

I was especially impressed by Rice's use of the phrase "by definition," since it was literally the exact same phrase Nixon used to explain why presidents are incapable of committing crimes.

The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur, who I believe was the first to obtain the video of Rice's comments, said the former secretary of state "absolutely pulls a Nixon." (Annie Lowrey has a slightly longer video of Rice's give and take with students, and a rough transcript.)

As for the substance of Rice's argument, it's fascinating to me how oblivious she is to its circular quality. Bush authorized torture. Is that legal? Yes, because Bush authorized torture.

The rule of law isn't supposed to work this way. To argue, out loud, without humor, that the president is literally above the law is completely absurd, even by the standards of the Bush administration.

This is the kind of kind of argument that should lead Rice to be laughed out of polite company. That won't happen, of course, but that doesn't make her ideas any less foolish.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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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. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) certainly sounds like a guy getting ready to run against Sen. Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary. (Even if he doesn't, the talk might push Specter to the left.)

* In an amusing twist, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is going after Specter for his ties to ... wait for it ... George W. Bush.

* And in related news, with Specter having left the GOP, Republicans are even more worried about Pat Toomey running as their Senate candidate in Pennsylvania. Tom Ridge has been approached, and Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), who intended to run for governor, is facing some pressure to run against Toomey in a primary.

* Expecting Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to run for the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already put together a critical television ad, suggesting Crist wants to go to D.C. so he won't have to clean up his mess in Florida.

* NRSC chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) thinks it's "unlikely" Norm Coleman's lawsuits will fail in Minnesota. He didn't explain how he came to believe this, but most of Cornyn's Republican colleagues disagree.

* If state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) challenges Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) next year, it looks like Madigan would enter the race as the favorite.

* And speaking of Illinois, if Sen. Roland Burris (D) runs next year, he's almost certain to lose, no matter who he faces.

* In Louisiana, a new poll shows scandal-plagued Sen. David Vitter's (R) approval rating slipping to 58%, a year before he seeks re-election.

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

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REBRANDING.... It seems several leading Republicans have effectively given up hope that the GOP is the "party of ideas," and want to start over.

Looking to rebrand a struggling Republican Party, a group of party heavyweights including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) are launching a new group that will hold town halls around the country and look to produce GOP ideas on issues like education and health care.

Republicans will announce today the creation of the "National Council for a New America," a group led by congressional party leaders that includes Bush, McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as its "national panel of experts."

I see. The "rebranding" effort will be led in part by conservative Republicans with the last names Bush and McCain. What could possibly go wrong?

Or, as Josh Marshall put it, "You know things are really humming along when your 'rebranding' effort is led by your recently crushed presidential nominee and your discredited party leader's brother."

In a letter announcing the formation of the NCNA, the group's leaders explain, "We do this not just to offer an alternative point of view or to be disagreeable. Instead, we want to ask the American people what their hopes and dreams are. Since January, the President and the Democratic Majority in Congress have -- rightfully so -- put forward their plan for the future, now we must listen, learn and lead through an honest, open conversation with the American people that will result in building policy proposals that will yield the best results for our nation's long-term success."

That's an interesting paragraph. It subtly concedes that the party has a reputation for knee-jerk partisanship ("disagreeable"); it makes a tacit effort at respect (they used the word "Democratic"!); and it acknowledges that the Republican Party simply doesn't know what to do anymore, so it's going to ask voters for a few tips.

That said, who wants to wager that, after the NCNA completes its forums, Republicans will discover what they really need to do is push for more tax cuts and spending cuts?

It's also worth noting who got left off the invitation list for the group's "panel of experts." Bush, McCain, Romney, and Jindal made the cut, as did Haley Barbour and John Thune. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) reportedly helped pull the initiate together.

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michael Steele, Mark Sanford, and Tim Pawlenty apparently didn't make the cut. I wonder why.

Regardless, the Republican establishment is looking to itself to determine how to improve the party brand they destroyed. The first NCNA event is this weekend. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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STEELE TAKES GOP TALKING POINTS OFF THE TABLE.... One of the more common concerns voiced by conservatives, especially at the recent "Tea Parties," relates to bailouts. Republicans on the Hill have tried to pick up on this, and distance the party from the practice.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele decided to step on his party's message quite a bit this morning.

Michael Steele says the GOP would be "disingenuous" if it blamed Democrats for poor economic performance, since Republicans started the bailout process in the first place.

"Look, we can't go back out and start pointing fingers at Democrats and saying, 'Look how bad they're performing, look at what they're doing with the economy,' when we jumpstarted this thing," Steele said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "We were the ones that put the $700 billion on the table and said, 'All right, let's start nationalizing the banking system.'"

Added Steele, "So now, for us to stand back and go, 'Oh, that's a bad thing to do' is disingenuous."

I suppose this is intended to be candor. To hear Steele tell it, Republicans are owning up to the moments where its actions were inconsistent with its principles. Perhaps there's some value in that.

But the Republican goal of late is to connect the majority to the unpopular bailouts, and blame Democrats for poor management of the economy. The RNC chairman just went on national television to say those criticisms against Democrats just aren't fair and aren't even accurate.

Maybe Steele is a DNC plant?

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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HE'S BEEN KNOWN TO GO OFF-SCRIPT.... Vice President Biden has a reputation for making remarks he shouldn't say in public. The reputation is well deserved.

Vice President Joe Biden says he's advising his own family to avoid "confined places" -- to stay off commercial airlines and even subways -- because of the new swine flu.

Biden said Thursday if one person sneezes on a confined aircraft, "it goes all the way through the aircraft." Going beyond official advice from the federal government, Biden said of his family's personal precautions: "That's me."

NBC's Matt Lauer asked hypothetically about how Biden would advise a member of his family planning to fly to Mexico and back within the next week. The VP, however, offered an expansive answer: "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now." He went on to talk about airplanes and subways.

Having the vice president tell a national television audience it's a bad idea to fly and ride the subway is not only unhelpful, it also goes much further than government recommendations to the public.

The White House quickly arranged for Biden to issue a clarification to the media:

"On the Today Show this morning the Vice President was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week. The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the Administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the Vice President has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week. As the President said just last night, every American should take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you're sick; and keep your children home from school if they're sick."

Of course, watching the clip, Biden went much further than the "advice the Administration is giving to all Americans."

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PARTY (REDUX).... The number of people who self-identify themselves as Republicans continues to shrink, as evidenced by four separate national polls released over the last five days. If this doesn't scare party leaders, they're not paying attention.

The Post/ABC poll found 21% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. The NYT/CBS poll put the number at 20%. NBC/WSJ also put the GOP number at 20%.

The latest Pew Research Center study has a better take on the GOP's standing, but only slightly.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party on Tuesday highlights what is happening across the nation among Republicans -- they are walking away from the GOP.

The latest survey from the Pew Research Center offers new data on the party's diminishing ranks: just 23% of respondents identified themselves as Republicans, down from 25% in 2008 and from 30% in 2004.

Republicans have lost about a quarter of its base over the past five years.

Four polls, four results showing that only about a fifth of the population consider themselves Republicans. To put that in perspective, in 1992, Ross Perot and whatever it was his party was called got about 19% of the vote nationwide. Republicans are only slightly stronger now.

To be sure, this doesn't necessarily translate into Democratic dominance. Fewer Americans identify themselves with the GOP, but they're not rushing into the Democratic camp, either. Dems are doing well, and enjoy much stronger support than Republicans, but the majority party's numbers aren't dominating, at least not yet. For that matter, if the Obama administration's policies fail to meet high hopes, it's hardly a stretch to think Democrats' numbers could see a decline at some point down the road.

That said, Republicans may not like it, but they should probably realize the scope of the mess they're in if they hope to maintain the label of "major party" on a national scale.

Robert Farley had a good item on this last night: "[P]olitical parties do die. They don't die often, but even in the United States they sometimes go belly up. I think that the Republican Party has become stuck in an ideological and demographic trap of its own making, and I'm not sure that it understands the seriousness of the situation."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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'HOOT-SMALLEY'.... I'm a little late on this one -- I try to limit myself to one Michele Bachmann post a day -- but the Minnesota Laughingstock delivered a doozy of a speech on the House floor this week, which deserves all the attention it's received.

"We were led to believe that we would see great change, immediate change, and all we're seeing is a prolonged effort, because just what happened in the 1930s with FDR.

"The more the government spent, the more the government regulated, the more the government put up tariff barriers -- trade barriers -- the more government intervened, the longer the recession occurred. And as a matter of fact, the recession that FDR had to deal with wasn't as bad as the recession Coolidge had to deal with in the early '20s. Yet, the prescription that Coolidge put on that, from history, is lower taxes, lower regulatory burden, and we saw the roaring '20s where we saw markets and growth in the economy like we never seen before in the history of the country.

"FDR applied just the opposite formula -- the Hoot-Smalley Act, which was a tremendous burden on tariff restrictions, and then, of course, trade barriers and the regulatory burden and tax barriers. That's what we saw happen under FDR. That took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression. The American people suffered for almost 10 years under that kind of thinking."

Now, the notion that Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the Great Depression is standard right-wing nonsense, and hardly worth paying attention to. Bachmann's argument, however, is more of a hilarious twist on the usual palaver. Indeed, her version of history suggests the Minnesota Republican is living in some kind of alternate reality. (It would help explain Bachmann's belief that Jimmy Carter was president in 1976 -- perhaps, in her reality, he was.)

It's hard to even know where to start with this. The economy under Coolidge was worse than the Great Depression? That's pretty nutty. The New Deal created the Great Depression? That's certainly yahooism at its finest.

But of particular interest is Bachmann's belief that FDR passed "the Hoot-Smalley Act" and that "took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression." First, the name of the law was "Smoot-Hawley." Second, it's a real stretch to argue that it was responsible for the Great Depression. And third, the Smoot-Hawley bill was championed by Republicans and signed by Herbert Hoover, FDR's Republican predecessor.

Bachmann is blaming FDR for a law sponsored by Republicans, which was implemented three years before he took office.

At least, that's how it happened in our reality.

Seriously, if Michele Bachmann is some kind of performance artist, she should try some new act.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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OBAMA IS GETTING THE HANG OF THIS GIG.... Perhaps the most memorable moment of last night's White House press conference was the president's last answer. The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman noted, "You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You are about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two. I'm wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be?" Obama responded:

"Well, I think our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. You know, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be....

"I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector. If you could tell me right now that when I walked into this office, that the banks were humming; the auto were selling; and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.

"And that's why I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of 'Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government.' No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that's not the hand that's been dealt us."

I've seen some who've described this as a presidential "gripe." That's missing the point. Obama was responding to a question premised on the notion of expanded government power. The president wasn't complaining; he was describing what was already on his plate. In other words, this wasn't "woe is me"; this was "why on earth would anyone think I'd want to take over non-governmental enterprises right now?"

Obama's answer drew some laughter in the room, and it was that kind of event. The president, despite all the pressing crises, seemed ... loose. His reputation for being almost preternaturally calm is well-deserved. Obama's only been in office for 100 days, but he demonstrated last night that he's very much in command -- confident, knowledgeable, at times even reassuring.

David Gergen, a Republican pundit, said last night, "I thought in terms of mastery of issues, we've rarely had a president who is as well briefed and who speaks in articulate a way as this President does. He's nuanced, he's very complete, he's up to speed on the issues."

Note to the right: now would probably be a good time to give up on the whole "teleprompter" talking point.

I won't even try to recap the whole thing; if you missed it, the transcript is online. I'd note, however, that Obama's comments on torture were very interesting; his response to a good question about the state-secret privilege was important but largely unsatisfying; and the president tipped his hand a bit on health care -- in a good way.

But it was Jeff Zeleny's question that will probably generate the most attention: "During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office? Enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most? And troubled you the most?"

Obama literally wrote down the question, so as to not miss anything, and went one by one. I found the question rather silly, but the president's responses were quite compelling.

By the time he got to troubled, Obama said, "I'd say less troubled but, you know, sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow. That there is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we're in the middle of really big crises. I would like to think that everybody would say, 'You know what, let's take a timeout on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year, and then we can start running for something next year.' And that hasn't happened as much as I would have liked."

Congressional Republicans? I think he's talking to you.

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

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April 29, 2009

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

* The WHO signals governments around the world: "The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to 5, its second-highest level Wednesday, indicating the outbreak of swine flu that originated in Mexico is nearing widespread human infection."

* A 23-month-old child is the first confirmed death as a result of the swine flu in the United States. The toddler was from Mexico City, but was visiting Texas.

* More bloodshed in Iraq: "Six car bombings in four hours killed 48 people and wounded 81 in various Baghdad neighborhoods Wednesday, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry."

* North Korea is threatening a second nuclear test and the launch of an ICMB unless the U.N. Security Council says it's sorry for censuring North Korea earlier this month.

* The House passed a hate-crimes measure this afternoon, but not before some far-right Republicans made some pretty nauseating comments.

* The New Hampshire Senate approved a gay-marriage law today. The measure now heads for the state House. (There's also been progress in Maine.)

* The regular ol' flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year. I didn't realize the number was that high.

* First quarter GDP numbers were really ugly.

* The Federal Reserve believes the recession may be easing and that the economic outlook has "improved modestly" since March.

* Remember when Arlen Specter hated lawmakers who switched parties?

* Judge Bybee? Pat Leahy would like a few words with you.

* To his credit, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) will support Dawn Johnsen's nomination.

* House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the Democratic agenda "makes me want to throw up." Classy.

* Apparently, Fox News is encouraging Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to leave the Republican Party, too.

* Believe it or not, George W. Bush's public support keeps managing to get worse.

* With a cramdown provision in real trouble on the Hill, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a champion on bankruptcy reform, conceded what he's up against. "[T]he banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill," Durbin said this morning. "And they frankly own the place."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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PALIN WILL ACCEPT THE CASH AFTER ALL.... Remember a few weeks ago, when Sarah Palin said she felt compelled to reject stimulus funds from the federal government? She said, at the time, that the recovery efforts came with too many "strings" and amounted to "an unsustainable, debt-ridden package of funds."

The plan, according to the governor's office in March, was to reject more than 30% of the stimulus funds.

Well, never mind all that now. Palin is taking the money.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will sign bills accepting most of the federal stimulus funds available to the state, her spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Palin initially said she would accept only about two-thirds of the $930 million available to Alaska.

Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor changed her mind after the public weighed in during legislative hearings prior to lawmakers passing bills to seek almost all of the funding. [...]

Alaska's Legislature conducted more than 20 public hearings on the federal stimulus package, and legislative leaders said they couldn't find any of the strings attached to the funds that Palin had warned about. [emphasis added]

That's the hilarious part. Just a month ago, according to a report in the Anchorage Daily News, Palin said it's not a gift when Congress offers dollars with strings attached that would increase government and require the state to follow mandates from Washington, D.C. "To me it's a bribe," Palin said a month ago.

But when policymakers looked, they couldn't identify this string scourge, and didn't see a reason to turn down the money.

It's not a total loss for Palin -- the governor will "turn away ... 29 million for a State Energy Program."

Something to do with "strings."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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HAVING A LITTLE FUN WITH THE TEA BAGGERS.... President Obama hosted a town-hall event in Arnold, Missouri, this afternoon, and challenged some of the principal criticisms directed at him from conservatives. Most notably, the president took on the charge that "Obama is just spending crazy."

"Number one, we inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit ... that wasn't me," Obama said. "Number two, there is almost uniform consensus among economists that in the middle of the biggest crisis -- financial crisis since the Great Depression, we had to take extraordinary steps. So you've got a lot of Republican economists who agree that we had to do a stimulus package and we had to do something about the banks."

And then the president had a little fun with some of his most animated detractors. "So, you know, when you see, you know, those of you who are watching certain news channels, on which I'm not very popular, and you see folks waving tea bags around, let me just remind them that I am happy to have a serious conversation about how we are going to cut our health care costs down over the long term, how we're going to stabilize Social Security.... [L]et's not play games and pretend that the reason is because of the Recovery Act because that's just a fraction of the overall problem that we've got."

He added, in reference to conservatives' cries, "We tried that formula for eight years. It did not work, and I don't intend to go back to it."

As for who the president was "targeting" with these remarks, I think David Weigel raises a good point: "This struck me not as an attack on protesters (which would be a strange thing for a community organizer to do) but an attack on Fox News, its pundits, and its Republican guests. When I think of 'folks waving tea bags' I think of Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) literally waving tea bags and saying 'I've got my tea bags here! Pick your brand!'"

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'ACTUALLY'.... I've read quite a few columns from Byron York over the years, first during his tenure at the National Review, and more recently as the chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner. I've seen plenty of commentary I strongly disagree with, but none has offended me quite as much as his latest column.

On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are. [emphasis added]

For crying out loud, what the hell does that mean, exactly? I read the rest of the piece, hoping to see York explain why the president's seemingly popular positions are exaggerated or inflated. Why, in other words, these positions "appear" more popular "than they actually are."

But all the piece tells me is that African Americans tend to support Obama in greater numbers than white Americans.

The problem, of course, is that damn phrase "than they actually are." York argues that we can see polls gauging public opinion, but if we want to really understand the popularity of the president's positions, and not be fooled by "appearances," then we have to exclude black people.

There's really no other credible way to read this. York effectively argues that black people shouldn't count. We can look at polls measuring the attitudes of Americans, but if we want to see the truth -- appreciate the numbers as "they actually are" -- then it's best if we focus our attention on white people, and only white people.

Adam Serwer added, "This is another example of a really bizarre genre of conservative writing, which I call 'If Only Those People Weren't Here.'"

This is unacceptable.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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BUDGET PASSES WITH NO GOP VOTES.... When it comes to partisan breakdowns on the Hill, the 100th day of the Obama administration looks an awful lot like the first 99.

President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in the House have passed a $3.4 trillion budget outline that will help him pass health care reform later in the year.

Not a single Republican backed the plan, which passed by a 233-193 vote.

Here's the final roll call on the House vote; it passed by an identical margin when it first cleared the chamber earlier this month. The Senate is expected to follow suit later today, and it will likely generate just as much Republican support in the upper chamber -- which is to say, none.

Now, unanimous Republican opposition is hardly outrageous. They are, after all, the opposition party. They want to take the nation in a very different direction, and have no use for the popular, progressive agenda endorsed by the Obama administration. There's some risk in unanimous opposition -- some of these GOP lawmakers represent districts where Obama enjoys considerable support -- but it's hardly shocking.

What matters, though, is the larger context and what it tells us about the prospects of "bipartisan" policy making.

After Republican lawmakers largely balked at confirming Kathleen Sebelius yesterday, Matt Yglesias noted this morning:

It seems to me that if you can only get 65 votes for what should be an uncontroversial HHS appointment, then the odds of a broad bipartisan coalition for big picture health care reform are not so good. [...]

[T]he prevailing spirit within the GOP is clearly that Obama is a very bad president and so they should vote "no" on his initiatives. Which is fine. But it means that if Obama wants to deliver on his campaign pledges, he needs to use every legal means at his disposal to just pass things over the objections of the minority that opposes him.

Right. Republicans don't really want to cooperate with the majority party. They don't want to negotiate; they don't want to find bipartisan solutions; they don't want to form a credible governing partnership. Rather, the GOP sees Democrats as an enemy to be defeated, and the Democratic agenda as manifestly misguided. It's why we hear Republican lawmakers argue they should emulate the insurgency tactics of the Taliban. They see themselves as "freedom fighters" taking on the "slide toward socialism."

These same officials then denounce reconciliation because it means Democrats might be less inclined to work with Republicans on bipartisan solutions. Imagine that.

What matters is that Democrats appreciate this, and stop pretending the GOP minority is serious about working on policy solutions. It's just not going to happen anytime soon.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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DEFINE 'BASEMENT'.... The Washington Times is rather candid about its ideological slant. The paper, a project of cult leader Sun Myung Moon, is unabashedly conservative.

That said, the paper's editorial this week on President Obama's public support was even sillier than its usual content. The headline read, "Barack's in the basement: Obama is less popular than Nixon and Carter."

Now, I pay pretty close attention to this stuff, and I know most polls show the president's support pretty high. The Washington Post recently put Obama's approval rating at 69%. The New York Times' latest poll has it at 68%, and said the president's support "is higher than that of any recent president at the 100-day mark."

And yet, there's the Washington Times.

President Obama's media cheerleaders are hailing how loved he is. But at the 100-day mark of his presidency, Mr. Obama is the second-least-popular president in 40 years.

According to Gallup's April survey, Americans have a lower approval of Mr. Obama at this point than all but one president since Gallup began tracking this in 1969.... It's no surprise the liberal media aren't anxious to point out that their darling is less popular than George W. Bush. But given the Gallup numbers, their hurrahs could be more subdued. [...]

Mr. Obama's popularity after 100 days is the second-lowest for a simple reason: He is more partisan and divisive than his predecessors -- including Richard Nixon.

There's obviously plenty of partisan hackery in the Times' analysis, but I'm more intrigued by the numbers the editorial board relies on. Does Gallup really show Obama's numbers that low?

Actually, no. In fact, the Times isn't even close to being right. Eric Boehlert called the Republican paper's argument an "Alice-in-Wonderland claim."

The Times isn't just wrong, it's deliberately ignoring reality altogether. MSNBC, using Gallup data, found that since Lyndon Johnson, the only president with higher early support than Obama was Reagan, and he had a 68% approval rating that benefited from an outpouring of public support after an assassination attempt in 1981.

"Obama is the second-least-popular president in 40 years"? As is usually the case, the Washington Times has it backwards.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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STEELE AT RISK OF LOSING MORE RNC POWER.... How precarious is RNC Chairman Michael Steele's position? Last week, Republican committee members wanted to help control his rhetoric. This week, they want to control how he spends RNC money.

A battle over control of the party's purse strings has erupted at the troubled Republican National Committee, with defenders of Chairman Michael S. Steele accusing dissident RNC members of trying to "embarrass and neuter" the party's new leader.

Randy Pullen, the RNC's elected treasurer, former RNC General Counsel David Norcross and three other former top RNC officers have presented Mr. Steele with a resolution, calling for a new set of checks and balances on the chairman's power to dole out money. [...]

The Pullen resolution would make it a written rule that contracts of $100,000 or more be open to competitive bidding; that all checks be signed by two RNC officers; that party staff be prohibited from signing on behalf of an officer; and that all contracts be reviewed and approved by the members of the RNC executive committee.

Some Steele allies are rushing to the chairman's defense. Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus wrote an e-mail to the 168-member national committee, saying, "I urge you to reject this hostile attempt to embarrass and neuter the chairman of the RNC.... This resolution is an attempt to usurp the chairman's authority in a completely unprecedented and historic manner."

It's too soon to say who'll win this intra-party dispute, but the fact that this is even a subject of serious debate suggests Steele's role as an ostensible party leader is not only weak, but his position is nearing collapse.

John Cole added, "At this point, we have to begin to wonder if Michael Steele will make it to the midterm elections." I wouldn't bet on it.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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AN ABSURD LITMUS TEST.... The 2012 elections are obviously very far away, but Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman certainly seems to be running for president. This week, he's making campaign stops appearances in three key Michigan counties over five days.

It would have been four counties, but one of them refuses to listen to what Huntsman has to say. He'd already been invited to speak in Kent County, but then local GOP activists learned Huntsman supports civil unions.

Utah Gov. John Huntsman (R), seen by many as a potential top-tier presidential candidate in 2012, has been uninvited from a local Michigan Republican club after announcing his support for civil unions between gay couples.

Huntsman is touring Michigan this week and stopping at several county party events as he slowly raises his national profile. But the Kent County Republican Party this week canceled Huntsman's appearance, with the county party chairwoman saying his appearance would amount to an abandonment of party principles.

Joanne Voorhees, chairwoman of the party in the Grand Rapids-based county, emailed party members to announce the cancellation of the Saturday fundraiser.

"The voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots," Voorhees wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, by holding an event with Gov. Huntsman, we would be doing the exact opposite."

The Campaign for Michigan Families, an anti-gay group in the state, applauded the decision and encouraged other county Republican Parties in Michigan to also disinvite Huntsman.

Keep in mind, we're not talking about an event to deliver an endorsement. Huntsman -- a conservative Republican governor from a conservative Republican state -- just wanted to stop by and talk to these folks. But since he supports civil unions -- not marriage equality, just civil unions -- they don't even want Huntsman to walk in the door.

This really isn't healthy.

Republicans in Kent County, Michigan, might want to consider a more open-minded approach. In 2004, George W. Bush won the country by 55,000 votes. Four years later, Barack Obama narrowly won the same county.

If local GOP leaders don't even want to be in the same room as a Republican who supports civil unions, this is likely to get worse.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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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.

*Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the NRSC, wants to see the GOP "regain our status as a national party" in next year's midterm elections. Sounds like a good idea.

* Sen. Arlen Specter stopped by the White House this morning, and appeared alongside President Obama and Vice President Biden.

* Rush Limbaugh is not only glad to see Specter leave the Republican Party, he also wants to see John McCain leave, too.

* Former Sen. Lincoln Chaffee announced today he is running for governor of Rhode Island as an Independent. Chafee is a former Republican who supported the Obama campaign last year.

* In Virginia, SurveyUSA shows Terry McAuliffe out in front in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, with 38% support. Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds are at 22% each. Former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the likely Republican nominee, leads all three Democrats in hypothetical general election match-ups, though Deeds appears the most competitive.

* Rep. Nathan Deal (R) is apparently poised to announce he's running for governor in Georgia next year.

* The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg can run for a third term later this year.

* And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R) may face a primary opponent in Ohio next year from a county sheriff best known for his anti-immigration views.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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SPECTER'S FUTURE.... When Arlen Specter issued a statement yesterday, explaining his party switch and announcing his intention to seek re-election as a Democrat, he acknowledged that he might be trading one primary fight for another. "I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election," Specter said.

For his sake, I hope Specter realizes that some of these "comers" might be Democrats.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) is known by some to be very ambitious. Perhaps some of that ambition was showing when he said today that he was going to "wait and see" on whether he'd support Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary.

Sestak, a former two-star admiral elected in 2006, thought to be considering a 2010 Senate bid of his own, called Specter's decision a "good thing" for Specter, but not necessarily for Democrats or Pennsylvanians.... "I'm going to have to wait," Sestak said on whether he'd support Specter. "If the alternative is Toomey, that's one issue."

Sestak not only sounded like a likely candidate, he even started sounding out some themes voters might hear in a primary. He told NBC's Andrea Mitchell, "I ran for something, not against something," adding that people should ask of Specter, "What he's running for?"

What's more, it's not just Sestak. Joe Torsella, former head of the National Constitution Center, was, up until 24 hours ago, the only officially announced Democratic candidate running for the Senate in Pennsylvania. A couple of hours after Specter's announcement, Torsella said he still has every intention of staying in the race.

Based on what we heard yesterday from party leaders -- the White House, DSCC, DNC, et al -- Specter will enjoy the support of the Democratic establishment. I suppose it's a courtesy (and a luxury) extended to all Democratic incumbents seeking re-election, even if the incumbent hasn't been a Democrat for very long.

But the party obviously can't force other Democrats to skip the race, and Specter's decades of service as a Republican -- and former George W. Bush ally -- may give pause to more than a few Pennsylvania Democrats. (Yesterday, Specter said, "I don't expect everybody to agree with all my votes. I don't agree with them all myself at this point." Expect to hear a lot of this.)

And just to complicate matters, let's also not forget the other side of the aisle. The GOP primary was poised to be a contest between Specter and Pat Toomey. Just because Specter has left the party does not mean Toomey is the presumptive Republican nominee. On the contrary, plenty of Republicans who might have been interested in the race, but stayed away out of deference for Specter, might now give the race another look. Pay particular attention to former DHS Secretary and former Gov. Tom Ridge (R), who's about to get the hard sell from Republican leaders on the Hill.

It's obviously still very early, but I wouldn't be shocked if neither Specter nor Toomey were on the general election ballot in November 2010.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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SO MUCH FOR BYBEE'S 'REGRET'.... The Washington Post ran a lengthy piece on Sunday, noting Jay Bybee's alleged "regret" over his role in writing Bush administration torture memos. The federal appeals court judge didn't actually talk to the Post, but it quoted several people close to Bybee who said they've heard the former OLC official "express regret at the contents of the memo." Another source said Bybee "was not pleased" with the memo that bore his name.

This week, however, Bybee responded directly to New York Times questions and didn't sound especially remorseful.

Judge Jay S. Bybee broke his silence on Tuesday and defended the conclusions of legal memorandums he had signed as a Bush administration lawyer that allowed use of several coercive interrogation practices on suspected terrorists. [...]

[H]e said: "The central question for lawyers was a narrow one; locate, under the statutory definition, the thin line between harsh treatment of a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist that is not torture and harsh treatment that is. I believed at the time, and continue to believe today, that the conclusions were legally correct."

Other administration lawyers agreed with those conclusions, Judge Bybee said.

"The legal question was and is difficult," he said. "And the stakes for the country were significant no matter what our opinion. In that context, we gave our best, honest advice, based on our good-faith analysis of the law."

So much for Bybee's "regret."

What's more, Faiz Shakir reminds us that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is conducting a review of lawyers who endorsed the torture policies, including Bybee. Charlie Savage reported, "If it turned out that the lawyers initially concluded that aspects of the proposed program would be illegal, then reversed that conclusion at the request of policy makers, then prosecutors could make a case that the officials knowingly broke the law."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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KRISTOL REFLECTS ON 2001.... The Washington Post's Bill Kristol tries to make the case that Arlen Specter's party switch may benefit Republicans, just as Jim Jeffords' switch did in 2001.

On May 24, 2001, I wrote an op-ed for The Post in the wake of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords's party switch. I argued that the switch, which cost Republicans control of the Senate, could well turn out to be good for President Bush.

Not entirely for the reasons I speculated on in the op-ed, I turned out to be right. Bush was still able to get enough cooperation to govern over the next year and a half, and he was also able to run successfully against the Democratic Senate in the fall of 2002. The GOP regained control that November.

Actually, I remember 2001 and 2002 a little differently than Kristol does. When Jeffords gave up on the Republican Party, it was evidence of a GOP moving in the wrong direction. Then-President Bush's approval ratings were headed south, and Democrats were expecting to make gains in the midterms.

Kristol notes that Bush was "able to get enough cooperation to govern" in 2001 and 2002, and the GOP made gains in the midterms, but he neglects to mention that the political world shifted dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, and the support the president received, getting "enough cooperation to govern" wasn't really a problem.

As I recall, it had a little something to do with Republicans' political fortunes at the time.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CANTOR CAN'T CLAIM CREDIT.... In February, there were a few Republican lawmakers who claimed credit for spending projects in the stimulus bill they opposed. It was more than a little awkward -- lawmakers usually don't take credit for legislation they reject.

As spending increases, and new projects get underway, we may soon see more of this. Take House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for example.

Rep. Eric I. Cantor, the House minority whip, led House GOP opposition to President Barack Obama's $740 billion [sic] stimulus program.

Yesterday, though, the Henrico County Republican said bringing high-speed rail to the region could further spur economic development, creating as many as 185,000 jobs and bringing $21.2 billion to a region already home to about a half-dozen Fortune 500 companies and 20,000 small businesses.

"If there is one thing that I think all of us here on both sides of the political aisle from all parts of the region agree with, it's that we need to do all we can to promote jobs here in the Richmond area," Cantor said.

You've got to be kidding me. Eric Cantor was arguably the leading Republican critic of the economic recovery package. He not only publicly mocked government funding for high-speed rail, Cantor also rejected the very idea that government spending could generate economic growth.

Now, however, thanks to a spending bill Cantor fought to kill, there may be money available for HSR connecting Richmond to D.C. Cantor is all for it, despite the fact that if it were up to him, the money wouldn't exist. (Indeed, it wouldn't even be a possibility until 2014, since Cantor wants to improve the economy by way of an insane five-year spending freeze.)

Cantor's hope, in other words, is that his constituents just aren't paying attention to what their elected representative is up to on the Hill. He goes to work and fights against government spending on HSR, and the notion that more spending can lead to more jobs. Cantor then heads home and says the opposite.

It's one of those truths I think all of us here on both sides of the political aisle should agree with.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS.... Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, arguably the Senate's least conservative Republican, has an op-ed in the New York Times today, insisting that the GOP is making a terrible mistake by "fold[ing] our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand." Noting the Republicans' shift to the right, Snowe added, "There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party."

Some of Snowe's fellow Republicans have come to a very different conclusion. Last night, for example, Fox News' Sean Hannity lamented, "I think if anything, the Republican Party is moved to the left in recent years."

Last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina raised a similar concern. "I feel that Republicans are starting to get the message of the last two elections -- that the American people don't want a lukewarm agenda," DeMint said. "They don't want a liberal light agenda."

This is a surprisingly common sentiment in conservative circles. They're absolutely convinced that the only reason Republican numbers have fallen off in recent years is that the GOP hasn't been nearly conservative enough. It's why many were delighted yesterday by Arlen Specter's announcement -- the departure of moderates makes it easier for the Republican Party to coalesce around a common conservative agenda which, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they think Americans are anxious to embrace.

If Snowe really wants to encourage her party to recognize the mess it's in, she may have to follow Specter's lead.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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BACHMANN SEES PATTERNS.... We should at least consider the possibility that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is a secret liberal activist, pretending to be a lunatic in order to make conservative Republicans appear ridiculous.

Rep. Michele Bachmann came up with another doozy during her interview Monday with Pajamas TV. [...]

Here's the quote: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."

An "interesting coincidence." What's interesting about it? I haven't the foggiest idea, but Bachmann apparently sees some significance in the fact that the last flu epidemic occurred under a Democratic president.

Except, of course, it didn't. Not only is Bachmann drawing some kind of bizarre connection that only she understands, she also doesn't realize who was president in 1976. (It was Gerald Ford, a Republican.)

Bachmann's latest example of madness got me thinking, however. The five biggest modern flu crises that scientists know the most about occurred in 1889, 1918, 1957, 1968, and 1976. Three of the five occurred under Republican presidents -- Harrison in 1889, Eisenhower in 1957, and Ford in 1976. The other two -- Wilson in 1918 and LBJ in 1968 -- were Democrats.

You know what this means, don't you? Isn't the significance obvious?

Well, no, probably not.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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SEBELIUS CONFIRMED, RIGHT WASTES TIME.... It didn't quite generate national attention, but conservative opposition to Kathleen Sebelius' HHS nomination was pretty intense. Especially in the religious right movement, conservatives rallied about as aggressively as they could to derail the former Kansas governor's confirmation.

It didn't come close to working.

The Senate confirmed the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services on Tuesday, allowing President Obama to fill the last vacancy in his cabinet with a seasoned politician who will take charge of the fight against swine flu.

The vote was 65 to 31. Among the nine Republicans who voted for Ms. Sebelius was Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who announced on Tuesday that he was becoming a Democrat.

Besides directing federal efforts against swine flu, Ms. Sebelius will lead the administration's campaign for universal health insurance.

Looking over the roll call, Sebelius enjoyed the support of every Democrat on the floor at the time, both independents, and six Republicans, including both of the GOP senators from Sebelius' home state of Kansas.

And what does the conservative movement have to show for its efforts? Not much, other than maybe reinforcing a feckless reputation. This seems to be a bad habit for the right's activists.

Looking over the last several weeks, these same groups and leaders who pulled out the stops to defeat Sebelius, also mounted ambitious campaigns to take down the nominations of Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. All were approved rather easily with bipartisan support. Their efforts at character assassination have been a little more effective in Dawn Johnsen's case, but her confirmation appears likely, too.

The conservative movement may not realize it just yet, but no one seems to care when they launch hard-hitting campaigns to derail Obama administration nominees. In Sebelius' case, their attacks may have actually backfired -- the right forced delays in the HHS confirmation, which only made Republicans look worse given the H1N1 public health emergency.

Perhaps the right can reevaluate their entire approach? Pick their battles a little more effectively?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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April 28, 2009

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

* The virus spreads: "Two new swine flu cases were confirmed in Israel and as many as 11 in New Zealand, bringing the number of countries with confirmed cases to at least seven on Tuesday. But all, with the exception of Mexico, said the patients were recovering or had been hospitalized with only mild symptoms, leaving health officials struggling to determine why the disease has killed only in Mexico."

* The CDC expects to see Americans die from the swine flu virus. The U.S. now has 64 confirmed cases across five states, with the most cases in New York, which has 45.

* Pakistan starts taking the Taliban menace a bit more seriously.

* President Obama isn't happy about yesterday's fly-over in Manhattan, and has ordered an official investigation of what happened.

* Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes Arlen Specter's party switch represents a "threat to the country."

* Note to Michael Steele: Republicans really have to drop "no one could have predicted" from the list of talking points. It's a cliche Atrios uses to make fun of you.

* Chrysler may avoid bankruptcy after all.

* In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided today that the FCC can punish television networks for isolated incidents of profanity, known as "fleeting expletives."

* Russ Feingold released a report card of sorts, evaluating the Obama administration on judicial issues and the rule of law. The president fares pretty well, though Feingold is justifiably critical on the issue of state secrets.

* 42% of Americans now support gay marriage. That's obviously not a majority, but it's an all-time high for support of marriage equality, and a big jump from the support of just a few years ago.

* Ross Douthat's first column in the New York Times ran today. There are plenty of interesting takes on the piece, but I'll just say this: Douthat is already an infinitely better columnist than Bill Kristol.

* Florida Republicans don't want stimulus aid for the state's unemployed, either. I'll never understand this.

* Dawn Johnsen was endorsed yesterday by a bipartisan coalition of scholars. Will Arlen Specter get his career in Democratic politics off to a very bad start by voting against her nomination?

* I get the impression that Joe Scarborough is getting worse as an on-air hack.

* And finally, the Quote of the Day, by way of Michael Crowley: "Two wars, economic collapse, and now a possible global pandemic. When do the locusts arrive? During the '08 campaign the GOP ran an advertisement mockingly comparing Obama to Moses. But if he can get us through all this...."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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'WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?'.... In general, CNN's Rick Sanchez is not my cup of tea, but I have to admit, he has his moments.

This afternoon, Sanchez was interviewing Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), arguably the chamber's most conservative member, about the shrinking Republican Party, and whether the GOP's hard-right agenda is driving away mainstream voters. "Quite the opposite," DeMint said. "We're seeing across the country right now that the biggest tent of all is the tent of freedom."

"What the hell does that mean?" Sanchez asked. "The 'biggest tent' is 'freedom'? Freedom? You've got to do better than that!"

In response, DeMint argued that Americans are actually embracing the Republican message: "Americans who are normally not even political are coming out to 'Tea Parties' and protesting." This, DeMint suggested, is proof of the Republican message connecting with the electorate.

He wasn't kidding. The future of the GOP is Tea Baggers and the tent of freedom. It sounds like the message you might read in a greeting card written by Joe the Plumber.

Unfortunately for the GOP, DeMint's hollow platitudes -- "free people," "free markets," "tent of freedom" -- only help reinforce the bankruptcy of the party's message and policy agenda. Sanchez didn't know what DeMint was talking about, and it seemed as if DeMint didn't know, either.

For that matter, DeMint may want to consider whether he really has his finger on the pulse of the political world. Just a few days ago, DeMint boasted that "many" of the voters who backed Obama in November are now experiencing "buyers' remorse." A few days later, a Washington Post poll put the president's approval rating at 69%. The New York Times added today that Obama's support "is higher than that of any recent president at the 100-day mark."

It certainly doesn't look like Obama voters are experiencing "buyers' remorse." Maybe reality is skewed inside "the tent of freedom."

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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MAYBE OVER-THE-TOP IS TOO SUBTLE.... It never occurred to me that some viewers might think Stephen Colbert is actually a conservative blow-hard. But Jason Linkins highlights this study from Ohio State, where researchers found that the satirical quality of "The Colbert Report" was lost on a surprising number of conservatives.

This study investigated biased message processing of political satire in The Colbert Report and the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert. Results indicate that political ideology influences biased processing of ambiguous political messages and source in late-night comedy. Using data from an experiment (N = 332), we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology.

Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. [emphasis added]

Linkins added, "I think a lot of conservatives are going to pissed when they realize that Stephen Colbert's performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner was not, in fact, an awkward and ineffective attempt to praise President George W. Bush, but actually a bitter and satiric criticism of his incompetence!"

I'm tempted to encourage Colbert to be slightly more over-the-top -- so as to help confused conservative viewers who think he agrees with them -- but I'm not sure if that's possible.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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THE GOP MODERATES.... The Politico has an item this afternoon with a headline that reads, "Moderates blame conservatives." It's about centrist Republicans who are most unhappy about colleagues like Arlen Specter no longer feeling welcome in the party.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) ... slammed right-wing interest groups for pushing moderates out of the party.

Specter switched parties Tuesday after a recent poll showed him badly losing a Pennsylvania Republican primary next year to Club for Growth founder Pat Toomey. Toomey's staunchly fiscally conservative political action committee backs only those Republicans who support a low-tax, limited-government agenda and comes down hard on those who break with party orthodoxy.

"I don't want to be a member of the Club for Growth," said Graham. "I want to be a member of a vibrant national Republican party that can attract people from all corners of the country -- and we can govern the country from a center-right perspective."

"As Republicans, we got a problem," he said.

That's probably true, but isn't the fact that Lindsay Graham considers himself a GOP moderate part of the problem?

For what it's worth, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), an actual moderate by Republican standards, said her party just doesn't offer support to GOP lawmakers who fail to toe the conservative line. Republicans, Snowe said, tell moderates, "Either you are with us or against us."

Any chance Snowe might follow Specter across the aisle? I doubt it, but Snowe told CNN she's been approached about a party switch. "I've been asked, but not recently," she said. Expect Reid & Co. to connect with the Maine Republican fairly soon.

If I had to bet, I'd say we won't see any more party switchers for a while. The only two credible possibilities -- Maine's Snowe and Collins -- both know they can win re-election without jumping ship, a luxury Specter didn't enjoy.

That said, it's just one more angle to keep an eye on.

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REMEMBER, 'IT'S ALL STRATEGIC'.... Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele says he's glad to see Sen. Arlen Specter leave the party.

"Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not.

"Let's be honest - Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."

Now, Steele isn't necessarily wrong about Specter's motivations. The Pennsylvania senator was courting conservatives up until very recently, before realizing that it was a lost cause. If he wanted to win, it couldn't be as a Republican. Specter has been fairly candid about this.

But seeing Steele issue a statement on this development at all only helps focus attention on his tenure as one of the ostensible party leaders.

Just a month ago, Steele told CNN that even when it looks like he's embarrassed himself or suffered some kind of setback, it's part of a larger plan. "It's all strategic," the RNC chairman said.

