Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 31, 2010

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

* As of this afternoon, there were nine confirmed fatalities and dozens of injuries in the violence off the coast of Gaza, where the Israeli military targeted an aid flotilla.

* As expected, the diplomatic crisis for Israel is fairly intense: "Several European nations and Turkey summoned Israeli envoys for an explanation of the actions. At the request of Turkey, The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session on Monday over the attack, which occurred in international waters north of Gaza and killed at least nine people."

* Israel's relationship with Turkey, a NATO member and key ally for Israel in the Muslim world, is poised to deteriorate to new lows.

* Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has postponed his trip to Washington, which was scheduled for tomorrow.

* The next effort to address the gusher of leaking oil in the Gulf carries a serious potential downside: it could make matters worse.

* BP CEO Tony Hayward went ridiculously off message, saying he'd like to resolve the crisis because it's the only way he'll get his life back. And BP wonders why so many are so incensed.

* Inching away from the brink on the Korean peninsula: "North Korea expressed a desire to keep a joint industrial complex in operation, South Korean officials said on Monday, while the South indicated that it might reconsider its decision to revive psychological warfare against the North. The two movements showed that the two Koreas were carefully weighing the option of easing their confrontation, analysts said."

* A severe storm forced President Obama to cancel his prepared Memorial Day remarks in Illinois this afternoon, fearful that the lightening may be dangerous for the audience. When it became apparent the storm would not clear anytime soon, the president met with families on buses where attendees had taken shelter.

* Germany's president, a largely ceremonial post, was forced to resign after making controversial remarks about using the military to protect the country's economic interests.

* Phoenix was home over the weekend to some large demonstrations both for and against Arizona's new anti-immigrant law.

* Ohio has seen its biggest jump in job growth in 22 years.

* The World Science Festival will get underway in New York this week. Looks like a great event.

* Great piece from the estimable Jessica Valenti on the "fake feminism" of a certain former half-term governor.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MEMORIAL DAY 2010.... The first last Monday in May is always significant, but in the midst of two wars, one of which claimed its 1,000th American life just last week, Memorial Day takes on a far greater import.

Capturing in words the nation's gratitude towards those who volunteered to put their lives on the line, and made the ultimate sacrifice, is almost impossible. I found Vice President Biden's remarks this morning at Arlington National Cemetery, however, to be rather powerful.

It wasn't included in the clip, but Biden also told the assembled audience of the fallen soldiers, "They lived with integrity. They served nobly. They gave everything. They fought for what they believed in. And maybe most importantly, they believed in something bigger than themselves. They believed in all of you. They believed in all of us. And they believed in America."

I'm also reminded of something my friend Hilzoy wrote last year at this time: "Every Memorial Day (and not only then), I try to remind myself of what it means that people who serve in the military are willing to fight and die when our civilian leaders ask them to, whether they agree with those leaders or not. That's a stunning act of faith in American democracy. In return, we owe everyone who serves the effort to be the best citizens we can be, and to elect the people who are most likely to exercise good judgment about whether and when to ask them to risk their lives."

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS AT ARLINGTON.... Following up on an item from the weekend, President Obama will honor Memorial Day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, while Vice President Biden appears at Arlington National Cemetery. This has, apparently, offended some prominent right-wing voices.

Fox News' Glenn Beck said the president "has decided not to honor our troops on Memorial Day." Far-right blogger and CNN contributor Erick Erickson called the president's plan's "offensive."

There are, of course, several problems with this nonsensical attack, beyond the obvious fact that Obama will honor the troops, Beck's inanity notwithstanding. There's also the fact that several modern presidents have attended Memorial Day events outside of Arlington.

What's more, CBS News' Peter Maer noted other Obama efforts, which haven't generated as much attention.

Like his predecessors, Mr. Obama has expressed deep feelings about the troops in both words and deeds, often with as little fanfare as the presidency allows. Like other presidents, he meets privately with the families of the fallen. He watches developments in the buildup in Afghanistan and the planned drawdown in Iraq.