And how's that strategy working out?

Over the last month, the Republican Party has humiliated itself with a ridiculous alternative budget. Multiple polls show the GOP shrinking into a tiny national minority. The party lost a special election in New York where Republicans enjoy a significant advantage, and where Steele said the results would "send a powerful signal to the rest of the country."

And today, the party lost one of its few remaining moderates, who noted upon his departure, "[T]he Republican Party has moved far to the right."

Don't worry, though, "it's all strategic."

The mechanism for replacing an RNC chair is tricky, so it's likely that Steele's job is safe. But I'll very surprised if the rumbling from party leaders and activists about Steele's leadership doesn't start getting pretty loud, pretty soon.

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THE CIRCUMSTANCES BEHIND SPECTER'S SWITCH.... Following up on the last two items on Sen. Arlen Specter (R D-Pa.) switching parties, as recently as a month ago, the senator told The Hill, "[Democrats] are trying very hard for the 60th vote. Got to give them credit for trying. But the answer is no."

Just 10 days later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would stop trying to pursue Specter as a possible party-switcher.

So, what happened? It doesn't look as if the White House orchestrated this.

White House aides said on Tuesday that they had no advanced knowledge that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter would be switching party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Once told, however, the president reached Specter to express his thrill at having him in the party and to offer his full support.

According to a White House aide, the president found out about the switch at 10:25 AM while in the Oval Office receiving his Economic Daily Briefing.

The president was handed a note, the aide said, that read: "Specter is announcing he is changing parties."

Seven minutes later, President Obama reached Specter to tell him, according to the aide, "You have my full support" and that we are "thrilled to have you."

Rather, it seems Specter and Democratic leaders came to agreement: Dems get a 60th vote, Specter gets an easier path to keeping his job. That includes, obviously, skipping a Republican primary he was bound to lose, but it means more than that. Atrios noted this afternoon:

Shuster just said that Dems promised not to field primary candidate against Specter. Obviously they can't stop someone from running, but it does mean the state party and the DSCC will throw their weight behind Specter to some degree.

George Stephanopoulos added that Specter told President Obama this morning, "I'm a loyal Democrat. I support your agenda." We'll see.

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WHY SPECTER'S SWITCH MATTERS.... Following up on the last item, talk of a "filibuster-proof" Democratic majority is a stretch. For one thing, Norm Coleman just received a powerful reminder incentive to keep his legal fight going for as long as humanly possible. For another, the Democratic caucus, even at 60, still has Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh to consider.

But if reaching the 60-vote threshold doesn't make Arlen Specter's big switch "huge," what makes today's news a seismic political shift? It's further evidence of a Republican Party in steep decline, driven by a misguided ideological rigidity. Indeed, Specter suggested as much in his statement: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right."

Jonathan Cohn's take sounds right to me:

Specter is one of the better-known senators in America. If you follow politics even casually, you've seen or heard him on the news before. So it's going to register with you that a major Republican senator has decided his party has become too extreme for him. And if you're a Republican, you might wonder if it's become too extreme for you, as well.

Of course, polls show voters leaving the Republican Party already. And not just in Pennsylvania, as Specter noted. The real significance here may be less about political change to come and more about political change that has already happened.

Indeed, it sends a signal to voters: the Republican Party is home to Limbaugh, Tea Baggers, Palin, right-wing blogs, the Rove/Cheney/Gingrich triumvirate -- and no one else. The party that's been shrinking to generational lows just got even smaller.

For three months, the conservative message has been that President Obama, his widespread popularity notwithstanding, is some kind of radical ideologue, far from the American mainstream. Specter's departure from the GOP sends the exact opposite message. Moderate Republicans are teaming up with Obama, and leaving the party that has "moved far to the right" behind.

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SPECTER'S STUNNING SWITCH.... Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, facing a primary challenge next year he's almost certain to lose, will switch parties today and become a Democrat. Seriously.

From a press statement issued by the senator's office about 25 minutes ago:

"I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans. [...]

"I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary."

Specter will become the 59th member of the Senate Democratic caucus, which will become 60 once Norm Coleman gives up in Minnesota.

For Specter's re-election hopes, this makes quite a bit of sense. He was going to lose to Pat Toomey in a GOP primary, and the Republican base in Pennsylvania has grown to actively detest him. Unlike Joe Lieberman's route in Connecticut, Specter would not have been able to run as an independent after losing the primary. The easiest way for Specter to keep his job is to take the walk across the aisle.

It's worth noting, though, that Specter has, in recent weeks, tried to move sharply to the right -- he even voted for a five-year federal spending freeze earlier this month -- obviously to try to curry favor with the party's base. That had no apparent effect, which no doubt forced Specter to give the Democratic Party another look.

The strategy is not without risks, however. There are already some high-profile, life-long Democrats who've been gearing up for next year's Senate race, and there's no reason to think they'll quietly go away simply because of Specter's switch.

And then, of course, there's the national scene. Democrats are poised to have a 60-seat majority, though Specter emphasized in his statement, "Unlike Senator Jeffords' switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture."

It's an important point. In fact, Dems like Ben Nelson aren't automatic votes for the party, either. It's tempting to think otherwise, but Specter's switch will not mean that the majority will be able to necessarily block all efforts at Republican obstructionism.

But Specter's vote just got considerably more reliable than it was, say, yesterday.

It's a huge development, and further evidence of a shrinking Republican Party.

Update: Here's Specter's full statement, and Chris Cillizza had a good item.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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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.

* The Democratic National Committee is using Jim Tedisco's (R) concession in New York to remind former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) it's time to concede in Minnesota.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will announce within the next few days whether he'll run for the Senate next year. Rumor has it, Crist will run for the vacant seat, which would shake up the political landscape considerably.

* Will Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) face a primary challenge next year? It appears increasingly likely.

* Former state treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) is gearing up for a primary fight against Rep. Roy Blunt (R) in Missouri's 2010 Senate race.

* Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is still eyeing Illinois' Senate race next year, and released a poll yesterday showing her as the leading Democratic candidate.

* Speaking of Illinois, Chris Kennedy, the son of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is also apparently considering next year's Senate race.

* Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) appeared to be running for lieutenant governor, but he reversed course yesterday and said he'd seek re-election to the House.

* Might former Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) be planning a comeback? Apparently so.

* Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's 31-year-old son, Ethan, is eyeing his father's former seat.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has become so ridiculous, the DCCC has created a site devoted to chronicling her nuttiness.

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

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WHY DOES THE LA TIMES RUN PIECES LIKE THESE?.... President Obama has made a concerted effort to improve the nation's standing in the world, reestablishing ties with allies that have frayed in recent years. Conservative media hacks are not only livid about the president's efforts, but have also begun repeating a hackneyed talking point: Obama has gone on an "apology tour."

With that in mind, the perpetually frustrating James Kirchick has a column in today's LA Times, repeating many of the now-tired canards, including a ridiculous line accusing the president of being "disturbingly ebullient in glad-handing" Hugo Chavez. Indeed, it was filled with a series of nonsensical attacks against Obama, accusing him of "emboldening" U.S. enemies, "squandering" America's reputation, and "paving the way for America's decline."

If Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and a few RNC interns got together to write a fundraising letter, it would read something like this.

But this was the part of Kirchick's op-ed that stood out for me:

At a stop on his grand global apology tour this spring, President Obama was asked by a reporter in France if he believed in "American exceptionalism." This is the notion that our history as the world's oldest democracy, our immigrant founding and our devotion to liberty endow the United States with a unique, providential role in world affairs.

Rather than endorse the proposition -- as every president in recent memory has done one way or another -- Obama offered a strange response: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

This is impossible. If all countries are "exceptional," then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.

I'd encourage readers to read exactly what President Obama said when asked about "American exceptionalism." His response to the question was thoughtful and nuanced -- and apparently went right over Kirchick's head.

Indeed, the whole piece reflects a bizarre confusion about a) why the nation's reputation declined under Bush/Cheney; b) how Obama is using diplomacy to improve the nation's standing; and c) why it's likely to work.

On American exceptionalism, the question carried with it some potential consequences. If Obama endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, and explained during an overseas visit that he believes the U.S. is above all countries, he runs the risk of reinforcing the notion of American jingoism. American exceptionalism is, after all, a favorite of the neocons, and undergirds the idea that we operate on a different level than everyone else. But if Obama rejects the concept, he might give the impression that he sees his own country as less than special. His critics would pounce, insisting that to give up on American exceptionalism is to give up on America's role as leader of the free world. The president's careful response threaded the needle in ways that Kirchick didn't understand.

Joe Klein gets it:

What Kirchick doesn't understand is that American exceptionalism means one thing to Americans and quite the opposite to most of the rest of the world, especially after the Bush fiasco. To Americans, it refers to our most obvious and unique strength -- that ours is the only nation where citizenship is not dependent on ethnic identity, but on the willingness to subscribe to the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy. When we're at our best, America tends to mean that to the rest of the world as well.

But in recent years, much of the rest of the world came to see American exceptionalism as a belief that we can make our own rules, make exceptions, as it were. We could unilaterally decide to make war in Iraq, withdraw from the global warming negotiations, allow India and Israel to abide by one set of rules when it came to nuclear proliferation and Iran to another. What Obama was actually saying was this: While America regards itself as extraordinary, we will no longer act on the international stage as if we are the ultimate repository of wisdom and righteousness.

Kirchick argues this kind of approach "paves the way for America's decline." I suspect he had it backwards.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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JUDD GREGG NEEDS A HISTORY LESSON.... The Obama administration's proposed reforms of the student-loan system are a no-brainer -- they streamline the process, save money, and help more people go to college. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), however, remains staunchly opposed, on purely ideological grounds. (via Tim Fernholz)

The Democrats, he says, pulled the same public-private switcheroo before with student loans for college. Back in the late 1990s, "there was a huge debate in the committee . . . between myself and [Senator Ted] Kennedy over a private plan versus a public plan." In the end, they compromised -- the government would offer loans directly to students, but that program would have to compete with private-sector lenders. "And the agreement was very formal, and the record shows this very clearly. We agreed to level the playing field, put both plans on the playing field at an equal status and see who won. Well, private plans won. Big time."

Given the choice, most borrowers went to the private sector for their loans.

I know a lot of political reporters tend to think of Gregg as one of the more serious Republican lawmakers when it comes to reality, but the guy simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

When Clinton compromised in the '90s and created a level playing field, colleges were allowed to choose between direct loans and guaranteed loans. Private plans lost, big time, for quite a while. Eventually, however, the tide turned, and colleges shifted away from the public plan.

Was it because the private sector was superior? No, it was because the private sector was bribing college-loan administrators.

[I]t now turns out that the private lenders' success came not through superior efficiency but through superior graft. The emerging college-loan kickback scandal is a vast scheme by private lenders to bribe colleges into foisting their services onto students. Lenders plied college-loan officers with meals, cruises, and other gifts. Some loan officers were given lucrative stock offers. Columbia's director of undergraduate financial aid purchased stock in Student Loan Xpress -- which became one of that school's preferred lenders -- for $1 per share and sold it two years later for $10 per share. Some lenders offered millions to the universities themselves to drop out of the direct-lending program.

So this whole scandal could have been avoided if Bill Clinton had just gotten his way.... Indeed, the very thing that drove conservatives to oppose Clinton's reform -- the vast private profits made available by guaranteed loans -- is what enabled the scandal.

We're quickly reaching the point at which we should effectively assume the opposite of whatever Gregg is saying is true.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE CONSEQUENTIAL FLAWS IN THE SYSTEM.... To help prevent spreading the flu, Americans have been getting some sound, common-sense advice. For example, if you're feeling flu symptoms, don't go to work and risk getting your colleagues sick.

Pat Garofalo notes one of the flaws in this.

Currently, nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 76 percent, and climbs to 86 percent for food service workers. These workers have to decide between the health of themselves and their co-workers, and the wages that they lose by staying home.

If you want to get paid, you can't stay home. It creates a very powerful incentive to go to work, no matter how you're feeling. (Yelizavetta Kofman noted recently, "[O]f the top 20 economies in the world, the United States is the only one that does not have a national standard for paid sick days.")

For that matter, there's an entire other group of Americans -- tens of millions of them -- with no health insurance. Maybe they're feeling flu symptoms, maybe they're even living in affected areas. But do they hesitate to seek medical attention because they can't afford medical bills right now?

It seems like a system that guarantees paid sick time and provides coverage to all Americans would serve the nation's interests pretty well right about now.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PARTY.... Chris Cillizza argued yesterday that the most important number in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll wasn't 69% (the president's approval rating), 50% (the number of Americans who believe the country is going in the right direction), but rather, was 21%.

That's the percent of people in the Post/ABC survey who identified themselves as Republicans, down from 25 percent in a late March poll and at the lowest ebb in this poll since the fall of 1983(!).

In that same poll, 35 percent self-identified as Democrats and 38 percent called them Independents.

These numbers come on the heels of Steve Schmidt, former campaign manager for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid, declaring the Republican party a "shrinking entity" last week -- citing the decline of GOP numbers in the west, northeast and mountain west as evidence.

It's not just this poll. The New York Times published a new poll today and found that only 20% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest number in at least 17 years. (It may be longer, but the poll internals only go back to 1992.)

There was some talk in Republican circles recently that the GOP is finally "back in the saddle." If that's true, the horse is looking pretty small.

Cillizza added, "The number of people who see themselves as GOPers is on the decline even as those who remain within the party grow more and more conservative. That means that the loyal base of the party has an even larger voice in terms of the direction it heads even as more and more empirical evidence piles up that the elevation of voices like former vice president Dick Cheney does little to win over wavering Republicans or recruit Independents back to the GOP cause."

Which brings us back to yesterday's discussion about the party's base refusing to allow the party to progress or adapt. Indeed, while the GOP would presumably be looking for new ways to expand its numbers, Republicans are apparently intent on doing the opposite.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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SHIFTING WITH THE WIND.... Part of the problem with Newt Gingrich's role in the political discourse is that his comments on policy issues don't make any sense. But let's not overlook the other part of the problem: Gingrich isn't above contradicting himself, if he thinks there's a political advantage to doing so.

Media Matters tracked down some thoughts the former House Speaker shared in an interview with PBS just two years ago:

"I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there's a package there that's very, very good. And frankly, it's something I would strongly support.... The caps, with a trading system, on sulfur has worked brilliantly because it has brought free-market attitudes, entrepreneurship and technology and made it very profitable to have less sulfur. So people said, 'Wow, it's worth my time and effort.' Americans get incentives. Americans like winning."

Last week, the same person said mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system is a radical idea and an example of "environmental extremism." Kevin Drum noted, "Well, that's Newt for you: he dumps policy positions as quickly as he dumps wives."

What's more, in 1997, Gingrich took a firm stand against detainee abuse, political imprisonment, and torture, insisting, "[T]here is no place for abuse in what must be considered the family of man." He added, "The foundation of American values, therefore, is not a passing priority or a temporary trend."

The same Gingrich now isn't sure if waterboarding is torture, and believes those concerned about Bush administration policies make up the "anti-American left."

I argued yesterday that Gingrich's role as a leading Republican voice points to a party with a leadership problem. But Avedon Carol raised a related point that bears repeating: Gingrich helps direct the GOP message, in part because the party encourages him, and in part because major news outlets keep giving him a platform, and presenting his ideas as having real value.

The media seems to consider Gingrich some kind of conservative genius. Indeed, David Broder described him a couple of years ago as a genuine "visionary."

He's not. Gingrich is a pseudo-intellectual con man.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THEY'RE NOT HANDLING IT WELL.... It's unfortunate that emergencies can sometimes bring out the worst in people. One wants to think that during trying times people will rise to the occasion, which only makes watching the right respond to the swine flu emergency all the more discouraging.

David Weigel, for example, talked to Wendy Wright, the president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America and a prominent leader in the conservative movement, about Kathleen Sebelius' HHS nomination. Wright said, out loud, without joking, that the administration's response to the flu outbreak may be part of a plot to get Sebelius confirmed.

"Some people think that declaring a state of emergency about the flu was a political thing to push the Sebelius nomination through," said Wright. She pointed to news stories that ask whether the slow-walking of the Sebelius choice will hurt the response to the flu. "If there's even a hint that [Department of Homeland Security] is manipulating the health situation to push a political appointee through, well, it almost defies imagination that they'd be willing to that."

Wright said that she'd heard the speculation "on talk radio," and wanted to be skeptical, but "there's too much of a basis in that argument to easily dismiss it."

It's not only Wright who seems to be cracking. Media Matters reported, "Rush Limbaugh claimed that the Obama administration's response to cases of swine flu in the U.S. 'is designed to expand the role and power of governments and schools,' while Glenn Beck said the motivation behind the response 'could be to move [President Obama's] Health and Human Services person into the office rapidly.'"

As twisted as these responses are, digby explained nicely why these conservative leaders are throwing nonsensical tantrums: public health emergencies require robust government responses and people behaving with the greater good in mind. Too many on the right simply can't tolerate such a dynamic.

Public health crises tend to focus the public on the usefulness of things like science, international cooperation, government coordination. You know, the sort of thing that liberals think are necessary. Something like that simply doesn't fit into the conservative worldview. They see all problems and challenges in schoolyard terms of good guys and bad guys. This kind of challenge (like global warming) falls outside the paradigm by which they organize their world. Pandemics, like hurricanes, can't be dealt with by using tough talk and threats. So, they are lost.

For what it's worth, congressional Republicans haven't repeated the bizarre ideas coming from their base, at least not yet, but the emergency has had no effect on the Senate GOP's decision to try to block the Senate from even voting on the president's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

It's as if they're suffering from a pre-flu mindset.

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

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April 27, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Swine Flu: What We Should Do for One Another

What follows is a guest post by Ruth A. Karron and Ruth R. Faden. Ruth A. Karron is the director of the Center for Immunization Research and Johns Hopkins Vaccine Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ruth R. Faden is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.


At this point, it is impossible to predict whether we are on the brink of an influenza pandemic. The threat is real, however, and governments across the globe are working hard to mitigate the potential impact of swine flu.

This is right and proper. Our government has an obligation to protect the public's health, which it exercised responsibly by declaring a national public health emergency on Sunday. This declaration is the public face of countless actions that federal, state, and local health authorities are now undertaking on our behalf. But these are not the only actions that will be needed. There are also actions that we as citizens must undertake to minimize the swine flu threat that will help us protect ourselves and our families. These actions are not only prudent; they are a matter of moral and civic responsibility. Just as our government has an obligation to protect the public's health, we too have an obligation to our country and to our fellow human beings to do our share to minimize the burdens of this influenza outbreak.

What can each of us do?

Stay informed: New information about swine flu will be generated rapidly in the near term, and possibly longer. DHS Secretary Napolitano has committed to providing daily briefings for the foreseeable future. It is important that we commit to accessing that information, as well as information that may pertain to our local settings, so that we understand what is happening and can take action as needed.

Abide by public health recommendations: As public health officials learn more about the extent and spread of swine flu, new recommendations may be made to limit public gatherings, close schools or workplaces, or restrict or modify travel. These "social distancing" measures should reduce the public health burden of influenza by slowing down the pace by which flu will spread, but they will only work if each of us does our part.

Follow basic hygiene practices: Good hand hygiene is always important, but particularly so in this context. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based cleanser. Use a tissue to cover your nose or mouth if you cough or sneeze, and dispose of the tissue properly or, if you don't have a tissue, sneeze into your upper sleeve. Avoid touching your nose or mouth frequently.

Be vigilant and responsible if you or a loved one becomes ill: Contact a healthcare provider if you or a member of your household develops a fever and follow his or her instructions. Keep the person who is ill out of work or school. Unless someone is seriously ill, avoid using emergency rooms to evaluate possible flu symptoms. Even as we monitor this latest threat to public health, people will continue to have medical emergencies like heart attacks and car accidents, and it is important that emergency rooms be able to take care of those who need immediate medical attention.

Prepare for the possibility of staying in your home: One possible social distancing measure that public health authorities could ask us to undertake is to stay at home for a period of time. A basic principle of emergency preparedness is that each of us should have sufficient food and water in our homes to last our families in such an eventuality. Now is the time to make sure that your family is well provisioned, not only to protect yourselves but also out of recognition that some families do not have the money or stable housing required to stockpile food. If those of us who have the means take care of our own needs, it will be easier for the government and community organizations to take care of those who do not.

Check on your neighbors: If you haven't done so already, now is a good time to get to know your neighbors. Find out if any of them may need a little extra help dealing with this public health threat. People who live alone, for example, may appreciate your checking in with them from time to time, and elderly neighbors may need your help stocking up on food. Parents of school age children may want to talk through how they can help each other if schools in your area close but some workplaces stay open.

In his inaugural address, President Obama declared: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world." Our individual and collective response to this swine flu outbreak will be one important measure of whether we as Americans and as citizens of the global community are living up to what the President has asked of us.

Hilzoy 11:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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

* The World Health Organization has issued a phase 4 alert on the swine flu.

* There are now a 73 confirmed cases of swine flu worldwide, including 40 in the United States, but the actual number is believed to be closer to 1,6000 affected people. In Mexico, the virus has killed 149.

* The CDC today encouraged Americans forgo all "nonessential travel" to Mexico.

* The right is responding to the public health emergency about as you'd expect. Some are accusing the administration of deliberately overreacting. Others see an elaborate conspiracy to get Americans to "respond to government orders." Others still see a different conspiracy to get Kathleen Sebelius confirmed. Just another day in conservative political discourse.

* Just what Mexico City needed: an earthquake.

* Among those who supported cutting pandemic flu preparedness from the recovery package were Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and David Vitter (R-La.). Susan Collins (R-Maine), meanwhile, is defending her record.

* Krugman: "So Bobby Jindal makes fun of 'volcano monitoring,' and soon afterwards Mt. Redoubt erupts. Susan Collins makes sure that funds for pandemic protection are stripped from the stimulus bill, and the swine quickly attack. What else did the right oppose recently? I just want enough information to take cover."

* GM is cutting 21,000 factory jobs and dropping Pontiac altogether.

* Every major broadcast network will air President Obama's White House press conference on Wednesday -- except Fox.

* Flying these jets over Manhattan today was a pretty jarring error.

* Five House Democrats were arrested today protesting Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's expulsion last month of 16 aid groups from Darfur.

* Nine years later, political reporters still aren't fair to Al Gore.

* "Politics Daily" launched today, featuring work fromWashington Monthly contributing editor Walter Shapiro, among others. We wish the site the best.

* Newt Gingrich still doesn't know if waterboarding is torture.

* Threatening to kill government officials in Twitter messages can get someone arrested.

* Dave Weigel made me laugh with this tweet: "If it turns out that rightwing extremists invented the swine flu in a secret militia lab, Janet Napolitano is gonna *laugh*"

* And finally, I'm sorry to hear about Portfolio shutting down, but I'd love to know how a magazine burns through $100 million in two years.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The right sentiment for a U.S. president to express when it comes to government-sanctioned, government-directed torture policies:

"It's important for people to understand that in a democracy, there will be a full investigation. In other words, we want to know the truth. In our country, when there's an allegation of abuse ... there will be a full investigation, and justice will be delivered. ... It's very important for people and your listeners to understand that in our country, when an issue is brought to our attention on this magnitude, we act. And we act in a way in which leaders are willing to discuss it with the media. ... In other words, people want to know the truth.

"That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this. A dictator wouldn't be saying that the system will be investigated and the world will see the results of the investigation."

You could probably guess by the frequent reference to "in other words" that this wasn't Obama, but rather, was George W. Bush, speaking to al Arabiya after the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted.

"Full investigation." We want to know "the truth." We believe in "justice." "We act" in response to allegations of torture. We're transparent and discuss developments "with the media." To fail to answer questions is to act like a "dictatorship."

It seems to me if Democrats are looking for an excuse to do the right thing, they don't have to say much more than, "We're doing what Bush told us to do."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ANOTHER STEP BACKWARDS FOR THE 'RIGHTROOTS'.... It's always been impossible to take Erick Erickson, RedState's editor, seriously. When we last heard from the fairly prominent conservative blogger, he was writing about violence against elected public officials who were regulating chemicals in dishwasher detergent.

It gives one a sense of the guy's credibility and level of seriousness.

Today, Erickson was in rare form, accusing President Obama of taking active, deliberate steps to encourage a deadly terrorist attack against the United States. He wasn't kidding -- Erickson seriously seems to believe the president wants terrorists to kill Americans.

The best strategy would look something like taking a band-aid off quickly. Get the pain over fast. And if an attack happens quickly enough into the new administration, they can blame Bush.

So the Obama administration is working hard to release all the memos on interrogations, change all the policies Bush implemented, and clear out the old as fast as possible. Never mind that if it were done slowly over time, our terrorist enemies might not be so incited to attack.

If your working premise is that they are going to attack anyway, get them incited quickly, get it over with, and blame Bush. There is no other justification for so quickly making us less safe.

When this truly insane idea sparked some criticism, Erickson, apparently playing by junior-high-school rules, "Truth hurts I guess."

Let's also not forget that Erickson is not a fringe, obscure right-wing blogger, but a prominent conservative voice and a writer popular in the Bush White House.

Last year, in an interview, Erickson acknowledged that the "netroots" have an advantage over the "rightroots," but attributed it to an asymmetry in free time, since conservatives "have families because we don't abort our kids, and we have jobs because we believe in capitalism."

Here's a rival idea: prominent liberal bloggers aren't inclined to drift into lunacy, writing posts based on deranged conspiracy theories.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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PUBLIC OPINION ON TORTURE.... There have been a couple of new national polls on the Bush administration's torture policies, and the results offer at least some hints about the effect of the policy debate thus far.

Over the weekend, for example, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 49% of respondents agreed that the United States should not torture, while 48% who believe torture is sometimes acceptable. The same poll, however, found that a 51% majority supports an investigation into Bush administration officials who may have broken the law in this area.

Gallup published a new poll today, which has similar results, but one unexpected twist.

A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. At the same time, 55% of Americans believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified, while only 36% say it was not.

It's a little counter-intuitive, but according to this poll, a majority wants an investigation and believes the torture was justified. As Greg Sargent argued, the results suggest "voters are capable of wanting a thorough airing of precisely what happened and when, even if they don't necessarily oppose the use of torture."

I guess David Broder's theory about those who support an investigation being motivated by an "unworthy desire for vengeance," is looking a little shaky.

I should note that when it comes to issues like torture, polls aren't necessarily the most important measurement. It's not as if overwhelming support for torture would somehow make the abusive interrogation tactics less illegal, immoral, dangerous, counter-productive, etc.

But the polls are of at least some interest now, because I suspect policymakers may be influenced by the results. If, say, an overwhelming majority of the public was dead set against accountability for Bush administration officials, chances are, Democratic leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would be even less likely to pursue an investigation.

That's obviously not the case. Two credible, national polls have been released in two days, and both show narrow majorities supporting some kind of investigation. How might the politicians respond? Your guess is as good as mine, but given the close results, I don't imagine the polls will produce any new clamoring for accountability.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THEIR TIMING COULD BE BETTER.... Jason Linkins notes at least one key government vacancy in the midst of concerns over swine flu, and the political circumstances surrounding the empty chair.

All of this is playing out at a time when HHS nominee sits on the sidelines, her nomination held up at the behest of pro-life organizations who want to paint her as the "Abortion Queen."

The hold-up is pointless -- merely delaying the inevitable for "another week." Maybe the swine flu would be good enough to wait!

Occasionally, obstructionist tactics are about flexing some political muscle. Sometimes, it's just a partisan game.

But once in a while, obstructionism can be a little more disturbing, and interfere with government functions for no good reason at all.

I'm not arguing the U.S. response to the swine-flu problem is necessarily less effective because Kathleen Sebelius' nomination has been delayed; I'm simply not in a position to evaluate the inner working of the bureaucracy. I am arguing that in the midst of "public health emergency," and a global response to a possible pandemic, it'd be awfully nice if Republicans could be grown-ups for a little while, and let the federal government have a Health and Human Services Secretary.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CONSENTING ADULTS GETTING MARRIED IN IOWA.... Per the instructions of the state Supreme Court, same-sex couples in Iowa are allowed to get legally married, starting today. What was of particular interest, however, was whether any local officials in the state would deliberately break the law.

Rumors surfaced over the past week that some recorders would refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples over conflicts with their personal beliefs. Some conservative groups and lawmakers were accused of trying to recruit recorders to refuse the licenses.

State agencies sent out information to recorders statewide last week saying they could be removed from their positions if they don't follow the law and issue the licenses.

"There's a lot of people fishing around out there, but we'll see," said [Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter]. "I am quite optimistic that all 99 recorders will follow the rule of law and issue licenses."

Marilyn Dopheide, the Carroll County recorder and president of the Iowa County Recorder's Association, said that within about an hour of the recorders' offices opening there had been no problems with licenses being issued.

I'm glad to hear that, because there was a concerted push from some far-right activists to have county recorders simply ignore the law and refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Most notably, state Sen. Merlin Bartz (R) and the Iowa Family Policy Center began a campaign to "pressure" local officials on the issue. What's more, the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious-right legal group, announced it would provide legal assistance to Iowa county reporters who were penalized for refusing to do their jobs.

Last week, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller took this talk seriously enough to remind officials that county recorders do not have the authority to sidestep laws they don't like. "Recorders do not have discretion or power to ignore the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling," Miller said, adding, "If necessary, we will explore legal actions to enforce and implement the Court's ruling, working with the Iowa Department of Public Health and county attorneys."

So far, it appears everyone is playing by the rules. That's good news.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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SUNUNU NEEDS A HISTORY LESSON.... Former Sen. John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire, who lost last year after one term in the chamber, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, complaining about the possibility of passing health care reform through the reconciliation process. It's filled with errors of fact and judgment, but one mistake is especially jarring.

Sununu mostly relies on predictable canards. For example, if the Senate approves a bill without giving the minority a chance to filibuster it represents an "attempt to circumvent the normal and customary workings of American democracy." Since the "normal and customary workings of American democracy" dictate that a Senate majority should be allowed to pass legislation without a mandated super-majority, I'm afraid Sununu has it backwards.

He added that the budget reconciliation process "was never intended to push through dramatic and expansive new programs." That's debatable, but I couldn't help but notice that Sununu didn't protest when his Republican colleagues pushed through welfare reform using the same process.

But here's the real problem:

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton governed effectively by coupling the vision of an outsider with irrepressible self-confidence. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the depth of their insider knowledge to coax the Congress into moving their policies forward. Barack Obama brings neither of these traits to the Oval Office. Misusing reconciliation ... shows a lack of confidence in his own ability to pass an agenda using the regular legislative order.

And here's where Sununu proves he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Did Johnson and Nixon rely on reconciliation to pass key bills? No. Why? Because the reconciliation process didn't exist at the time.

Did Reagan and Clinton rely on reconciliation to pass key bills? No. Why? Because they didn't have to deal with an obstructionist minority that filibustered literally every bill of consequence.

Sununu thinks Obama lacks "confidence" in his ability to pass his agenda without reconciliation. Of course he does. Obama is dealing with a dynamic no president has ever had to endure -- a Senate minority that requires super-majorities on practically every vote. The bigger question is why Sununu thinks the president should have confidence.

Sununu wants to see reconciliation used less often? Sounds great -- just as soon as Republicans allow democratic norms to return to the Senate, and the minority stops using filibusters for every significant vote, I suspect the reconciliation practice will suddenly disappear.

Call it a hunch.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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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.

* While the "100 days" plateau is practically meaningless, Democratic leaders seem to believe they need to play along since the media is going to take the threshold seriously. To that end, the DNC released a minute-long ad today, touting President Obama's early successes.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) has seen his approval ratings fall precipitously of late, but he's apparently planning to run for a full term next year anyway.

* Will Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) make the Democratic establishment happy and not run in 2010? At this point, Burris says he's undecided, but if his fundraising is any indication, he's not planning to mount a serious campaign next year.

* The field of Republicans hoping to take on Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) next year just got a little bigger, with Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a staunch anti-immigration conservative, launching his campaign today.

* Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has a new line of attack against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) in advance of next year's gubernatorial primary: a vote for Hutchison makes it more likely Democrats will cross the 60-vote threshold.

* Speaking of Texas, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, perhaps best known for his prosecution of Tom DeLay, is considering a statewide race next year, running for either governor or attorney general.

* Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) was rumored to be a leading candidate for governor in Georgia, but the Republican announced late last week that he plans to seek re-election to the House, instead.

* The GOP has struggled to find a credible candidate to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) next year in Nevada, but party leaders believe they may have recruited a strong challenger. The problem is that the would-be candidate, banker John Chachas, lives in New York, not Nevada.

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

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GOOD TIME FOR A SCIENCE SPEECH.... Coincidentally, President Obama was scheduled to deliver a speech at the National Academy of Sciences this morning anyway. Given the headlines, the timing worked out nicely.

President Obama said on Monday that the growing number of cases of swine flu in the United States and abroad was "not a cause for alarm," but he sought to assure Americans that the government was taking precautions to prepare for the prospect of a global health pandemic.

"We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States," Mr. Obama said, speaking at the National Academy of Sciences. "This is obviously the cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert, but it's not a cause for alarm." [...]

Mr. Obama said the swine flu outbreak underscored the need for a larger investment in scientific research in the United States. He said science should not be seen as a luxury, but rather as a key element of the nation's security.

"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before," Mr. Obama said. "If there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it is today."

Quite right. In fact, Obama was able to put the current concerns in the larger context, and make a very compelling case for a renewed and robust investment in scientific research. Alex Koppelman reported:

The solution Obama has in mind is an unprecedented level of investment in the sciences -- more, even, than the country spent during the Space Race. "A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation... That was the high water mark of America's investment in research and development. Since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income -- our GDP. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation's great discoveries," he said.

"I believe it is not in our American character to follow -- but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development... This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."

It's possible my expectations were decimated by the Bush years, but I can't think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama. Given the circumstances, it's extremely encouraging.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MINNESOTANS WANT TWO SENATORS.... Patience continues to wear thin in Minnesota.

Nearly two-thirds of Minnesotans surveyed think Norm Coleman should concede the U.S. Senate race to Al Franken, but just as many believe the voting system that gave the state its longest running election contest needs improvement.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found that 64 percent of those responding believe Coleman, the Republican, should accept the recount trial court's April 13 verdict that Democrat Franken won the race by 312 votes.

Only 28 percent consider last week's appeal by Coleman to the Minnesota Supreme Court "appropriate."

If the state Supreme Court rules against Coleman, 73% of Minnesotans want to see Coleman concede. Since, on Election Day, both of the major-party candidates only won about 42% of the vote, it suggests a whole lot of Coleman voters are ready to see their guy wrap this up. Indeed, 57% of Minnesota Republicans want to see Coleman quit if he loses at the state's highest court.

One Coleman voter told the Star Tribune, "Obviously, the Republican Party is trying to keep Franken's vote out of the United States Senate. We should get another [senator] in there."

What I'm most curious about is whether Coleman cares. If he loses at the Minnesota Supreme Court, the former senator will no doubt be tempted to keep the fight going by taking his case to the federal judiciary. In fact, the Republican establishment, anxious to keep the Senate Democratic caucus at 58, will no doubt beg Coleman to keep appealing, indefinitely, no matter how disgusted Minnesotans become.

So, what does Coleman do? If he plans on seeking public office again in the future, he'll almost certainly have to quit after the next court defeat. To do otherwise would do irreparable harm to what's left of Coleman's reputation. If, however, he feels like this is his last hurrah, does he drag this out even more, regardless of the consequences for Minnesota? And at what point does Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) intervene?

I'm reluctant to even guess.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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GOP BASE OPPOSES PROGRESS.... It's hard to say whether Republican Party leaders on the Hill or in the RNC have any genuine interest in moving the party back towards the political mainstream, but in some ways, it doesn't really matter. Even if GOP leaders saw the utility of moderating the party, the Republican base wouldn't allow it.

A quick tour through the week's headlines suggests the Republican Party is beginning to come to terms with the last election and that consensus is emerging among GOP elites that the party needs to move away from discordant social issues.

There was Sen. John McCain's daughter and his campaign manager who last week demanded that their fellow Republicans embrace same-sex marriage. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- the most devoted modernizer among the party's 2012 hopefuls -- won approving words from New York Times columnist Frank Rich for his call to downplay divisive values issues. The party's top elected leaders in Congress, meanwhile, spooked by being attacked as the "party of no," were recasting themselves as a constructive, respectful opposition to a popular president.

But outside Washington, the reality is very different. Rank-and-file Republicans remain, by all indications, staunchly conservative, and they appear to have no desire to moderate their views.... There is little appetite for compromise on what many see as core issues, and the road to the presidential nomination lies -- as always -- through a series of states where the conservative base holds sway, and where the anger appears to be, if anything, particularly intense.

Katon Dawson, the outgoing South Carolina Republican Party chairman, added, "There is a sense of rebellion brewing." It's not clear who would be the target of this rebellion, but the comments certainly sound menacing, don't they?

These rank-and-file Republicans that make up the party's base have a straightforward agenda -- make the party as right-wing as they can on issues such as immigration, taxes, and marriage equality. "I've never seen the grass-roots quite as motivated, concerned and angry," said Steve Scheffler, the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance and the state's RNC committeeman.

It's not that there are no voices trying to pull the party in the other direction -- the Main Street Republican Partnership, the Republican Majority for Choice, and the Log Cabin Republicans exist -- it's just that those voices are hopeless, powerless, and ignored.

The result is obvious: a Republican Party that stays exactly as it is now. Same coalitions, same priorities, same ideology, same agenda.

If the GOP were a credible and competitive national party, leaving things as-is might be a sensible approach. But given reality, it's hardly a recipe for success.

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

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THE LATEST IN A SERIES OF PATRIOTISM TESTS.... In the context of the renewed debate over Bush administration torture policies, I'm almost surprised we haven't heard more offensive attacks on Americans' patriotism. Newt Gingrich apparently hopes to pick up the slack.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) argued that Obama had already missed his opportunity to exert leadership on the issue by backtracking on his administration's initial opposition to any sort of hearings or prosecutions.

"The pressure from the anti-American left rattled him and he opened Pandora's box," said Gingrich.

Got that? If President Obama voices even tepid support for possibly holding Bush administration officials accountable for alleged crimes, he's necessarily rattled by the "anti-American left."

Those of us who take the rule of law seriously aren't just wrong, the disgraced former Speaker argues, we literally don't love our country as much as he does.

It's hard to overstate how tiresome this is. The right's approach to the political discourse, too often, hasn't progressed at all since 2002. If you disagree with Republicans about national security, you necessarily can't be patriotic. You're either with Newt or you're with the nation's enemies.

Indeed, it probably never occurred to Gingrich to consider how ridiculous these kinds of attacks are. If you support torture, you're pro-America; if you support the rule of law, you're anti-America. If you believe war crimes should be ignored, you're pro-America; if you believe in accountability, you're anti-America.

Why this clown continues to help speak for the Republican Party in the 21st century is further evidence of a party with a very serious leadership problem.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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GREAT MOMENTS IN POLITICAL FORESIGHT.... Back in February, a trio of Senate Republican "centrists" were willing to allow the chamber to vote on an economic recovery package, but not before they took out expenditures they perceived as unnecessary.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine spoke to reporters on Feb. 5, and explained her efforts in the stimulus negotiations.

"[T]hese decisions are difficult. For example, I think everybody in the room is concerned about a pandemic flu. Does it belong in this bill? Should we have $870 million in this bill? No, we should not. So, after discussion, we agreed that we would cut the funding for that, knowing that we can deal with that issue later."

Six days earlier, Collins was incredulous on the subject: "There is funding to help improve our preparedness for a pandemic flu.... What does that have to do with an economic stimulus package?"


What's more, The Political Carnival notes that Collins' website, at least as of this morning, promotes a Wall Street Journal article that touts Collins' efforts to remove pandemic-flu preparedness from the recovery legislation.

As for the substance of Collins' concerns, and the rationale for removing the funding in February, John Nichols has a report in the The Nation noting precisely how the resources relate to an economic recovery.

When House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long championed investment in pandemic preparation, included roughly $900 million for that purpose in this year's emergency stimulus bill, he was ridiculed by conservative operatives and congressional Republicans.

Obey and other advocates for the spending argued, correctly, that a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse -- with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing. Indeed, they suggested, pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.

Now, as the World Health Organization says a deadly swine flu outbreak that apparently began in Mexico but has spread to the United States has the potential to develop into a pandemic, Obey's attempt to secure the money seems eerily prescient.

And his partisan attacks on his efforts seem not just creepy, but dangerous.

On Feb. 5, the same as Collins unfortunate remarks, Karl Rove had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal complaining about stimulus package, in part because it included money for "pandemic flu preparations."

Sometimes, these folks just don't think ahead.

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

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THE WATERGATE COMPARISON.... There was one other thing John McCain said on "Face the Nation" yesterday that stood out for me. The Arizona Republican was explaining his belief that accountability for Bush administration officials responsible for torture policies would be a mistake. He eventually told host Bob Schieffer:

"Finally, you were around when President Ford pardoned President Nixon. There were allegations of criminal activity on the part of the president of the United States. Most people in retrospect believe that Ford's pardon was right, because we moved on. We have got to move on."

Putting aside the question of whether Ford was right to pardon Nixon, it's an interesting comparison for McCain to make. Nixon, after all, had committed a series of crimes. He was poised to be removed from office before he resigned in disgrace. There was ample of evidence to suggest Nixon was guilty of criminal wrongdoing.

McCain, by bringing up Nixon, seems to be putting Bush in a similar category. Indeed, it's almost as if McCain sees a historical parallel -- Nixon broke the law as part of the Watergate scandal, but was ultimately let off the hook. The Bush administration broke the law by utilizing torture techniques, and, the argument goes, should also be left to history's judgment.

With this in mind, I wonder what McCain and others like him will consider the next logical step. Will we start to hear conservative clamoring for President Obama to pardon Bush and his team? Who'll be the first high-profile Republican voice to say, "Obama says he wants to look forward; he can prove it by ending the controversy once and for all and pardoning Bush"?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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April 26, 2009
By: Hilzoy


From the NYT:

"The rest of the nation may be getting back to basics, but on Wall Street, paychecks still come with a golden promise.

Workers at the largest financial institutions are on track to earn as much money this year as they did before the financial crisis began, because of the strong start of the year for bank profits.

Even as the industry's compensation has been put in the spotlight for being so high at a time when many banks have received taxpayer help, six of the biggest banks set aside over $36 billion in the first quarter to pay their employees, according to a review of financial statements."

The fact that the very banks who just caused the world's economy to collapse are helping themselves to the same pay they made when they were earning record profits has occasioned a certain amount of snark from the class warriors of the hard left. But I think they're wrong. The banks' profits in the first quarter absolutely justify enormous paychecks, since they had to be made to appear where the uninitiated might see no profits at all.