Unlike other presidents, he paid a middle of the night somber visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the return of dead soldiers.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement on Mr. Obama's stand on the military comes from Gold Star Mother Carol Barbieri of Maryland. Her son, Army Specialist and paratrooper Thomas "TJ" Barbieri, was killed in Iraq in 2006.

TJ's brothers Stephen and Matthew were visiting his grave at Arlington on Veterans Day last year when Mr. Obama stopped to pay his respects. He asked about their loved one and expressed his appreciation for the sacrifice.

When Obama went to Arlington a year ago, he did something his predecessor did not -- he visited the graves in Arlington's Section 60, where troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

Reflecting on the president visiting an Illinois cemetery today, Barbieri told CBS, "Our heroes are interred all over the nation. The President of the United States should be remembering and honoring the men and women who have fought for this country. It doesn't matter where he does that as long as he never forgets them."

It's a simple message that even Beck and Erickson should be able to understand.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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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.

* After his third-place showing in Hawaii's recent special election, former Rep. Ed Case (D) announced that he will not run again this fall. The decision clears the way for state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa (D) to take on Rep. Charles Djou (R) in a head-to-head match-up. (thanks to several alert readers for passing this along)

* In the wake of the controversy over Rand Paul's (R) extreme worldview, multiple polls show a competitive Senate race in Kentucky, though Paul is still ahead. A Bluegrass Poll, for example, shows the right-wing ophthalmologist leading state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) by six, 51% to 45%.

* Still more evidence that Connecticut voters aren't swayed by the Vietnam-related controversy: a Research 2000 poll shows state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) leading wrestling executive Linda McMahon (R), 52% to 33%.

* With a week to go before California's Republican primaries, a USC/LA Times poll shows Carly Fiorina leading Tom Campbell in the Senate race 38% to 23%. The same poll shows Meg Whitman leading Steve Poizner in a gubernatorial primary, 53% to 29%.

* Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate candidate in Illinois, exaggerated his military service on multiple occasions, usually in print. There is a video, however, of Kirk misstating the truth during a congressional hearing.

* Recent polling out of Georgia suggest former Gov. Roy Barnes won't have any trouble winning this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

* And in South Carolina, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint (R) leading Vic Rawl (D), 49% to 30%. DeMint is, of course, the heavy favorite, but I'm a little surprised DeMint is below 50%.

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

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ISRAEL FIRES ON GAZA AID FLOTILLA.... In a development that is as stunning as it is tragic, this actually happened this morning.

At least 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed and dozens were wounded aboard an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip when Israeli naval commandos seized control of the boats early Monday, the Israeli army said.

Some Israeli, Turkish and Arab media outlets put the death toll as high as 20 activists. The wounded were evacuated to Israeli hospitals and the ships were being led into Israel's Ashdod port, where the passengers and aid supplies are to be unloaded and screened. More than four naval personnel were also injured. [...]

Some in Israel, before the raid and after, questioned the wisdom of Israel trying to take the ships by force. Past flotillas either reached Gaza or were diverted to Israel peacefully.

There are, not surprisingly, competing versions of exactly what transpired, and Israeli officials not only defended the existing blockade policy, but said Israeli forces faced resistance on the ships. Every claim has a counter-claim, of course, and those condemning the violent raid this morning insist Israeli forces attacked peaceful civilians, including a flotilla carrying a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor.

Either way, as the AP noted, the pre-dawn violence has "set off worldwide condemnation and a diplomatic crisis."

This much is clearly true. The ship was unofficially sponsored by Turkey, which has long been a key Israeli ally in the regional, and which recalled its ambassador to Israel this morning in the wake of the incident. The United Nations, among others, is demanding a detailed Israeli explanation.

The White House issued a written statement, noting that the United States "deeply regrets" the loss of life and injuries, and was gathering information to understand exactly what transpired in this "tragedy."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House tomorrow, but whether that meeting will still occur is unclear.

Update: I just learned that Netanyahu will tend to this crisis, and not travel to D.C. tomorrow.