Consider Citi: it made a profit of $1.6 billion, of which $2.7 billion was gains booked because -- get this -- its creditworthiness went down. To those of us outside the financial services industry, this might sound fishy: how can the fact that people think you're getting more likely to default mean that you are doing better? Here's the answer:

"When the debt declines in value, the banks have to assume at the end of the quarter that they bought the debt back and retired it. The banks would "buy it back" at a lower price, so they get to make a profit. Here's an example: Imagine that a bank has a bond that was once worth 100 cents on the dollar and is now trading at 60 cents on the dollar. At the end of the quarter, the bank has to assume it would buy that debt back at 60 cents -- which is essentially a profit of 40 cents.

That's what happened to Citigroup in the first quarter. Citigroup had a rough quarter in which investors showed little faith in the bank's future by widening the spreads on the bank's credit-default swaps. As those spreads widened, they sent the message that investors believed Citigroup would be less profitable. In a nice twist, the widening spreads also triggered an accounting rule that allowed Citigroup to record a profit."

Citi would have booked over a billion in losses without this -- and that's without getting into the other fascinating ways in which they made their earnings look more impressive than they otherwise have seemed. Bank of America did the same thing. Wells Fargo also deserves credit for using other accounting rules to make profits appear where none had been before.

But all of these feats of accounting pale before the astonishing achievement of Goldman Sachs, which is on track to pay employees almost as much, on average, as it did in 2007. That might seem excessive -- until you realize that in order to book a profit, Goldman Sachs had (among other things) to make an entire month disappear -- a month with a pretax loss of $1.3 billion. That's not easy to do -- but the intrepid Goldman employees made it happen. I'd say that deserves a raise.

If it weren't for the magicians on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs might have had to make do with twelve months like everyone else. Citi and Bank of America would not have been able to transform their deteriorating credit into big profits. Their actual loans disintegrate before our eyes, along with the rest of the economy; there seems to be no relief in sight; and lo! they make profits appear out of thin air. If Penn and Teller deserve their millions, why not Wall Street?

Hilzoy 11:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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MCCAIN ON 'BAD ADVICE'.... On CBS's "Face the Nation" this morning, John McCain dismissed the entire idea of criminal wrongdoing in relation to the Bush administration's torture policies. "No one," McCain said, "has alleged 'wrongdoing'" on the part of former administration officials. He added, "We need to put this behind us. We need to move forward."

In the same interview, however, McCain also said this:

"[Bybee] falls into the same category as everybody else as far as giving very bad advice and misinterpreting, fundamentally, what the United States is all about, much less things like the Geneva Conventions. Look, under President Reagan we signed an agreement against torture. We were in violation of that."

Right, we were in violation of that. It's kind of the point of the debate.

The problem, then, is with John McCain's definition of "wrongdoing." As Metavirus noted, the reference to the agreement endorsed by Reagan was the United Nations Convention Against Torture, signed in 1988. The Bush administration, McCain conceded, was "in violation of that."

Given this, it sure would be helpful if McCain could clarify matters for us. McCain believes Bush administration officials aren't guilty of "wrongdoing," so there's no need for any kind of investigation. McCain also believes Bush administration officials violated U.S. and international law.

So, I'm curious -- what, exactly, does McCain consider "wrongdoing"? And why should U.S. officials deliberately ignore evidence of violations of the law?

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME.... Most of the major news outlets are trying to come up with interesting ways to report on President Obama's first 100 days in office, some more creative than others. The Murdoch-owned New York Post decided to go with "100 Days, 100 Mistakes: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and others on Obama's short, error-prone time in office."

Far-right blogs seem thrilled. And why not? After all, if the New York Post asked for contributions from insightful luminaries like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Joe Scarborough, it's bound to be a shrewd and thought-provoking look at the last three months, right? The paper's conservative ownership and editors no doubt thought creating such a list would be a good idea.

So, I dug in, reading all 100 "mistakes." Obama's start hasn't been perfect, by any means, but if these "mistakes" are the best Palin, Beck, Scarborough, and the New York Post's editors can come up with, the White House has reason to be pleased.

For example, did you know the president made a "mistake" by not taking the recent "Tea Parties" seriously? Obama also made a "mistake" when a Bush administration official wrote a report warning of potentially-violent American radicals. When one poll showed public opposition to an administration policy, while another showed public support for the same policy, that counts as a presidential "mistake."

When the Dow fell below 7,000, it was a "mistake" for Obama. When the president pre-empted an episode of "American Idol," that's a "mistake," too. When Joe Biden forgot the url for recovery.org, that's also an Obama "mistake." If the president even thinks about policies the New York Post disapproves of, they all count as "mistakes."


In some instances, the New York Post just makes stuff up, relying on rumors and bogus conservative myths. There were "reports" the Vatican disapproved of the administration's proposed ambassadors -- the reports were wrong -- so that's an Obama "mistake." The Post falsely said Obama's inauguration cost "triple" Bush's, and that's Obama's "mistake," too.

Ironically, the Post ends up making the opposite of the intended point. If Obama's brief tenure in the Oval office has been "error-prone," shouldn't the conservative paper and its conservative contributors come up with actual mistakes, instead of a bunch of made-up stuff?

Don't get me wrong, Obama has made real errors, some more serious than others. In some key civil liberties areas, the administration has been misguided. In reaching out to congressional Republicans on the economic recovery package, the president made some tactical mistakes that led to a weaker bill. Nominating Judd Gregg for the cabinet was a genuine mistake. And whatever genius thought it was a good idea to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some DVDs -- discs that don't even work in England -- was clearly not thinking.

But the fact that the very silly New York Post couldn't come up with a real list with credible errors actually makes me feel better about Obama's first few months, not worse.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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A TWIST OF THE 'KEPT US SAFE' ARGUMENT.... As the Bush/Cheney administration was poised to end, and there were an abundance of pieces reflecting on the Bush era, the most common defense tended to be that Bush "kept us safe." I've never understood this argument.

Indeed, it's generally offered with a series of pretty important caveats. Except for the catastrophic events of 9/11, and the anthrax attacks, and terrorist attacks against U.S. allies, and the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush's inability to capture those responsible for 9/11, and waging an unnecessary war that inspired more terrorists, and the success terrorists had in exploiting Bush's international unpopularity, the former president's record on counter-terrorism was awesome.

Now, with recent torture revelations bringing the Bush/Cheney record back into focus, we're not only hearing the "kept us safe" argument again, we're hearing it the context of abusing detainees. Noemi Emery makes the case in the Weekly Standard (via Matt Duss).

Some Democrats, from the White House on down, are pushing the idea of a "truth commission," a la South Africa, to deal with the "harsh measures" used by the Bush administration in interrogating al Qaeda detainees. Good. Let's have lots of truthtelling. Please bring it on.

Let's tell the truth about Bush's conduct of the war on terror, which is that it's been a success. His ultimate legacy hasn't been written -- Iraq is improved, but not out of danger -- but the one thing that can be said without reservation is that the country was kept safe. He delivered on the main charge of his office in time of emergency, in a crisis without guidelines or precedent. Attacks took place in Spain, and in London, in Indonesia and India, but not on American soil, which was the obvious target of choice. Bush couldn't say this before he left office, for obvious reasons, and after he left, attention switched to the new president. This little fact dropped down the memory hole, but with all this discussion, it will rise to the surface.

First, the notion that the former president was reluctant to talk about his national security record before he left office is pretty silly. Bush and Cheney, in the hopes of giving their legacy a boost, spoke about little else towards the end of their terms. Indeed, Duss noted, "Bush said this a lot before he left office. In fact, he delivered a special last formal address to the nation specifically to make that point."

Second, Emery's is setting the bar awfully low for "success." As Matt Yglesias concluded, "I find this whole line of argument truly and deeply baffling. The overwhelming majority of Americans to ever be killed by foreign terrorists were killed during Bush's presidency. And even if you give him a pass on 9/11 itself it's still the case that his conduct of the 'war on terror' led to the deaths of thousands more Americans."

Emery is so convinced of Bush's counter-terrorism "success," she wants the torture debate -- it still pains me to type those two words together -- to help shine a light of the former president's record on the issue. Indeed, she's taunting Bush's critics on this, saying, "Please bring it on."

How very odd.

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

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QUIT WHILE YOU'RE BEHIND.... The National Organization for Marriage became something of a national laughingstock recently with the release of its "Gathering Storm" ad, which has already launched a thousand parodies. The New York Times' Frank Rich took the ad slightly more seriously in his column last week, explaining, "It is justice, not a storm, that is gathering. Only those who have spread the poisons of bigotry and fear have any reason to be afraid."

In a letter to the editor, Maggie Gallagher, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, responds. (via tristero)

I believe that marriage matters because children need a mother and a father, and I have spent the last five years warning that opposition to gay marriage will be treated as bigotry. Now Frank Rich describes the National Organization for Marriage's "Gathering Storm" ad as "The Bigots' Last Hurrah" (column, April 19).

I am not the only one Mr. Rich is calling a bigot. In a March CBS News poll, only a third of Americans said they supported gay marriage.

I am proud of the "Gathering Storm" ad precisely because it lets the American people know the truth: Gay marriage has consequences. Name-calling will not change that.

I don't want to alarm anyone, but it appears opponents of marriage equality haven't come up with very good arguments.

Gallagher believes children "need a mother and a father." That's a dubious claim in its own right -- plenty of happy and healthy children are raised by single parents or parents of the same gender -- but more importantly, what does it have to do with gay marriage? This seems like an argument against banning gay adoption -- which is also ridiculous -- or perhaps the case for banning divorce among couples with children.

But more to the point, Gallagher apparently believes "Gathering Storm" proves that there are negative "consequences" for allowing consenting adults to get married. I've seen the ad; Gallagher is deeply confused.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THEY'RE GOING TO NEED MORE TEA BAGS.... Chances are, White House officials are going to be pleased with the results of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, which shows President Obama with a surprisingly-high 69% approval rating.

Some of the highlights of from the poll:

* Right Track/Wrong Track: Respondents were asked, "Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?" 50% said we're going in the right direction, up from 8% in October, and the highest number in six years.

* Congress: Asked about the parties' performances in Congress, 45% approve of the way congressional Democrats are doing their job. For Republicans, it was 30%.

* Institutional confidence: Respondents were asked who leaders' ability to "make the right decisions for the country's future." Just 21% are confident in congressional Republicans. For congressional Democrats, it was 36%. For President Obama, it was 60%.

* Presidential support: In addition to a 69% approval rating, 73% said Obama "understands the problems" of people like them; 77% see him as a strong leader; 73% said he can be trusted in a crisis; 90% said he is "willing to listen to different points of view"; 74% said he's honest and trustworthy; 60% said he shares the values of the poll respondent; 63% credit him for bringing needed change to Washington; and 56% said he is a good commander-in-chief.

* The handshake: Respondents were asked, "Obama has met or said he's willing to meet with leaders of foreign countries that have been hostile toward the United States. Do you support or oppose his approach to dealing with such countries? Do you support/oppose this strongly or somewhat?" To the disappoint of Fox News and Republican activists everywhere, 71% support the president's approach.

* Torture: If there's one area of disappointment in the poll, it relates to the renewed debate over torture. Americans support Obama's decision to release the torture memos, but by a narrow margin, 53% to 44%. Asked about whether the U.S. government should or should not torture, the public was largely split -- 49% are opposed, 48% said "there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects."

Asked about investigating Bush administration officials who may have broken laws related to detainee abuse, 51% said the Obama administration should investigate, 47% disagreed.

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

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BRODER'S OTHER MISTAKE.... Yesterday, Hilzoy explained very well why it's a mistake for David Broder to assume he knows what Bush administration critics are thinking when it comes to taking torture seriously. Sure, Broder argues, those who support the rule of law have a "plausible-sounding rationale," but he just knows that we're really motivated by "an unworthy desire for vengeance." As Hilzoy asked, "[W]ho died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud?"

But before we leave David Broder's column behind, there was one other claim that warrants some attention.

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places -- the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department -- by the proper officials.

How Broder reached this conclusion is unclear -- he didn't point to any evidence of a "deliberate, and internally well-debated" process -- but based on what we've learned, this is shockingly wrong.

Consider this jaw-dropping report that ran in the New York Times on Wednesday (presumably before Broder's deadline).

The program began with Central Intelligence Agency leaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terrorist interrogations without risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on Americans during military training. How could that be torture?

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved -- not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

These policies weren't the result of a "deliberate" and "internally well-debated" process, they were thrown together, without any thought to the techniques' history or even effectiveness. "Internally well-debated" makes it sound as if there a spirited discussion among administration officials. There wasn't -- as was too often the case in the Bush administration, decisions were made without dissenting voices.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective.

A former C.I.A. official told the NYT the process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm."

If Broder thinks this in any way resembles a "deliberate, and internally well-debated" process, he would do well to reference a dictionary.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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KEEP TRYING, LAMAR.... Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) conceded to the New York Times that Republicans have not yet "found our voice" during Obama's presidency. To help prove the point, Alexander delivered the party's weekly multimedia address yesterday.

"We Americans always have had a love-hate relationship with the French. Which was why it was so galling last month when the Democratic Congress passed a budget with such big deficits that it makes the United States literally ineligible to join France in the European Union.

"Now of course we don't want to be in the European Union. We're the United States of America. But French deficits are lower than ours, and their president has been running around sounding like a Republican -- lecturing our president about spending so much."

Yes, we now have conservative Republicans citing the French as a source to criticize American leadership. Times sure have changed.

The annoying part of this, of course, is the notion that we're "literally ineligible" for the European Union (irrespective of our distance from Europe). Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently made the same argument, telling MSNBC, "We won't even be able to get into the EU if we wanted to because our government is so large and so huge."

If this is going to become a new GOP talking point, it's probably worth noting how terribly wrong it is. The EU requires budget deficits of less than 3% for members, and a national debt below 60% GDP.

But Alexander and Gregg forgot to do their homework. The EU offers flexibility to governments that are responding to economic crises -- note to Republicans: we're in the midst of an economic crisis -- and several EU members will run deficits well above 3% this year. Those countries will be expected to lower those deficits in the coming years, which not incidentally, is what the Obama administration plans to do in the U.S.

In other words, Alexander and Gregg don't know what they're talking about.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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By: Hilzoy

Swine Flu

From the Washington Post:

"The World Health Organization rushed to convene an emergency meeting Saturday to develop a response to the "pandemic potential" of a new swine flu virus that has sparked a deadly outbreak in Mexico and spread to disparate parts of the United States.

Health officials reported that at least eight students at a private high school in New York City had "probable" swine flu. They also confirmed three new cases -- two in Kansas and one in California -- bringing the total number of confirmed U.S. cases to 11. The president of Mexico, where the outbreak has killed as many as 81 people, issued an order granting his government broad powers to isolate patients and question travelers. (...)

The virus, for which there is no vaccine for humans, has nearly brought Mexico City to a halt. Normally congested downtown streets in this city of 20 million were almost empty Saturday, and of the few people who ventured outside, many said they did so only out of necessity. Soldiers posted at subway stations handed out face masks to passersby from the back of armored vehicles. Some pedestrians covered their mouths and noses with scarves and rags.

"We can't escape the air," said Antonio Gonzáles, 56, who wore a surgical mask outside a public hospital. "If it was something in the food, we'd have a chance."

The Mexican government reported more than 1,300 suspected cases of the virus, which mixes animal and human strains of flu. Bars and nightclubs, schools, gallery openings and sporting events were cancelled until further notice. Authorities advised people to wash their hands regularly and avoid the customary greeting of kissing on the cheek. The government issued a decree giving the Health Ministry power to enter people's homes, close public events, isolate patients, and inspect travelers and their baggage.

The Associated Press reported that 24 new cases of the flu emerged Saturday in Mexico."

Thus far, the Mexican version seems to be much more virulent than the US version, despite the fact that "partial comparisons of the genetic sequences of the Mexican and American cases shows them to be essentially the same". There could be any number of explanations for this: "some difference in the information (looking at severely ill versus routine surveillance of outpatients), some difference in the virus (while the viruses are said to be "genetically identical" this is true only in the parts that have so far been compared) or some co-factor (e.g., co-infection with another pathogen)."

However, it seems likely that there has been human-to-human transmission, which is worrisome. Moreover, the casualties in Mexico seem to have been disproportionately healthy young adults. On NPR today, Laurie Garrett gave two possible explanations for this: it might be that children and the elderly got the regular flu vaccine, and that it confers some protection to this new strain of influenza, which would be good; or it might be the dreaded cytokine storm: basically, a lethal overreaction by the immune system. This is thought to be the reason why young adults were disproportionately represented among the casualties of the pandemic of 1918: since they have stronger immune systems, the overreaction was more likely to be fatal.

If we're lucky, this will continue to be relatively mild in this country, and the steps Mexico is taking will do the trick. Just in case, though, now might be a good time to download this flu manual (pdf; h/t DemFromCT at dKos.) Unnecessary preparation beats being caught unprepared by a flu pandemic.

Good blogs on this topic: Effect Measure, H5N1, Aetiology, DemFromCT at dKos, ScienceInsider.

Hilzoy 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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April 25, 2009
By: Hilzoy

My Allegedly Vengeful Heart

In an unprecedented, shocking development, David Broder is against any sort of accountability for what he refers to as "torture":

"If ever there were a time for President Obama to trust his instincts and stick to his guns, that time is now, when he is being pressured to change his mind about closing the books on the "torture" policies of the past."

I normally think that there's a presumption in favor of enforcing the law, and that people who think it should be ignored have the burden of proof. So what sorts of arguments does Broder offer in support of his view? Well:

"Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more -- the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps -- or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance."

To which I have two responses. First, who died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud? How on earth does he presume to know what the actually motivates those of us who think that the people who authorized torture should be investigated? Speaking for myself: I have never met David Broder. As far as I know, he has no idea that I exist. So how does he know that underneath my "plausible-sounding rationale" lurks "an unworthy desire for vengeance"? And how, stranger still, does he presume to know this about everyone who thinks this -- a group that (as Greg Sargent notes) included 62% of the American public before the latest memos were released?

Second: let's just stipulate for the sake of argument that all of us who favor investigating torture do, in fact, have "an unworthy desire for vengeance". So what? Suppose our "plausible-sounding argument" is actually true: "without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations." In that case, by not investigating torture now, we would be setting ourselves up for future government lawbreaking. Isn't it obvious that preventing this matters more than anyone's motives?

What matters is whether this is the right thing to do. If it is, then we should do it. If it isn't, then we should not. Motives don't matter here -- any more than it would have mattered if some of the people who favored getting into World War II had an unreasonable hatred of Germans in general, or the people who brought Brown v. Board really just wanted to get into the history books.

Broder's best stab at an actual argument is this:

"The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places -- the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department -- by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has -- thankfully -- made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice."

When people talk about "criminalizing policy differences", there's a crucial, question-begging assumption, namely: that no one actually broke the law. If that's right, and if we know that it is, then of course investigating previous administrations for law-breaking is just a "vendetta". But whether or not laws were broken is precisely the point at issue.

If laws were broken, then the fact that they were broken as the result of "a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places" is no excuse -- if anything, it makes investigation and prosecution all the more important. And it also means that the people who favor prosecution are not the ones who "criminalize politics". That honor goes to the people who broke the laws while holding public office.

If we care about the rule of law, and about the idea that ours is a country of laws, not of men, then we should investigate those who break the laws, especially when they hold high office. The Presidency is a public trust, not a license for criminality.

Hilzoy 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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BYBEE'S 'REGRET'.... Unlike the other Bush administration officials who provided the justification for torture policies, Jay Bybee currently enjoys a lifetime appointment on a federal appeals court. The nomination was an insult, his confirmation was absurd, and as amn NYT recently noted, "These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him."

As the jurist comes under closer scrutiny, Bybee's friends want the political world to know that the poor guy just feels awful about the whole mess. The Washington Post was kind enough to publish a lengthy piece today on Bybee's "regret."

"I've heard him express regret at the contents of the memo," said a fellow legal scholar and longtime friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while offering remarks that might appear as "piling on." "I've heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I've heard him express regret at the lack of context -- of the enormous pressure and the enormous time pressure that he was under. And anyone would have regrets simply because of the notoriety."

This probably isn't the right way to pushback against the criticism. The usual line from Bush administration officials is that the torture really was legally justified, and really did save lives. They're wrong, of course, but that's not really the point. For conservatives, there's nothing to "regret" at all. Indeed, the torture is to be applauded. Bybee, for the right, is a "hero."

But if Bybee feels bad about all of this, it suggests maybe the infamous Bybee Memo was a mistake. If he's filled with regret, maybe he realizes his legal guidance was wrong. Indeed, Bybee's anonymous friend said the torture memo "got away from him," and ended up in a place Bybee "never intended." Another source said Bybee "was not pleased" with the memo that bore his name.

I'd find it a lot easier to believe this if Bybee were to say something publicly, and perhaps explain his conduct.

The Post piece added that Bybee didn't even want to work in the OLC in the first place.

Bybee's friends said he never sought the job at the Office of Legal Counsel. The reason he went back to Washington, [Randall] Guynn said, was to interview with then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales for a slot that would be opening on the 9th Circuit when a judge retired. The opening was not yet there, however, so Gonzales asked, "Would you be willing to take a position at the OLC first?" Guynn said.

Being unable to answer for what followed is "very frustrating," said Guynn, who spoke to Bybee before agreeing to be interviewed.

But that's hardly helpful. As Adam Serwer explained, "So Bybee knew he was breaking the law in allowing the use of torture, but you have to understand, he only did it because he really wanted to be a federal judge."

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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MAKING STUDENT LOAN REFORM POSSIBLE.... This should be a no-brainer. The student-loan industry is getting government subsidies to provide a service the government can perform for less. Obama can remove the middle-man, streamline the process, save taxpayers a lot money, and help more young people get college degrees.

Lobbyists, Republicans, and Democrats with the student-loan industry in their districts not only oppose reform, but have the votes to sustain a filibuster to prevent the changes from passing. It's why there were two key angles to the reconciliation breakthrough this week. The first, obviously, was health care. But the second was making student-loan reform possible, too.

The procedural shortcut, known as reconciliation, would make it far easier to pass Obama's student loan plan -- which has drawn opposition from lawmakers in both parties -- as well as his proposal to expand health coverage for the uninsured. Reconciliation bills are tax or spending measures that cannot be blocked by filibuster, meaning the Senate needs only 51 votes to pass them instead of the usual 60. Democrats hold 58 Senate seats.

Supporters of Obama's agenda cheered the agreement. In a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it "a very, very encouraging sign" that Congress will act to "transform the educational opportunities of millions of students for years to come."

Before this week, the biggest hurdle for changing the system has been Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat who has vowed to do whatever it takes to derail the White House plan to streamline the federal student-loan program. For Nelson, government subsidies for private student lenders is a key industry in Nebraska, and with him working with the GOP on this, the chances of overcoming Republican obstruction with 60 votes was almost impossible.

This week, the president found a way to go around Nelson. Here's hoping it's not the last time.

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LEARNING A VALUABLE LESSON.... From President Obama's perspective, his White House has reached out to congressional Republicans, only to see the outstretched hand slapped away. It seems the president has grown less inclined to engage those who aren't interested in being credible governing partners.

In a meeting with House Republicans at the White House Thursday, President Obama reminded the minority that the last time he reached out to them, they reacted with zero votes -- twice -- for his stimulus package. And then he reminded them again. And again. And again.

A GOP source familiar with the meeting said that the president was extremely sensitive -- even "thin-skinned" -- to the fact that the stimulus bill received no GOP votes in the House. He continually brought it up throughout the meeting.

Obama also offered payback for that goose egg. A major overhaul of the health care system, he told the Republican leadership, would be done using a legislative process known as reconciliation, meaning that the GOP won't be able to filibuster it.... Democratic aides said that Obama made clear to the GOP leadership that he would continue to work in a bipartisan way, but that they didn't have veto power over health care policy.

Well, good. The flaw in the stimulus package, and the process around it, was the administration's efforts to aim for an 80-vote majority in the Senate, including all kinds of provisions the White House assumed would garner GOP support. By the time the president realized the minority party wanted nothing but tax cuts and spending cuts, it was too late to make the bill more ambitious. Republicans showed their appreciation for Obama's efforts by trashing him, blasting his recovery efforts, and rejecting it in large numbers. Since then, the minority party hasn't even tried to play a constructive role on any issue.

Why, with this recent history in mind, would the White House expect a serious, good-faith process with Republicans on health care?

It reflects an apparent shift in the president's approach. The Politico reported yesterday, "The truth is that Obama aides don't really care if they win over Republicans, as long as the public sees the president as making a genuine attempt at it. In fact, some Obama officials think he's better off with a standoff against an unpopular Republican Party. "

That certainly makes sense. The GOP is awfully unpopular, and the more the administration can pass its agenda without having to water it down for the right, the better it is for the president.

By any reasonable measure, Republicans just don't have anything substantive to offer right now. By their own admission, GOP lawmakers want to mount an insurgency and consider their top goal to be driving down Democratic poll numbers.

So, why pretend? The parties disagree with one another. They want to take the country in very different directions. The majority party will offer proposals, and the minority party will criticize the proposal with varying degrees of rage.

If the White House really is done taking Republican outreach seriously, it's about time.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THWARTING ATTACKS -- OR NOT.... When rationalizing torture, Bush administration officials and their allies frequently insist that abusing detainees was not only effective in acquiring valuable intelligence, but actually saved American lives by thwarting terrorist attacks. This week, the argument was especially common.

The argument has been around for quite a while, and Bush and Cheney used to repeat it with some regularity while in office. The proof has been thinner than thin -- the right generally relies on the alleged plot against the Library Tower in Los Angeles, and that talking point has already been thoroughly debunked. If that's the best evidence of torture preventing attacks, the right's argument falls apart.

As it turns out, as more information becomes available, the argument is falling apart anyway. (via Atrios)

The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any "specific imminent attacks," according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.

That undercuts assertions by former vice president Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials that the use of harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, which is widely considered torture, was justified because it headed off terrorist attacks.

This is in line with comments from former FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Bush appointee, who was asked late last year whether the Bush administration's "enhanced" interrogation techniques had actually thwarted any terrorist plots. Mueller replied, "I don't believe that has been the case."

Now, just to clarify, this all relates to the "effectiveness" argument preferred by conservatives. It's not important to evaluate torture programs on moral, legal, ethical, or diplomatic grounds, the argument goes. If abusing detainees "works," the tactics are worthwhile.

The "effectiveness" argument is itself a misguided approach, for all the reasons that are now familiar (torture is illegal; it's immoral; it encourages terrorism; the information can be gleaned through non-torture methods, etc.). But the more Republican rhetoric about torture thwarting terrorist plots is also debunked, the more it tells us the right simply doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE CREW NOTICED.... When the recent hostage standoff with Somali pirates and Captain Richard Phillips was resolved, most Americans were obviously pleased with the results. A small handful weren't, and it appears at least some of the crew of the Maersk Alabama noticed.

Shane Murphy, second-in-command aboard the ship seized by Somali pirates this month, is happy to be home. But he's not happy to be sharing turf with land-lubber Rush Limbaugh, who politicized the pirate affair by referring to the pirates as "black teenagers."

"It feels great to be home," said Murphy in an interview with WCBV in Boston. "It feels like everyone around here has my back, with the exception of Rush Limbaugh, who is trying to make this into a race issue ... that's disgusting."

Limbaugh, questioning the president's leadership and priorities, said Obama "was worried about the order he had given to wipe out three teenagers on the high seas -- black Muslim teenagers."

"You gotta get with us or against us here, Rush," Murphy said. "The president did the right thing ... It's a war.... It's about good versus evil. And what you said is evil. It's hate speech. I won't tolerate it."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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QUESTIONS ONLY FOX NEWS WOULD ASK.... Most national polls from major news outlets are interesting for their results. Fox News polls are interesting for their questions. Most reputable news outlets try to maintain a degree of seriousness with their poll questions. Fox News, though, prefer to add a little panache to their surveys.

It's always a bit of a mystery -- what kind of nutty questions can Fox News come up with now? The network released a new poll (pdf) yesterday, with the kind of gems we've come to expect.

* "Do you believe Barack Obama's three point six trillion dollar budget plan will help stabilize the nation's economy, or not?"

Notice the emphasis on the size of the budget. As Steve M. noted, there were no similar polls asking respondents for their thoughts on George W. Bush's $3.1 trillion budget plan.

* "Some people think that water-boarding and other forms of harsh interrogation techniques don't work, while others say those interrogation techniques gave the United States valuable information about Al Qaeda to stop additional attacks. Which do you agree with more -- harsh interrogation techniques are useless or that they can provide valuable information?"

For Fox News, opponents of torture are simply concerned about effectiveness, while torture apologists want to stop terrorists from killing us. Fair and balanced.

* "Regardless of whether or not you think harsh interrogation techniques work, do you think the CIA should be allowed to use these techniques to obtain information from prisoners that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks?"

Again, for the network, the way to prevent terrorism is for the U.S. to commit acts of torture.

* "If there were a possibility that another major terrorist attack on the scale of the September 11 attacks could be prevented, then do you think the CIA should be allowed to use these techniques to obtain information from prisoners?"

You have a choice: 9/11 or harsh interrogation techniques. That's fair, right?

* "Does the release of information on the methods used by the CIA to interrogate Al Qaeda terrorists make you feel safer or less safe?"

Notice that, as far as Fox News is concerned, every detainee forced to endure abuse was an al Qaeda terrorist.

* "The Secretary of Homeland Security has stopped using the word terrorism and instead uses the phrase 'man-caused disasters.' Do you think President Obama should use the word terrorism when referring to threats from terrorists or should he say man-caused disasters?"

The Secretary of Homeland Security has not stopped using the word "terrorism." In general, polls are more reliable if those asking the questions refrain from lying to poll respondents.

* "In talking about what might happen to detainees when the Guantanamo Bay prison is closed, recently National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said some of the prisoners may be released in the United States and suggested it may be necessary to give them assistance for them to start a new life. Do you favor or oppose using taxpayer dollars to help prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay?"

Even by the Republican network's standards, this is cheap. Blair was referring to Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, who are not terrorists.

* "As you may have heard, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently suggested that U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might be susceptible for recruitment into rightwing extremists groups -- do you think she is right and it is a possibility, or do you think such a suggestion is an insult to veterans?"

The Secretary of Homeland Security never "suggested" anything of the sort. The report was, after all, prepared by a Bush administration official. By Fox News' logic, George W. Bush and Michael Chertoff "recently suggested that U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might be susceptible for recruitment into rightwing extremists groups."

It's quite a "news" network.

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

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THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) probably has reason to feel a little sensitive. She's called for her supporters to be "armed and dangerous." She's also talked publicly about the need for conservatives to "rise up" as part of a "revolution" against the elected leadership of the United States. Indeed, she's even rationalized this kind of talk by suggesting that the president intends to create a Marxist dictatorship, do away with American currency, and send children to re-education camps.

So, when the Department of Homeland Security reports to law-enforcement officials about potentially-violent radicals on the fringes of American society, Rep. Bachmann might be inclined to think, "Wait, they're talking about me!"

With this in mind, I found it rather ... what's the word ... amusing when Bachmann took to the floor of the House this week to ask whether Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has gone "absolutely stark raving mad."

Seriously, sometimes these clowns make it a little too easy.

Bachmann then jumped into the paranoid waters, head first. "What's going to happen now?" she asked. "Will the federal government start IDing returning veterans? Start IDing gun owners? Start IDing prolifers -- and then pull us out of the line for special searches at the airports before we're allowed to get on the plane because we could be considered a rightwing domestic terrorist while we would see Osama bin Laden and his friends skate by because they're not...?"

I also loved this line: "It is intriguing to me, we have a report now that says ... 80 percent of the American people would be classified as 'right-wing extremists' under this report. Couple that with a statement made by President Obama during the campaign that we need to have a federal police force the size of the military. Add it up."

"Add it up," as in, there's a conspiracy afoot that Bachmann sees and the rest of us don't. Indeed, in the next breath, Bachmann added that it's "no wonder" people are stockpiling weapons and ammunition, since they see "the handwriting on the wall," and need to be prepared for the Obama administration, which is "looking at weapon bans."

Remember, she thinks others have gone "absolutely stark raving mad."

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE JPRA CALLED IT 'TORTURE'.... One of the principal pushback arguments from the right this week is that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the Bush administration did not constitute "torture." It's part of the same semantics game proponents of the policies have been playing for years: define "torture" to exclude administration-endorsed tactics and boast proudly, "We don't torture."

But in 2002, the military not only advised against the harsh interrogation methods, officials also felt comfortable using the appropriate label for the tactics.

The military agency that provided advice on harsh interrogation techniques for use against terrorism suspects referred to the application of extreme duress as "torture" in a July 2002 document sent to the Pentagon's chief lawyer and warned that it would produce "unreliable information."

"The unintended consequence of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners is that it could be used by our adversaries as justification for the torture of captured U.S. personnel," says the document, an unsigned two-page attachment to a memo by the military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. Parts of the attachment, obtained in full by The Washington Post, were quoted in a Senate report on harsh interrogation released this week.

It remains unclear whether the attachment reached high-ranking officials in the Bush administration. But the document offers the clearest evidence that has come to light so far that technical advisers on the harsh interrogation methods voiced early concerns about the effectiveness of applying severe physical or psychological pressure.

Since the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency ran the SERE training program, presumably it knows what, exactly, constitutes torture and what doesn't. For that matter, the fact that the JPRA concluded that torture doesn't work and shouldn't be used probably should have had some influence in the administration.

The next question is whether anyone in a position of authority actually saw the JPRA's warnings. We know that when Philip Zelikow, a top State Department lawyer under Condoleezza Rice, wrote a memo rejecting the OLC's arguments in 2005 justifying abusive interrogation techniques, the Bush White House "attempted to collect and destroy all copies" of his memo. Did something similar happen with the JRPA's memos? The thought has apparently occurred to some people.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he thinks the attachment was deliberately ignored and perhaps suppressed. ... "It's part of a pattern of squelching dissent," said Levin, who added that there were other instances in which internal reviews of detainee treatment were halted or undercut. "They didn't want to hear the downside."

Some of this is, of course, based on speculation. As Alex Koppelman noted, "The question is whether any key administration officials knew about this memo or its conclusions, and the Post doesn't have an answer for that."

Perhaps if there were some kind of larger investigation of the administration's conduct, we could fill in the blanks.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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A TOUGH ONE TO SPIN.... It's the job of the parties' campaign committees to put as positive a spin on election results as possible. But now that the results are final in the special election in New York's 20th, I think the NRCC will have to do better than this.

Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that although Tedisco came up short that his message of fiscal discipline provided GOPers a blueprint on which to run next year.

"Since Election Day, we continue to hear the growing chorus of frustrated and concerned citizens who demand more from their government than profligate spending and mountains of debt that will be paid for in higher taxes by our children and grandchildren," said Sessions. "Although Jim was unsuccessful in his hope to change Washington, he has shed light on our Party's efforts to win back the majority in the House."

Frankly, if I worked for the NRCC, I'm not sure what I would have come up with, but suggesting a failed strategy in a Republican district can be duplicated for success elsewhere seems rather foolish.

Tedisco started out with a big lead in the polls, a huge advantage in name recognition, and a built-in benefit thanks to the Republicans' sizable registration advantage in the district. He embraced the national party's economic message and lost.

It doesn't sound like much of a "blueprint."

The day before the election, the Weekly Standard had a piece noting, "[I]f Republicans can't make it in New York's 20th, they can't make it anywhere." No wonder Pete Sessions is at a loss.

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

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By: Hilzoy

Make It So

From the LATimes:

"The Obama administration is preparing to admit into the United States as many as seven Chinese Muslims who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in the first release of any of the detainees into this country, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Their release is seen as a crucial step to plans, announced by President Obama during his first week in office, to close the prison and relocate the detainees. Administration officials also believe that settling some of them in American communities will set an example, helping to persuade other nations to accept Guantanamo detainees too.

But the decision to release the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, is not final and faces challenges from within the government, as well as likely public opposition. Among government agencies, the Homeland Security Department has registered concerns about the plan.

The move would also incense Chinese officials, who consider the Uighurs domestic terrorists and want those held at Guantanamo handed over for investigation. U.S. officials no longer consider the Chinese Muslims to be enemy combatants and fear they would be mistreated in China."

Dear Obama administration: as a member of the public, let me assure you that you need fear no opposition from me. On the contrary: by being willing to step up and do right by some of the people we have imprisoned, you would earn even more of my respect than you have already.

Even the Bush administration tribunals found that the Uighurs were not enemy combatants. They have been imprisoned for seven and a half years. It is long past time to set them free.

Hilzoy 12:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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April 24, 2009

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

* At least 60 people were killed in two more suicide-bomb attacks in Baghdad today. In just 24 hours, "five bombings have killed at least 140 people and wounded 240."

* The latest from Pakistan: "Some Taliban pulled back from a key district not far from the capital on Friday, but remained in control of the area, as the military defended its response, saying it was 'determined to root out the menace of terrorism.'"

* President Obama gave a speech on higher ed today, and talked a bit about curbing the spiraling costs of college tuition.

* The "swine flu" is hitting Mexico in a very big way.

* Ford lost $1.4 billion in the first quarter. That, oddly enough, was considered good news.

* John McCain thinks DHS fired the official who prepared the report on potentially violent right-ring radicals. As is often the case, McCain is apparently confused.

* You don't say: "For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.... But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted."

* Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said any effort to hold Bush administration officials accountable for criminal behavior will lead Republicans to "go to war" and launch a "scorched-earth policy."

* Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist from the McCain/Palin campaign, believes Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 was "the unfinished Bobby Kennedy campaign" from 1968.

* Schmidt also believes the Republican Party is a "shrinking entity."

* On a related note, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) seems confused (again) about what carbon dioxide is.

* Harry Reid isn't ready to impeach Jay Bybee.

* Wouldn't it be great to be able to just look at a detainee and know instantly whether he or she is a national security threat?

* Ambushing Bill O'Reilly's ambusher.

* Washington state is ending felon disenfranchisement. Good.

* I suspected conservative Republicans to freak out over the decision to make Plan B available without a prescription. I just didn't expect the reaction to be this nauseating.

* And Bill Maher ponders whether the Republican Party is "divorced from reality." Take a guess how he answers the question.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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TEDISCO CONCEDES, STEELE SWEATS?.... It took a little longer than expected, but Republican Jim Tedisco conceded the special election in New York's 20th today, and Rep.-Elect Scott Murphy (D) is headed for Capitol Hill.

Murphy takes over in the seat from its previous Democratic occupant, Kirsten Gillibrand, whose appointment to the United States Senate set up the special election for this marginal district.

The election was on March 31, three and a half weeks ago, but it took this long to get a winner because it was so close and involved a lengthy process of counting and litigation of absentee ballots. Still not all of the ballots have been reported in, but it became very clear over the last few days that there was really no way Tedisco could have pulled it off.

Murphy's victory, while expected as the vote tallies came in, is nevertheless something of an upset win for Democrats. New York's 20th is a Republican district -- as recently as 2006, GOP voter registrations in the district outnumbered Democratic registrations by 15 points -- and Republicans invested heavily to win this race. For that matter, Tedisco is a well-known leader in the state legislature, while Murphy only moved to the district three years ago.

It was, at least on paper, a race Republicans should have won. They didn't.

Which leads us to the next question: just how painful is this defeat for RNC Chairman Michael Steele? He not only poured a lot of money into this race, Steele also pointed to New York's 20th as a race that would help turn things around for the Republican Party.

Back in January, Steele boasted, "That win will send a powerful signal to the rest of the country ... that our game is not up,"

That seemed like safe bravado in January, when Tedisco looked like a sure thing. But "that win" has become "that loss." Does that mean, by Steele's reasoning, that a powerful signal has been sent to the rest of the country that the Republican Party's game is up?

There were some rumors in February that a GOP defeat in this special election would put Michael Steele's job in jeopardy. Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ATTACKING GORE'S MOTIVES.... Most of the time, global warming deniers just think Al Gore is wrong. Once in a great while, they'll go much further.

The Hill's Eric Zimmermann has a transcript of this exchange between the former vice president and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee.

BLACKBURN: I've got an article from October 8th, the New York Times Magazine about a firm called Kleiner Perkins. A capital firm called Kleiner Perkins. Are you aware of that company?

GORE: (LAUGHS) Well yes, I'm a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

So you're a partner at Kleiner Perkins. OK. Now they have invested about a billion dollars in 40 companies that are going to benefit from cap and trade legislation. So is the legislation that we're discussing here today, is that something you are going to personally benefit from?

GORE: I believe that the transition to a green economy is good for our economy and good for all of us. And I have invested in it. But every penny that I have made, I have put right into a non-profit, the Alliance for Climate Protection, to spread awareness about why we have to take on this challenge. And Congresswoman, if you're, if you believe the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don't know me.

BLACKBURN: I'm not making accusations. I'm asking questions that have been asked of me. And individuals, constituents that were seeking a point of clarity–

GORE: I understand exactly what you're doing, Congresswoman. Everybody here does.

Undeterred, Blackburn pressed on, asking whether Gore would commit to not making any profit on his activism, and promising to direct activism-related income to a non-profit. Gore patiently explained, "Every penny that I have made has gone to it. Every penny from the movie, from the book, from any investments in renewable energy. I've been willing to put my money where my mouth is. Do you think there's something wrong with being active in business in this country?"

Zimmermann posted the video of the exchange, which is worth watching. By the time Blackburn had said, "I'm not making accusations..." the laughter in the room was audible. She was unambiguously attacking Gore's integrity, arguing that he's working on the issue to enrich himself. It was quite a ridiculous display, even for Blackburn.

On a related note, Gore tried to explain to the climate change deniers that they're the victims of "the Bernie Madoffs of global warming." As Gore put it, "They ordered the of the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money."

In one exchange with Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, the ranking member on the committee, Gore tried to explain that Barton has relied on the wrong people for guidance on science: "With all due respect, I believe that you have relied on people you have trusted who have given you bad information. I do not blame the investors who trusted Bernie Madoff, but he gave them bad information."

Barton replied, "I have never talked to Bernie Madoff."

The poor guy doesn't understand metaphors, either.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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JUST WHAT CNN NEEDED.... The end of the Bush/Cheney era means the end of listening to loyal Bushies spin the news? No such luck. They've moved from the White House to lucrative gigs in the "liberal" media.

Republican strategist Mary Matalin has signed on to serve as a CNN political contributor, the network announced Thursday.