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

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IT'S GOING TO BE A LONG CAMPAIGN SEASON.... The Virginia Republican Party thought it had the perfect new attack to go after Reps. Rick Boucher and Tom Perriello, Democratic incumbents the GOP considers vulnerable. Instead, we have yet another example of the contemporary Republican Party's intellectual rigor, or lack thereof.

Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon delivered an address to Congress, and some lawmakers stood to applaud when Calderon called for American policymakers to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

The Virginia Republican Party pounced. If House Dems applauded the line about the assault weapons ban, and Boucher and Perriello are House Dems, then Boucher and Perriello must want to bring back the assault weapons ban. The state GOP put together an attack ad showing footage of the applause, demanding to know if Boucher and Perriello were among the participants.

The Virginia Republican Party forgot to do their homework.

Sensing a blockbuster investigative opportunity, the [LA Times' political blog] did its due diligence and called both offices (as requested by the commercials and the party chairman) to find out if they gave Calderon a standing O.

The suspense lasted for about 30 seconds: Nope.

Boucher opposes reinstating the assault weapons ban, has an A+ rating from the NRA, has picked up an NRA endorsement, and wasn't even in the room for Calderon's speech. Likewise, Perriello didn't attend the speech, and has written to the Justice Department to express his formal opposition to reinstating the assault weapon ban.

So, the Virginia Republican Party screwed up. It can happen to anyone. They got a little lazy, chose not to do their due diligence, and ended up looking stupid. They can just pull the dishonest attack ad, and go after Boucher and Perriello over something else.

Except, the state GOP is refusing to back down, and will continue to air the ad the party now knows is wrong. As the Virginia Republican Party sees it, Boucher and Perriello didn't condemn the speech they didn't hear, so therefore, it's fair to suggest they might support the policy they oppose.

The mind reels.

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

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WHAT PAWLENTY CONSIDERS 'PHONY'.... "Meet the Press" host David Gregory spoke briefly to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), and asked him about the recent successes of the Obama administration's economic recovery efforts. Gregory wanted to know if the president deserves credit for having rescued the economy. The all-but-declared presidential candidate replied:

"[Y]ou can't push this much money into the economy in the near term and not have it have some effect. But what I would suggest to you is it's phony effect. I think you're going to see in 2011, 2012, if you don't have the private economy pick up the slack of the phony inflation of the economy over the next couple of years, you're going to trigger a whole set of other adverse events, including potentially inflation."

Pawlenty's understanding of these issues has consistently been pretty embarrassing. You may recall, for example, that instead of an economic stimulus at the height of the crisis last year, the Minnesota Republican argued that the key to getting us back on track was a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. It was the kind of prescription that, in a sane political world, would permanently destroy one's credibility on economic policy.

But Pawlenty keeps talking, and now believes our fragile recovery is "phony." I have no idea what that means, so let's unpack this a bit.

First, Pawlenty implicitly concedes that the stimulus has had a positive effect. That's the opposite of the position from a year ago, and stands in contrast to the usual conservative line, which is that the recovery effort actually hurt the economy.

Second, he thinks it's imperative for the "private economy" to improve. Pawlenty may or may not pay attention to current events, but in the latest monthly job numbers -- which were the strongest in four years -- 231,000 of the 290,000 new jobs came from the private sector.

Third, if Pawlenty sees inflation, rather than economic growth, as the key concern, he's really not paying attention.

And fourth, it may be inconvenient to bring up, but it was Pawlenty who relied on stimulus money to balance his own budget.

Instead of dismissing the recovery effort as phony, the governor should be sending the president a thank-you note.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MORE EVIDENCE OF A DADT CONSENSUS.... The media roundtable on ABC's "This Week" yesterday featured at least some ideological diversity. It was heartening, then, to see unanimity on the panel when the discussion turned to repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Salon's Joan Walsh noted yesterday, after her appearance on the show, the "remarkable consensus" among the panelists, who endorsed the repeal line embraced by Colin Powell, who appeared earlier in the same program.