The former Crossfire co-host will appear on programs across the network, including Anderson Cooper 360, State of the Union with John King, and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. [...]

Matalin, a veteran political commentator, served as a senior White House advisor to both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Matalin not only joins the growing list of Republican analysts on CNN's political team (joining Bill Bennett, Alex Castellanos, and Ed Rollins), she's also the latest former staffer in the Bush White House to make the transition to jobs with major media outlets.

It's hard to keep up with them all. Michael Gerson (Washington Post), Sara Taylor (MSNBC), Tony Snow (CNN), Frances Fragos Townsend (CNN), Nicole Wallace (CBS News), Dan Bartlett (CBS News), Jeff Ballabon (CBS News), Tony Fratto (CNBC) and, of course, Karl Rove (Fox News, Newsweek, and Wall Street Journal) have all gone from working for Bush/Cheney to working for the mainstream media.

Remember, conservatives are convinced that these major news outlets were not only deliberately unfair to the Bush administration, but also hate conservatives. The media outlets presumably keep hiring former Bush administration officials as part of an elaborate ruse to throw us off their liberal trail.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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RECONCILIATION GETS A DEADLINE.... It looks like health care reform just got quite a bit more likely.

The Hill reported this afternoon, "Democrats in Congress and the White House have struck a tentative budget deal that includes reconciliation instructions that will make it easier to push through healthcare reform this year."

Jonathan Cohn, citing Hill staffers, fleshes out the details.

It's been in the works for a while and now, according to senior Capitol Hill staffers, it's a done deal: The final budget resolution will include a "reconciliation instruction" for health care. That means the Democrats can pass health care reform with just fifty votes, instead of the sixty it takes to break a filibuster.

The deal was hatched late afternoon and last night, in a five-hour negotiating session at the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A trio of White House officials were there: Rahm Emanuel, Peter Orszag, and Phil Schiliro. Also present, along with Reid, were House Budget Chairman John Spratt and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad.

The reconciliation instruction specifies a date. That date, according to one congressional staffer, is October 15.

So, lawmakers in both parties who've said they want to see some bipartisan cooperation on health care will, apparently, get their chance. In fact, they'll have six months to work out a bill that enjoys broad support.

And if they can't reach a deal by October 15? At that point, according to Cohn's report, the Democratic majority can vote on a bill that Republicans won't be able to filibuster.

The Washington Post has more, noting, "Democrats contend they only want to use reconciliation as a fallback option and would prefer to move health care through the regular order. Republicans are highly skeptical the fast-track process won't be used if available."

And Jason Rosenbaum helps highlight the bottom line: "[T]he GOP has a choice: They can work with Democrats in good faith (something they have declined to do so far), or they can be ignored as Democrats pass the health reform this country so desperately needs with a simple majority vote in the Senate. Either way, progressives won a victory last night, and we're one step closer to winning quality, affordable health care for all."

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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REMEMBER FEBRUARY 2001?.... As part of their "Banana Republic" attacks, Republicans have argued that it's wrong to investigate a presidential administration after it's over. John McCain said, "In Banana Republics they prosecute people for actions they didn't agree with under previous administrations." Kit Bond said, "This whole thing about punishing people in past administrations reminds me more of a Banana Republic than the United States of America. We don't criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office."

And Karl Rove, of course, said it would be "very dangerous" to see one administration "threaten prosecutions against the previous administration, based on policy differences."

As we've talked about this week, this is ridiculous for any number of reasons, but Sam Stein notes the hypocrisy -- by pointing to February 2001.

In the early months of 2001, as the Bush administration was publicly urging people to "look forward," Republicans in Congress were consumed by two decidedly backward-looking investigations. The most prominent of these was the controversial pardon of [Marc] Rich, the fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated heavily to Democratic causes.

This is "outrageous," said then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who called for a congressional investigation. "We should at least take a look at what happened and ask ourselves, should we take some action to try to prevent abuses that do occur?"

"Congress has an obligation to find out if this was appropriate," said House Government Reform Committee Chair Dan Burton (R-IN) on January 26. "[My] panel will obtain 'subpoenas if necessary'"

"It needs to be investigated," said then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I think it is worthy of investigation. The facts cry out for an answer to be given for why is it that this man was pardoned. Because the pardon process is an important thing. ... Until we get the answers to this question, that whole process is put in some jeopardy of being misunderstood by the public."

"While the president alone possesses the power to pardon," said Sen. Mitch McConnell. "it's important to remember that he is not personally exempt from federal laws that prohibit the corrupt actions of all government officials."

And that was just the Marc Rich issue. In 2001, Congress also demanded and received a lengthy investigation into White House "vandalism" caused by Clinton staffers, which ended up lasting nearly nine months.

Now, I suspect the response to this from Republicans is that this was different. The Rich pardon and alleged "vandalism" might have involved high-ranking White House officials engaging in illegal acts. Under those circumstances, GOP lawmakers in 2001 had no choice but to investigate and uphold the law.

Do you suppose it would matter to these same Republican lawmakers that torture is illegal? And systematic abuse is at least as serious a controversial presidential pardon?

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THE 'CHANGE IN LANGUAGE'.... On Fox News this morning, Brian Kilmeade and John McCain sounded pretty bitter about the shift in rhetoric regarding global terrorism.

KILMEADE: Do you have a problem calling terrorists, Islamic extremists, terrorists or using the term terror or man-made disasters?

MCCAIN: No, I don't. Nor do I agree with overseas contingencies because those overseas contingencies can quickly turn into a domestic contingency unless we take care of them overseas.

KILMEADE: But that's the mindset, Senator. Does that mindset worry you?

MCCAIN: I know. It worries me a great deal. But this change in language comes down from the very top.

I can understand why hacks like these two would be frustrated. After all, President Obama -- at the "very top" -- probably should have seen this coming.

Indeed, the Obama White House barely left conservative Republicans with any of their favorite phrases. According to Obama's instructions, Americans aren't supposed to use the word "jihadist" anymore. "Mujahedeen" is out, too. We're also not supposed to refer to al Qaeda as a "movement," and we're not supposed to talk about "Islamo-fascism." Given all of this, there was bound to be some pushback from Republicans and their cable news network.

Wait, did I say "Obama's instructions"? My mistake. I was actually referring to George W. Bush's instructions. In fact, it was the Bush administration that urged us to stop using words like "jihadist," "mujahedeen," and "Islamo-fascism," not the Obama administration.

According to the Bush administration, misuse of imprecise rhetoric may be "unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims." Worse, even when the rhetoric may be accurate, "it may not be strategic because it glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world."

The Bush administration's directive on this was issued just last year. Funny, I don't recall McCain and Fox News complaining at the time about the Bush administration's "mindset" or "change in rhetoric" "worrying" them "a great deal."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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NELSON VS. JOHNSEN.... The efforts to derail Dawn Johnsen's nomination to head the OLC have been painful to watch, not only because she'd serve the nation very well, but because the right-wing attacks against her have been a shameless (and baseless) attempt at character assassination.

Most of the conservative complaints about Johnsen center on her criticism of the Bush administration's rampant law breaking. Adding insult to injury, the Senate's most conservative Democrat is prepared to oppose the Johnsen nomination -- because she's pro-choice.

At least one conservative Democratic senator, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, is signaling that Johnsen won't get his support.

"Senator Nelson is very concerned about the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, based on her previous position as Counsel for NARAL. He believes that the Office of Legal Counsel is a position in which personal views can have an impact and is concerned about her outspoken pro-choice views on abortion," said spokesman Clay Westrope.

Yes, a Democrat is poised to oppose a Democratic president's Justice Department nominee because she worked to protect Americans' reproductive rights, which are already legal and enjoy the support of most of the country.

Of course, under the circumstances, Nelson's vote on the nomination is largely inconsequential -- there are 58 Dems in the Senate. The more pressing issue is the looming Republican filibuster. The GOP not only opposes Johnsen, but doesn't want to allow the Senate to vote on her nomination at all.

Will Nelson go along with that, too? A Nelson staffer told Brian Beutler that the conservative Democrat "hasn't decided yet," but usually opposes "obstruction."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* How much trouble is Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in next year? A new Rasmussen poll shows him trailing his Republican primary opponent, former Rep. Pat Toomey, by 21 points, 51% to 30%.

* There are rumors out of New York's 20th that Republican Jim Tedisco may concede the race this afternoon.

* Under an "expedited" schedule, the Minnesota Supreme Court will begin hearing former Sen. Norm Coleman's (R) appeal on June 1.

* On a related note, two of the Minnesota Supreme Court's seven justices have recused themselves from the case. One of the remaining five, Justice Christopher Dietzen, is a Coleman donor, who apparently intends, at least for now, to hear the case.

* Research 2000's latest poll for Daily Kos shows Republicans strongly favored to keep the governor's mansion in Texas, while the Senate race is far more competitive.

* I'm starting to think former President Bill Clinton is a big fan of Florida Senate candidate Kendrick Meek (D).

* In New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney in the Bush administration, apparently used his office to track U.S. citizens, without warrants, through their cell phones.

* Former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley will not run for the Senate in Illinois next year.

* A long-shot Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Republican Larry Murphy, probably won't apologize for this one: "Rush Limbaugh is a racist, he's a cancer to the Republican Party and he should be excised."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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RECONCILIATION = HEALTH CARE REFORM.... About a month ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) conceded that "Republicans have in the past engaged in using reconciliation to further the party's agenda," and aren't in a position to complain if Democrats choose to do the same. Yesterday, a leading House Republican said something similar.

In an interview with ABC News on Thursday ... Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) went way off script, acknowledging that the mandate delivered by the election gives Democrats the "right" to push their policy proposals.

"It's their right. They did win the election," said Ryan, a respected member of House Republican leadership. "That's what I tell all my constituents who are worried about this. They won the election. They did run on these ideas. They did run on nationalizing health care."

The GOP repeatedly decried Democratic policies during the campaign as socialist and as wealth distribution. Yet voters chose them anyway.

A faction of congressional Democrats is pushing to use a budget process known as reconciliation to push through health care reform. Reconciliation means that only a simple majority is needed to pass the bill in the Senate, defanging any GOP filibuster threats.

"They have the votes with reconciliation," said Ryan. "They nailed down the process so that they can make sure they have the votes and that they can get this thing through really fast. It is their right. It is what they can do."

This, of course, isn't even close to the usual Republican line. The typical argument is that Dems don't have the "right" to pass key bills under reconciliation; only Republicans have that right.

What about the cost of annoying the congressional minority party by using the same legislative tactics they utilized? Igor Volsky makes a compelling case that it seems the reconciliation process is the only realistic way to get health care reform passed, precisely because the congressional minority has no interest in playing a constructive role in the process.

And Jonathan Cohn did a nice job yesterday explaining the larger dynamic: "It's hard to overstate how radically the reconciliation option would shift the dynamics of debate. It's not just that it would make passage of a bill more likely. It's that it would utterly redefine the conversation."

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

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BOEHNER DOES CHENEY'S BIDDING.... Dick Cheney believes there are Bush-era torture documents pointing to the effectiveness of abusing detainees in U.S. custody, and wants the White House to release them. The House Minority Leader has Cheney's back.

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, used the White House meeting to push for the release of more memorandums documenting the use of the harsh techniques, suggesting they could show that the interrogation methods were effective, as former Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed.

The president did not foreclose the release of more documents, officials briefed on the session said. But Mr. Obama suggested to Mr. Boehner that the additional information would not be definitive on the value of the information obtained from the detainees, they said.

It's a little odd for Boehner to suddenly see the value in releasing more classified torture materials. He and his allies have, after all, spent the last week insisting that the mere discussion undermines U.S. national security interests.

But that's what makes yesterday's request interesting. As Greg Sargent explained, "John Boehner and the House GOP leadership have adopted a new position on torture: The only classified info Obama should release about the torture program is that which could prove Dick Cheney's claim that torture worked to be true. This is not an exaggeration. It really is their position."

Right. To hear Boehner tell it, releasing memos pointing to torture is bad. Releasing memos pointing to the effectiveness of torture is good. Releasing the prior without the latter is bad; releasing the latter without the prior is good.

We don't even know if there are documents that separate the torture from the information gleaned from torture, but Boehner and Cheney would sure appreciate it if the president could find out.


And speaking of "effectiveness," publius had a good item yesterday, pointing out yet another serious flaw in evaluating torture policies based on their ability to produce information: it necessarily eliminates limits.

One could, for instance, drag in a detainee's child and begin torturing him or her in front of the detainee. I assume that even the most hardened torture advocates would draw a line there. If they didn't, that tells you pretty much all you need to know.

But if they do concede that certain methods go too far (i.e., that such things are relevant), then they're stuck having to argue that the methods we used simply aren't that bad. In other words, if they concede a line exists, then they're forced to argue that these methods don't cross it.

And defending these methods seems very difficult, if not completely disingenuous.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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ENSIGN KEEPS PUSHING IT.... I'd hoped we were past this nonsense by now.

John Ensign wants to make one thing very clear: he's not sorry for saying it was "irresponsible" of President Obama to be seen laughing with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at last week's Summit of the Americas.

"That visual image is going to be used by Chavez to legitimize himself," said the Nevada Republican senator in an interview this week with the Fix. "Maybe if the president gets criticized for doing something like that he will be much more careful in the future."

I'm curious, what, exactly, Ensign and his confused cohorts would have the president do. Obama, arguably the most well-known leader on the planet, attended an international gathering with heads of state from around the hemisphere. Presidents and prime ministers -- some allies, some not -- wanted to at least greet Obama, and perhaps share a few words.

Ensign seems to think the ridiculous attacks this week should teach Obama a lesson, and the president should be "much more careful in the future." But what does that mean? The next time the leader of the free world is at an international gathering, he should hide in the bathroom so he doesn't have to shake hands with third-rate bad guys from South America?

Or perhaps Ensign would prefer that U.S. leader avoid international gatherings altogether, and shrink from the global stage? (Yeah, that'll show Hugo Chavez.)

We're dealing with two visions of the role of U.S. leadership in the world. Ensign seems to believe America's stature is fragile, and casual courtesies at an international forum promote weakness. President Obama seems to believe America's stature is so strong, it can withstand a handshake with a foreign head of state, odious or not.

Which approach conveys a sense of strength and confidence, and which conveys a sense of fear and uncertainty?

I seem to recall Republicans like Ensign imploring the political world to believe politics ends at the water's edge, and it's simply wrong to attack a U.S. president when he's representing us overseas. I wonder what happened to change their mind?

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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GORE AND GINGRICH.... The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has been hard at work this week, exploring global warming and ways to combat climate change in considerable detail. The efforts culminate today with committee testimony from Al Gore.

House Republicans were able to invite their own witnesses to give testimony, and last night, they announced that they're calling on one of their own big guns.

Newt Gingrich has just been added to the witness list for tomorrow's House hearing on energy and global warming legislation.

Gingrich will appear before a subcommittee hearing immediately follow the testimony of Al Gore and former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who are expected to make a bipartisan push for the comprehensive energy legislation introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). That legislation includes cap-and-trade provisions.

"Some on the majority side believed for the longest time that the former speaker knows a lot about health policy but not so much about energy or the environment," said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the committee. "When reminded that he was a former professor of environmental studies and wrote two books, 'Contract with the Earth' and 'Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less', they decided to permit him to testify before a subcommittee. It wasn't a bad outcome, even if it took awhile."

A few quick points. First, for GOP officials to keep relying on Newt Gingrich to be a party leader is a dream come true for Democrats. Second, on a related note, that Republicans can't think of anyone better than Gingrich to be a high-profile voice on energy issues points to just how serious the party's mess really is.

And third, there's the inconvenient fact that when it comes to energy and environmental policy, Newt Gingrich doesn't have the foggiest idea what he's talking about.

Should be an interesting day on the Hill.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BANANA REPUBLICS.... To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, Republicans keep using this phrase, but I don't think it means what they think it means.

On Tuesday, Karl Rove argued on Fox News that accountability for Bush administration officials who broke the law would make United States "the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses."

Almost immediately, the right embraced the argument as their new favorite. In just the past few days, in addition to Rove, the notion of the United States becoming a "Banana Republic" has been touted by radio host Bill Cunningham, Sean Hannity, Mark Steyn, and Glenn Beck, among others.

Yesterday, this blisteringly stupid argument reached the level of the United States Senate. Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) actually repeated the Rove-inspired nonsense in public:

McCain: "In Banana Republics they prosecute people for actions they didn't agree with under previous administrations."

Bond: "This whole thing about punishing people in past administrations reminds me more of a Banana Republic than the United States of America. We don't criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office. There are lots of questions that could have been asked of the Clinton administration failing to recognize the war on terror. They did not. The Bush administration went forward, and that's the way our country should. The President said he was going to be forward looking and now he has opened up the stab in the back."

It would take too long to go through this foolishness word by word, so let's just address the broader point: these Republican lawmakers and officials are all using the same coordinated phrase, but they don't seem to know what a "Banana Republic" is.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a "Banana Republic" is an unaccountable chief executive who ignores the rule of law when it suits his/her purposes. The ruling junta in a "Banana Republic" eschews accountability, commits heinous acts in secret, tolerates widespread corruption, and generally embraces a totalitarian attitude in which the leader can break laws whenever he/she feels it's justified to protect the state.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Rove, McCain, Bond, Hannity, Beck, et al are so caught up in their partisan rage, they've failed to realize they have the story backwards. They're so far gone, they're so blinded by their rigid ideology, they have no idea that they're projecting. It's genuinely pathetic.

If our goal is to avoid looking like a "Banana Republic," then we would investigate those responsible for torture, which is, not incidentally, illegal. The accused would enjoy the presumption of innocence and due process rights. The process would be transparent, and those who act (and have acted) in our name would be held accountable.

It's the hallmark of a great and stable democracy: we honor the rule of law, even when it's inconvenient, and even when it meets the cries of small men with sad ideas.

To do otherwise, to retreat because a right-wing minority whines incessantly, would do more to make us look like a "Banana Republic" than anything else.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THE SILLY SERE ARGUMENT.... Dick Cheney isn't the only Bush administration official trying to defend his legacy. Yesterday, it became a family affair as his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, got in on the act.

Several alert readers let me know about Liz Cheney's interview with MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, in which the two explored the now-infamous torture memos. Cheney threw around a lot of nonsense, but repeatedly emphasized the idea that waterboarding, all evidence and reality to the contrary, is not torture. Most notably, she argued, "Everything that was done in this program, as has been laid out and described before, are tactics that our own people go through in SERE training.... We did not torture our own people. These techniques are not torture."

Since this seems to be popping up more and more in conservative circles, let's note all of the many reasons the argument is completely wrong.

First, both Bush's Justice Department and the CIA inspector general agree that SERE training and waterboarding detainees are "very different" situations. Second, Cheney's argument itself indirectly helps prove the point critics are making. As Matt Yglesias explained, "[T]he larger issue here is that SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. And by 'resistance' they mean resistance to torture. What we do when we train soldiers isn't torture, because it's training. But it's training in torture resistance. When we look through the torture-resistance manual to find ways to do interrogations, we're looking through the torture-resistance manual to find ways of torturing people."

Or, as Jason Linkins put it, "[T]he training Liz Cheney describes is undertaken to prepare our fighting men and women for the sadistic acts that might be done to them if captured."

Third, if we're waterboarding Americans 183 times in SERE training, it's probably time to reevaluate the program.

For what it's worth, Cheney reportedly wouldn't appear on MSNBC alongside Lawrence O'Donnell, but he came on after her segment to do some fact-checking. Not surprisingly, Liz Cheney got a whole lot wrong, from waterboarding to the Blair memo to the bogus argument about waterboarding preventing an attack on Los Angeles.

At this point, perhaps the loyal Bushies should just stop trying to defend the indefensible. The more they push back, the worse their arguments appear.

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

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April 23, 2009

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

* Suicide bombers killed more than 70 people in Iraq today.

* Taliban militants have "established effective control" over Buner in Pakistan, about 60 miles from Islamabad. Pakistan's military is headed for the area.

* Chrysler's bankruptcy may come as soon as next week. GM, meanwhile, will shut down most of its plants for most of the summer.

* Preliminary election results in South Africa show Jacob Zuma's African National Congress way out in front, and Zuma's supporters have already taken to the streets in celebration.

* Good: "President Barack Obama says he will push for a law to provide "strong and reliable" protections for the millions of Americans who have credit cards. The president on Thursday outlined his priorities after meeting with chief executives of the credit-card lending industry."

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates grudgingly endorsed releasing the Bush-era* torture memos.

* Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, and John Ashcroft were among the Bush administration officials who approved of the detainee abuse as early as 2002.

* President Obama rejected the advice of his advisors on the creation of a 9/11 Commission-style investigation of interrogation techniques. According to a presidential aide, "His whole thing is, 'I banned all this. This chapter is over. What we don't need now is to become a sort of feeding frenzy where we go back and re-litigate all this.'"

* It's hard to imagine the American Prospect without Ezra Klein, but it sounds like Ezra has an amazing opportunity lined up at the Washington Post. I wish him the very best in the new gig.

* Needless Republican obstructionism is blocking Dawn Johnsen's nomination to the OLC.

* Needless Republican obstructionism is also blocking Kathleen Sebelius' HHS nomination.

* When it comes to Cheney's efforts to shift the torture debate, Greg Sargent gets it.

* The Weekly Standard used to support torture investigations. Come to think of it, George W. Bush did, too. I wonder what changed their minds?

* Sorry, Juan Williams, First Lady Michelle Obama seems to be getting more popular all the time.

* O'Reilly really doesn't know much about history.

* Is it possible that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) broke the law? Zachary Roth ponders.

* Far too many rank-and-file Republicans believe news of global warming is "exaggerated."

* And finally, it's not every politician who gets a semi-automatic rifle named for him or her. Sarah Palin is just more fortunate than most.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

* fixed

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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BOEHNER ACCIDENTALLY TELLS THE TRUTH.... Once in a great while, the House Minority Leader strays from the script. It's safe to assume he'd like to take this one back.

While cable news outlets and major newspapers continue to use euphemisms such as "harsh interrogation tactics" to describe the Bush administration's approach to intelligence gathering, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) used a more succinct term Thursday: "torture."

"Last week, they released these memos outlining torture techniques. That was clearly a political decision and ignored the advice of their Director of National Intelligence and their CIA director," Boehner said at a press conference in the Capitol.

The techniques discussed include waterboarding, slamming detainees into walls, and depriving them of sleep for up to 11 days.

The problem, of course, is that Boehner accidentally told the truth. The memos did point to "torture techniques."

He's just not supposed to think so.

Later, in the same press conference, Boehner said the very discussion of torture is "inappropriate," because it could "denigrate" the United States. (More than the torture itself?) Reporters pressed the Minority Leader on why Americans shouldn't know what's being done in their name.

Boehner paused. "Let me take a deep breath here," he said. "We're talking about terrorists who are hell bent on killing Americans. All right?"

"Alleged terrorists," noted the reporter.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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AN ODD EXAMPLE OF POLITICAL CELEBRITY.... As a rule, I never, ever write about a political figure's children. No matter what I think of the parent, or what the son or daughter did, I've never thought it fair to comment. The kids are strictly off limits.

But what about when a political figure's son or daughter wants to be a political celebrity?

I mention this because I feel like I've been seeing an awful lot of John McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain lately, despite the fact that I don't really know who she is. There was apparently some kind of controversy not too ago between her and Laura Ingraham, which garnered some attention.

But Meghan McCain's notoriety has grown considerably since. I read somewhere recently that she gave a speech encouraging the Republican Party to endorse gay marriage. Her comments about Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter generated more than a few headlines. A few days ago, McCain said something about Karl Rove being "creepy." She also signed a very lucrative book deal a few weeks ago.

Today, Meghan McCain co-hosted "The View," and raised a few more eyebrows.

Meghan McCain, serving as a co-host of "The View" today, wasted little time before getting in a shot at former Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. McCain, who had previously written about how she found Karl Rove following her on Twitter "creepy," complained that Cheney and Rove are still trying to be seen as the face of the Republican Party. Last week McCain observed that the GOP leadership is "scared shitless" of the changing political landscape.

McCain mentioned disapprovingly Cheney's repeated public criticisms of Obama -- which he voiced again on Fox News this week -- and referred to the DNC ad released this week portraying Cheney, Rove and Gingrich as the 'new face of the GOP.' She pointed out that it's ""very unprecedented for someone like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney to be criticizing the President." Her advice to them: "Go away."

This was the lead story on "The Page" this afternoon.

Now, I'm not criticizing her, or suggesting there's anything wrong with her voicing her political opinions. In fact, I'm apparently inclined to agree with her opinions.

But I do find the notion of Meghan McCain becoming a celebrity kind of odd. Yglesias asked the other day, "I can't help but wonder to myself who on earth is Meghan McCain?"

I honestly don't know. When was the last time a son or daughter of an unsuccessful presidential candidate managed to achieve this kind of status as a political celebrity?

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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TEXAS REPUBLICANS WEIGH IN ON SECESSION.... Last week, a statewide poll in Texas found that 75% of Texans would like to see their state remain in the U.S., while 18% would prefer to secede, and 7% aren't sure. Whether one considered those numbers encouraging or not was a subjective matter.

But that poll was of Texans in general. How about Texas Republicans? This was more obviously discouraging.

An equal number of Republicans think Texas would be better off as its own country as think it would be better off as part of the United States.

Forty-eight percent of Republicans said they favor secession, the same percentage that said they didn't in a Research 2000/DailyKos poll released Thursday.

More, a majority of Republicans -- 51 percent -- approve of Gov. Rick Perry's (R) recent comments that suggested Texas may need to leave the United States; 44 percent of Republicans disapproved of the remark.

Um, wow. Even as a Texan I find this shocking.

Granted, there were only 234 Republicans who participated in the poll, but the fact that they were split, right down the middle, on the question about staying in the United States is more than a little disturbing.

Indeed, the same poll found a much higher percentage of Texans who approve of the idea of secession that last week's poll. While Rasmussen pegged the number at 18%, the Research 2000/DailyKos poll put the overall, statewide number at 35%, nearly double Rasmussen's figure.

I can't say with any confidence which of the two polls better captures public attitudes in the state, but either way, what should be a fringe idea seems to have quite a bit of support in the Lone Star State.

Oh, and did I mention that some Texas legislators are considering issuing a "cease and desist" order to the federal government?

I've read the Texas Republican Party's platform. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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AMERICANS SUPPORT CLOSER CUBAN TIES.... Just yesterday, the Politico had an item questioning how President Obama has managed to get away with "brush[ing] aside 50 years of anti-communist orthodoxy by relaxing restrictions against Fidel Castro's Cuba." It might have something to do with the fact that the public agrees with him.

As President Barack Obama weighs the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, Americans continue to express support for closer ties. Since 1999, a majority of Americans have consistently said they favor re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba -- including 60% in a new Gallup Poll conducted after Obama's decision last week to relax some restrictions.

A majority of poll respondents said the U.S. should end the trade embargo with Cuba, and an even larger majority support ending restrictions on travel to Cuba.

OK, but that's the national public opinion landscape. What about the opinion of Cuban Americans? There's evidence they support recent shifts in U.S. policy, too.

A majority of Cuban Americans support President Barack Obama and back his moves to improve relations with Cuba, according to a new poll that suggests the community's staunch support for a tough U.S. stance against the Castro government may be eroding.

The survey said 64 percent of respondents favor Obama's directive to lift all restrictions on remittances and visits by Cuban Americans to family in Cuba.... The telephone survey of 400 Cuban-American adults in Florida, New Jersey and other states was conducted in Spanish and English on April 15-16, days after Obama announced his administration would relax sanctions against Havana.

"Ten years ago, you wouldn't have seen anything near these numbers. Now it's the reality of where the community is," said Fernand Amandi, a pollster with Miami's Bendixen & Associates, a Democratic firm that did the survey. "It's unprecedented to suggest that the community for the first time is aligned with a Democratic president when it comes to Cuba policy."

U.S. leaders have been afraid to make some of these common-sense changes for quite some time. It's not unreasonable to argue that we had to wait for a younger Cuban-American generation to come of age before shifting the policy, but either way, it's encouraging to see Obama not only make the changes, but have these changes embraced by the public.

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IF ONLY HE SAW THE POINT.... Fox News' Brian Kilmeade probably didn't realize why his comments this morning about torture were so painful, so let's try to help him out.

Kilmeade, speaking over a chyron that read, "Out for revenge?" told viewers this morning, "Ralph Peters postulates, and maybe you do too, 'If you really cared about torture, maybe you should look into Iran, what's happening in the Gaza strip, what happens daily in Cuba and what's happening in Cuba's prisons, as well as Syria.' This, according to Ralph Peters and others, is about revenge."

It's hard not to appreciate watching a Fox News personality quote a New York Post personality. Murdoch must be pleased.

Nevertheless, given that President Obama has expressed absolutely no interest in pursuing investigations against Bush administration officials, it's kind of silly to characterize this as "revenge." More important, though, is the fact that torture is scandalously common in countries with dictators and/or totalitarian regimes. "Maybe we should look into" this? We have looked into this, and are disgusted by what these lawless regimes do to their prisoners.

Note to Kilmeade: that's the point. So many Americans are incensed by the Bush administration's torture policies precisely because it throws the United States in with countries like Iran, Cuba, and Syria. We're supposed to be the leader of the free world, a beacon of hope for free people everywhere, and now people are equating our treatment of prisoners with the politicies of dictatorships.

Indeed, Fox News and the New York Post are encouraging the comparisons, as part of a defense of torture.

Does any of this occur to people like Kilmeade and Peters? Even a little?

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ALTERNATE REALITY.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared pretty ridiculous a few days ago, arguing on national television that it's "comical" to think carbon emissions contribute to global warming.

As humiliating as it was to see that the leading House Republican still doesn't understand the basics of the policy debate, it was a reminder of the more systemic ignorance.

The Republican Party still isn't sure global warming is man-made, one of the top Republican lawmakers on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming said this Earth Day.

"I don't know that there is a party position on this issue," Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday during an appearance on the Fox Business Network. "I think that there is some debate on whether global warming is in fact being caused by man-made greenhouse gases."

Shadegg is the second-ranking Republican lawmaker on the special House committee, which was established to help curb carbon emissions and global warming.

Shadegg added that "sun spots" might be a possible explanation for rising global temperatures.

His comments came the same day Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) described a cap-and-trade policy as "the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I've ever experienced." This is the same Shimkus who recently said we can't limit carbon emissions, because we'd be "taking away plant food from the atmosphere." He added, "The Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over."

And those comments came around the same time Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) argued that we need not worry about global warming, because in a pinch, humanity can simply pursue an "utterly natural reflex response to nature," by finding "shade."

In addition to the obvious head-shaking stupidity here, it's a reminder of why bipartisan solutions to pressing crises probably aren't a legitimate option right now. Republican policymakers seem to have created their own reality, one in which global warming isn't a problem, recessions end through spending freezes, our health care system is the best in the world, increasing military spending is "cutting" defense, and handshakes are a sign of weakness.

Between sanity and craziness, there is no common ground.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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STATE GOP DEMANDS MORE 'SOCIALIST' TALK.... For a few months now, conservative cries about the White House and "socialism" have been as common as they are ridiculous. The absurd rhetoric hasn't had much of an effect, unless you count the surprising and new-found popularity socialism seems to enjoy.

But for Republican Party leaders, the answer isn't to come up with a new approach. To undermine the president, they want to see the GOP double down on an attack that doesn't work.

Republican state party leaders are rebelling against new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele for failing to dub President Obama and the Democrats as "socialists." And the rebels insist that the label matters.

Even though Mr. Steele has called his Democratic adversaries "collectivists," at least 16 state leaders say the term lacks the pejorative punch needed to sway public opinion and want all 168 members of the Republican National Committee to debate and vote on it. [...]

"Just as President Reagan's identification of the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire' galvanized opposition to communism, we hope that the accurate depiction of the Democrats as a Socialist Party will galvanize opposition to their march to socialism," [Indiana RNC member James Bopp Jr. wrote Wednesday in an e-mail to the full RNC membership].

Putting aside the obvious fact that the president is not a socialist, and overlooking the evidence that these attacks haven't worked at all, what's striking is that these state Republican leaders seem to think the RNC hasn't been irresponsible enough in its rhetoric. As Oliver Willis noted, "It's worth pointing out -- again -- that this isn't some outside the party deal. This is the core of the party upset at their incompetent party chairman for not calling the President of the United States a socialist."

Also note, this might also be evidence of broader trouble for Steele. Bopp and other unhinged state party leaders want to convene an extraordinary meeting of the full committee next month, ostensibly to tell the RNC chairman which ridiculous attacks they prefer he make against the president. To convene such a meeting, the activists would need signatures from RNC members in 16 states. Bopp has a petition signed by members from ... 16 states.

The conservative Washington Times noted this is "the first time in memory that a sitting national leader of the Republican Party has faced a public challenge over his ideological leadership by conservative members of his own national committee."

I guess RNC members haven't heard about Steele's plans for going "beyond cutting edge"?

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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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.

* Some additional challenged ballots were counted yesterday in New York's 20th, and Democrat Scott Murphy now leads Republican Jim Tedisco by 365 votes.

* Both Americans United for Change and the Democratic National Committee have new ads/videos out today, hitting Republicans as the party of "no."

* In an interesting new strategy playing out in Florida, a few far-right groups who've been critical of Gov. Charlie Crist for not being nearly conservative enough -- the Conservative Republican Alliance, the Florida Conservative Reform Caucus, and the Ronald Reagan Young Republican Club of Miami Beach -- are organizing to support Crist in a re-election campaign. As the groups see it, they'd much prefer Crist stay in Florida as governor than become a moderate senator.

* Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) will seek a full term next year, but according to Public Policy Polling, he'll start off in a difficult position. As of now, Bennet's approval rating is 34%, with 41% disapproving. In hypothetical match-ups against likely Republican opponents, Bennet narrowly trails former Rep. Bob Beauprez, but enjoys modest leads over the other contenders.

* In California, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D) had been planning a gubernatorial campaign, but he switched gears yesterday, announcing that he's running for Congress, hoping to fill the vacancy left by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) who's joining the State Department. Despite Garamendi's statewide office, he'll face a very credible challenge for the House from state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D), who already enjoys support from leading California Dems and local unions.

* And while I tend to think 2012 polling is inherently silly this early, I suppose I should mention, just in the interest of comprehensive coverage, that Public Policy Polling shows President Obama leading four potential GOP challengers -- Gingrich, Huckabee, Palin, and Romney -- with leads ranging from seven to 13 points.

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

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CONTRA CHENEY.... Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Bush appointee, was asked late last year whether the Bush administration's "enhanced" interrogation techniques had actually thwarted any terrorist plots, as the president and his allies have claimed. Mueller responded, "I don't believe that has been the case."

Yesterday, a spokesperson for Mueller told the New York Times, "The quote is accurate."

In light of this, Greg Sargent raises the politically salient point.

That stands in direct contrast to Dick Cheney's recent claim that torture has been "enormously valuable" in terms of "preventing another mass-casualty attack against the United States."

You'd think that this sort of thing would throw a bit of a wrench into the Bushies' campaign. But as Charles Kaiser notes, these types of statements haven't really broken through the media din.

On that score, it's worth asking why the White House and its allies aren't pushing back a bit harder on the Bushies' claims.

The answer, I suspect, is that debating the efficacy of torture necessarily cedes significant ground. There is, to be sure, some value in exposing Cheney's claims as false, and if abusing detainees doesn't even produce anything of life-saving value (or produce information that couldn't be gleaned through other means), then conservative torture apologists literally have nothing else to say.

But to paraphrase Fox News' Shep Smith, it doesn't matter if torture works. It just doesn't. Nations that take the rule of law, morality, human rights, and their own national security interests seriously simply do not torture. Whether it's effective or not is of no consequence, so engaging in the debate is probably viewed as counter-productive by the White House and its allies.

And speaking of the FBI, torture, and things that don't work, Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent, has an op-ed in the NYT today, explaining that he interrogated Abu Zubaydah and acquired "important actionable intelligence" before the torture began. Zubaydah kept talking, but none of the revelations were so unique they "couldn't have been gained from regular tactics."

Complicating matters further, Soufan also explained that the administration's torture policies produced schisms among officials who were supposed to be working together.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.

As Adam Serwer put it, "As a result of the previous administration's torture program, some of the country's best interrogators and counterterrorism experts were frozen out of the intelligence gathering process. How does that make us any safer?"

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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MOVING FORWARD ON RECONCILIATION.... The New York Times reports today that the Democratic leaders "are tempted to use their political muscle to speed passage of health care legislation with minimal concessions to the Republican minority." The majority party would reportedly "resort to an obscure procedure known as reconciliation to clear the way for Senate passage of a comprehensive health bill with a 51-vote majority, rather than the 60 votes that would otherwise be needed."

It's worth noting that this is framed the wrong way. Reconciliation is not "obscure"; it's a procedure used many times in recent years, usually by Republicans. Reconciliation was used to pass welfare reform; it was used to pass Bush's tax cut plans; and more recently, GOP lawmakers even wanted to use reconciliation to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For the Democratic majority to pursue health care reform through reconciliation is entirely reasonable, and justified given a) recent history; b) the importance of the legislation; and c) Republican obstructionism.

On the other hand, the Republican minority is prepared to throw the tantrum to end all tantrums. Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming said using reconciliation to pass health care reform would be tantamount to "a declaration of war." Roll Call reports today that the GOP is already planning its retaliation for Dems using a procedure Republicans have used many times.

As Senate Democrats move closer to using reconciliation to pass health care reform this year, key GOP Senators are signaling plans to avenge the move by employing parliamentary tactics to trip up even the most noncontroversial of agenda items.

Although Senate Democrats are far from reaching a consensus on the reconciliation issue, party leaders confirmed Wednesday that they are reserving the right to use it to pass health care reform if Republicans fail to negotiate in good faith. Senate Republicans -- saying they have every intention of being a full partner in the upcoming health care negotiations -- said holding reconciliation in reserve could poison the discussions, and threatened retribution.

"If they go down that road, I think the fur is going to fly," Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said. "I suspect that there is going to be an awful lot of resistance, and we will exercise our prerogatives so that the rules of the Senate are respected."

In other words, if Democrats try to pass legislation the same way Republicans tried to pass legislation when the GOP was in the majority, Republicans will effectively shut down the entire lawmaking process, indefinitely. The very idea of allowing the chamber to vote, up or down, on a key bill is so completely outrageous, congressional comity would be destroyed.

As if Republicans have been cooperative and productive up until now.

Of course, the GOP has options short of partisan war. They could work with the majority to pass meaningful legislation. If that seems laughable, then you can understand why the reconciliation process seems like a reasonable alternative.

For what it's worth, I'd just remind Senate Republicans that, as recently as a month ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) conceded that "Republicans have in the past engaged in using reconciliation to further the party's agenda," and aren't in a position to complain if Democrats choose to do the same.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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RIGHT TRACK/WRONG TRACK.... President Obama's approval rating in the new AP poll is at 64%, which largely in line with other recent national surveys. The more interesting number, however, relates to public optimism.

For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public's mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future.

Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.

The AP poll found that 48% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, up eight points from February, while 44% believe the nation is on the wrong track.

That's obviously pretty close, but it's nevertheless the first time in more than five years than the "right direction" number topped the "wrong direction" number. Even that last instance -- shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured -- was something of an aberration, and widespread pessimism about the country's direction has been the norm for the last six years.

The recent trend, however, has been an upswing in the public's mood. In October 2008, an AP poll found that 17% of Americans believed we were on the right track. After Obama's election victory, that number grew to 36%. In February, it reached 40%, and stands at 48% now.

As I was reading the results, I kept thinking that the president's ability to maintain this kind of optimism is certainly susceptible to change. It's not, after all, as if robust economic growth is right around the corner. Based on all available evidence, the nation's economy still has quite a ways to go. If the "right track" number is up because of a percetion that the economy is improving, a lot of people are likely to grow frustrated when improvements come slowly.

Then again, the AP poll also found that seven in 10 Americans "say it is reasonable to expect it to take longer than a year to see the results of Obama's economic policies."

That's quite a bit of leeway for a president to enjoy during a crisis.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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CHU WASN'T THE 'BAFFLED' ONE.... Arrogance is almost always unseemly, but I think there's an important distinction to be made between conceit and misplaced arrogance. The prior is merely unseemly; the latter is humiliating.

Yesterday, at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Exxon), the committee's ranking member and former chairman, asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu how Alaska got oil and gas. Presumably, he meant geologically. Chu paused briefly, laughed, and tried to explain the science to the confused lawmaker.

Shortly thereafter, Barton tweeted, "I seem to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question - Where does oil come from?" Indeed, when Barton's office posted the clip to YouTube, they included a message at the start of the video: "Where does oil come from? Question leaves Energy Secretary puzzled."

This is what I meant by "misplaced arrogance." Barton seems awfully pleased with himself for having asked a foolish question and not understanding the answer. Chu paused before answering the question, not because the Nobel Prize winning scientist was "baffled" and "puzzled" by the Republican's inquiry, but because Chu quickly realized he was responding to a lawmaker with the sophistication of a junior high-school student.

This isn't something Barton should be proud of; it's something he should be embarrassed by. Barton's confusion is predictable. It's his smug pride, driven entirely by ignorance, that's annoying.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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A LIVELY NIGHT ON FOX NEWS.... It's not a news network, it has no ethical standards, it makes a mockery of modern journalism, it lies to its audience, and it's largely responsible for the confusion of millions of Americans about current events. On the other hand, once in a while Fox News can be lively.

First up was an unusual moment with Shep Smith, who was hosting a discussion about torture. The "discussion" (I use the word loosely) turned to the efficacy of illegal abuse of detainees in American custody. Naturally, a Fox News analyst defended torture, saying, "This stuff helped."

Smith, fuming, couldn't take it anymore. Banging his hand against the table, Smith shouted, "We are America! I don't give a rat's ass if it helps! We are America! We do not f***ing torture! We don't do it!" (Please note: there was no "bleeping" in the broadcast, so the clip is probably not safe for work.) When the FNC analyst once again said the debate is over the effectiveness of torture, Smith once again argued, "Doesn't matter; we don't do it."

Thank you, Shep Smith. Sorry about the inevitable FCC fine.

A few hours later, Sean Hannity hosted a chat with actor Charles Grodin, who pressed Hannity on his support for torture.

"Would you consent to be waterboarded?" Grodin asked. Hannity said he would. Grodin followed up, "Are you busy on Sunday?" Hannity replied, "I'll do it for charity. I'll let you do it. I'll do it for the troops' families." Grodin explained he wouldn't take part in such an exercise, presumably because it's morally repugnant and sadistic.

I rather doubt that Hannity was serious about this, and even if he were, there's a rather dramatic difference between being tortured at a secret CIA prison and a television personality being waterboarded for charity, knowing full well that those around him don't mean to do him harm.

For the record, I don't want to see anyone tortured, whether it's a detainee at Guantanamo or a blow-hard on Fox News.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THEY STILL REFUSE TO PACE THEMSELVES.... It's just not healthy for this many federal lawmakers to be this nutty.

Conservative House Republicans are calling on their leaders to ask President Obama for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation.

The Republicans think Napolitano should resign because of the release of a report that singled out conservatives as "right-wing terrorists," according to several GOP lawmakers. [...]

"I think leaders are going to bring it up with the president, maybe call for (her) resignation," one conservative member told The Hill Wednesday.

Several conservative Republicans broached the topic Wednesday morning during the open-mic portion of the GOP's closed-door conference meeting. They continued to beat the drum at the Republican Study Committee meeting later in the day.

Rep. John Carter (R) of Texas -- who, despite his apparent madness, is a member of the House Republican leadership -- told reporters, "Singling out political opponents for working against the ruling party is precisely the tactic of every tyrannical government from Red China to Venezuela. The first step in the process is creating unfounded public suspicion of political opponents, followed by arresting and jailing any who continue speaking against the regime."

It's hard to overstate how truly crazy this is. The Republican Study Committee has simply gone stark raving mad.

Neither DHS nor Napolitano "singled out" anyone -- the agency warned law-enforcement officials against potential violent radicals, both "left-wing" and "right-wing." If this was about generating "public suspicion of political opponents," why was the report in question initiated by an appointee of George W. Bush? What, exactly, did the DHS secretary do that warrants resignation?

I'd assumed last week that this was just a silly partisan game, launched by bored conservatives who have nothing better to do. No one, I thought, could be dumb enough to believe this nonsense. Now, I'm not so sure. It might still be about scoring some cheap partisan points, but these nuts seemed pretty serious yesterday.

The broader point, however, is that Republicans still haven't come to realize the benefit of pacing themselves. President Obama has only been in office for three months. At some point, there might be a cabinet secretary who does something that's actually controversial in reality, instead of just the overactive imaginations of rabid, unhinged House members.

If these clowns keep screaming bloody murder over meaningless flaps that fall apart under scrutiny, it will be that much more difficult for them to be taken seriously when a genuine controversy arises.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Hilzoy

Learned Helplessness

I wanted to highlight a point from yesterday's NYT article on the decision to use torture:

"By late 2001, the agency had contracted with James E. Mitchell, a psychologist with the SERE program who had monitored many mock interrogations but had never conducted any real ones, according to colleagues. He was known for his belief that a psychological concept called "learned helplessness" was crucial to successful interrogation.

Martin Seligman, a prominent professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who had developed the concept, said in an interview that he was puzzled by Dr. Mitchell's notion that learned helplessness was relevant to interrogation.

"I think helplessness would make someone more dependent, less defiant and more compliant," Dr. Seligman said, "but I do not think it would lead reliably to more truth-telling."

Still, forceful and brainy, Dr. Mitchell, who declined to comment for this article, became a persuasive player in high-level agency discussions about the best way to interrogate Qaeda prisoners."

The role of learned helplessness in the development of our torture policies has been reported before. However, it's worth unpacking this a bit.

Learned helplessness works as follows. When an animal, human or non-human, is exposed to repeated trauma that it cannot control, it sometimes just gives up trying, even when, later, it is possible to escape that trauma. Martin Seligman first hit on the idea when doing conditioning experiments with dogs: he gave the dogs shocks in a hammock from which they could not escape, and then put them in a box that allowed them to escape from shocks (which were delivered through the floor) by jumping over a barrier.

Normally, dogs scramble around trying to escape from the shocks, jump the barrier by accident, figure out (after a few tries) that this is how they can escape from the shocks, and then jump the barrier as soon as the shocks start. But the dogs who had been shocked in the hammocks, in which they could neither escape nor control the shocks, didn't do that. They ran around for about thirty seconds, and then just lay down on the floor and whimpered.

In the book in which he describes learned helplessness, Seligman cites an even more striking finding: another researcher held wild rats in his hand until they stopped struggling, and then put them in a water tank that they could not escape from. Normal wild rats will swim for 60 hours before drowning. The rats who had been held until they stopped struggling, however, swam for thirty minutes and then drowned.

Learned helplessness happens to humans too:

"Extending the ramifications of these findings to humans, Seligman and his colleagues found that human motivation to initiate responses is also undermined by a lack of control over one's surroundings. Further research has shown that learned helplessness disrupts normal development and learning and leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression."

That's learned helplessness. You put an animal, human or non-human, in a situation in which bad things happen that it can neither escape nor control, and eventually it just gives up. And that's what the CIA was trying to do to its detainees.

The reason I bring this up is this. As I have noted before, acts intended to produce "severe mental pain or suffering" count as torture under the US Code. "Severe mental pain or suffering" is defined as "the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from" various things, one of which is "the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality." A lot of the discussion of techniques like sleep deprivation in the torture memos consists of arguments that since their effects are (according to the memos' authors) short-lived and reversible, they do not produce "prolonged mental harm", and thus cannot be considered torture under the law.

But there is just no way -- no way at all -- in which you can describe interrogation procedures designed to produce learned helplessness as not intended to cause "prolonged mental harm" via techniques calculated to disrupt personality profoundly. You just can't. Recall: learned helplessness "leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression." From Wikipedia:

"Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness -- including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation -- can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in animals."

I'd like to see Steven Bradbury try to argue that this doesn't count as a profound disruption of personality, or that it does not constitute "prolonged mental harm". From where I sit, it fits the statutory definition of torture perfectly.

Hilzoy 2:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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April 22, 2009

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

* Happy Earth Day. President Obama has an entirely new energy framework in mind for the nation's future.

* House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the Jane Harman wiretap after all.

* David Kellermann, Freddie Mac's CFO, was found dead this morning in what police described as an apparent suicide. (Fox News, for reasons that defy comprehension, is exploring alternative scenarios.)

* Good: "The Food and Drug Administration, reversing field, will allow 17-year-olds get the 'morning-after' birth control pill without a doctor's prescription, the agency announced Wednesday."

* Bob Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said today prosecuting high-ranking Bush administration officials who authorized torture should not "be taken off the table."

* On a related note, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is pleased the White House hasn't ruled out accountability for these officials, but he's like to see the president hold off on any final decisions for a little while.

* Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) don't want anyone prosecuted, no matter what crimes were committed.

* Eric Boehlert: "Does anybody else think it's odd, albeit telling, that for chunks of the corporate press corps, the emphasis surrounding the release of the Bush era torture memos is now centered on the political problems they've created for the Obama administration -- how the memos reflect poorly on the current White House -- and not, y'know, what the memos say about the administration that actually okayed the law breaking in the first place?"

* Christopher Hill was confirmed late yesterday as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The final vote was 73 to 23.

* What was the single dumbest Earth Day column published in a major newspaper today? I nominate this one. (thanks to DD)

* Adam Serwer does a terrific job with this "brief, helpful guide for understanding what is and isn't fascism."

* Steve M. raises a good point: "There's no longer a point in the Republican Party where the establishment ends and the freelance ranters begin. Everyone in the GOP is now in the latter category."

* It sounds a bit like Peter Wehner wants to see terrorists vindicate his opposition to President Obama's national security policies.

* I'm going to hope Glenn Beck just doesn't know what "erotic" means. If he does, this is more than a little creepy.

* And just another reminder for anyone who might care, it appears I'm getting started with Twitter. I'm still figuring out what I'm doing, so keep expectations low, but feel free to sign up if you're interested.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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'A CLOWNISH, VINDICTIVE AMATEUR'.... Reihan Salam, a prominent conservative blogger and Republican strategist, has defended Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) quite a bit over the last several months. He's promoted her, made excuses for her shortcomings, and tried to convince any who'd listen that she's really not as awful as she might seem. Up until recently, Salam has argued valiantly that Palin is a credible national figure and a plausible presidential aspirant.

Now, however, Salam has reluctantly given up.

Palin's campaign antics can be forgiven. What can't be forgiven is the ham-handed way she's tried to build her national profile since she returned to Alaska. She's abandoned the bold right-left populism that won over Alaska voters -- and me -- in the first place in favor of an increasingly defensive and harsh partisanship. After making her name as a determined enemy of Alaska's corrupt Republican establishment, she recently called for Democratic Sen. Mark Begich to step down so the hilariously crooked Ted Stevens could get another crack at the seat. She loudly promised to leave federal stimulus money on the table before clawing that promise back with a whimper. One can't help but get the impression that Palin is a clownish, vindictive amateur.

Now, for example, Palin is raising hackles for naming colorful crackpot Wayne Anthony Ross to be Alaska's attorney general. It turns out that Palin may have consulted with Ross over a state senate appointment, a move that would have been against state law. As a general matter, state law is something you might want your AG to be on top of.

What I'm wondering is: Has Sarah Palin undergone some kind of secret lobotomy?

Notwithstanding the possibility of secret brain surgery on the governor, Salam is arguably understating the case. As we talked about last week, Palin's on-the-job performance since last year's presidential election has been a train-wreck. (It's apparently getting worse, too, with a new ethics complaint having been filed against her this week.)

What's curious about all of this is that Palin had a more obvious and productive route, which she's inexplicably chosen to ignore. As Chris Orr noted the other day, "Perhaps the most mystifying element of Palin's recent forays into nuttery is that, politically speaking, it would be difficult to come up with stupider way to position herself in the wake of her v.p. run. The base already loves her -- the diehard pro-lifers, the hands-off-mine individualists, the anti-elitist brigades, you name 'em. Where she has (deepening) trouble is with everyone else: moderates, socially liberal libertarians, DC-establishment types, and anyone who places a premium on basic competence."

And yet, Palin has chosen to become an even more rigid ideologue, annoying lawmakers (in both parties) and locking up the support of the GOP's far-right base that already supported her. Reform-minded Republicans like Salam, meanwhile, are left with the impression that the governor is "a clownish, vindictive amateur," after hoping against hope that she'd step up as a genuine Republican leader.

There's simply no logic to this strategy.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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CILLIZZA HEARTS DRUDGE.... I tend to read the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza regularly, and he frequently offers some pretty reliable reporting, but it's items like these that I find frustrating.

Loyal Fix readers know that we follow the movements of one Matt Drudge -- and his eponymous Web site -- quite closely.

Why? Because, despite any number of critics across the media sphere, Drudge's site remains a powerhouse of political news influence -- driving and influencing daily coverage.

If you doubt that statement, go back and trace where the hubbub over the handshake between Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and President Obama began. Or where the controversy around Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's comments about radical right wing groups started.

As a self-proclaimed Drudgeologist, we were very interested to read....

Look, I get the argument. Major traditional news outlets keep hitting refresh at Drudge's site, effectively using him as an assignment editor. For some political reporters, including Cillizza, the idea is to keep reading Drudge so you know what the cool kids are going to be talking about. And how do you know? Because they're all reading Drudge, too.

The frustrating part, of course, is that Cillizza doesn't seem to appreciate the circular, self-fulfilling nature of the argument. Drudge, the theory goes, is a "powerhouse." Why? Because the powerful (political reporters and producers with large audiences) read his site and follow his lead. This, in turn, gives Drudge more power, which makes more political reporters read his site and follow his lead. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But this is an awful way to do political journalism. Consider the examples Cillizza provides. Was there anything remotely shocking about two heads of state shaking hands at an international gathering? Of course not, but Drudge said it was a big deal and the sheep followed. Was there anything at all unusual about domestic security officials raising concerns about domestic terrorism at the hands of potentially violent extremists? Not in the slightest, but Drudge said it was important, and that's what mattered.

Drudge "drives and influences daily coverage" because the political establishment says so. That's just crazy.

Here's a radical idea for Drudgeologists: the next time he says a story is important, ask yourself why it's important. If the answer is "because Drudge says so," perhaps you should consider reading some different websites for a while.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CLINTON 1, PENCE 0.... Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a few eyebrows and generated a few laughs this morning during an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Among other things, Clinton explained to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that she doesn't consider Dick Cheney a "particularly reliable source" on detainee abuse issues.

And while that was satisfying to watch, I was even more impressed with how she handled Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, the right-wing talk-show host turned congressman turned GOP leader.

Pence, one of the institution's more embarrassing members, twice suggested that President Obama may have deliberately allowed himself to be used for propaganda purposes to bolster the "interests" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (The two heads of state shook hands at an international gathering. Someone get the feinting couch.) Pence added that it's "demoralizing" for those who hope for freedom to see an American leader greet "the very people who are oppressing them." You'll have to watch the clip; Pence seemed to think he was being profound.

He wasn't, and the Secretary of State made it clear the poor schmo doesn't know what he's talking about.

I wish I could understand why this point isn't obvious to clowns like Pence. Does he not remember the Cold War? And the fact that the Soviets did more to oppress those who hope for freedom than any force in recent history? And that U.S. presidents not only shook hands with USSR leaders but also negotiated with them?

Pay particular attention to the end of the Clinton clip, when she explained to Pence, "We want your constructive criticism, we want your feedback. But President Obama won the election. He beat me in a primary, in which he put forth a different approach, and he is now our president. And we all want our president, no matter of which party, to succeed, especially in such a perilous time."

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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RECONCILIATION.... Any chance Democratic policymakers will pursue health care reform through the reconciliation process? There are some encouraging hints.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested on Tuesday that the lack of Republican support for Kathleen Sebelius' nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary is an early indication that the GOP may not be willing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform.

Schumer also hinted that such a lack of cooperation may force Democrats to pursue a budget reconciliation process on healthcare legislation. That would allow Democrats to circumvent having to get a 60 vote filibuster proof majority to pass reforms. [...]

"I was surprised by the fact that so few Republicans supported a moderate, qualified candidate like Governor Sebelius," he said. "It's an ominous signal of the level of cooperation we can expect from the Republicans on health care. Maybe the Republicans are telling us they want us to pass healthcare reform through the budget reconciliation process."

Note that Schumer said this in a press statement. It wasn't, in other words, just an off-hand comment to a reporter -- Schumer's office was actually sending a not-so-subtle message.

On a related note, Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein, and Molly Reynolds had a very interesting item in The New Republic the other day, presenting a guide to the last 19 times the reconciliation process has been used.

What is the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes? Much more extensive than the architects of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 had in mind-or than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days. Reconciliation was designed as a narrow procedure to bring revenue and direct spending under existing laws into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolution. It was used initially to cut the budget deficit by increasing revenues or decreasing spending but in more recent years its primary purpose has been to reduce taxes. Twenty-two reconciliation bills were passed between 1980 and 2008, although three (written by Republican majorities in Congress) were vetoed by President Clinton and never became law.

Whether reducing or increasing deficits, many of the reconciliation bills made major changes in policy. Health insurance portability (COBRA), nursing home standards, expanded Medicaid eligibility, increases in the earned income tax credit, welfare reform, the state Children's Health Insurance Program, major tax cuts and student aid reform were all enacted under reconciliation procedures. Health reform 2009 style would be the most ambitious use of reconciliation but it fits a pattern used over three decades by both parties to avoid the strictures of Senate filibusters.

The authors -- hardly reflexive partisans -- added that it would be "perfectly reasonable for Democrats to use the process for health care reform that both parties have used regularly for other major initiatives." Given that many recent uses of reconciliation have come from Republicans, it's hardly an unjust conclusion.

Is it ideal? No. But it's far more important to pass the bill than it is to worry about questionable misuse of a procedural tactic. And after seeing how the GOP has used this very tactic, the minority party is hardly in a position to complain now.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder notes some polling data today suggesting the Republican Party is now less popular among Americans than countries like Venezuela and China. He concluded:

My Republican friends keep asking me when I'll take the GOP seriously again and why I've stopped writing about ticky-tak political gamesmanship and GOP consultant tricks. When they're a serious party with serious ideas, then we can talk.


On this, of course, Ambinder is obviously right. The political world has been waiting for a while to see the GOP become "a serious party with serious ideas," but Republicans have not only failed to get their act together, there's no evidence they'll be able to turn things around anytime soon.

Indeed, they're stuck with Cheney, Rove, and Gingrich as their leading voices. How's that working out?

Strategists privately stress the GOP needs to move past old faces, and one veteran Republican said the attacks could be effective.

"The conservatism of the 21st century should be divorced from personality politics and simply be about ideas," said Craig Shirley, a biographer of former President Ronald Reagan. "But since the GOP appears to be bankrupt of ideas, this line of attack will be effective from the standpoint of putting them on the defensive again."

"Bankrupt of ideas"? But what about the proposed five-year spending freeze? And more enormous tax breaks for the wealthy?

You see the problem.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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'COLONELS IN MIRRORED SUNGLASSES'.... I can appreciate why Karl Rove is upset about recent revelations about Bush administration torture policies. After all, who wants their friends and colleagues to end up looking like war criminals? Rove has a specific job to do: make Bush and his team look better, while trying to destroy President Obama and his team. The latest evidence puts Rove in a tougher position. Poor guy.

But that hardly excuses the kind of foolish rhetoric Rove is throwing around. Last night, on Fox News (where else?), for example, Rove said the administration's recent disclosures about torture are "very dangerous." Rove insisted, "What they've essentially said is if we have policy disagreements with our predecessors.... [W]e're going to turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses and what we're gonna do is prosecute systematically the previous administration, or threaten prosecutions against the previous administration, based on policy differences. Is that what we've come to in this country?"

You see, in Rove World, the way to avoid becoming a banana republic is to have a chief executive who ignores the rule of law. Then, the chief executive is replaced, and his/her successor must ensure there are no consequences for those who ignored the rule of law in the recent past.

No matter how serious alleged crimes, no matter how compelling the evidence, no matter the consequences, if a president believes those who came before him/her broke the law, he/she must not prosecute, or even investigate. If he/she disagrees, the president would be acting like a Latin American colonel in mirrored sunglasses.

I sometimes wonder if Rove can even hear the words coming out of his mouth.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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EXPLAINING THE LACK OF OUTRAGE.... Jonathan Martin has a fairly long, 1,600-word piece today, exploring why President Obama is largely unaffected by the controversies the right has tried to gin up.

A Democratic president thrills a French audience by telling it that America has been "arrogant." He brushes aside 50 years of anti-communist orthodoxy by relaxing restrictions against Fidel Castro's Cuba. He directs his attorney general to ease a crackdown on medical marijuana and even plays host to the Grateful Dead in the Oval Office.

Several times a month in his young presidency, Barack Obama has done things that cause conservatives to bray, using the phrase once invoked by Bob Dole, "Where's the outrage?!"

The outrage is definitely there, in certain precincts of Republican politics. What's notable, however, is that it mostly has stayed there -- with little or no effect on Obama.

He has been blithely crossing ideological red lines and dancing on cultural third rails -- the kinds of gestures that would have scorched an earlier generation of Democrats -- with seeming impunity. Obama's foes, and even some of his allies, are a bit mystified.

Martin, trying to get to the bottom of this, considers a few angles, including the lack of Republican leaders to lead the charge against the White House, the generational shift, the rise of progressive infrastructure, and the sudden lack of salience in culture-war issues (Obama inviting gay families to the White House Easter Egg Roll barely raised an eyebrow).

But I think there's probably more to it. For example, some of the Obama-related "outrages" aren't exactly outrageous. There's no need to be "mystified" when the president remains unscathed by silly and inconsequential "controversies" manufactured by partisan hacks. Indeed, some of these flaps -- remember when it was a huge deal that Obama chuckled during a "60 Minutes" interview -- are so nonsensical, it's become pretty easy for the typical American to tune out conservative outrage as background noise.

They're the Republicans who cried wolf.

It also seems that Obama isn't taking any meaningful hits because his policy agenda is fairly close to the one he presented during the campaign. Martin questions, for example, why the president has gotten away with a more progressive policy towards Cuba. Maybe it's because he already told us he'd do exactly that?

Indeed, with a few notable exceptions, most of the President Obama's agenda is in line with Candidate Obama's agenda. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy while cutting them for the middle class? He wants to reform the health care system? He wants a withdrawal timeline for U.S. troops in Iraq?

Perhaps the president "skates" on these issues -- all of which the right finds outrageous -- because it's what voters hired him to do.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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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.

* Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the new head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, believes it will be "real hard" and "a huge challenge" stopping Democrats from getting a 60-vote majority in the next Congress.

* In an apparent bid to keep the Senate Democratic caucus from reaching 59 seats, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) wants his latest court appeal to go slowly.

* San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) has been informally campaigning for a while, but officially announced yesterday that he's running for governor in California. He made the announcement, oddly enough, on Twitter.

* New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), facing re-election this November, continues to struggle in statewide polls. A new Quinnipiac poll shows the incumbent trailing Chris Christie, his likely Republican opponent and a former U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush, 45% to 38%. A new Strategic Vision poll showed Corzine trailing by an even larger margin, 47% to 36%.

* Sen. John McCain will face a primary challenge next year from Chris Simcox, a founder of the anti-immigration Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

* In Kansas, Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt are both vying for the Republican nomination in next year's Senate race. A new SurveyUSA poll shows Moran with a four-point lead over Tiahrt, 39% to 35%.

* State Rep. Bill Kortz (D) is the latest to enter Pennsylvania's crowded Senate race.

* Elwyn Tinklenberg raised so much money, so quickly, late in his race against Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) last year that he couldn't spend it all. He's now transferring $250,000 to the DCCC.

* Former President Bill Clinton continues to help Terry McAuliffe's gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.

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

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JAMES JONES DOES A LITTLE MYTHBUSTING.... The story about Somali pirates and the hostage standoff with Captain Richard Phillips has faded from the front page, but some of the president's conservative detractors have pushed a variety of spurious claims about what transpired. National Security Adviser James Jones wants to set the record straight.

President Obama dispatched two separate teams of Navy commandos to carry out last week's rescue of a merchant ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates but left the operational details and rules of engagement to military commanders, National Security Adviser James. L. Jones said Tuesday.

"I can tell you from a White House and presidential standpoint, there was no conflict, no gnashing of teeth, or excessive influence in trying to manage this thing," Mr. Jones, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, told The Washington Times in an interview.

He and other military officials gave the most detailed account to date of how Navy SEAL forces were dispatched -- first from a base in Africa and later from the United States -- to carry out the mission, and how Pentagon officials communicated with the White House. They sought to dispel Internet reports that the military was delayed from taking action by indecision inside the White House.

"I don't recognize" the information being circulated on the Internet, Mr. Jones said.

Conservative bloggers, I think he's talking about you.

Jones, talking to the conservative Washington Times, added, "This was, from my perspective, a textbook operation. There were two things [the president] was asked to approve and he did. And the military executed flawlessly."

So, what are the claims that bothered Jones? Some of the rumors include claims that Obama was slow to approve action, and had rejected two proposed rescue attempts. The assertions, Jones said, are simply false.

In fact, Jones described this as a "real-world test" of the president's new National Security Council crisis system, which Jones heads. "I think everybody played their part well and there wasn't any overstepping on anybody's equities," he said. "The right questions were asked and the right actions were taken."

Now you know.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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KEEP ON TALKING, DICK.... The Democratic National Committee is touting a new web video today, featuring the "new faces of the GOP." The video pulls back the curtain to show us Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney. The closing line reads, "Meet The New GOP, Same As The Old GOP."

To that end, I suspect the DNC is delighted to see the former vice president stay on the attack against President Obama.

President Barack Obama's expansion of the federal government into the financial sector is likely to have "devastating" effects in the long term, former Vice President Dick Cheney said in his latest salvo directed at the new White House administration.

In an interview on Fox News -- portions of which aired Tuesday night -- the former vice president said he is "very concerned" about where the Obama administration is taking the country economically.

I get the sense Cheney has no idea how happy he's making officials in the West Wing. The White House would love nothing more than a political fight that boils down to Obama's approach vs. the Bush/Cheney/Rove approach. The former VP keeps making this easier. It's precisely why so many Republicans on the Hill would prefer to see Cheney quietly go away -- if he's the face of the Republican Party right now, the GOP is in a lot of trouble.

This is especially true when it comes to a debate over the economy. Cheney believes Obama's policies are likely to be "devastating"? It's like manna from heaven for Obama's team.

On a related note, there's been some follow-up on Cheney's comments on Fox News from Monday:

U.S. counterterrorism officials are reacting angrily to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that waterboarding 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times was a "success" that produced actionable intelligence.

"Cheney is full of crap," one intelligence source with decades of experience said Tuesday.

If I only had a nickel for every time I've come across that phrase.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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USING TORTURE TO FIND THE NON-EXISTENT LINK.... Most of the defenses for torture involve some variation on a Jack Bauer fantasy -- to stop the proverbial ticking time-bomb, U.S. officials have to be able to do literally anything to acquire intelligence to save lives.

There are all kinds of problems with this, of course, most notably the fact that "24" is a fictional television program. But as new evidence comes to light about the Bush administration's policies, it's also worth noting that life-saving wasn't always the goal of torture.

The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.

The use of abusive interrogation -- widely considered torture -- as part of Bush's quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of the interrogation issue told McClatchy, "There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used. The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

The official added, "Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA ... and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

That was considered the wrong answer, so senior administration "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information."

This was bolstered by the testimony of Maj. Charles Burney, a former Army psychiatrist, who told Army investigators that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

We know what the Bush administration did. We're starting to get an even better sense of why they did it. As was often the case with these officials, they started with the answer -- the non-existent link between Iraq and al Qaeda -- and worked backwards.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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ZELIKOW SPEAKS.... Philip Zelikow, a top State Department lawyer under Condoleezza Rice and the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, had a rather provocative item for Foreign Policy yesterday, explaining that he saw the OLC's arguments in 2005 justifying abusive interrogation techniques, and provided officials with an "opposing" view of the law.

Zelikow said he "felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable." His perspective, we now know, was ignored.

It's worth noting, of course, that lawyers, especially high-ranking lawyers in positions of governmental authority, are going to disagree quite a bit about legal interpretations. But in this case, Bush officials not only thought Zelikow was wrong, and not only ignored his sound judgment, they went considerably further: "The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo."

Zelikow explored this in some detail last night in a fascinating interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC:

For those of you who can't watch video clips from your work computers, I'm including a transcript of the interview, sent in by reader D.F., below.

MADDOW: Mr. Zelikow, thank you so much for taking time to join us tonight.

ZELIKOW: Glad to be here.

MADDOW: First of all, let me give you the opportunity to correct me if I have mischaracterized anything. Is what I have said about your involvement in this issue thus far – have I accurately characterized it?


MADDOW: OK. So you first saw these office of legal counsel memos in 2005. What was your reaction to the legal reasoning in those memos?

ZELIKOW: Many years earlier, when I had been a law student and had been a practicing lawyer, I worked, actually, on issues of treatment of prisoners and that whole body of constitutional law. So when I saw the memoranda, I was struck by the fact that even aside from the policy problems, the legal reasoning seemed deeply unsound to me. And I wasn't sure that the president and his advisors understood just how potentially questionable and unreasonable many lawyers and judges would find this reasoning. And so I thought it was important to just say hey, there's another view here of this law. And a lot of people would regard the views in these memos as, to say the least, outliers.

MADDOW: You suggest judges are one of the audiences that might not be persuaded by the reasoning in these memos. Were you thinking ahead to the purpose for which these memos were drafted, which was essentially—I mean it's hard for those of us outside of government to understand what the purpose of an OLC memo is—but essentially to provide a defense in case people were accused of acting illegally in ways that were described in those memos.. Is that what you were thinking of?

ZELIKOW: Yeah. Rachel, perhaps, just a little bit of background to put this in context for your viewers. America has fought a number of wars in our history, including against unconventional enemies. This was an interrogation program, however, for which there is no precedent in the history of the United States. We've never done a program like this before. So, where the administration is moving into uncharted waters, they're clearly doing things that folks know are as legally questionable. That's why these opinions were requested. Because there were questions about whether this sort of conduct was lawful because it was unprecedented. So here the Justice Department is coming down and saying "look, this is a murky area of the law, but here's what we think you're allowed to do." Now whether it's a good idea to do it is another question. Whether it's moral is another question. The question before them was, "Is it lawful to do this?" And the justifce department has the job of giving authoritative guidance for the executive branch on how the U.S. law should be interpreted in the conduct of our actions.

MADDOW: In the memo that you wrote, the document that you wrote, that you described today on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, essentially said that they got it wrong when they described what you are allowed to do under U.S. law. That their reasoning was flawed. It didn't take account of the relevant case law, for example, that they should have called on to prove their point. Is that accurate?

ZELIKOW: Yes that's accurate. Now look, I'm just one point of view. I looked at their point of view and it didn't strike me as a mainstream or reasonable way of construing the relevant standards of treatment, of the definition of terms like cruel or human or degrading. They were using an interpretation of how to comply with that standard that I didn't think any judges or lawyers outside of the administration would find plausible. And I wasn't sure other folks realized just how implausible it was. Now, of course, I'm just offering my opinion. Now I was there as part of a team representing the state department, acting as an agent of Secretary Rice who had grave concerns about all this. But others in the administration were perfectly entitled to say "No, we looked at the law," [inaudible] Justice Department – they know a lot more about this than you do. But, look, they were entitled to hear an alterative point of view and figure out whether or not they wanted to reevaluate their opinion.

MADDOW: Rather than just disagreeing with you, or saying that you were wrong and the office of legal counsel memos that you were rebutting were correct, why do you think they tried to destroy every copy of the memo that they knew existed? And how did you find out that they did try to destroy copies of the memo?

ZELIKOW: Well I found out because I was told, "We're trying to collect these and destroy them. And you have a copy don't you?" I know that copies were obtained in my building. And as I mentioned, Secretary Rice understood what I was doing on her behalf. I was her agent in these matters. So I think copies still exist. Why would they destroy them? That's a question they'll have to answer. Obviously you want to eliminate records because you don't want people to find them.

MADDOW: Am I right in thinking that they would want to erase any evidence of the existence of a dissenting view within the administration because it would undercut the legal authority of the advice in those memos? The advice that those techniques would be legal?

ZELIKOW: That's what I thought at the time. I had the same reaction you did. But I don't know why they wanted to do it.

MADDOW: In thinking about accountability for official actions here, it seems to me that the authors of the OLC memos may find themselves in some trouble, either professionally or I guess potentially criminally, if they wrote opinions to order, if they came up with legal reasoning to support a preordained conclusion. It also seems that government officials could find themselves in trouble if they knowingly used these memos as a tool to get a policy implemented to do things that they knew to be illegal. Could the existence of your dissenting memo be evidence that government officials did know that these things that they were authorizing really were, at least possibly, illegal?

ZELIKOW: All it shows is that they were presented with an argument that says your interpretation of the law adheres to this one fellow to be unsound. Of course, lawyers disagree all the time about how to interpret the law. And it's now up to our institutions and the Justice Department to sort out whether or not their rejection of these views was just another disagreement among people interpreting tough law or was something more than that. The Justice Department is already looking into how these lawyers did their job. I'm happy to wait and read their report and find out what they've learned.

MADDOW: I have to ask, given your description about you felt about these memos and the actions that you took, some of the other reporting that other people have said about you in terms of your role in the administration at this time, I have to ask if you ever contemplated resigning over this issue, if you felt quite strongly about it.

ZELIKOW: No. You have to understand, this is a battle that had been going on for months beforehand and went on for months afterward. This is chapter 9 of 32 chapters. And actually, by the end of 2005, and on into 2006, we were achieving major changes. We were achieving major changes in what the standards would be that would govern what we were doing. Major changes in what the CIA was actually doing on the sites. And important changes in the way we were beginning to talk to our allies about these problems and move towards bringing these people out of the black sites and into the light, where they would see lawyers, the Red Cross, all of that. That's a decision that we achieved in 2006 that was made by President Bush in 2006. So we were in a process of working this from the inside, while people like Senator McCain were doing really important work on this issue on Capitol Hill. The Supreme Court delivered a very important decision on this, Hamden v. Rumsfeld, during 2006. So we were part of a combination of forces that was trying to move our government in a different direction, to turn the page and get this moving in a healthier direction. And I believe we began turning that corner in 2006.

MADDOW: I feel like I'm starting to understand your reasoning and the way that you approached this, just from talking to you know and from what I know about your actions, there is one thing that just doesn't resonate for me. And that is, in 2005, when you found out that this memo that you wrote which said this Office of Legal Counsel attempt to say that things like hanging people from ceilings and sleep deprivation is illegal, it's wrongly reasoned, there's them saying this is legal under U.S. law is an inappropriate legal understand, it's an inappropriate understanding of U.S. law—when you found out that they were collecting your memo with that criticism in it and destroying it so there would be no evidence of it, at a time when you knew they were going to carry out those techniques, which you must have believed were not legal since you had seen the legal rationalization for it, it's hard for me to believe that you would not think about resigning or blowing the whistle or saying publicly what was going on at that time?

ZELIKOW: It was my job to fight this with every ounce of energy at my disposal using the legal means in front of me. And frankly that's the same way they should have approached their job, is work within the institutions you've got, institutions our country gives you. They weren't committing an act of obstruction of justice by trying to destroy copies of the memos and they did not succeed in destroying all the copies of these memos. Just because they disagree with an alternative view doesn't mean my view was right. But it was important to register the fact that hey, folks need to understand, if they didn't already, a lot of lawyers might believe that this is a radical, indefensible, unreasonable interpretation of the relevant law. They heard that argument. They chose to move on. We can continue to fight to change the policy and ultimately did change the policy with help from Congress and the courts.

MADDOW: One last question for you. If members of the National Security Council Principals Committee or Deputy's Committee did say thumbs up to specific techniques like water boarding or like hanging people from the ceiling that were mentioned in those Office of Legal Counsel memos, and they said thumbs up to that on the basis of their being a legal authorization in those memos, do you think those officials committed a crime when they Oked it?

ZELIKOW: I'm going to obey the same advice I would give to President Obama, which is that when people argue that crimes have been committed, our country has institutions to sort this out. One of those institutions is the Department of Justice and the Attorney General. President Obama ran on the platform that we're going to depoliticize the Department of Justice. Well let's do that. Let's refer all those questions to the Department of Justice. If you have a question about whether these people will be prosecuted, the Department of Justice is looking into the matter. The Attorney General is looking into the matter. They'll sort this out the way they sort out other allegations of crime. And let's just see where it goes. And that's my approach too, is I'm not going to rush to judgment, I'm not going to try to prejudge or politicize the issue. It's important folks understand that there's another point of view and was another point of view on some of these matters. Now let's let our institutions do their job.

MADDOW: Philip Zelikow, former State Department counselor, Deputy for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's invaluable to have your perspective and to hear how thing went from your point of view in the administration. Thank you sir.

ZELIKOW: Thank you.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE HUMAN-ANIMAL HYBRID SCOURGE.... In his 2006 State of the Union address, then-President George W. Bush urged Congress to pass legislation curbing what he considered "egregious abuses of medical research." Among the threats in need of a legislative remedy? A ban on "creating human-animal hybrids."

Many of us had a good laugh over this. Apparently, though, some conservative lawmakers are still taking the matter seriously. Take, for example, some Republicans in the Louisiana legislature.

Legislation that would prohibit scientists in the state from creating human-animal hybrids for experimentation -- believed to be the first such ban proposed in the nation -- has been filed for debate at the lawmaking session that opens April 27.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has filed Senate Bill 115 on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conference lobbyist Danny Loar said the bill is designed to be a "pre-emptive strike" against scientists who might want to mix "human and animal cells in a Petri dish for scientific research purposes."

I get the sense that "pre-emptive strike" is a polite euphemism for "proposing a solution to a problem that doesn't exist."

Are proponents aware of any human-animal hybrid research in Louisiana? No. Perhaps there's similar research elsewhere in the United States? No.

So, why is this important to state Sen. Martiny? He said his sponsoring the bill because "the archbishop asked me to file it."

If the bill becomes law -- I'm going to assume Bobby Jindal won't mind signing it -- scientists would face up to 10 years in prison for human-animal hybrids.

Look out, Dr. Moreau, some conservatives are onto your little game.

Update: Hilzoy reminds me via email that part of the problem here is defining "human-animal hybrids." We already have plenty of scientists working on research involving animal valves, for example, in humans. This is common, and presumably, conservatives in Louisiana don't want to ban the medical research. We also have science in which mice, for example, are given human genes for cancer research. This, too, is common, and not worth banning.

So, what is it, exactly, that warrants a "pre-emptive strike"?

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THE SECOND HALF OF THE ARTICLE.... Adm. Dennis C. Blair, President Obama's national intelligence director, told colleagues in a private memo last week that the Bush administration's detainee abuse did, in fact, produce "high value information" about al Qaeda.

"A ha!" conservatives say. "The White House is dropping an effective interrogation policy! The president's own intelligence director admitted it! Take that, liberals!"

This is one of those instances in which reading the rest of the article is worthwhile.

We learned from the same report that Adm. Blair, had he been in a position of authority when these interrogation techniques were approved, "would not have approved those methods." Got that? He knows the abuse led to some "high value information," but despite this, Blair still would have rejected the tactics.

And why is that?

"The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means," Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

This is the point at which those overly-excited conservative slink away. The source of their excitement believes the abuse they're so fond of was not only unnecessary, but also proved counterproductive to our interests.

But if we're going to look at this through purely a pragmatic lens -- in other words, if we're going to disregard morality, the law, and the importance of U.S. stature and leadership -- what about the "high value information"? I don't doubt that in some instances, torture led detainees to give up information U.S. officials wanted to know. I also don't doubt, however, that torture led detainees to say all kind of things just to make the pain stop, much of which was nonsense that led to a waste of officials' time.

For that matter, we can also say with confidence that torture "cost American lives," and produced intelligence that could have been acquired without abuse.

Have I mentioned lately how frustrating it is that we're still having this "debate"?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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ABOUT THAT LIBRARY TOWER PLOT.... Yesterday, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen offered a defense of torture in the Washington Post, arguing, among other things, that it's the appropriate way to help Muslim detainees.

But there was another point he raised that's also worth noting, because it's a common canard among Republicans.

[I]nterrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that "information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the 'Second Wave.' " In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

The terrorist plot against the Library Tower is the loyal Bushies' favorite. Indeed, Thiessen has used it in more than one Washington Post op-ed, and it's been repeated by Bush administration officials many, many times over the years. Both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have even told the story on several occasions, citing it as proof that their abusive tactics were a success (the former president would often call the Library Tower the "Liberty Tower").

The entire claim has been exposed as dubious over the years, but as long as torture apologists are going to keep bringing it up, it's probably worth taking a moment to periodically set the record straight. Tim Noah had this piece late yesterday:

The first reason to be skeptical that this planned attack could have been carried out successfully is that, as I've noted before, attacking buildings by flying planes into them didn't remain a viable al-Qaida strategy even through Sept. 11, 2001. Thanks to cell phones, passengers on United Flight 93 were able to learn that al-Qaida was using planes as missiles and crashed the plane before it could hit its target. There was no way future passengers on any flight would let a terrorist who killed the pilot and took the controls fly wherever he pleased.

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen's argument) is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and "at that point, the other members of the cell" (later arrested) "believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward" [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, "In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast." These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got -- an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a "disrupted plot" was "ludicrous" -- that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration "broke up" that attack during the previous year? It couldn't, of course. Conceivably the Bush administration, or at least parts of the Bush administration, didn't realize until Sheikh Mohammed confessed under torture that it had already broken up a plot to blow up the Library Tower about which it knew nothing. Stranger things have happened. But the plot was already a dead letter.

Remember, according to Bush, Cheney, and their most ardent supporters, the thwarted "plot" against the Library Tower is the single best piece of evidence that torture -- waterboarding, in specific -- saved American lives.

Demagogic hyperbole notwithstanding -- "a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York" -- the claim is bogus.

Update: Apparently, CNSNews, a right-wing website, had its own report yesterday about waterboarding preventing an attack on the Library Tower. Conservative blogs are all excited about it. They shouldn't be.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Hilzoy

The NYT has a damning piece about the decision to use torture:

"In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved -- not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

The process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm," a former C.I.A. official said."

In general, I wouldn't think it was a problem not to know the origins of a technique, except for political reasons. But not knowing that the SERE program was designed to help soldiers withstand interrogations that had produced false confessions is inexcusable, especially since this was our program. Not knowing that the psychologist who persuaded the CIA to go for this had never conducted an actual interrogation is similarly mind-boggling. The fact that no one knew what the actual interrogators thought of all this is standard for the Bush administration, but it should not have been.

There are all sorts of experts in our government, including experts on interrogation. There's also more than enough institutional memory to inform the administration about the origins of the SERE program. But the Bush administration, typically, did not bother with them. They preferred to make things up as they went along, because, after all, they always knew better.

This is what happens when we stop demanding minimal competence in our Presidents; when we start caring more about who we would rather have a beer with than, oh, who would be most likely to seek out the best advice and listen to all sides of an argument before making an important decision, or whose judgment we can trust. We end up with people who toss aside our most fundamental values because someone who has never conducted an interrogation before thinks it might be a good idea, and no one bothers to do the basic background research on what he proposes.

Here's a sort of ironic coda to the whole thing:

"One former senior intelligence official who played an important role in approving the interrogation methods said he had no idea of the origins and history of the SERE program when the C.I.A. started it in 2002.

"The agency was counting on the Justice Department to fully explore all the factors contributing to a judgment about legality, including the surrounding history and context," the official said."

They were counting on John Yoo. Roll that one over in your mind a few times to get the full effect. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

Hilzoy 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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April 21, 2009

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

* President Obama signed a new national service bill into law today, which, among other things, triples the size of AmeriCorps.

* Might prosecutors drop the charges against the AIPAC lobbyists?

* Apparently, a criminal investigation is underway covering illegal activities associated with the financial industry bailout program.

* Chrysler reportedly preferred more expensive financing from the private sector than a government loan that restricted executive compensation.

* Christopher Hill moves one step closer to becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

* Kathleen Sebelius moves one step closer to becoming Secretary of HHS.

* House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) will hold hearings on the Bush-era torture memos.

* On a related note, whether officials are comfortable with the word or not, torture is torture.

* Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) would like to see Jay Bybee resign from the judiciary. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) also expressed concerns about Bybee staying on the bench.

* Under the circumstances, CNBC's Larry Kudlow looked even more foolish than usual comparing President Obama's handshake with Hugo Chavez to "Boyz N the Hood."

* I wonder why the right didn't throw a tantrum when George W. Bush shook hands with Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov.

* Know what's tiresome? Listening to wealthy financiers complain about people not liking them.

* Nonprofit groups would like see the White House make its anti-lobbying rule a little more forgiving.

* The conflict(s) between Little Green Footballs and some of its former allies is pretty interesting.

* It's really hard to believe Newt Gingrich has a degree in history.

* And just a reminder for anyone who might care, it appears I'm getting started with Twitter. I'm still figuring out what I'm doing, so keep expectations low, but feel free to sign up if you're interested.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE TWISTED LOGIC BEHIND 'KEEP WALKING'.... It was pretty painful over the weekend to see/hear so many political pundits whitewash torture. To hear many of the leading conservative media voices, the problem wasn't with the Bush administration's illegal policies, which embarrassed the nation and undermined our national security, but rather with the Obama administration's transparency.

While most of the nonsense came from the usual suspects (Rove, Armey, Kristol), perhaps the most striking argument came from Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter turned Wall Street Journal columnist.

"Sometimes in life you want to just keep walking," Noonan said, adding, "Sometimes, I think, just keep walking.... Some of life just has to be mysterious."

It was, to be sure, one of the more ridiculous arguments of the debate. Noonan wasn't prepared to defend the Bush administration's abuses, but she suggested accountability is necessarily a bad idea because ... well, apparently it has something to do with walking.

Today, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), after criticizing the Obama administration's reluctance to prosecute alleged Bush-era crimes, marveled at Noonan's absurd argument.

[T]he Senator took a swipe at some of the rationalizations for avoiding prosecution that have been voiced by Washington lawmakers and pundits.

"If you want to see just how outrageous this is, I refer you to the remarks made by Peggy Noonan this Sunday," he said, referring to the longtime conservative columnist's appearance on ABC's This Week. "I frankly have never heard anything quite as disturbing as her remark that was something to the affect of: 'well sometimes you just have to move on.'"

The more one sees the clip of Noonan's comments, the harder it is to understand what she was even trying to say. Apparently, if someone you like commits a heinous act, and thinking about your friend's misdeeds makes you uncomfortable, the smart thing to do is pretend like you didn't hear about the heinous act in the first place.

That's not just wrong, it's dangerous -- it's the kind of attitude that says anyone can do just about anything and get away with it, because "some of life just has to be mysterious" and there's no point in holding people accountable.

If you're ever facing felony charges, give this a shot and see how well it goes over. "Your honor, I could offer a defense, and we could explore the charges against me, but sometimes in life you want to just keep walking. Some of life just has to be mysterious."

Jon Stewart was about as impressed with Noonan's argument as Feingold was.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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HARMAN DEFIANT.... Given yesterday's revelations, it seemed Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) would be on the defensive. With that in mind, it was interesting to see her strike a defiant note this afternoon on MSNBC.

The congresswoman, speaking to Andrea Mitchell, reiterated her claim that she didn't intervene with anyone -- not the Justice Department, or the White House -- in the AIPAC case. And she renewed her call for DOJ to disclose all the material associated with the investigation into her that, according to CQ's report, Alberto Gonzales helped stymie.

"If there are tapes out there, bring it on!" she said, calling the government wiretapping that reportedly picked up her conversation, "a gross abuse of power."

Whether the wiretap was an abuse is far from clear; there's ample reason to believe the surveillance was completely legit. As for Harman's call for the Justice Department to release what might be incriminating evidence against her, the congresswoman's position sounds pretty confident.

Then again, so did Rod Blagojevich when he said something similar a few months ago. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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CHENEY'S UNUSUAL REQUEST.... Most of Dick Cheney's chat with Sean Hannity included boilerplate rhetoric, but there was something newsworthy about the former vice president's claim about still-classified intelligence reports.

As part of his argument about the efficacy of torture, Cheney said there are "reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity," and he has "formally asked that they be declassified." Cheney added that he wants to the CIA to "take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions."

These comments raised a few questions. For example, it's not all clear what "formal" request Cheney made to the CIA. He's a civilian with no authority at all, so what did he do, write Leon Panetta a nice letter? For that matter, what's the point of the declassification? Even if Cheney could produce instances in which torture led to reliable acquired intelligence, there's little chance that President Obama is going to say, "You know what? Cheney's right; committing war crimes isn't such a bad idea after all."

But Greg Sargent did a little digging today and found that the CIA apparently hasn't received any "formal" requests from Cheney.

"The agency has received no request from the former Vice President to release this information," [an intelligence source familiar with the situation] told me a few moments ago.

Last night, Cheney said he'd asked the CIA to release memos he had read containing all the intelligence that had been collected via torture. "I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions," Cheney said.

According to the source, there are several ways this could happen: Cheney could lodge a Freedom of Information Request (which is hard to imagine a former Veep doing); he could contact CIA officials; or he could submit the request via the White House. Cheney said he'd made the request to the CIA.

But at this point, the claim is at least suspect. And given Dick Cheney's record of breathtaking dishonesty, it seems safe to wonder if the former vice president just made this up out of whole cloth to impress the Fox News audience.

Better yet, when Greg asked a spokesperson for Cheney, "she categorically refused to explain what Cheney meant when he claimed on Fox News last night that he had 'formally asked' the CIA to release intelligence allegedly proving that torture works."

The spokesperson was willing to say that Cheney made a "formal request" to the CIA "at the end of March," but when asked about the mechanism for such a request, she had "no comment."

Cheney doesn't have to be in office to combine ridiculous secrecy with transparent dishonesty.

Update: Looks like the mystery has been solved. Cheney reportedly requested the release through the National Archives, which in turn contacted the CIA. Greg added, "[W]e have no way of knowing what Cheney actually asked for or whether they really say what Cheney claims. It’s now up to the CIA to make the determination whether to declassify the docs Cheney wants. So this could get very, very interesting in various ways."

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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OBAMA KEEPS PROSECUTIONS ON THE TABLE.... During a press availability Jordan's King Abdullah, President Obama fielded a couple of questions about possible sanctions against Bush administration officials who wrote torture memos. The president went a little further than Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs were prepared to go.

President Obama suggested today that it remained a possibility that the Justice Department might bring charges against officials of the Bush administration who devised harsh interrogation policies that some see as torture.

He also suggested that if there is any sort of investigation into these past policies and practices, he would be more inclined to support an independent commission outside the typical congressional hearing process. [...]

Calling the Bush-era memos providing legal justifications for enhanced interrogation methods "reflected us losing our moral bearings," the president said that he did not think it was "appropriate" to prosecute those CIA officers who "carried out some of these operations within the four corners of the legal opinions or guidance that had been provided by the White House."

But in clear change from language he and members of his administration have used in the past, the president said that "with respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws and I don't want to prejudge that."

Obama added that he believes it would be "more sensible" if there were some kind of independent commission on this, "outside of the typical hearing" process.

The president reiterated his sense that "we should be looking forward and not backwards," but given that this was the first time Obama publicly expressed at least tacit support for a probe into the activities of high-ranking Bush administration officials, this can be seen as a step in the right direction.

Think Progress, which has video of the president's remarks this morning, added that Obama's comments seem to effectively put "the ball in Holder's court." And if the A.G. follows the vision he outlined during his confirmation hearings, Holder may conclude he has no choice but to pursue this matter.

Update: Here's a transcript of Obama's comments this morning.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THIESSEN RATIONALIZES MUSLIM TORTURE... Just 48 hours after President Obama was inaugurated, former Bush chief speechwriter Marc Thiessen said Obama "is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office." With a record like this, it's probably unwise to expect much in the way of reasoned, sensible political insights from this guy.

Nevertheless, despite the vitriol and the fact that his claims haven't withstood scrutiny, Thiessen has managed to become a regular contributor to the Washington Post's op-ed page. Today, this former Bush speechwriter -- the Post now features two -- seems to argue that torturing Muslims is acceptable because they're Muslims.

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

Got that? When U.S. officials torture detainees, some of us may be inclined to think this is illegal and morally degrading. What we didn't realize is that the torturers are giving the detainees a hand.

As this argument goes, we're not torturing suspects, we're "helping" them.

Sure, it seems that torture was often deemed unnecessary and unproductive; U.S. officials acquired more valuable information from less severe treatment; and "harsher handling produced no breakthroughs," but that's probably because we're confused about the tenets of Islam.

It's a good thing we have Marc Thiessen to offer this theological justification, isn't it?

Update: Adam Serwer summarizes the evolution of the rationalization: "First we had 'torture works.' Then we had 'they deserve it.' Now we have 'they need us to do it.'"

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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INHOFE: 'I WILL FILIBUSTER DAVID HAMILTON'.... When President Obama nominated District Court Judge David Hamilton of Indiana for the 7th Circuit last month, he did so with the big picture in mind.

Hamilton, widely considered a judicial moderate, was chosen in part because his confirmation should be easy. A White House official told the NYT Obama went with Hamilton as his first nominee to send a signal that the process need not be contentious. "We would like to put the history of the confirmation wars behind us," the staffer said. Support for Hamilton from Indiana's conservative Republican senator, Richard Lugar, pointed to a process that should go smoothly.

Alas, even a deliberate White House attempt at relative comity isn't enough for far-right senators like James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma. Inhofe, a leading candidate for the Most Embarrassing Member of the Senate award, announced on the Senate floor last night:

"I understand that Judge Hamilton's nomination is still pending before the Judiciary Committee, but I had to come to the floor to speak so that the American people, who are very concerned about this nomination, will know that I and my Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee are taking interest and are not just going to let this nomination sail through. In fact I will filibuster David Hamilton."

There are two key angles to this. The first is the rationale. Inhofe says a filibuster is necessary because Hamilton ruled in a 2005 case called Hinrichs v. Bosmah that the Indiana House of Representatives could begin its sessions with invocations, but not allow explicit state-sponsored sectarian prayers that "proselytize or advance any one faith." Hamilton, in other words, honored Supreme Court precedent from Marsh v. Chambers, and issued a ruling consistent with the establishment clause.

Inhofe, blasting the ruling yesterday on the Senate floor, got most of the key details of the case completely wrong -- way to do your homework, James -- and said he not only opposes the nomination, but also doesn't want to even let his colleagues vote up or down on Hamilton.

Which leads us to the second angle. Sen. Inhofe believed -- and argued publicly -- that a Senate filibuster against a judicial nominee is not only an illegitimate use of a senator's power, but is also literally unconstitutional. In 2003, Inhofe went so far as to say any senator who would dare filibuster a judicial nominee would necessarily be violating their oath to "support and defend the Constitution."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Inhofe doesn't remember his own record on the issue.

Also consider, Hamilton is a judicial moderate who enjoys bipartisan support and who was chosen precisely to avoid ugly fights with right-wing ideologues like Inhofe. That Hamilton is drawing a filibuster suggests Republican obstructionism will be as fierce as it is ridiculous for the rest of the Congress.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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

* The Democratic National Committee has a new 30-second ad calling Republicans the "Party of Hypocrites" for having supported deficits and expanded government spending during the Bush years.

* As expected, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) has appealed his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

* On a related note, Al Franken isn't a senator just yet, but he's begun hiring a Senate staff.

* The RNC topped the DNC in first quarter fundraising, but the DCCC and DSCC outraised their Republican counterparts over the same period.

* Missouri Republicans are beginning to think former House Minority Whip Roy Blunt might not be the ideal Senate candidate after all.

* The first debate among the three leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia was last night. The primary is on June 9.

* In Georgia, neither Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) not Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) will run in the open gubernatorial race next year.

* Is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) working hard or hardly working? A close look at his schedule suggests it's the latter.

* And speaking of Florida, Jim Piccillo announced that he's running against Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R), a four-term incumbent. That wouldn't be especially noteworthy, except Piccillo is a life-long Republican who's running as a Democrat because he feels the GOP has lost its way. (via Blue Girl)

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

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HEALTH CARE RATIONING AND LONG WAITING TIMES.... Ceci Connolly has this story from Greensboro, North Carolina, where families apparently haven't heard the conservative talking point about the U.S. having the best health care system in the world.

It's right there on the wall, hectoring David Talbot as he races from one exam room to another.

"You want to see the recession? There it is," Talbot says, pointing to a row of multicolored graphs. "We began to spike in October 2008, and we're losing the battle now. We just can't keep up."

Recessions are tallied in numbers -- jobless claims, home foreclosures, plant closings and bailout dollars. Here at the HealthServe community clinic, Talbot, the medical director, tracks the recession in days -- the number of days that patients wait to see a doctor.

Just six months ago, the clinic delivered same-day care to most callers, the gold standard from a health perspective. But in October the delays crept to four days, then 19 in November and 25 in December. In January, HealthServe temporarily stopped accepting new patients, and almost immediately 380 people put their names on a waiting list for when the crunch eases.

I had the same reaction to this as Jon Chait, who said the horror story -- crowded clinics, overwhelmed medical professionals, long waits for care, health care rationing -- sounds like the dystopia conservative activists and Republican lawmakers use to describe a system of socialized medicine. The problem, of course, is that the crisis in North Carolina isn't in Canada, England, or any of the other countries whose health care systems are supposed to scare Americans.

In many parts of the country, we already have the scary developments we're supposed to fear.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LIEBERMAN STRUGGLES TO BREAK BAD HABITS.... To his credit, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has been less annoying since President Obama came to his defense in January. This is not to say he's been a proud progressive voice, but given his conduct in 2008, Lieberman has shied away from some of his more offensive tendencies.

But old habits die hard. From Fox News last night:

VAN SUSTEREN: Again, the whole business about the torture memos being released by the Obama administration -- good idea or bad idea?

LIEBERMAN: I thought release of the memos was a bad idea. The President of the United States as the commander in chief has the right to decide what kinds of tactics he wants to use with detainees who we believe are associated with terrorism and what kinds he does not want to use. Congress legislated on that. I was a cosponsor with Senator McCain of the anti-torture provisions we put into law. But once you start to take internal memos that have been designated as top secret --

VAN SUSTEREN: Even if it's -- first of all, is waterboarding torture?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I take a minority position on this. Most people think it's definitely torture. The truth is, it has mostly a psychological impact on people. It's a terrible thing to do... Why do I think it was a mistake to give it out? It wasn't necessary. It just helps our enemies. It doesn't really help us. (emphasis added throughout)

So, Lieberman is to the right of John McCain on whether waterboarding is torture. He also thinks torturing detainees -- which makes terrorist recruiting easier while undermining the good name of the United States around the world -- doesn't help our enemies, while pursuing some semblance of accountability does help our enemies.

If Lieberman could at least pretend to be upset about the torture itself, I'd be more confident in his character.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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IS ACCOUNTABILITY STILL ON THE TABLE?.... On Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel indicated the administration wouldn't prosecute Bush administration officials responsible for U.S. torture policies. Around the same time, however, David Axelrod said something slightly different.

So where are we? It appears the door to prosecutions is once again ajar.

Pressure mounted on President Obama on Monday for more thorough investigation into harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, even as he tried to reassure the Central Intelligence Agency that it would not be blamed for following legal advice.

Mr. Obama said it was time to admit "mistakes" and "move forward." But there were signs that he might not be able to avoid a protracted inquiry into the use of interrogation techniques that the president's top aides and many critics say crossed the line into torture.

And while Mr. Obama vowed not to prosecute C.I.A. officers for acting on legal advice, on Monday aides did not rule out legal sanctions for the Bush lawyers who developed the legal basis for the use of the techniques.

It's likely that nothing will happen in the immediate future. Even if White House officials are leaving possible accountability for Bush administration officials, a series of ongoing investigations will probably be completed before any new probes get underway. As of now, the Senate Intelligence Committee has an ongoing investigation, and the Senate Armed Services Committee is poised to release a more detailed report on how Rumsfeld's Pentagon got into the torture business in the first place. At the same time, the Justice Department's ethics office is also prepared to offer some sharp criticism of John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury in yet another report.

And speaking of Bybee, the New York Times editorial board isn't the only prominent voice talking about the appeals court judge's impeachment. Last night, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said it's "certainly possible that an impeachment inquiry is warranted," and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) joined Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in expressing concerns about Bybee's continued service on the federal bench.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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GINGRICH KEEPS INVITING TROUBLE.... Newt Gingrich's aggressive criticism yesterday of President Obama's handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was so ridiculous, it's tempting to think Tulane may ask for its PhD back. The more the former House Speaker popped off, the more his attacks drew scrutiny, and the more Gingrich's comments were exposed as absurd.

This may seem hard to believe, but Gingrich is on even weaker ground discussing issues related to families.

Somehow or other the conservative movement has gotten so intellectually bankrupt that the lunatics running the asylum think that Newt Gingrich is an intelligent and canny man. Consequently, he's snagged himself a situation where he's in the news constantly offering apercus like "The Democratic Party has been the active instrument of breaking down traditional marriage."

Ah, yes, Newt Gingrich and the breakdown of traditional marriage. It's an issue he knows very well.

[T]he most notorious of them all is undoubtedly Gingrich, who ran for Congress in 1978 on the slogan, "Let Our Family Represent Your Family." (He was reportedly cheating on his first wife at the time). In 1995, an alleged mistress from that period, Anne Manning, told Vanity Fair's Gail Sheehy: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" Gingrich obtained his first divorce in 1981, after forcing his wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, to haggle over the terms while in the hospital, as she recovered from uterine cancer surgery. In 1999, he was disgraced again, having been caught in an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide while spearheading the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

Please, Newt, tell us again about how important it is for Republican leaders like you to protect traditional marriage.

Expertise like this is so hard to find.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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TELLING THEM WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR.... From time to time, I've suggested that congressional Republicans act as if they don't believe in reading books. I stand corrected.

There aren't any sex scenes or vampires, and it won't help you lose weight. But House Republicans are tearing through the pages of Amity Shlaes' "The Forgotten Man" like soccer moms before book club night.

Shlaes' 2007 take on the Great Depression questions the success of the New Deal and takes issue with the value of government intervention in a major economic crisis -- red meat for a party hungry for empirical evidence that the Democrats' spending plans won't end the current recession.

"There aren't many books that take a negative look at the New Deal," explained Republican policy aide Mike Ference, whose boss, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, invited Shlaes to join a group of 20 or so other House Republicans for lunch earlier this year in his Capitol suite.

Well, no, there aren't many books that take a negative look at the New Deal, probably because the New Deal worked and helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression. When a leader addresses a crisis, and his or her strategy works, historians tend to write complimentary texts on the subject. They're funny that way.

But the fact that House Republicans would seek out books critical of the New Deal tells us a little something about their approach to problem-solving. For these GOP officials, one starts with the answer -- FDR bad, spending bad, government bad, Hoover good -- and works backwards, seeking out those who'll bolster their answers before the questions are even asked. To those ends, Shlaes fills an important Republican niche.

Of course, that doesn't make her book with legitimate scholarship. On the contrary, it's nakedly partisan propaganda, retelling history in a way that makes Republicans feel better about themselves.

"The Forgotten Man" isn't history; it's fan-fiction.

Paul Krugman explained in November that there's "a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse." Shlaes is, alas, at the top of this enterprise.

Jon Chait wrote the definitive takedown of Shlaes' book for TNR about a month ago. If you haven't read it, Chait's piece is worth a look.

Update: If the Politico piece on Republicans embracing Shlaes' book sounds familiar, there's a good reason -- David Weigel got there first.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE.... Last week, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) of Kansas was asked whether Rush Limbaugh was the "de facto leader of the GOP." Tiahrt rejected the idea out of hand, telling the Kansas City Star, "No, no, he's just an entertainer."

This is, of course, the one line elected Republican officials are not supposed to cross. Limbaugh is to be revered, not dismissed. It took a couple of days, but as Amanda Terkel noted, Tiahrt's office is now anxious to let everyone know how much the congressman loves the right-wing blowhard.

Asked about the episode and resulting Web buzz, Tiahrt spokesman Sam Sackett said Tiahrt was not speaking negatively about Limbaugh but was trying to defend him against the suggestion that Limbaugh could be blamed for the GOP's woes.

"The congressman believes Rush is a great leader of the conservative movement in America -- not a party leader responsible for election losses," Sackett told The Eagle editorial board. "Nothing the congressman said diminished the role Rush has played and continues to play in the conservative movement."

For those keeping score at home, this is reversal #5 for Republicans who've been critical of Limbaugh recently. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) groveled for Rush's forgiveness in late January, and Gov. Mark Sanford's (R-S.C.) office quickly backpedaled after the governor said, "Anyone who wants [President Obama] to fail is an idiot." RNC Chairman Michael Steele, of course, humiliated himself in early March, and a couple of weeks later, Jim Tedisco, the Republican candidate in the special election in New York's 20th, felt compelled to backpedal after saying Limbaugh is "meaningless" to him.

That all five made mild, innocuous comments about the talk-show host is largely irrelevant. This isn't about accuracy; it's about making sure the blowhard and his followers are happy.

It's also a reminder that arguably the three most prominent voices in Republican politics today are Limbaugh, Cheney, and Gingrich. It's quite a motley crew they've put together.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CHENEY CAN'T HELP HIMSELF.... Remember about a month ago, when several prominent Republican officials acknowledged publicly that they'd like to see Dick Cheney quietly go away? The former vice president really doesn't care what they think.

Cheney repeated the tired litany of recent attacks on President Obama, starting with his "concerns" about the president's recent speech outlining the ways in which the United States can "renew our partnership" with Europe. From there, it went to the new Republican smear of the week.

Just days after Obama shook hands and received a gift from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Cheney called the images of the encounter "not helpful." "I think it sets the wrong standard," Cheney added.

"The president's got to provide leadership and I don't want to be in a position where you don't interact with your adversaries. I think you do need to do that but I think it's got to be done properly. It's got to be done under the right conditions."

Hmm, there was a hemispheric gathering of heads of state. One elected president shook hands with another elected president. In what universe is this "interaction" taking place under the "wrong conditions"?

Cheney added that there's ample evidence that the war crimes he supported were effective, and he's "formally asked" intelligence agencies to declassify reports about torture being "enormously valuable." Of course, since Cheney is a civilian, his "formal" request doesn't really amount to much.

He concluded by telling Hannity that he believes it's "important not to personally attack the new president." They both managed to keep a straight face. I'm not sure how.

But arguably more important than Cheney's cringe-worthy mendacity is the larger political dynamic. Chris Cillizza noted this morning that the former vice president has apparently made the "decision to serve as the self-appointed defender of the Bush presidency," which in turn "presents a real challenge for a party hoping to put forward new faces and fresh ideas." Cillizza quoted a Republican consultant saying, "He is a face of the past. A face of conflict and too polarizing. So, not a good face of the party."

This is precisely why Democrats are thrilled Dick Cheney hasn't found a more productive way to spend his retirement. The majority party would love nothing more than a political fight that boils down to Obama's approach vs. the Bush/Cheney/Rove approach. The former VP keeps making this easier.

Cheney thinks he's helping by becoming the GOP hatchet-man. He's actually doing Democrats a favor.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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April 20, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Looking Forward

I didn't have a problem with President Obama's announcement that he wasn't going to prosecute CIA officers who relied on the guidance they got from the Office of Legal Counsel. I'm uneasy about prosecuting people who rely on the OLC, which they ought to be able to rely on. (I think that relying on legal interpretations offered by the people charged with interpreting the law for the executive branch is very different from "just following orders.") And I feel much, much more strongly about holding the people who devised this policy accountable than about the people who implemented it (if they did so according to what they took to be the law.)

That's why I found today's White House briefing so infuriating:

"Q So I understand, you're saying that people in the CIA who followed through in what they were told was legal, they should not be prosecuted. But why not the Bush administration lawyers who, in the eyes of a lot of your supporters on the left, twisted the law -- why are they not being held accountable?

MR. GIBBS: The President is focused on looking forward, that's why."

You know what? I'm focused on looking forward too. And as I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a world in which members of the executive branch take it for granted that they can do whatever they want with impunity. Why not break the law? Why not eavesdrop on Americans? Why not torture people? Why not detain citizens indefinitely without charges? Heck, why not impose martial law and make yourself dictator for life? There is nothing to stop the people who make these decisions. They have nothing to fear. Because once they've made them, their actions are back there, in the past that no one ever wants to look at.

I also see a world in which everyone takes it for granted that there are two kinds of people, as far as the law is concerned. If most people tried to make the case that prosecuting their criminal acts was just "looking backwards", or a sign that the prosecutor was motivated by a desire for retribution, they'd be laughed out of court. Imagine the likely reaction if your average crack dealer were to urge the judge not to dwell on the past, or if someone who used accounting fraud to flip houses told offered a prosecutor the chance to be "very Mandelalike in the sense [of] saying let the past be the past and let us move into the future", or if I were pulled over for speeding and, when asked if I knew how fast I was going, replied that "Some things in life need to be mysterious ... Sometimes you need to just keep walking." I don't think any of us would get very far.

And yet, somehow, when people say these things about members of the Bush administration, no one bats an eye. Of course it would be going too far to actually prosecute them if they broke the law. That's just not done.

I do not want a world in which members of my government can break the law with impunity. I do not want a world in which some people are above the law. In a perfect world, we would not need to prosecute people to achieve these results. But the past eight years have shown us that we don't live in that world.

As I said, I don't care about the prosecutions of the CIA officers. But I care immensely about prosecuting Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Bybee, Bradbury, and people like them. And I care precisely because I am looking to the future. We can choose to be a nation of laws in which criminals of any station are held accountable, or we can just hope that no one like George W. Bush is ever elected again.

I know which option I choose.

In the meantime, though, impeaching Jay Bybee would be a start. There's a petition here.


UPDATE: This, from the NYT, is a bit better:

"Mr. Obama said it was time to admit "mistakes" and "move forward." But there were signs that he might not be able to avoid a protracted inquiry into the use of interrogation techniques that the president's top aides and many critics say crossed the line into torture.

And while Mr. Obama vowed not to prosecute C.I.A. officers for acting on legal advice, on Monday aides did not rule out legal sanctions for the Bush lawyers who developed the legal basis for the use of the techniques. (...)

On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program "This Week" that "those who devised policy" also "should not be prosecuted." But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale."

Hilzoy 11:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Hilzoy

Mr. DeMille, They're Ready For Their Closeups!

New York Magazine has what Felix Salmon calls "an astonishing concatenation of moans and whines from New York's monied classes". It's truly surreal. For example:

""Without exception, Wall Street guys have gotten accustomed to not being stuck in the city in August. So it becomes a right to have a summer home within an hour or two commute from Manhattan," says the Goldman vet. "There's a cost structure of going with your family on summer vacation that's not optional. There's a cost structure of spending $40,000 to send your kids to private school that is not optional. There's a sense of entitlement, that you need that amount of money just to live, that's not optional."

"You can't live in New York and have kids and send them to school on $75,000," he continues. "And you have the Obama administration suggesting that. That was a very populist thing that Obama said. He's being disingenuous. He knows that you can't live in New York on $75,000.""

And yet, strange to say, in 2007 the median family income in New York City was $52,871. Maybe New York takes in floods of new residents every year, and so many of them die of starvation that the median income is actually below the level needed to survive. Maybe over half of the families in New York are zombies. Or maybe -- just maybe -- over half the families in New York live well below the level this "Goldman vet" thinks you just can't live on.

Likewise (this is a different speaker):

"That said, he continues, "We're in a hypercapitalistic society. No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies. Our whole moral compass has shifted about what's acceptable or not acceptable. Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don't think it's fair. It's fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed -- that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don't think it's fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.""

Wrong. People at firms that would not have survived without government assistance might have been Julia Roberts a couple of years ago. Now, they're Norma Desmond.

If you want to say that whatever the free market in its wisdom dictates that people are paid is fair, then the fair wage for people at AIG, Citi, and any other firm that would not have survived without government assistance is zero. If you want to use some other metric, then Julia Roberts et al are irrelevant. But you do not get to appeal to the marvels of the market to justify your exorbitant salary when times are good without accepting its conclusions when it implies that the fair value for your work is nothing.

And I don't even know what to say about this:

"There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes ("The government wants me to be a slave!" says one hedge-fund analyst)"

If raising the marginal tax rate to 39.6% counts as "slavery", then I suppose that the fact that top marginal tax rates during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations were over 90% is a Holocaust. Or, you know, maybe not.

Seriously: I recognize that it's tough when the world you've known disappears. It's less tough when that means that you have to figure out how to survive on a six-figure salary than it is when your house gets foreclosed on, but still. That said, the degree of self-delusion on display in this article is just astonishing.

They don't get the fact that it is abnormal when people right out of college or business school can command more money than most people will ever see in their lifetimes. They don't get the fact that the firms for which they worked produced an economic catastrophe that has reduced people all over the world to genuine poverty (as opposed to living on $75,000 in New York.) They don't get the fact that the compensation at those firms had a lot to do with that catastrophe. They don't get the fact that because of their greed and stupidity, we had to rescue those firms -- which means that their lifestyles are being supported by truckdrivers and pharmacists and primary school teachers across the country, many of whom would love to try to scrape by on $75,000 a year.

And they really don't seem to get what's wrong with this:

""I'm not giving to charity this year!" one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama's planned tax increases. "When people ask me for money, I tell them, 'If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.' I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.""

How fortunate for that analyst that most of us don't feel the same way. Writing three hundred million thank you notes would take an awfully long time.

Hilzoy 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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

* The U.S. decision to skip the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva looked a little more reasonable this afternoon, as a "stream of delegates from France and other European nations walked out of a United Nations conference ... in protest during a speech by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

* Ongoing concerns over the banking industry gave Wall Street its worst day in two months.

* The Taliban takeover of Pakistan's Swat Valley has only emboldened militant leaders to want the whole country.

* President Obama wants to see cabinet agencies put together a plan to cut $100 million in the next 90 days. That's a lot of money to me, but in the scope of the federal government, it's not much.

* Roxana Saberi is not a spy.

* Congrats to this year's Pulitzer winners.

* Sorry, Rudy, but 55% of New Yorkers are on board with marriage equality.

* Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called today for Jay Bybee's impeachment.

* Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) is pushing back against the story of the day.

* The latest bank-rescue idea is going over about as well as the last one.

* It was probably inevitable that the right would start going after Elizabeth Warren. Here's hoping she considers it a compliment.

* Would Obama hire Dan Bogden, one of the purged U.S. Attorneys fired by Bush? It appears likely.

* Speaking of hires, Obama has named Virginia Technology Secretary Aneesh Chopra to be the nation's first chief technology officer and Jeffrey Zients to be his chief performance officer.

* Nice to see the New York Times acknowledge Marcy Wheeler's work this morning.

* Far-right Republicans in Florida's legislature want to make it even harder for voters to particulate in the electoral process.

* And finally, if anyone cares, it appears I'm getting started with Twitter. I'm still figuring out what I'm doing, so keep expectations low, but feel free to sign up if you're interested.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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CHOICES.... In just the last 15 days, the Washington Post editorial board has run three separate editorials on D.C.'s private school voucher system, each urging Congress to keep the program going indefinitely. The Post, which has been pro-voucher for years, hasn't run three editorials in 15 days on any other subject recently, underscoring how seriously the paper's editorial board takes the issue.

The problem, of course, is that the pieces aren't persuasive, and haven't changed any minds on the Hill. Today's piece repeats one of the right's favorite canards.

A new survey shows that 38 percent of members of Congress have sent their children to private school. About 20 percent themselves attended private school, nearly twice the rate of the general public. Nothing wrong with those numbers; no one should be faulted for personal decisions made in the best interests of loved ones. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if Congress extended similar consideration to low-income D.C. parents desperate to keep their sons and daughters in good schools? [...]

The gap between what Congress practices and what it preaches was best illustrated by the Heritage Foundation's analysis of a recent vote to preserve the program. The measure was defeated by the Senate 58 to 39; it would have passed if senators who exercised school choice for their own children had voted in favor. Alas, the survey doesn't name names, save for singling out Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), architect of the language that threatens the program, for sending his children to private school and attending private school himself.

Republican lawmakers, who tend to love vouchers because they hate teachers unions and prefer the idea of privatizing education, made the exact same argument during a debate a couple of weeks ago. It was unpersuasive then, too.

Try an experiment: look at the Post's editorial, and replace "schools" with "homes." Members of Congress choose to buy or rent nice homes for themselves and their families. Nothing wrong with that. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if lawmakers also used tax dollars to let low-income D.C. parents also buy nice homes, too?

Or replace "schools" with "cars." Members of Congress drive nice cars. Wouldn't it also be nice if lawmakers also used tax dollars to let low-income D.C. parents buy nice cars, too?

Or replace "schools" with "healthcare." Or "healthy food." Or "political influence." Are members of Congress hypocrites unless they use the federal treasury to empower all D.C. families to have the identical life options they currently enjoy?

Some members of Congress, including Dick Durbin, singled out by the Post and the Heritage Foundation, support the public school system while choosing to also pay private school tuition for religious reasons. Durbin's not asking for taxpayers to subsidize his family's decision. The Post editorial board insists we should.

Repetition doesn't make the pitch any more convincing.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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DELAYED OUTRAGE.... This seems to happen with increasing frequency lately. Something rather mundane relating to President Obama will occur late in the week; the weekend will go by with minimal excitement; and the president's Republican opponents erupt on Monday with rage and disgust.

This flap over the president shaking hands with the president of Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas follows the pattern. The picture of the two heads of state was taken and distributed on Friday. On Saturday, some newspapers ran it, but it didn't generate much in the way of excitement. On Sunday, it drew some limited discussion on the Sunday shows, but it hardly qualified as a legitimate political "controversy."

But today, it's all the rage. If the handshake was such a damaging development, one that undermines U.S. prestige and interests, why did it take a few days for Republicans to get so upset?

The same thing happened a couple of weeks ago. President Obama spoke early on a Friday in Strasbourg about the United States "renewing our partnership" with Europe. Obama's remarks, which acknowledged errors on both sides of the Atlantic, were aired live to a national television audience on a Friday morning, and weren't considered controversial.

Seventy two hours later, on Monday morning, Republicans were outraged that the president "apologized" to France for American "arrogance." Fox News could talk about little else.

If Obama's comments were so insulting, why did it take nearly four days for the GOP to notice?

This probably isn't any great mystery -- Republicans are likely just delaying their manufactured outrage because they know weekends are a slow news period -- but it seems like a new twist on an old game.

In the Bush years, the ol' gang perfected the art of holding bad news until late on a Friday afternoon to generate as little attention as possible. In the Obama years, the same gang is perfecting the art of holding tantrums until early on a Monday morning to generate as much attention as possible.

These guys can't govern, but they sure know how to work a calendar.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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EMULATING THE TALIBAN.... Fox News' new website is a font of odd and mistaken information, but this one seemed more annoying than most.

An April 17 headline posted on TheFoxNation.com -- Fox News' new and allegedly bias-free website -- claimed that the "Taliban Copies Democrat Playbook." The headline linked to an April 16 New York Times article headlined, "Taliban Exploit Class Rifts in Pakistan." In fact, the Times article -- which described insurgency tactics such as roadside bombs -- made no mention of the Democratic Party.

This, apparently, is "Fox Nation's" idea of being clever. You see, the Taliban is exploiting class rifts in Pakistan, so the Taliban is necessarily emulating the "Democrat [sic] Playbook." How droll.

But the reason this was of particular interest is because there was one recent instance in which a leading American politician really did want to see a major U.S. political party share a playbook with the Taliban. It wasn't, however, a Democrat -- it was National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who said GOP lawmakers should emulate the Taliban because "they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes."

Funny, I don't remember seeing Fox News make the connection at the time between the GOP and the Taliban. Probably just an oversight.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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READY OR NOT, HERE HEALTH CARE COMES.... Senators Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy sent the White House a letter today, explaining that they've been working on a health care reform bill, and they plan to have a package ready by early June.

Senator Max Baucus, who heads the Finance Committee, and Senator Edward Kennedy, who heads the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a letter they will ensure that compatible bills emerge from their panels.

"Our intention is for that legislation to be very similar, and to reflect a shared approach to reform, so that the measures that our two committees report can be quickly merged into a single bill for consideration on the Senate floor," the two Democrats wrote in the letter. [...]

"We must act swiftly, because the cost of inaction is too high for individuals, families, businesses, state and federal governments," Baucus and Kennedy wrote.

"We must act to contain the growth of health care costs to ensure our economic stability; to help American businesses deal with the health care challenge; and to make sure that we are getting our money's worth."

Time's Jay Newton-Small, who posted a copy of the Kennedy/Baucus letter to Obama, noted, "The letter is significant as it sets a time table that will now have political consequences if it is not met. This move, combined with the reconciliation language expected to be included in the final budget resolution, holds stake-holders' feet to the fire to get something done this year."

Jonathan Cohn added that the plan calls for committee markups in early summer, floor debates and votes in late summer, conference negotiations and then a final vote in early fall: "It's an ambitious timetable and nobody would be surprised if it slipped. Committee staff have a ton of work to do before they can craft legislative language; and, even then, any of a gazillion political issues could delay progress. That's why the overall timetable is not official. But this announcement suggests that, so far, things are moving ahead nicely."

And what of the opposition? Carrie Budoff Brown had a piece today noting that Republicans are starting to feel "nervous" when they see Democrats "organized" and "energized" to pass a major reform package.

There's no Republican plan yet. No Republicans leading the charge who have coalesced the party behind them. Their message is still vague and unformed. Their natural allies among insurers, drug makers and doctors remain at the negotiating table with the Democrats.

So Republicans now worry the party has waited so long to figure out where it stands that it will make it harder to block what President Barack Obama is trying to do.

I read Fred Barnes' piece over the weekend urging Republicans to rally the troops to defeat "Obamacare." I almost felt sorry for Barnes reading it -- the piece included tired cliches, bogus talking points, and a cry for "a well-financed army of relentless opposition." It all felt like Barnes was going through the motions, insisting that health care reform be killed "for the good of the country," but failing to even bother explaining why.

If Barnes can't even write a coherent opposition piece, Democrats have to like their chances.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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A WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE.... Newt Gingrich's appearance on the "Today" show is worth watching in its entirely, if for no other reason because it's a mendacious classic. The former House Speaker has been spreading nonsense on the airwaves for years, but today helped capture his intellectual bankruptcy nicely.

Gingrich argued, for example, that President Obama's decision to shake hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americans will be seen as proof that Chavez "is legitimate." Chavez is, of course, already an elected two-term president of a large South American country, so I don't think a photograph of a handshake will necessarily be a game changer.

Meredith Vieira followed by asking about the value in mending U.S. relationships with other world leaders. Gingrich responded, "How do you mend relationships with somebody who hates your country? Who actively calls for the destruction of your country? And who wants to undermine you?" When Vieira noted U.S. talks in the past with Russia and China, Gingrich said, "We didn't rush over, smile, and greet Russian dictators."

Even for Gingrich, this is unusually inane. Jed Lewison put together this video of U.S. presidents -- Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan -- smiling and greeting several "Russian dictators."

But I was also struck by the argument that U.S. leaders couldn't possibly talk to hates and wants to destroy the United States. Does Gingrich even remember the Soviet Union? U.S. presidents didn't just shake hands with Soviet leaders; they also engaged them in direct negotiations -- after the USSR vowed to wipe the United States off the map and pointed enough nuclear missiles at us to make that happen.

Making this even more ridiculous, some conservatives have apparently begun arguing that JFK's willingness to meet with Nikita Krushchev helped lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We're getting into some pretty deep stupidity here. Kennedy's talks didn't produce the missile crisis; Chavez isn't Krushchev; and Venezuela isn't the Soviet Union. All Obama did was shake the guy's hand at an international forum.

It's certainly possible that ol' Newt knows full well that his talking points are ridiculous. It's more than likely Gingrich actually remembers the Cold War, and is simply hoping that Americans don't realize that his claims are completely and wildly wrong.

But we're left with one or the other -- either Gingrich doesn't know what he's talking about or he assumes we're idiots.

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

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THE NEXT RUNG ON THE RHETORICAL LADDER.... It's become so common for the president's conservative detractors to equate the White House agenda with "socialism" and/or "communism," that Media Matters began doing weekly counts. Last week's "Red Scare Index" clocked in at 306, a big jump over the week before.

The problem for the right, of course, is that the attack isn't working. The Red Scare has been in full effect for a couple of months, and not only has Obama'a approval ratings remained fairly strong, but even socialism is starting to garner unusually high support.

With "socialism" talk having become tiresome, lazy right-wing voices have decided to climb the attack ladder -- "fascist" is one rung higher than "communist."

"Rhetorically, Republicans are having a very hard time finding something that raises the consciousness of the average voter," said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who recently lost a bid to became national party chairman.

Workaday labels like "big spender" and "liberal" have lost their punch, and last fall, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska gained little traction during the presidential campaign by linking Mr. Obama's agenda to socialism.

So Mr. Anuzis has turned to provocation with a purpose. He calls the president's domestic agenda "economic fascism."

"We've so overused the word 'socialism' that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," Mr. Anuzis said. "Fascism -- everybody still thinks that's a bad thing."

Well, I certainly can't argue with logic like that.

Casual references to the other "f" bomb have become pretty common in Republican circles, with Glenn Beck embracing it on a nearly daily basis. What was once considered largely beyond the pale in American discourse is now just another insult to be thrown at U.S. leaders by prominent political voices.

But Anuzis' perspective is especially interesting. He effectively concedes that the right has overused "socialist," leaving activists like him with no choice but to embrace the worst political epithet they can think of, whether it makes sense or not. The point isn't to make a coherent argument -- perish the thought -- but rather to scare the public with the most incendiary insults available in the right-wing imagination.

Anuzis added that it may sound bad to call the President of the United States a "fascist," but that's only because "we're not used to it." He added, "You've got to be careful using the term 'economic fascism' in the right way, so it doesn't come off as extreme."

Right. A leading Republican activist wants to find a way to attack elected U.S. leaders as "fascists," without sounding too harsh.

As Michelle Cottle concluded, "Yeah. Good luck with that, big guy."

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THE HANDSHAKE.... It's early Monday, and you know what that means: time for a new coordinated conservative tantrum. The freak-out over the Department of Homeland Security and domestic threats is so last week. The new fit is over President Obama shaking hands with the President of Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tore into President Barack Obama Monday for his friendly greeting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying Obama is bolstering the "enemies of America."

Gingrich appeared on a number of morning talk shows comparing Obama to President Jimmy Carter for the smiling, hearty handshake he offered Chavez, one of the harshest critics of the United States, during the Summit of the Americas. [...]

Two Republican senators, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John Ensign of Nevada, joined in the criticism Monday, with Ensign calling Obama's greeting of Chavez "irresponsible."

Obama apparently expected the excessive whining, and noted over the weekend the "great differences" he has with Chavez, including the Venezuelan president's "inflammatory" rhetoric and his unhelpful role in Latin America.

"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States," Obama told reporters. "I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

That, of course, doesn't matter. Gingrich & Co. need a new meme, and they settled on this one over the weekend.

What I find odd, though, is the underlying message. Leading Republicans make it sound as if America's stature is so fragile, it is easily weakened by casual courtesies at an international forum. President Obama, in contrast, acts as if America's stature is strong, and can withstand a handshake with a foreign head of state. Since when does the GOP find it useful to promote the idea of American weakness?

Obama added, "We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness -- the American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense."

Sensible or not, White House critics are hyperventilating today. One Fox News personality said Obama and Chavez were "fist bumping and making lovey dovey." Another said the two presidents were "sittin in a tree...K I S S I...."

You can watch the video -- and the body language -- of Obama's brief exchange with Chavez; the two shook hands but did not appear close. Sometimes, U.S. presidents meet foreign leaders we're not fond of, and sometimes, relations between two countries improve.

Really, though, it doesn't matter. The U.S. president was photographed shaking hands with the twice-elected head of state of a large South American democracy at a forum for hemispheric leaders. That's it. That's the whole story. That's what has Republicans screaming today. It's painfully absurd.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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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.

* To help encourage former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to end his court fights delaying the inevitable, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America have begun a campaign to collect $1 a day from supporters for every day Coleman drags out the process.

* On a related note, Coleman has already hinted that he'll take his case to the federal judiciary, if/when he loses at the state Supreme Court.

* Despite Michael Steele's troubles, the RNC edged the DNC in first quarter fundraising.

* Six state Republican lawmakers in California in February helped the state avert a budget disaster by agreeing to a plan crafted by the state's GOP governor and Democratic majority. The state party has already agreed to cut off campaign funding for these six, and now conservative activists in the state are launching a recall initiative.

* The NRSC has already thrown its support to Sen. Arlen Specter's (R) re-election bid in Pennsylvania, but the state's House Republican delegation is largely remaining neutral.

* With the initial counting of absentee ballots complete in New York's 20th, Democrat Scott Murphy leads Republican Jim Tedisco by 273 votes. There are about 1,500 challenged absentee ballot envelopes remaining, and the campaigns are headed to court.

* Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) has her first Republican challenger, with state Sen. Kim Hendren kicking off his campaign over the weekend. The 71-year-old state lawmaker will probably face some stiff competition in a GOP primary, with former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin eyeing the race.

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

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AL QAEDA CONTINUES TO APPEAR NERVOUS.... A couple of months ago, President Obama noted that terrorist leaders "seem nervous" with the change in U.S. administrations. It seems al Qaeda leaders are intent on proving the president right.

In the latest example, Ayman al-Zawahri has begged Muslims not to like Obama, and tried to convince his audience that Obama is practically identical to George W. Bush.

"America came to us with a new face, with which it is trying to fool us. He is calling for change, but (he aims) to change us so that we abandon our religion and rights," Ayman al-Zawahri said in an audio recording on the website.

Zawahri said Obama's election was an acknowledgement that Bush's policy had failed.

"Obama did not change the image of America among Muslims...America is still killing Muslims," said the Egyptian militant leader.

Zawahri's public-relations panic fits in nicely with the larger trend (indeed, Zawahri was similarly defensive about Obama in early February). Al Qaeda leaders were able to exploit George W. Bush's policies to recruit, expand, and raise money. The terrorist network is now in a much tougher position, not only in light of Bush's departure, but also with Barack Obama's international popularity. The very last thing al Qaeda wanted was a U.S. president who enjoys global admiration -- and that's exactly what they're responding to.

The result is a terrorist network with panicky pleas, urging followers and potential sympathetic ears to think of Bush and Obama as one and the same -- reality notwithstanding.

Rita Katz, who created the Site Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors jihadist communications, recently said the terrorist's hysterical rants against the president show "just how much al Qaeda is intimidated by Obama."

Good. The White House has already made a series of moves -- on torture, Guantanamo, outreach -- that reinforce American values and make al Qaeda's job that much more difficult.

To emphasize the obvious, the more the terrorist network feels intimidated, the better it is for our national security interests.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THIS CONVERSATION DOES EXIST.... Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has some explaining to do. CQ's Jeff Stein has the story.

Rep. Jane Harman, the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would "waddle into" the AIPAC case "if you think it'll make a difference," according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman's help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, "This conversation doesn't exist."

As a rule, that's the kind of comment politicians make when they engage in a conversation they shouldn't be having. It's also the kind of comment a politician makes when he/she assumes no one else is listening in on the call.

Except, Harman was wrong, and officials were listening. It wasn't even an example of the NSA abusing legal limits -- Harman was heard through legal surveillance.

Now, some of this may sound familiar. There were reports a few years ago about an FBI probe of Harman and her activities with pro-Israel lobbyists, but the investigation was dropped.

What we've learned from Stein's piece, however, is that the probe was scrapped, not for "lack of evidence," but because then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales intervened to let Harman off the hook.

And why would he do that? "Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House."

For the record, Harman's office rejects the allegations altogether.

This story is likely to stick around for a while, but I'll just add this: it's starting to be clearer whey Harman was passed over the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee and a role in the Obama administration.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE PERFECT SPOKESPERSON.... Last week, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) unveiled a proposal to permit gay marriages in the Empire State. Take a wild guess who's positioning himself as the leading opponent of marriage equality in New York.

Rudy Giuliani is declaring war on gay marriage -- vowing to use his strong opposition of it against the Democrats if he runs for governor next year.

The former mayor, in an extended interview with The Post, also predicted that Gov. Paterson's high-profile effort to legalize gay marriage would anger many New Yorkers and spark a revolt that could help sweep Republicans into office in 2010.

"This will create a grass-roots movement. This is the kind of issue that, in many ways, is somewhat beyond politics," said Giuliani, a two-term mayor who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination last year.

I'm generally loath to drag a politician's personal life into a debate over policy, but under the circumstances, Giuliani's colorful familial background makes him a uniquely hilarious figure to lead the charge against gay marriage. Indeed, the former mayor would be wise to re-think this strategy.

For those who've forgotten, Rudy Giuliani has been married three times. The first was to his cousin. He left his second wife, Donna Hanover, by announcing it in a press release -- before telling his spouse. After Hanover kicked him out their home for alleged serial adultery, Giuliani marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade with his mistress.

There is arguably no prominent American worse suited to "declare war" on gay marriage than Rudy Giuliani. He has single handedly done more to undermine the institution of traditional marriage than any gay couple possibly could.

If proponents of marriage equality are really lucky, Giuliani will be the face of the opposition.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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ACCOMMODATING CONFUSION.... There was one other exchange from House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) discussion with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that stood out for me. The host asked the GOP leader about the point of last week's "Tea Parties."

STEPHANOPOULOS: [O]n the issue of taxes, I think it's 43 percent of people who file taxes pay no income tax at all. For the middle fifth of taxpayers, they're paying just about 3 percent in federal income tax this year.

BOEHNER: Well, you want to go out and explain that to the hundreds of thousands of people around America that showed up for these rallies.

It's an odd response, isn't it? Stephanopoulos' point was reasonable enough, and it helps explain why most Americans believe the current tax system is fair. But Boehner seemed to suggest it doesn't matter whether existing tax rates are reasonable, what matters is whether conservative activists perceive existing tax rates as reasonable. He didn't think Stephanopoulos' evidence was wrong; he thinks his party's base thinks Stephanopoulos' evidence as wrong, and that's more important.

In other words, to hear Boehner tell it, the government should be responsive to the misconceptions of conservative activists. That's not exactly a compelling pitch.

Boehner suggested Stephanopoulos should try to "go out and explain" the relatively low tax burden "to the hundreds of thousands of people" who attended far-right rallies last week. But if Boehner is one of the most powerful GOP leaders in the country, shouldn't he "go out and explain" the facts to those who ostensibly look to him for policy guidance?

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CLOSING THE PROSECUTORIAL DOOR.... Last week, when the White House released the Bush administration's torture memos, President Obama's statement explained there would be no prosecutions of CIA officials who followed the advice of Bush's OLC in good faith. Whether there might be prosecutions for anyone else remained an open question.

Yesterday, the door that appeared ajar suddenly closed shut.

The Obama administration opposes any effort to prosecute those in the Justice Department who drafted legal memos authorizing harsh interrogations at secret CIA prisons, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said yesterday.

Some analysts and lawmakers have called for investigations and possible prosecution of those involved because they say four of the memos, disclosed last week by President Obama, illegally authorized torture. Emanuel's dismissal of the idea went beyond Obama's pledge not to prosecute CIA officers who acted on the Justice Department's legal advice.

"It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back" out of "any sense of anger and retribution," Emanuel said on ABC's "This Week." His remarks reflect the White House's effort to claim a middle ground after the release of the memos, which had been top secret, angered backers of the Bush administration's interrogation policy.

As pleased as I was to see the White House release the documents -- without significant redactions, despite howls from the intelligence community, knowing there would be significant partisan blowback -- describing accountability for alleged criminal behavior as "looking back" with "anger and retribution" is foolish.

It's simply not how our system of justice is supposed to work. "Bygones" is not the appropriate response to the evidence of criminal wrongdoing contained in the torture memos.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that the idea of "criminalizing legal advice after one administration is out of the office is a very bad precedent.... I think it would be disaster to go back and try to prosecute a lawyer for giving legal advice that you disagreed with to a former president."

But we're not just dealing with an instance of bad legal advice; we're talking about high-ranking administration officials establishing and justifying a system that permits war crimes.

Failing to criminalize crimes is what really sets "a very bad precedent."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THE MAN WHO WOULD BE SPEAKER.... One of the difficulties in discussing global warming with conservative Republicans is that they're often reluctant to take reality seriously.

Minority Leader John Boehner described the overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon dioxide is contributing to climate change as "comical" during an appearance on Sunday, noting that cow flatulence contributes CO2 to the environment all the time.

Appearing on ABC's This Week, the Ohio Republican was asked what to describe the GOP plan to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, "which every major scientific organization said is contributing to climate change."

Boehner replied: "The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know when they do what they do you've got more carbon dioxide."

The transcript of Boehner's remarks is online, and his office was proud enough of Boehner's on-air performance to post a video clip of his remarks to his YouTube page.

Remember, this isn't just some random conservative blogger or radio personality. John Boehner is an experienced lawmaker, the leader of the House Republican caucus, and the man who would be Speaker of the House in the event of a GOP majority. And yet, facing a serious climate crisis, Boehner doesn't understand the debate, doesn't have a coherent policy prescription, and is openly derisive of reality.

What a trainwreck.

Update: Joe Room added, "One of the GOP's senior leaders thinks this debate is about whether carbon dioxide is a carcinogen? And thinks carcinogens harm the environment, rather than people? And thinks that cows are of concern because they produce carbon dioxide, rather than methane?"

Again, the problem isn't just that Boehner has the wrong answer, it's that he doesn't even understand the question. The man who would be Speaker....

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

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By: Hilzoy

Why We Need Universal Health Insurance

Kate Michelman tells a horrible story in The Nation. In 2001, a horse fell backwards onto her daughter, paralyzing her for life. Then her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Michelman and her husband had health insurance and long-term care insurance; her daughter did not. Between her daughter's expenses and what her husband's health insurance did not cover, they had "all but exhausted our savings." Then her husband's balance began to deteriorate. They scheduled an appointment, and then:

"We pulled up to the main entrance of the hospital after the two-hour drive from our home near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. My husband opened his door, grabbed the roof of the car and began to pull himself out as I walked around to help him. I was too late. In an instant--time slowed enough for me to see the danger but raced ahead too fast for me to reach him--he lost his grip and fell to the concrete, shattering his hip, breaking his femur and causing internal bleeding that kept him in the hospital for months.

My husband is a retired college professor, and what the teaching profession lacks in salary it often makes up for with generous benefits. His health insurance would cover most of the emergency costs related to the fall--the surgeries, the hospitalization, the drugs. But in the astronomical sums the cost of medical care often entails, "most" is not a reassuring word. Months later, as his discharge from the hospital drew near, I sat in my living room looking at the bills piling up on the table. The co-pays, uncovered care and other costs had already reached $8,000, and we had virtually nothing left. (...)

The fraying financial thread by which we were already hanging was now certain to snap. When I heard the awful sound of my husband's body hitting the concrete outside the hospital, I knew the modicum of independence to which he had clung for so long was gone. He was discharged into an assisted-living facility, where most of the cost was excluded from both his private long-term-care insurance and Medicare. At $9,000 a month, the bills accumulated quickly.

Recently, we decided to bring him home, although the doctors would have preferred that he stay at a facility with full-time supervision. But this was a mathematical decision, not a medical one: we do not have the money it costs to keep him there. I had already stopped working, to care for him; our savings are nearly depleted; and his pension is not nearly large enough to pay the bills.

Today he needs nearly round-the-clock professional help at home--less than the cost of the assisted-living facility but still far more than we have. I have spent recent weeks looking for a job that can add at least enough to my husband's pension and our Social Security benefits to cover the cost of his care. It is a dilemma familiar to so many women--finding work that can pay for care but also leave time for providing it.

The time is drawing near when, job or no job, the expenses will simply be more than we have."

Read the whole thing.

I have never understood why Republicans are not behind universal health insurance. Though I don't agree with them, I can see the argument for not providing help for problems that are in some way people's own fault, or that might lead to big problems with moral hazard. But health care isn't like that. While some illnesses are due to people's choices, many are not. When you get sick, you can be ruined financially, whether or not you have been prudent. When acts of God ruin like hurricanes or earthquakes ruin people's lives, we step in to help. I have never understood why health care should be different.

Hilzoy 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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April 19, 2009

THE GOP'S 'BIG THREE'.... Time's Mark Halperin put together a Top 10 list the other day, pointing to the various reasons he believes the "Republican Party (and the conservative movement) is in a world of hurt." Some of the observations are more cogent than others.

Halperin points to issues such as Michael Steele's troubles, the party's leadership vacuum, and the right's difficulties overcoming President Obama's strengths. I think he missed a few -- including the fact that the party failed spectacularly at governing and is on track to become a reactionary regional party -- but the exercise is not without merit.

Of particular interest, though, was #9 on Halperin's list: "The near impotence of the right's long-term Big Three issues (national security, taxes, and social issues)."

Jon Chait had a good take on this:

There are three main categories of public policy, right? National security, economic policy, and social policy. Halperin identifies the GOP as having three issues (he means categories). National security is national security. Social issues are social issues. But economic policy is simply "taxes."

Halperin is right that the Republican Party's economic worldview can be simply defined as a position on taxes. But isn't that in and of itself the bigger problem? Doesn't that not only explain the party's inability to connect in a country where most people's income taxes, but also the party's inability to manage the economy in office and craft compelling alternative policies when not in office?

I think there's a word or two missing in that second paragraph, but regardless, Chait's point is absolutely right. In fact, this was driven home this week by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) "Solutions Center," which advised tax cuts for every imaginable economic ill. The party simply doesn't have anything else to offer.

Obviously, this isn't new. Tax cuts are the Swiss Army Knife of the Republican policy arsenal, addressing and/or preventing every conceivable problem. What is new is that most Americans simply don't find tax cuts salient or persuasive anymore. It makes the other nine points on Halperin's list largely irrelevant.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE LATEST MANUFACTURED OUTRAGE.... Having milked the Department of Homeland Security's report on potentially violent radicals for all it's worth, Republicans have a new manufactured outrage to play with.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, told CNN Sunday it was "irresponsible" for President Obama to been seen "laughing and joking" with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas on Friday.

"This is a person who is one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world," Ensign told CNN's John King on State of The Union. "He is a brutal dictator and human rights violations are very, very prevalent in Venezuela. And you have to be careful."

"When you're talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you're seen joking around with," he also said.

I see. The U.S. president was photographed shaking hands with a foreign head of state, and an international gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

Quick, someone draw up articles before this monster strikes again.

Chances are, President Obama would like to improve relations with our adversaries, and shook Hugo Chavez's hand out of a sense of international diplomacy. The efforts appear to possibly be paying dividends -- Venezuela indicated yesterday that it is considering naming an ambassador to the United States.

To be sure, Chavez is an odious figure. But he's also the twice-elected head of state of a large South American country with 30 million people. GOP rhetoric notwithstanding, there's no downside to improving our relations with the country's leadership.

This may be difficult for Ensign to understand, but sometimes, U.S. presidents meet foreign leaders we're not fond of. Once in a while, U.S. presidents even negotiate with foreign leaders who are clearly our adversaries -- Kennedy talked to Khrushchev, Nixon talked to Mao, Reagan talked to Gorbachev.

Are we to believe it's scandalous for Obama to simply shake hands -- not negotiate, not strike any deals, not come to any agreements, just press the flesh -- with the Venezuelan president? That a simple handshake undermines the "prestige of the United States"?

Please. Even for John Ensign, this is foolish.

Post Script: By the way, I seem to recall a tradition in which elected U.S. officials refrained from attacking the U.S. presidents while they represented the country overseas. It's safe to assume Republicans no longer believe in that tradition?

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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AN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE JUDICIARY.... The question shouldn't be whether to impeach Jay Bybee, but rather, how quickly the impeachment hearings can begin.

To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush's Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity.... In one of the more nauseating passages, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a federal judge, wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary. [...]

As Mr. Bush's lawyers were concerned, it was not really torture unless it involved breaking bones, burning flesh or pulling teeth. That, Mr. Bybee kept noting, was what the Libyan secret police did to one prisoner. The standard for American behavior should be a lot higher than that of the Libyan secret police.

Unlike memo authors like John Yoo and Steven Bradbury, Jay Bybee currently enjoys a lifetime appointment on a federal appeals court. The nomination was an insult, and his confirmation was absurd. But as the NYT editorial notes today, "These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him."

Of course it should. As Jeffrey Toobin noted the other day, Bybee was confirmed before his torture memos became public (though there were serious questions about his White House work at the time), and he "has never answered questions about them, has never had to defend his conduct, has never endured anywhere near the amount of public scrutiny (and abuse) as Yoo."

And while prosecuting top former Bush administration officials may be a contentious point, Senate consideration of Bybee's fate is quite straightforward. As digby noted, judicial impeachments are "not unprecedented." What's more, dday explains that while removing Bybee from his position would be difficult with at least "34 Republicans in the Senate willing to go on record as objectively pro-torture," Congress "should be compelled to do this anyway."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE INTENDED AUDIENCE(S).... The assumption has been that the Tea Baggers' efforts were directed at the nation's governing majority this week. Tea Party activists, organizers, and sponsors want Democratic policymakers to know that there's a far-right contingent that opposes the popular economic platform that President Obama was elected on last year.

But let's also not forget that the protestors' message wasn't just directed at the majority party.

The Dallas Morning News' Mark Davis had an item the other day, describing the Tea Baggers as having "an opportunity to offer reminders and even primary-season punishment to Republicans insufficiently devoted to fighting a socialist-leaning future."

Now, describing the Democrats' agenda as aiming for a "socialist-leaning future" is obviously silly, but it's easy to believe that enraged conservatives are sending a message to their Republican allies: toe the far-right line on economics or face perilous consequences.

Consider, for example, the merciless booing Rep. Gresham Barrett (R) of South Carolina received at his local Tea Party this week.

Barrett, who voted in favor of the $700 billion bailout to stabilize the financial sector, despised by many of the demonstrators, knew what he was getting into. South Carolina grassroots conservatives have been blasting the congressman for months because of his vote on the Bush administration's bill last October. Previewing his Tea Party speech earlier this week, The Greenville News wrote that Barrett was headed "into the Lion's Den."

But that may have been an understatement, according to video of his remarks captured on Friday by the South Carolina political Web site "The Palmetto Scoop." From the moment he was introduced to the Greenville crowd, his speech was drowned out by boos, turned backs and angry shouts "Go Home!" [...]

Barrett got one of the loudest jeers of the speech when he told the crowd: "You may boo, you may turn your back, but I have devoted my life to the conservative cause."

The booing and shouting continued for the entire five minutes Barrett was on stage. When he pointed out that he recently introduced a bill called the TEA Act to stop wasteful government spending, one protested yelled repeatedly: "Too late!"

It's hard to say with certainty whether the Republican establishment cared at all about this week's far-right rallies. The turnout totals were underwhelming, and the purpose of the events was more than a little vague. For that matter, most of the GOP officials won't need much convincing to embrace the economic vision of the party's confused conservative base.

But the treatment Gresham Barrett received was nevertheless a reminder to Republican officials, especially those seeking higher office (Barrett is running for governor next year): right-wing activists are in an intolerant mood.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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ABOUT THAT WHITE HOUSE PRESS CORPS.... The Washington Post devotes some space today to the idea of Spring Cleaning, running 10 "Why We Should Get Rid Of..." pieces. Ana Marie Cox's piece on eliminating the White House press corps was of particular interest.

Intense interest in the Obama administration has swelled the ranks of the White House press corps. Outlets such as Politico have thrown a basketball team's worth of bodies at the project, and outlets that didn't even exist until recently -- Fivethirtyeight.com, the Huffington Post -- have created their own White House correspondent positions.

Yet too often, the White House briefing room is where news goes to die.

Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent. A thorough debunking of the Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers' State Department and national security correspondents. Bush's abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe's legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off The Washington Post's Metro desk. [...]

It's not that the reporters covering the president are bad at their jobs. Most are experienced journalists at the top of their game -- and they're wasted at the White House, where scoops are doled out, not uncovered.

The argument is not without merit, but I have a slightly different take. It seems to me the problem isn't so much with the White House press corps as it is with the White House press briefings.

I've watched or read the transcript of just about every press briefing for the past 5+ years (excluding some of the duller Dana Perino sessions at the height of last year's presidential campaign). I've come to believe the briefings aren't especially necessary, and rarely produce actual news.

We can all think of key periods -- the months leading up to the war in Iraq, for example -- in which the White House press corps just refused to engage the press secretary when the administration needed real scrutiny. But while some of this dynamic has changed since 2002 and 2003, some of the more structural problems remain.

The briefings, to be sure, have theatrical qualities. The press secretary has a message to get out, and comes up with ways to say the same thing without sounding too repetitious. Reporters have areas of interest, including a series of questions they know the press secretary won't answer. The fun part is watching the reporters come up with creative ways to ask questions that won't get answered, and watching the press secretary come up with equally creative ways to dodge the inquiries without appearing evasive. Most of the time, it's about waiting for someone to make a mistake.

While junkies like me find this entertaining, that doesn't make the exercise worthwhile.

For Cox, this suggests the press corps at the White House just isn't necessary. She may be right. But I'm still inclined to think there's some utility of having professional journalists in the building, working sources, keeping their ear to the ground in the West Wing.

I say, keep the White House press corps and scrap their briefings.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CULTURE WARRIOR FOR GOVERNOR.... On Friday, Steve Schmidt offered some very good advice to his Republican Party about the right's temptation to shape the GOP through religion. "If you put public policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party," Schmidt said. "And in a free country, a political party cannot be viable in the long term if it is seen as a sectarian party."

But there's at least one notorious culture warrior who believes Republicans have to be a sectarian party -- and he'd like to be governor of Alabama. Remember Roy Moore, the disgraced Ten Commandments Judge?

Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice best known for his fight to keep the Ten Commandments in public spaces, told the AP that he's "seriously considering" another gubernatorial campaign and that he plans to announce a decision on June 1.

"Right now I'm very inclined to enter. I feel there is a need, and I feel I'm well qualified for the position," Moore said.

"Qualified" is something of a subjective term. Moore was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court on a vaguely theocratic, Taliban West-like platform. He used the state court to endorse and promote his faith, which prompted inevitable lawsuits. Court rulings demanded that Moore honor the First Amendment, but Moore refused, insisting that he had the authority to ignore federal court rulings he didn't like. Moore was, not surprisingly, subsequently thrown from office.

Soon after, the disgraced jurist sought to capitalize on his notoriety by running for governor in 2006. In a Republican primary, he garnered just 33% of the vote.

Now, apparently, Moore believes he's "qualified" to be Alabama's chief executive, and he's using rhetoric that sounds awfully similar to the words used by George Wallace.

I've argued a few times lately that the culture wars are largely winding down, after the right failed to change the culture to their liking. Moore hasn't gotten the memo.

It'll be interesting to see how his efforts progress in Alabama, and whether conservative activists in this very conservative Southern state are prepared to give up on the notion of "a sectarian party."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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183 TIMES.... Marcy Wheeler scrutinized some of the Bush administration's torture memos and discovered a striking statistic.

According to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002. [...]

[T]two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times -- still just half of what they did to KSM.

For years, one of the unfortunate aspects of the "debate" over abusive interrogation policies is the concerns surrounding practicality -- as if torture would we justifiable, if we knew with some certainty that it would produce the results (i.e., useful intelligence) we wanted.

Indeed, for proponents of torture, it's often all that matters. Never mind the law, or morality, or national prestige, or what these tactics do to undermine national security. If torture is effective, the argument goes, then it's a tool that belongs in our arsenal.

Now, we've known for quite some that the argument is not only morally bankrupt, it's also wrong. Torture "works" by compelling the abused to say what he/she thinks his/her captors want to hear.

And the KSM example seems to put the practical question to rest altogether. If waterboarding was an effective torture technique, why on earth did officials feel the need to administer it 183 times on one individual? What kind of sadist thinks, "We didn't get the information we wanted after torturing him 182 times, but maybe once more will do the trick"?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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April 18, 2009

STEELE TRIES ON PARANOIA.... Just yesterday, I had a random tweet about RNC Chairman Michael Steele having gone several days without saying something nutty in public.

So much for that idea.

Steele spoke with Sean Hannity last night, and in the context of the Department of Homeland Security's report on potentially dangerous right-wing radicals, both suggested that President Obama is some kind of possible threat to national security.

Steele went on to argue, without evidence, that he's "sure" a recent anti-abortion event in Indiana featured federal surveillance.

"They've got their eye on the 3,000 Americans who assembled in Indiana last night, in Evansville, Indiana, to profess their continued effort to save the life of the unborn," Steele said, adding, "I'm sure there was somebody in the room with a notepad and a camera taking snapshots and writing down names."

As easy as it is to mock Steele's foolishness, there's a substantive angle to all of this, too. If Steele is worried about surveillance abuses and an executive branch with excessive power over monitoring law-abiding citizens, there have been some genuine abuses for him to address.

Oddly enough, when it comes to real-world, non-paranoid intrusions, Steele hasn't had much to say. Why do you suppose that is?

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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SUBSTANTIVE.... Former Rep. and DLC Chair Harold Ford was on MSNBC's "Hardball" yesterday, and Chris Matthews brought up the leaders in the Republican Party. According to a transcript from my reader Hoosier Paul, Ford had this to say:

"I think it also speaks to the schism and the tension in their party right now. They can't decide if they want to go the Paul Ryan/Eric Cantor route, which seems to be slightly more substantive and mindful of the fact that the country is looking for answers, and substantive answers at that, or if they want to go the Rush Limbaugh/Palin, and some would argue, even now, the Rick Perry approach, which borders on asinine...."

I can appreciate where Ford is coming from here. In fact, there's probably a few competing factions in the GOP, at least with regards to the future direction of the party. Rush Limbaugh recently told the CPAC audience that the right should "stop assuming that the way to beat [the left] is with better policy ideas," pointing to the Republican contingent that isn't especially concerned with "substantive answers."

What I find noteworthy about Ford's remarks, though, is that he named Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as examples of those who take policy matters seriously. These two, Ford suggested, are the kind of lawmakers who can give the Republican Party some substantive heft.

The problem, of course, is that if Ryan and Cantor are going to be the substantive backbone of the GOP in the coming years, the Republican Party's future is likely to be quite bleak.

Ryan, for example, recently insisted that the Obama administration's proposed budget is "worse than Europe's" budget (as if the continent has just one). He also proposed a truly insane five-year spending freeze to respond to the global economic crisis and described a massive tax cut for the wealthy, dropping the top rate to 25%, as "progressive." In fact, Ryan helped craft the House GOP caucus' budget alternative, which tried to lower the deficit by passing trillions of dollars in additional tax cuts. On taxes, spending, Social Security, Medicare, energy policy, Ryan's plan wasn't just wrong, it was demonstrably ridiculous.

And by all appearances, Cantor is slightly worse, not only endorsing Ryan's approach -- including the belief that the way out of a recession is deep federal spending cuts -- but also taking the lead in opposition economic recovery efforts in February. Best of all, this week, Cantor's office unveiled a Republican "solutions center" for Americans concerned about job losses, the housing crisis, and their savings. Every question led to the same response: tax cuts, spending cuts, or tax cuts and spending cuts.

Ryan and Cantor are prepared to take the lead on crafting "substantive answers" for the Republican Party? Here's a challenge for them: name one.

Steve Benen 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE FIGHT OVER JUDGES CONTINUES.... We're bound to see some pretty bitter fights over judicial nominee during the next four years, the president's desire to end "the confirmation wars" notwithstanding.

But at a gathering of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Washington yesterday, there were some interesting differences of opinion on GOP strategy.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for example, said Obama's nominees to the federal judiciary will likely be "poisoning the well of American jurisprudence for generations to come." He added, however, that the filibuster should be off the table.

Is this because of Santorum's deeply-held principles? Is it because he remembers not too long ago that he said the very idea of filibustering judicial nominees was an affront to the American system of government? No, it's because Santorum doesn't think the filibusters will work.

"The word filibuster should not come out of the lips of Republican senators," Santorum told a gathering of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Washington. He said "any idea of a filibuster is folly" given the slim chances of success.

"You don't pull out a gun if everybody in the room knows it's not loaded," Santorum said. [...]

Santorum said many in the Republican caucus would be turned off by a filibuster and a failed one would make the GOP look all the more marginalized.

Great, Rick Santorum is becoming the voice of pragmatism in Republican politics.

For what it's worth, the assembled GOP lawyers were less than pleased with Santorum's advice, and expressed hopes that Republican senators would leave as many judicial vacancies open, indefinitely, as possible. (There are currently "69 vacant slots in the federal judiciary, 23 of which are categorized as judicial emergencies (including 11 on the Courts of Appeals) because of caseload needs combined with the duration of the vacancy.")

Wendy Long, head of the Judicial Confirmation Network, which ironically no longer wants to see judicial conformations, is one of the leading far-right activists on nomination fights. She said yesterday that Republicans should approach nominees with "a presumption that they're not going to be able to uphold their oath."

Got that? Republican senators, who argued during Bush's presidency that failing to confirm judicial nominees tears at the fabric of our democracy, should now reflexively assume that every Obama nominee, including those who haven't even been named, is incapable of serving on the federal bench.

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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STOOPING TO SCHOOL-YARD TAUNTS.... We haven't had occasion to mock TV preacher Pat Robertson for a while, so let's take this opportunity to highlight the televangelist's comments yesterday about the DHS report on potentially violent right-wing extremists.

"It shows somebody down in the bowels of that organization is either a convinced left winger or somebody whose sexual orientation is somewhat in question. But it's that kind of thing, somebody who doesn't think that we should have abortion on demand, is labeled a terrorist! It's outrageous!"

Really, Pat? That's your on-air criticism? Is this really the best you can do?

We've seen quite a bit of silly criticism of the report this week, but Robertson's might be the most inane of all. First, the Department of Homeland Security did not say opponents of abortion rights are terrorists. Second, the report was initiated and prepared by a Bush administration official, not a "convinced left winger." (I'm also not quite sure what "convinced" means in this context.)

But I was especially amused that Robertson thinks the "sexual orientation" of federal officials responsible for the report is "somewhat in question." In other words, Robertson doesn't like a government report on radical extremists, so the report's authors might be (cue scary music) gay.

This, of course, is consistent with the way a nine-year-old child might use "gay" and "bad" interchangeably.

How very sad.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Gail Collins reflects on the sudden interest in some corners in the issue of secession.

Weren't there complaints, some from Texan quarters, during the last election that Barack Obama seemed insufficiently up front about his love of country? Isn't threatening to dissolve the union over the stimulus package a little less American than failure to wear a flag pin?

Remember the time when Michelle Obama said, in a moment she spent an entire campaign trying to take back, that 2008 was the first time she could remember ever feeling really proud of her country? Can you imagine how the conservative base would have reacted if she said that it was the first time she didn't feel like renouncing her citizenship?

It has been one of the more ironic aspects of the week, hasn't it? The love-it-or-leave-it crowd -- the same folks who equated dissent with treason not too long ago -- has, after not quite three months of a Democratic administration, reached a very different conclusion about standards of patriotism in the 21st century.

Indeed, it seems like yesterday when conservative blog posts and Wall Street Journal op-eds implored the left to consider how criticism of America's leaders necessarily undermines the country during a time of crisis. How can anyone rhetorically attack George W. Bush, the President of the United States, at a time like this? Don't liberals know Osama bin Laden and other enemies might be wathcing? With so much at stake, can't the left realize how it looks to the rest of the world to see Americans divided?

One assumes the next time the nation's elected leaders are Republicans, the same activists will re-discover their discomfort with criticism of those who run the country, crisis or no crisis.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is another manufactured White House-related controversy, ginned up by the president's conservative detractors, about covering up Jesus' name during Obama's speech this week at Georgetown University.

The meme, initially pushed by Drudge and CNSNews.com before getting picked up by perpetually-confused media personalities like Joe Scarborough, is that the president and his team requested that Jesus' name -- specifically, a gold "IHS" monogram -- be covered over in advance of Obama's speech on the economy. (Ironically, the president referenced the Sermon on the Mount in some detail in the speech, suggesting he was not exactly giving Jesus the short shrift.)

As is usually the case when far-right activists get hysterical, there's nothing to any of this.

The White House denied that there was any effort to specifically cover up religious imagery or symbols and noted that on the wall directly behind the president there are two religious paintings and there is other imagery throughout the hall.

"Decisions made about the backdrop for the speech were made to have a consistent background of American flags, which is standard for many presidential events. Any suggestions to the contrary are simply false," White House spokesman Shin Inouye told ABC News.

Georgetown officials said that the White House requested the backdrop and asked that all signs and symbols behind the stage be covered up.

"In coordinating the logistical arrangements for the event, Georgetown honored the White House staff's request to cover all of the Georgetown University signage and symbols behind the Gaston Hall stage in order to accommodate a backdrop of American flags, consistent with other policy speeches," said Julie Green Bataille, associate vice president for communications at Georgetown.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* There have been several reports that the Obama administration had hoped to nominate Caroline Kennedy as the Ambassador to the Vatican, but that the Vatican rejected the selection because of Kennedy's support for abortion rights. While the claim has been circulated widely, especially by conservative blogs, the story appears to be false. John Thavis at Catholic News Service found that the claim is not only wrong, but based on a faulty premise: "The Vatican has not been in the habit of vetting the personal beliefs or ideas of candidates before accepting them as ambassadors, [Vatican sources] said."

* And in Scotland, police officers are asked to list their religious affiliation in voluntary diversity forms. According to the most recent tally, 10 members of the Scotland's largest force -- eight police officers and two police staff -- recorded their religion as "Jedi." Yes, from "Star Wars." In fact, the BBC reported, "About 390,000 people listed their religion as Jedi in the 2001 Census for England and Wales. In Scotland the figure was a reported 14,000."

May the force be with all of them, always.

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

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IT'S LIKE A WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY.... The New York Times notes this morning, "It has long been part of Texas folk mythology that because the state was once an independent republic, it has the option of seceding. But historians and law professors say there has been no serious argument since the Civil War on behalf of a legal basis for a state's secession."

Well, I'm afraid "serious argument" is a subjective matter. Since some Texas officials, including the state's two-term governor, raised the prospect this week of leaving the United States, there's been some renewed interest in Texas', shall we say, options.

Disgraced Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) conceded this week that Texas can't just secede from the Union. He added, however, that he sees a possible avenue for Texas to become its own country: "Texas was a republic. It joined the Union by treaty. There's a process in the treaty by which Texas could divide into five states. If we invoke that, and the last time it was voted on was 1985, the United States Senate would kick us out and nullify the treaty because they're not going to allow 10 new Texas senators into the Senate. That's how you secede."

I suppose it's worth noting that DeLay's math is wrong. Texas, like all states, currently has two senators. If it became five states, it would have eight new senators, not 10.

But more important, of course, is whether DeLay's "analysis" makes any legal/historical sense. Brian Beutler looked into it.

First, Texas did not join the Union by treaty. They joined by joint resolution of Congress. According to Dr. Felix D. Almaraz, a professor of Texas history at the University of Texas, San Antonio, DeLay is correct that Texas can, in theory, divide into as many as four additional states (five total) and has tried and failed to do so from time to time. [...]

But there's a problem with that. According to Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, "[n]ew states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress."

But even if Congress couldn't vote down the proposition, Steven Teles, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland who studies federalism, says that, to the best of his knowledge, "[t]here is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for ejecting a state from the Union, just as there is no provision for secession. Becoming a state, from the point of view of the Constitution, is a one-time-and-one-time-only affair."

Texas, it appears, isn't going anywhere. Perhaps Rick Perry can think of a new way to whip his right-wing base into a pre-primary frenzy.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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SEE GRANDEUR, DELUSIONS OF.... On the front page of the Fox Nation, readers are greeted with a headline that reads, "Spain Caves After O'Reilly Boycott Threat." Seriously.

Spanish prosecutors were considering charges against six Bush administration officials -- Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, William J. Haynes II, David Addington, and Doug Feith -- for their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo Bay. This week, Spain's attorney general backed away from this, arguing that such charges would be more appropriate in the United States.

Fox News believes Spain "caved" because of Bill O'Reilly. Indeed, last night, O'Reilly made a similar boast on the air.

"Now, I don't know whether 'The Factor' was a factor in this decision, but I am taking full credit for it.... Because Spain, according to The Economist magazine, is pushing 19 percent unemployment. We were going to boycott Spain. That means millions of Americans would have at least been exposed to the idea.

And they folded pretty darn fast. We started this last week. Today, 'No mas.' ... We're taking full credit for that, ladies and gentlemen, whether deserved or not."

Perhaps no phrase better captures O'Reilly's worldview than those four words: "whether deserved or not."

What's more, Satyam Khanna reminds us that O'Reilly routinely takes credit for all kinds of developments, "whether deserved or not," including the Fox News host having affected John McCain's poll numbers, saving Christmas, bringing down major newspapers, and lowering gas prices.

No wonder O'Reilly thinks he's more powerful than any politician.

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

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By: Hilzoy

More Things That Are Missing

A couple of other things that are missing from the torture memos:

First, the memos cite various legal precedents for the definition of torture. They are particularly fond of Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, which involved "a course of conduct that included severe beatings to the genitals, head, and other parts of the body with metal pipes and various other items; removal of teeth with pliers; kicking in the face and ribs; breaking of bones and ribs and dislocation of fingers; cutting a figure into the victim's forehead; hanging the victim and beating him; extreme limitations of food and water; and subjection to games of 'Russian Roulette'." (p. 24; the details of this case are repeated on four separate occasions in this memo alone, like an incantation.)

Isn't it strange, then, that not a single one of the cases in which the United States has prosecuted people for waterboarding turns up in these memos? You'd think they might be apposite. Oddly enough, though, Steven Bradbury didn't think to include them.

Second: As I noted last night, under the US Code, an important issue in determining whether something counts as producing "severe mental pain or suffering" is whether it produces "prolonged mental harm". In discussing this question, especially with regard to sleep deprivation and waterboarding, Steven Bradbury spends a lot of time discussing the scientific literature on these topics.

And yet, once you think about it, he had a much better source of information available to him. These memos were written in May, 2005. The CIA had been using these "methods of interrogation" for nearly three years. Moreover, the memos fall all over themselves describing the repeated psychiatric evaluations that detainees are given:

"Prior to interrogation, each detainee is evaluated by medical and psychological professionals from the CIA's Office of Medical Services ("OMS") to ensure that he is not likely to suffer any severe physical or mental pain or suffering as a result of interrogation." (p. 4)

Bradbury then quotes the OMS' guidelines:

"[T]echnique-specific advance approval is required for all "enhanced" measures, and is 'conditional on on-site medical and psychological personnel confirming from direct detainee examination that the enhanced technique(s) is not expected to produce "physical or mental pain or suffering"'. As a practical matter, the detainee's physical condition must be such that these interventions will not have lasting effect, and his psychological state strong enough that no severe psychological harm will result." (p. 4)


"Medical and psychological personnel are on-scene throughout (and, as detailed below, physically present or otherwise observing during the application of many techniques, including all techniques involving physical contact with detainees), and "[d]aily physical and psychological evaluations are continued throughout the period of [enhanced interrogation technique] use." (p. 5; square brackets in the original.)

With all those psychological workups having been conducted on CIA detainees over a period of nearly three years, one might think that the CIA, and specifically its Office of Medical Services, would have lots of information on whether or not the techniques under discussion actually did produce any "prolonged mental harm." And yet, strange to say, the memos don't mention any evidence at all about the effects of these techniques on CIA detainees*.

It's pretty strange that the CIA had all that data about the psychiatric effects of its interrogation techniques ready to hand, and yet no one mentions it.

Or then again, maybe not.

* This is particularly striking in the case of Abu Zubaydah, whose psychiatric condition is described at considerable length in the August 1, 2002 memo. As Emptywheel has noted, the description of Abu Zubaydah in the memos is completely different from the FBI sources quoted by Ron Suskind -- they called him "certifiable". But let's pretend we don't know that, and ask: given the 2002 memo's extensive description of Abu Zubaydah, and given that he was the detainee on whom these techniques had been used the longest, wouldn't it be natural for Bradbury to explain what dazzling psychological health he was enjoying several years after the CIA had begun using "enhanced techniques" on him?

On reflection, though, maybe using Abu Zubaydah as a poster child for the benignity of the CIA's methods would not have been such a good idea:

"The sadistic treatment of Abu Zubayda also seems to have affected him psychologically in bizarre ways. Two sources said that he became sexually obsessive, masturbating so much his captors feared he would injure himself. One described him as acting "like a monkey at the zoo." A physician was called in for consultation -- one of many instances in which health professionals have played truly disturbing roles in this program."

Hilzoy 2:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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April 17, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Torture: The Bureaucracy In Action

I will have a lot more to say about the torture memos later tonight. For now, though, I just want to echo this point by Andrew Sullivan, which is very, very important. He's contrasting the Bradbury memos from 2005 to the Bybee memo from 2002:

"What is far more important and far graver is the decision after the 2004 re-election, after the original period of panic, to set up a torture program, replete with every professional and bureaucratic nicety. This is why the Bradbury memo of 2005 is so much more chilling in its way. This was long after Abu Ghraib, long after the initial panic, and a pre-meditated attempt to turn the US into a secret torture state. These legal memos construct a form of torture, through various classic torture techniques, used separately and in combination, that were to be used systematically, by a professional torture team along the lines proposed by Charles Krauthammer, and buttressed by a small army of lawyers, psychologists and doctors - especially doctors - to turn the US into a torture state. The legal limits were designed to maximize the torture while minimizing excessive physical damage, to take prisoners to the edge while making sure, by the use of medical professionals, that they did not die and would not have permanent injuries. (...)

This was done by the professional classes in this society. It was not done by Lynndie England or some night-shift sadists at Abu Ghraib. (...)

If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos. Read how gifted professionals in the CIA were able to convince experienced doctors that what they were doing was ethical and legal. Read how American psychologists were able to find justifications for the imposition of psychological torture, and were able to analyze its effects without ever stopping and asking: what on earth are we doing?

By the time the Bradbury memos were written, the bureaucracy had evidently swung into full gear behind the administration's policies of torture. There are references to various background papers on the techniques used, guidelines (apparently quite elaborate) on their proper use, etc. There is a proliferation of detailed requirements -- when administering an abdominal slap, "the interrogator must have no rings or other jewelry on his hand" (pp. 8-9), though oddly this prohibition is absent from the section on facial slaps. There are specific requirements about how cold the water with which a detainee is doused can be, in what ambient temperature, and for how long (it's different for different water temperatures.)

Moreover, there seem to be a lot of people involved. Besides the interrogators, "medical and psychological personnel are on-scene throughout (and, as detailed below, physically present or otherwise observing during the application of many techniques, including all techniques involving physical contact with detainees)" (p. 7.) Batteries of physical and psychological exams are given. Elaborate interrogation plans are submitted for approval, and detailed records are kept.

Suppose, for instance, a detainee who has been deprived of sleep (but not for more than 180 hours!), and is now being subjected to "walling", dousing with water, and nudity. There is a mass of detail about how this should be done: the water must be no colder than 41 degrees farenheit; when slamming the detainee into the wall, he will wear a collar to protect against whiplash; when the detainee is deprived of sleep by chaining his hands to the ceiling to prevent him from lying down, medical personnel shall check at all times to ensure that he is not developing edema in his feet; if he does, they will switch him to a special horizontal no-sleep position. And yet, somehow, the obvious question never arises, namely: what on earth are we doing repeatedly slamming this naked and sleep-deprived guy into a wall and then dousing him with cold water? How can this possibly be OK?

As Andrew says: this is how democracies die.

Hilzoy 7:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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

* Captain Richard Philips returns home to Vermont.

* A breakthrough on relations with Cuba?

* Marital rape will not be legal in Afghanistan after all.

* NIH releases new guidelines on stem-cell research.

* Andrew Slack has a report on how "the genocide in Darfur has shifted to a new phase of horror for the Darfuri people."

* California's unemployment rate is up to 11%.

* The White House is standing by Steven Rattner, at least for now.

* Thank the ACLU for yesterday's revelations on the Bush torture memos.

* And be sure to read Jeffrey Toobin's take on one of the torture memo authors: Jay Bybee.

* I guess it was only a matter of time before Glenn Beck attacked Little Green Football's Charles Johnson.

* Let the countdown-to-apology clock begin -- Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) of Kansas described Rush Limbaugh today as "just as entertainer."

* Whether Gates realizes it or not, DADT is going to end.

* The feud between Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel appears to be over.

* I have no idea why CNN would "commend" South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) for embracing Neo-Hooverite policies.

* Deranged right-wing shock-jock Michael Savage is apparently feeling litigious.

* I often wonder what kind of media figure Joe Scarborough would be if he weren't so frighteningly foolish.

* And finally, Fox News' Geraldo Rivera reminded his colleagues yesterday that the "grand total of all of the tea party demonstrators" this week was less than the number "at that immigration rally in 2006 in the city of Chicago alone." That's true. Remind me, did Fox News do public-relations work for that rally, promote it constantly for weeks, and offer live coverage throughout the day?

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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CONFIRMING WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW.... I'd hoped we were past this, but the standard line from conservatives today is that President Obama somehow undermined national security yesterday by releasing the Bush administration's secret torture memos. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey push the line pretty aggressively today in a WSJ op-ed, arguing, among other things, that exposing abusive tactics is likely to "diminish the effectiveness of these techniques."

Actually, prohibiting torture and refusing to commit war crimes necessarily diminishes the effectiveness of these techniques since they won't be used anymore. But I digress.

If the Hayden/Mukasey argument sounds familiar, it's because Bush and Cheney, among others, used it with some regularity during the last administration. If future detainees know what we're likely to do with them, the bad guys can prepare for those specific techniques. Obama, the argument goes, therefore made interrogations more difficult.

This is foolish for a variety of reasons. First, the president has already banned torture. Second, there's no way to "prepare" for waterboarding. And as Greg Sargent explained, these complaints today are badly missing the point.

While a few technical torture details in the memos were new, much about the techniques themselves had already been public. Indeed, what's actually new about the memos is that they reveal in unprecedented detail the Bush administration's effort to legally justify already-known techniques. [...]

[M]uch about these techniques was already publicly known. For instance, the recently released report from the Red Cross contains detailed descriptions of techniques such as hurling suspects against a wall; face-slapping; confinement in a box; prolonged nudity; sleep deprivation; waterboarding; etc., etc. These were the techniques detailed in yesterday's memos. This stuff is detailed in other places.

Yes, there were some new details in yesterday's memos -- the "insect" torture, for instance -- and the precise descriptions of some of the techniques were new, and hence striking. But the broad outlines were already known, so the memos didn't really give away a host of torture secrets.

Quite right. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported today that the president became more inclined to release the materials, without significant redactions, precisely because the New York Review of Books had already published the Red Cross account. If most of the information was already in the public domain, there was less of a need for the administration to pretend the details were secret.

The point here has less to do with interrogation details and more to do with the lengths loyal Bushies went to rationalize and justify torture.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CANDOR IS NOT A CRIME.... There's no reason to think this should be at all controversial, but if recent history is any guide, it'll be part of the next conservative conniption.

In words that resounded on both sides of the border, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Mexico City last month that America's "insatiable demand" for illegal drugs fueled the trade and that America's "inability" to stop weapons from being smuggled south fed the violence. It is a marked shift in tone from previous administrations, and Mr. Obama used his visit here to reiterate the sentiment.

"I will not pretend that this is Mexico's responsibility alone," he said. "The demand for these drugs inside the United States is keeping these cartels in business."

I can hear Limbaugh, Hannity, et al, now: "A ha! He's leading the blame-America-first crowd! He's acknowledging some U.S. responsibility for creating a demand for drug trafficking!" Mocking the right, Joe Klein added, "He's got nothing but bad stuff to say about the U.S. as soon as he slips across the border. I mean, that's ... like, unpatriotic, right?"

This probably won't go over well, either.

The Obama world re-engagement tour heads south of the border today. In four days of meetings, first in Mexico City and then in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama is picking up where he left off in Europe, reaching out to his fellow leaders and offering to work with them -- as equals.

"Times have changed," Obama told CNN en Español. Referring to his planned meeting with the Brazilian leader, for instance, he said: "My relationship with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of two leaders who both have big countries, that we are trying to solve problems and create opportunities for our people, and we should be partners. There's no senior partner or junior partner."

If Republicans stick to the usual script, the complaints will be that the United States is always the senior partner with everyone, so Obama is wrong to suggest otherwise. The president's humility effectively makes us sound like we're equals with our allies in global problem-solving, when we're supposed to have no equal.

Here's hoping the right resists the urge to pursue this line this time. Obama's trying modesty over arrogance as the basis of international cooperation. Especially in Latin America, it's the kind of diplomacy that's likely to go far.

E.J. Dionne Jr. added that this is a model that's likely to be effective.

Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own.... This may break with George W. Bush's style -- particularly at the level of rhetoric, and especially during Bush's first term -- but it is in keeping with the traditions of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush. Obama insists that we do not have unlimited resources to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. [...]

And the Obama Doctrine seeks to regain the world's sympathy by acknowledging that while the United States is a great nation built on worthy principles, it is not perfect.

Obama's willingness to point to our imperfection drives many conservatives crazy.

Perhaps, but the president's "form of realism," which is "unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness" is still a sound policy.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE WRONG WAY TO ESTABLISH A RECORD.... U.S. News' Paul Bedard reported this week that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's "bright star has fast faded in the eyes of Washington Republican officials and analysts." Bedard quoted a GOP strategist who has worked for George W. Bush who noted that Palin is "starting to look like she's having trouble being governor of Alaska."

Quite right. In 2008, John McCain used to argue that Palin was the "most popular governor in America." The claim didn't stand up well to scrutiny at the time, but more importantly, she's clearly seen her political fortunes deteriorate in her home state.

For example, Palin nominated a very controversial figure to be the state's attorney general, for reasons that never seemed to make sense. Yesterday, the state legislature -- including the Republican leaders in both chambers -- rejected the governor's choice.

The Alaska Legislature voted 35 to 23 on Thursday to reject the confirmation of Wayne Anthony Ross, Gov. Sarah Palin's pick for attorney general.

According to Legislative Research Services, it was the first time in state history a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature. All the Democrats in the Legislature voted against Ross and were joined by nine Republicans, including the Senate president and House speaker.

If that were the only embarrassment, it's be easier to overlook, but Palin's problems hardly end there. She's engaged in a protracted fight with Democrats on filling a vacancy in the state Senate, in which Palin's conduct has been so absurd, it'd be hilarious if it weren't so ridiculous. Making matters worse, she annoyed lawmakers in both parties by skipping town at the end of the legislative session to give an anti-abortion speech in Indiana.

Alex Koppelman pointed to this item from the Anchorage Daily News' Sean Cockerham

The antagonism between legislators and Gov. Sarah Palin doesn't end. Hours after the Legislature voted down the governor's nominee for attorney general, House Finance Committee members tonight slammed the governor's aides for not briefing legislators on Palin's plan for an in-state gas pipeline.

"I've had a lot of friction with the governor this year on her lack of connection, frankly the appearance that she's more concerned about her national ambitions than what's going on in the state," Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, co-chair of the finance committee, told Palin budget director Karen Rehfeld.

The committee was deciding on a request by Palin for $9 million to help develop a private in-state natural gas pipeline from the North Slope down to the Kenai Peninsula. Hawker and the other co-chair said Palin staffers spoke to legislative leaders about the money -- but several other finance committee members complained this was the first they'd heard of it.

"Nobody from the (Palin) administration has been to my office at all... I see a number of different legislators all shaking their heads, same thing, nobody's been in their office," said Kodiak Republican Rep. Alan Austerman.

This came up a lot during Palin's national campaign, when Alaskans conceded the governor seems "incurious about the mechanism of government," has has "never" been "deeply engaged" in matters of state, and "has not paid much attention to the nitty-gritty unglamorous work of government."

In advance of her next national endeavor, Palin has an opportunity to learn about policy and discover how to work with policymakers to govern and pass legislation. She's apparently not taking advantage of this opportunity.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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DON'T POINT DUE NORTH.... It's only fair to give Republicans credit for one of the party's strongest skills: manufacturing a controversy out of nothing. Turning molehills into mountains is an art, and GOP leaders -- in conjunction with their various allies -- are genuine masters.

This week's flap over a DHS report on potentially dangerous right-wing extremists is the best example of this, at least since the manufactured controversy over President Obama "apologizing" for American "arrogance." Which was the best manufactured controversy since the administration's plan to "cut" military spending. Which was the best since Obama "bowed." Which was the best since the "outrage" over the president using a teleprompter. Which was the best since conservatives bristled after seeing the president chuckle during a "60 Minutes" interview.

Consider this take from Oliver North, chatting with Sean Hannity about the DHS report last night:

"[H]ere's what's really disturbing about [the DHS report]. One is the intrusion into political thought in America that vilifies those of us who have subscribed to any of those, or guys like you and me that subscribe to all of them.

"Second of all, it's a twisted idea. They're saying that right-wing extremism is the number one threat to American safety and security. That means that if you're a Hamas organizer or a Hezbollah recruiter or a Somali terrorist trying to recruit suicide terrorists, you're lower on the totem pole in terms of scrutiny than a regular American citizen concerned about these things, to include, outrageously enough, American veterans who they think are a target for being radicalized."

This is so obviously ridiculous, it's a challenge counting all the errors. The DHS report doesn't "vilify" conservatives, unless North is prepared to argue that he and Hannity have embraced a extremist, borderline-violent ideology. The department isn't singling out people like North and Hannity; it prepared a similar report about left-wing radicals (curious that no one seems worked about that one).

When North complains about what "they're saying," he's referring to the Obama administration, which is also wrong, since the report in question was initiated and prepared by Bush administration officials. No one in any position of authority has ever said, in any context, that "right-wing extremism is the number one threat to American safety and security." And the only reason officials believe veterans might be "a target for being radicalized" because veterans are often a target for being radicalized.

Here's the thing: I suspect North and Hannity know their rhetoric is nonsense. Sure, they're pretty far gone, but they're not illiterate. No one is dumb enough to believe these arguments, not even these two.

Which is why I'm almost impressed with their act. I mean, really, how many days have these clowns kept this non-story alive?

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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STEVE SCHMIDT HAS SOME ADVICE FOR HIS PARTY.... Steve Schmidt, the top strategist for the McCain/Palin presidential campaign, will appear before the Log Cabin Republicans and urge his party to embrace marriage equality.

"I'm confident American public opinion will continue to move on the question toward majority support, and sooner or later the Republican Party will catch up to it," Schmidt plans to say according to excerpts provided to ABC News. [...]

In his Friday noontime speech, Schmidt is planning to argue that same-sex marriage is in step with principles that conservatives hold dear.

"There is a sound conservative argument to be made for same-sex marriage," Schmidt plans to say. "I believe conservatives, more than liberals, insist that rights come with responsibilities. No other exercise of one's liberty comes with greater responsibilities than marriage."

"It cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un American or threatens the rights of others," he will say.

"On the contrary," he will say, "it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence -- liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, I believe, gives the argument of same sex marriage proponents its moral force."

While the argument seems to be primarily about principle, Schmidt will also reportedly explain that the GOP alienates young people when it rejects equal rights.

Perhaps even more provocatively, Schmidt also apparently believes his Republican Party is "at risk of becoming a religious party. In a free country a political party cannot remain viable in the long term if it is seen as a sectarian party."

So, here's the question: how fierce will the blowback against Schmidt be for this? Just a few weeks ago, RNC Chairman Michael Steele said the idea of the party embracing civil unions -- endorsed by both Bush and Cheney -- is "crazy." The notion that the party will respond to Schmidt with anything but scorn is hard to imagine.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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TAXES, IN CONTEXT.... Last week, Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist in the Bush administration, wrote an interesting column comparing U.S. tax rates with countries around the world. Bartlett, a conservative, found that the United States "is a relatively low-tax country no matter how you slice the data." In 2006, total taxation (federal, state and local) amounted to 28% of the GDP. Of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only four had a lower tax ratio than the U.S.

But, conservatives said, who cares what kind of taxes are imposed by other industrialized democracies? Since when do we care? So, this week, Bartlett went with a different approach, comparing the current U.S. tax structure with recent generations.


The exercise is straightforward enough. Bartlett identified the "effective federal income tax rate -- taxes paid as a share of income -- for a family with the median income. The median is the exact middle of the income distribution -- half of families are above and half are below. It's as close as we can get, statistically, to the typical American family."

He found that the median family, in the most recent year available, "paid 5.91% of its income to the federal government in the form of income taxes." In 1981, the median family paid double, and current rates are "well below the rate that prevailed from the 1950s through the 1990s."

What's more, the 2009 numbers are almost certainly lower than 2007, thanks to Obama's middle-class tax cut.

Given all of this, Bartlett draws the right conclusion about the "Tea Party" events this week, where Tea Baggers complained bitterly about a crushing tax burden: "I believe this was largely a partisan exercise designed to improve the fortunes of the Republican Party, not an expression of genuine concern about taxes or our nation's fiscal future. People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously."

Post Script: For the record, I made this chart, using the table in Bartlett's piece. I'm hoping to break into the lucrative world of chart blogging someday.

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

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EPA CONSIDERS EMISSIONS A HAZARD.... The announcement wasn't unexpected, but it's nevertheless encouraging.

Having received White House backing, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Friday that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a significant threat to human health and thus will be listed as pollutants under the Clean Air Act -- a policy the Bush administration rejected.

The move could allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, but it's more likely that the Obama administration will use the action to prod Congress to pass regulations around a system to cap and then trade emissions so that they are gradually lowered. [...]

The EPA concluded that six greenhouse gases should be considered pollutants under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which is already used to curb emissions that cause acid rain, smog and soot.

But its declaration, set for 11 a.m. EDT Friday, will not spell out how or what to regulate. Instead, the EPA and lawmakers are expected to begin that discussion.

Based on the EPA's findings, that discussion should begin soon. The agency believes global warming will produce longer and more severe heat waves, increased smog, dangerous flooding, and the spread of diseases related to flooding and warmer weather.

The Obama administration's move on this is the culmination of a lengthy process. 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."

In this sense, Obama is finishing what Bush didn't want to start.

As for the regulatory discussion, it's likely to be one of the most extensive rule-making debates in history. Kate Sheppard reports on what happens next:

There will be a 60-day public comment period on the EPA finding itself, after which it would be entered in the Federal Register—the government's official publication for rules and regulations. The agency is legally required to start regulating CO2 emissions, though the EPA can decide the timing, sequence, and scope of any regulations.

The EPA could regulate a wide range of polluting entities, but the agency is likely to focus first on two main sources of pollution: cars and stationary pollution points like power plants and major industrial sources like chemical and cement manufacturers. "The EPA must go forth and regulate," David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, told Grist. "Those would come at the front of the regulatory train."

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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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 New York's 20th, Democrat Scott Murphy now leads Republican Jim Tedisco by 264 votes. In the face of increasingly likely defeat, Republicans are now eyeing the courts, and Tedisco's lawyers yesterday asked a state court to declare him the winner, despite having fewer votes.

* Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) said he feels compelled to keep fighting his defeat in the courts. "I'm hopeful," Coleman said. "I think the law is on our side."

* Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) spoke at an anti-abortion dinner last night in Indiana.

* Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) in-state fundraising in the first quarter was abysmal, but President Obama made it clear this week that he intends to help the Connecticut Democrat.

* Speaking of senators with fundraising problems, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) raised a grand total of $845 in the first quarter. No, that's not a typo, and there are no zeroes missing from the figure.

* Will we see a rematch next year between Elwyn Tinklenberg and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)? It seems likely, and some Democratic leaders are confident that Bachmann is vulnerable.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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LOOKING AT THE SECESSION GLASS AS HALF-FULL.... This week's secession talk from, among others, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), has been a little jarring. Even Fox News' Geraldo Rivera said "you have to be a lunatic" to advocate secession.

True, but while the governor of Texas appears to have suffered some kind of head trauma, what about the people of Texas? Rasmussen put a poll in the Lone Star State field.

Thirty-one percent (31%) of Texas voters say that their state has the right to secede from the United States and form an independent country.

However, the latest Rasmussen Reports poll in the state finds that if the matter was put to a vote, it wouldn't even be close. Three-fourths (75%) of Lone Star State voters would opt to remain in the United States. Only 18% would vote to secede, and seven percent (7%) are not sure what they'd choose.

Let's put aside the strange believe that Texas can simply walk away from the United States if it wants to, and focus on that second part. Three-fourths of Texans want to remain Americans; nearly one in five don't.

I'm not quite sure whether this is encouraging or not. Sure, I'm delighted that a clear majority of Americans in Texas aren't prepared to give up on the United States. But then there's that nagging realization that nearly one in five Texans supports secession.

The word "fringe" is, I suppose, subjective. In a political context, it implies extremists at the periphery, who hold radical beliefs far from the mainstream. 21st century secession should, by most measures, be considered a "fringe" idea.

But in Texas, can an idea be both "fringe" and embraced by 18% of the state?

Here's hoping the Rasmussen poll is exaggerating the number.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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BANK-RUN BURR'S BOGUS EXPLANATION.... Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) offered some unusually irresponsible talk this week, suggesting the appropriate response to an economic crisis is a bank run. In a speech on Monday, he told voters that at the start of the crisis, he instructed his wife to go the ATM every day and "draw out everything it will let you take."

Interest in Burr's bizarre comments made the rounds fairly quickly. The senator is now trying to explain himself. (via Rachel Weiner)

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr downplayed the flap over his withdrawal of money from an ATM during last fall's banking crisis, saying he did what many people did.

Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, said Thursday that there were questions about the liquidity of the banking industry that led to the first emergency federal bailout. So while he was in Washington, he called his wife, Brooke, at their Winston-Salem home and asked that she withdraw $500 from an ATM over the weekend.

"There are individuals in this country who keep cash at home," Burr said in an interview after a talk to coalition of officials from the biopharmaceutical industry. "I don't happen to be one of those. I live from ATM machine to ATM machine. The reality is when you look at a financial industry that is not exchanging capital, it immediately says you better have a little bit of cash set aside."

It's one thing to encourage families to have "a little bit of cash set aside" in their home in the event of an emergency. It's something altogether different for a U.S. senator to tell voters withdrawing the maximum from an ATM during an economic crisis is a reasonable thing to do.

What's more, Burr lives "from ATM machine to ATM machine"? I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it still misses the point. Since the advent of FDIC, Burr's family money was safe, right where it was. Calling home in a panic, and withdrawing the maximum as a crisis unfolds, only serves to make a bad situation worse.

Oddly enough, as this story has gained traction, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is peddling Burr's odd comments as perfectly sensible.

Brian Walsh, the communications director for the NRSC, said, "The Democrats' response highlights perfectly the competing views of the two parties when it comes to strengthening the economy.... In just the first three months of this year, Senate Democrats have voted for more spending than the previous Administration spent on Iraq, Afghanistan and Katrina recovery combined so it's little wonder Americans want to keep their hard earned money away from the grips of Washington."

Even by the NRSC standards, this doesn't make a lick of sense. Burr wasn't talking about keep money away from Washington, but rather, taking money out of banks at the first sign of an economic crisis.

As Chris Orr concluded, "According to a party spokesman speaking on the record to a national news outlet, the GOP not only believes in starting bank runs, but considers this selfish, panicky, wildly destructive position a perfect illustration of 'the competing views of the two parties.'"

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THEY'VE ALREADY GONE GALT.... The argument has always been a little tough to follow, but the "going Galt" crowd has argued that raising taxes on the elite wealth-producers may compel them to give up their industries trades to spite society for "punishing" them.

Except, according to a report from Pajamas Media, the elite have already "gone Galt."

It's quite a creative piece, which argues that the global recession began in 2008 as a result of the "Pelosi-Obama-Reid economy," which began failing about seven months before Obama took office. The Democratic economic agenda hadn't been presented yet -- Obama hadn't even accepted the nomination yet -- but the leadership's "intent" sent "businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs" fleeing.

Then there's this evidence:

March is supposed to be a big month for tax receipts from regular corporations whose years end in December. In March 2008 (go to Table 3 on page 2 at the link), $32.6 billion poured in. This year? I'm not kidding: $3.4 billion. For the fiscal year thus far, corporate income tax collections are down almost 57%. [...]

It's clear that quite a few ordinarily industrious people "went Galt" months before the tea party movement even came into existence.... Pelosi, Obama, Reid, and their party created the conditions that led to this and are primarily responsible for how bad things are.

I see. Tax receipts aren't down because of the deep global recession; they're down because "quite a few ordinarily industrious people 'went Galt.'" These Galt folks didn't even wait for tax increases -- they went on strike to spite society based on proposals that haven't even passed. They went Galt, in other words, out of a sense that they'll eventually feel persecuted.

I'll give Pajamas Media this much: it's hard to argue with logic like this.

John Cole concluded, "And you know what? As stupid as that piece is, you can guarantee some wingnut will repeat it. Why? Because it has numbers in it, so it must be true. That is a veritable dissertation compared to the movement that brought us Liberal Fascism."

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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LEAVING THE PROSECUTORIAL DOOR OPEN.... The Obama administration has no intention of prosecuting CIA officials who followed the advice of Bush's OLC in good faith. But what about everyone else?

Marc Ambinder noted that it's not quite right to refer to "blanket" immunity. "Senior administration officials have made it clear to me: neither President Obama's statement nor Attorney General Holder's words were meant to foreclose the possibility of prosecuting CIA officers who did NOT act in good faith, or who did not act according to the guidelines spelled out by the OLC," Ambinder reported.

And then, of course, there's the question of the top Bush administration officials who were giving, and signing off on, the directions on torture in the first place. Alex Koppelman reported late yesterday that Obama's team has not yet come to any conclusions on this.

The specific line in the president's statement is, "[I]t is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution." Asked about this, and the omission of the people who provided that legal advice, a White House aide would tell Salon only, "in regard to the president's statement and the line, the line was a specific reference to intelligence officials who acted in good faith."

But that doesn't mean any inferences about the fate of the Office of Legal Counsel staffers who drew up the memos should be drawn from this.

This is consistent with a report from today's Washington Post, which said the president's statement on memos' release was "carefully worded" to leave open the possibility that "higher-level administration officials could face jeopardy," though that may or not may not apply to officials like Addington, Yoo, Bybee, et al.

Stay tuned.

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

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THE KIND OF THING OFFICIALS SHOULDN'T JOKE ABOUT.... Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday that Gov. Pat Quinn's (D) plan to raise taxes would be unacceptable. "I think the people of Illinois are ready to shoot anyone who is going to raise taxes by that degree," Kirk said.

Now, I don't imagine Kirk was being literal. It's a figure of speech, not a sincere call for political violence. But given the recent gun tragedies, and the over-the-top nature of conservative Republican rhetoric of late, elected leaders probably shouldn't make jokes about shooting governors over policy disputes.

I assumed reporters would ask Kirk about this and he'd walk it back, chalking it up to a macabre sense of humor. I assumed wrong.

Congressman Mark Kirk is standing by his earlier comments that Illinois residents "are ready to shoot anyone who is going to raise taxes" as much as Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing.

Kirk says the many people facing unemployment don't need a tax increase. Quinn has proposed a graduated income tax increase to help fill an $11.5 billion deficit.

Remember, political reporters generally refer to Kirk, who has acknowledged his interest in running for governor, as a "moderate."

As was the case with the Richard Poplawski shootings, disturbed people sometimes do horrible things, and it's not fair to blame politics for their crimes. That said, political leaders in positions of influence and authority shouldn't encourage them.

Mark Kirk didn't call for violence, but he's egging on those who might be thinking about it. And when given a chance to walk it back, Kirk refused.

Responsible leaders don't behave this way. Decent leaders don't behave this way

This isn't a "watch what you say" moment; it's simply a plea to turn down the temperature. These guys continue to push the envelope a little too much.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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SECESSION ON THE TABLE -- BUT ON HOLD.... It seems to me there was some talk a few years back about Hollywood celebrities who flirted the idea of leaving the United States if Bush/Cheney won. As I recall, this was widely ridiculed, and was seen as evidence that the entertainment industry was out of touch with American culture.

The argument, in a nutshell, was that any citizen who'd want to leave the country and stop being American must not love their country much. It's a pretty basic test of patriotism.

It's odd, then, to hear elected Republican officials casually throw around references to secession.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who's been talking up the idea all week, tried to add some caveats yesterday to his secession talk:

"This is interesting that this has really kind of bubbled up, to uh... I refer people back to my statement, and I gotta a charge out of it. I was kinda thinking that, maybe the same people who hadn't been reading the Constitution right were reading that article and they got the wrong impression about what I said.

"Clearly, I stated that we have a great union. And Texas is part of a great union. I see no reason for that to change. I think that may not be the exact quote, but that is, in essence what I said."

Well, "essence" aside, what Perry actually said was that he saw "no reason" to "dissolve" the "union." He added, "But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come of that."

Forget "wrong impressions." What the elected chief executive of one of the nation's largest states is supposed to say is secession is ridiculous. That Perry has left it on the table only helps reinforce how completely batty some Republican officials have become. If the GOP wants to rejoin the American mainstream, the party needs to reject these absurdities out of hand. It's radical, fringe politics.

State Democratic lawmakers in Texas were not at all amused by Perry's nonsense, and hosted a press conference yesterday to denounce the governor's flirtation with madness. "Talk of secession is an attack on our country," one state representative said. "It can be nothing else. It is the ultimate anti-American statement."

Making matters slightly more ludicrous, Brian Beutler reported late yesterday that members of the Georgia Senate, the South Dakota House, and both chambers of the Oklahoma legislature have also unveiled non-binding resolutions on the nullification of the U.S. Constitution.

Remember, we're not talking about right-wing bloggers or radio talk-show hosts, but actual elected officials, and in Perry's case, a sitting governor.

All from the party that believes it has the moral high ground on patriotism and love of country.

Post Script: Just in case Texas decides to be its own country, Chuck Norris is interested in being its president. Seriously.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Hilzoy

"Prolonged Mental Harm"

As I noted in my last post, the US Code defines torture as an act that (among other things) is intended to produce "severe physical or mental pain or suffering", and defines "severe mental pain or suffering" as "prolonged mental harm" resulting from one of several types of act. Naturally, then, the torture memos spend a lot of time arguing that none of the techniques they discuss will actually produce "prolonged mental harm". (Not a single one! What a surprise!)

When you read these sections, it might help to have this report from Physicians for Human Rights in the back of your mind. PHR tracked down eleven people who had been detained in Iraq and Guantanamo, and assessed their medical and psychiatric condition. They were not detained by the CIA, but many of the techniques used on them were similar. Here are the results of their psychiatric evaluations, from the Report's Executive Summary:

"With one exception, the former detainees have experienced and continue to experience severe psychological effects of torture and ill-treatment as a result of their detention in US custody. All but one feel utterly hopeless and isolated, and lack the ability to sleep well, work, or engage in normal social relationships with their families. Seven individuals disclosed having contemplated suicide either while in detention or after being released.

Most of the released detainees, to this day, live with severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, including intrusive recollections of trauma suffered in detention, hyperarousal (persistent symptoms of increased arousal, e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance), avoidance and emotional numbing behavior. PHR's clinicians determined that these symptoms were directly related to the torture and ill-treatment reported having taken place while in US custody, even after taking into account the fact that the released Iraqi former detainees are living in a war-torn environment. Amir explained, "These are the memories that I can never forget. I want to forget, but it is impossible."

For the four detainees who had experienced symptoms of depression or other mental disorders prior to detention, torture and ill-treatment by the US Personell severely exacerbated these conditions, and in one case it ignited such deep despair and dysfunction as to lead the detainee to repeated suicide attempts while at Guantanamo."

Just something to keep in mind.

Hilzoy 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Hilzoy

Something Is Missing

I'm still digesting the torture memos, and probably won't say anything comprehensive about them tonight. I did, however, want to flag one thing that is missing.

The US Code defines torture as "an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control. "Severe mental pain or suffering", in turn, is defined as: "the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from", among other things, "the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality."

Suppose there were something that these memos said, in passing, was done to detainees (see e.g. here, p. 4), and that we know independently was done to detainees in US custody; that was known to reliably induce terror and pyschosis in fairly short order; that was described as doing so in government documents that are among the obvious antecedents of the interrogation procedures described in these memos; and that was used precisely in order to produce its psychological effects.

You'd expect the memos to consider whether this technique might count as an act intended to produce "severe mental pain or suffering", since it involves a mind-altering procedure "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality", and might well produce "lasting psychological harm", right?

Wrong. There is no consideration of sensory deprivation as a form of torture in these memos.

Here's an account of early CIA experiments on sensory deprivation:

"Dr Donald O. Hebb at McGill University found that he could induce a state akin to psychosis in a subject within 48 hours. Now, what had the doctor done? Hypnosis, electroshock, LSD, drugs? No. None of the above. All Dr Hebb did was take student volunteers at McGill University where he was head of Psychology, put them in comfortable airconditioned cubicles and put goggles, gloves and ear muffs on them. In 24 hours the hallucinations started. In 48 hours they suffered a complete breakdown. Dr Hebb noted they suffered a disintegration of personality. Just goggles, gloves and ear muffs and this discovered the foundation, or the key technique which has been applied under extreme conditions at Guantanamo. The technique of sensory disorientation. I've tracked down some of the original subjects in Dr Hebb's experiments of 1952 and men now in their 70s still suffer psychological damage from just two days of isolation with goggles, gloves and ear muffs."

Here's the CIA's Kubark Manual:

"Drs. Wexler, Mendelson, Leiderman, and Solomon conducted a somewhat similar experiment on seventeen paid volunteers. These subjects were "... placed in a tank-type respirator with a specially built mattress.... The vents of the respirator were left open, so that the subject breathed for himself. His arms and legs were enclosed in comfortable but rigid cylinders to inhibit movement and tactile contact. The subject lay on his back and was unable to see any part of his body. The motor of the respirator was run constantly, producing a dull, repetitive auditory stimulus. The room admitted no natural light, and artificial light was minimal and constant." (42) Although the established time limit was 36 hours and though all physical needs were taken care of, only 6 of the 17 completed the stint. The other eleven soon asked for release. Four of these terminated the experiment because of anxiety and panic; seven did so because of physical discomfort. The results confirmed earlier findings that (1) the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress; (2) the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects; (3) the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and (4) some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects."

Doesn't that sound like the sort of thing that might constitute a mind-altering procedure "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality"? It does to me. And guess what? Just sixteen months after this memo was written, the Army published a brand new field manual that said:

"Separation does not constitute sensory deprivation, which is prohibited. For the purposes of this manual, sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities. Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subjected to sensory deprivation."

So I'm wondering: didn't it occur to anyone to ask the OLC whether sensory deprivation was a form of torture? If so, where's that memo? And if not, why not?

Hilzoy 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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April 16, 2009
By: Hilzoy

The Obvious Comparison

"You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. (...) As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure you are outside the predicate death requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death."

OLC memo of August 1, 2002, signed by Jay Bybee.

"'You asked me once,' said O'Brien, 'what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'

"The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O'Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.'

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

'In your case,' said O'Brien, 'the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.'"

George Orwell, 1984

Hilzoy 8:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Hilzoy


I am presently reading through the torture memos that the Obama administration released today. I will comment on them when I have had a chance to work through and digest them. I do want to say one thing now, though.

Yesterday, various news outlets began reporting that these memos would be released. The fight seemed to be about how heavily they would be redacted. From the WSJ:

"The Obama administration is leaning toward keeping secret some graphic details of tactics allowed in Central Intelligence Agency interrogations, despite a push by some top officials to make the information public, according to people familiar with the discussions. (...)

Under one option, the outlines of which were described by current and former government officials close to the discussions, the administration would ask a judge to keep secret large parts of the Bradbury memos. Two of the memos contain particularly explicit details of methods and describe combinations of tactics that were deemed to fall within the bounds of the Geneva Convention on torture, according to people who have read them.

Two or three proposals that would reveal varying degrees of detail contained in the memos about the CIA program are before the president, another senior administration official said."

As Steve noted, the memos are not heavily redacted at all. I skimmed through them looking for redacted bits; most of them are very short redactions -- names, or things like: "as the CIA informed us in [REDACTED]", where the redaction is less than a line. These are perfectly defensible redactions. The number that are longer than that is very small. (I count eleven, none in the Bradbury "Techniques" memos discussed in the WSJ piece.)

On this one, the right side won.

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

* To its credit, the Obama administration didn't redact much from the Bush-era OLC torture memos.

* At least 16 Iraqi soldiers were killed outside of Baghdad today by a suicide bomber.

* General Growth Properties, one of the largest mall operators in the nation, filed for bankruptcy today.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) unveiled a gay-marriage bill today. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is on board, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has already voiced his support for gay marriage.

* In related news, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) has promised to sign a state bill to extend same-sex couples all of the rights and benefits afforded married couples in the state.

* Good: "A Pentagon office responsible for coordinating Defense Department information campaigns overseas has been abolished in an effort by the Obama administration to distance itself from past practices that some military officers called propaganda."

* By Nate Silver's count, as many as 262,000 people attended "Tea Party" events yesterday.

* The 10 most disgusting signs from the Tea Baggers. (Don't look on a weak stomach.)

* Bush's NSA tried to conduct surveillance on a member of Congress. Which one?

* Limbaugh seemed impressed with Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) secession talk.

* It's always a little jarring to hear members of Congress make transparent anti-Muslim remarks on national television.

* Sullivan: "Only a day after a massive, sustained and widespread outcry on the bloggy right about the DHS convening a study to worry about right-wing extremism, we get news of illegal and excessive wire-tapping under Bush. Not a single right-wing blog I can find via Memeorandum has commented. If you think the right is sincerely concerned about civil liberties for all in this country, this is not encouraging."

* Interesting new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: "Researchers have now confirmed what was evident to most political campaigns last year -- more than half of the voting-age public used the Internet last year to find out about, write about and comment on the presidential election."

* And finally, was a law-abiding ticket holder ejected from Yankee Stadium for leaving his seat to go to the bathroom while "God Bless America" was playing before the game? That's what one fan alleges in a new lawsuit. Sounds like an interesting case.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MIKE ALLEN AND THE 'REAL' AMERICA.... Just because the Politico's Mike Allen appears regularly on Hugh Hewitt's radio show does not necessarily make Allen a conservative. Hewitt is pretty far to the right, and has a history of saying some pretty nutty things, but that shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on Allen. (I've appeared on Oliver North's radio show a few times, and I'd hate to think of anyone associating me with his views.)

It's not unreasonable, though, to judge Allen by the comments he makes on the air.

HEWITT: Let's turn to the other major story, it has been on talk radio, it will be on the cable channels tonight and it will probably go on for some time, the Washington Times story, Mike Allen, about the extremism assessment [from the Department of Homeland Security]. How big of a story is this?

ALLEN: I think it's a big story -- I don't know, I think some bureaucrat who wrote this report like misstated in a way that doesn't comport with your or my observations about the real America. I think it was somebody, who written inside the Beltway, who maybe has fantasies about what happens outside in the real America. But I think it was obviously overstated that I can only get so like excited about that.

We're back to debating which Americans live in the "real America"? Didn't the political world learn back in October that trying to delegitimize parts of the country isn't exactly a healthy exercise?

For that matter, Allen concluded that the DHS report was "obviously overstated." Really? Because that seems to be "obviously overstated." What parts of the report did Allen find inappropriate? Did he even read the document?

My hunch is that Mike Allen has a similar problem to RNC Chairman Michael Steele -- he tries to connect with the person he's speaking to. In this case, Allen seems to want Hewitt to think they're on the same page. The result was some pretty foolish rhetoric.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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O'REILLY'S PRODUCERS DIDN'T WANT TO TALK.... The New York Times' Brian Stelter had an interesting item today on Bill O'Reilly's practices of ambushing his perceived enemies in public. You know the drill -- someone offends O'Reilly in some way, so he sends guys like Jesse Watters out to make the adversary appear foolish. In defending the practice, O'Reilly has said, "I'm doing it because there's no other way to hold these villains accountable."

And what does Jesse Watters have to say about his role as O'Reilly's attack dog? Not much.

The Fox News producer responsible for most of the ambush interviews, Jesse Watters, refused repeated interview requests. But the network did make David Tabacoff, the program's senior executive producer, available to comment. Mr. Tabacoff -- who started a telephone interview by asking, "This is going to be a fair piece, correct?" -- said the interviews are "part of the journalistic mission" of "The O'Reilly Factor." He called the program an "opinion-driven show that has a journalistic basis."

"We're trying to get answers from people," he said. "Sometimes the only way to get them is via these methods."

The attitude, as summarized by Mr. Watters in a BillOReilly.com blog post: "If they don't come to us, we'll go to them."

Wait, wait, wait. Jesse Watters "refused repeated interview requests"? By the reasoning of his employer doesn't that necessarily mean that the NYT's Brian Stelter should have gone to Watters home and ambushed him?

After all, the New York Times was "trying to get answers," right? If Watters won't come to the Times, shouldn't the Times go to Watters?

Apparently, via Twitter, Stetler explained, "O'Reilly's ambush producers wouldn't talk. I tried asking thru PR people; tried Facebook; tried phone calls. But didn't visit their homes."

Interesting standard.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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MEGYN KELLY ACCIDENTALLY TELLS THE TRUTH.... Fox News' Megyn Kelly, who has no qualms about wearing her partisan agenda on her sleeve, "interviewed" conservative activist Brent Bozell today to discuss yesterday's "Tea Parties," and ponder why mainstream news outlets hadn't been quite as ridiculous as Fox News was in its coverage of the protests.

"You know Brent, it's been interesting because Fox News covered these Tea Parties, and we were one of the only organizations to give it any publicity or p.r. prior to the fact that it happened, and it was so under-covered by virtually every news organization. Why is that? Why was it so ignored up until the very last day by virtually everyone?

It was, as Brian Beutler noted, one of those wonderful Michael Kinsley moments in which a political figure makes a mistake by accidentally telling the truth. Fox News is ostensibly a news outlet. Obviously, it's not a legitimate journalistic enterprise, and equally obvious was the fact that it was doing "public relations" work for the conservative rallies. But Megyn Kelly isn't supposed to admit this on the air.

As for the substance of her concerns about the legitimate news organizations, Kelly is no doubt convinced that there's a nefarious media bias at play, but it's at least possible major outlets didn't have much pre-event coverage because there wasn't that much, you know, news.

Most mainstream outlets didn't feel the need to do "p.r." work for enraged partisans in advance of their protests.

That's probably a good thing.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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TRANSPARENCY -- WITH A CATCH.... Following up on an earlier item, the good news is, the White House is apparently doing the right thing and releasing the torture memos from the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, which had authorized the CIA interrogation techniques. The Bush administration considered the memos some of its most closely-guarded secrets, and President Obama faced considerable pressure from the intelligence community and Republicans on the Hill not to disclose the materials.

But there's a catch. As the White House releases the documents and meets a court-imposed deadline, the president has said he does not want to prosecute those who followed the OLC's advice. From a White House statement issued about a half-hour ago:

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program -- and some of the practices -- associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs. [...]

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America's ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

The memos aren't online just yet, and we don't yet know the extent to which they will be redacted.

As for the statement, at first blush, the decision not to investigate those who did the torturing -- those who followed the OLC's legal advice -- is only a small part of the bigger picture. The president doesn't want to go after individual, low-person-on-the-totem-pole officials who, in all likelihood, committed war crimes by torturing detainees. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement, "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department."

How about, then, pursuing criminal charges against those who did the sanctioning?

The memos in question have not yet been posted online, but it's my understanding they'll be available here.

Update: The ACLU and the Huffington Post have the memos online.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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BENNIE THOMPSON, NOW VS THEN.... Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, one of Congress' most conservative Democrats*, was quick to attach himself to the conservative criticism of the DHS report on fringe, right-wing extremists. Thompson, who happens to be the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he's