Matt Dowd, a former advisor to George W. Bush, seemed almost annoyed with his party's intransigence on the issue. Noting the party's near-unanimous opposition to ending the discriminatory policy, Dowd said, "Republican officeholders are so far out of step with this."

Of particular interest, host Jake Tapper noted to George Will that polls show overwhelming public support for scrapping DADT -- and that includes majority support among self-identified conservatives, Republicans, and evangelicals. Why, Tapper asked, would GOP policymakers continue to fight so hard to protect the status quo? Republican lawmakers, Will replied, are "not being very intelligent."

The panel chuckled; no one disagreed; and the discussion moved on.

What I liked about the unanimity within the roundtable was not its novelty, but the opposite. The remarks and tone of the discussion made it seem as if this was hardly worth arguing about anymore. Dowd, whose son is on active duty, at one point called the debate "done."

It reinforces the notion that DADT's repeal is a no-brainer at the level of the American mainstream. It's been a long time coming.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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May 30, 2010

'SERVES HIM RIGHT'.... Conservative columnist George Will said this morning that President Obama is "being unfairly blamed" for the response to the BP oil spill disaster. But, Will added, he's glad the president is receiving the unfair criticism anyway.

As the columnist sees it, the president said the government could solve problems. And since it hasn't yet solved this problem, the disaster "just strikes at the narrative of competence."

I continue to be mystified by this. Blaming the president is unfair, Will conceded, because the president is doing all he can under impossible circumstances. But blaming the president is worthwhile, Will added in the next breath, because we now know government officials can't quickly shut down a gushing oil leak a mile below sea level.

If we were to take Will's point to the next step -- the federal government lacks the wherewithal to fix every problem, so some tasks should be left in the hands of private enterprise and the states -- I suppose the lesson is we should have BP and Louisiana state agencies solve the problem.

That ought to work, right?

At this point, the discourse seems to boil down to a) those who want to see the president don a wetsuit and head to the Gulf floor; b) those who want to see the president don a cape and fly around the planet really quickly in order to reverse time; and c) those who want to see the president pound on podiums and lose his cool, as if that would make a difference. (Thanks, Maureen Dowd, for comparing Obama to Spock again. That never gets old.)

Here's an idea for assignment editors: publish a piece with specific steps federal officials should take but haven't. Because at this point, unless we can fix the leak with useless media palaver, there's not much point to the breathless speculation, nebulous criticism, and finger-pointing.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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GRIDLOCK WOULD BE THE LEAST OF THE COUNTRY'S TROUBLES.... If the truly ridiculous interest in the Sestak job-offer story tells us anything, it's that a House Republican majority in 2011 would look an awful lot like the House Republican majority in the mid-1990s. Paul Waldman noted the other day the kind of political environment we could expect.

...If Republicans were in charge of Congress right now, they'd be holding endless hearings on not just this issue, but a hundred other cases of alleged Obama administration malfeasance. For those of you too young to remember, the Clinton years were a parade of ridiculous "investigations" into things like whether aide Vince Foster was murdered by a nefarious conspiracy. The Republican Congress heard 140 hours of testimony -- repeat, 140 hours of testimony -- on the burning question of whether the Clintons had misused the White House Christmas card list.

Should they be fortunate enough to take one or both houses of Congress in this fall's elections, you can bet the GOP is going to get right to work on renewing that sorry spectacle. The only thing holding them back now is the fact that their lack of institutional power renders them unable to create events -- like hearings -- to which cameras can go and around which news stories can be built. If they do take back even the House, it'll be a long two years.

My personal favorite was the time Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, the bizarre chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, fired a bullet into a "head-like object" -- reportedly a melon -- in his backyard to test his Foster-related conspiracy theories. Burton wasn't just some talk-radio shock-jock or publicity-hungry activist; he was the chairman of a congressional committee with oversight authority over the White House. And he wielded that gavel as if he were a fringe blogger with a chip on his shoulder, reinforcing the non-existent line between the GOP base and the GOP mainstream.

Now, instead of Burton, we'd have Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) playing the role of grand inquisitor. Michael Tomasky argued the political bloodlust may be even worse now than in the '90s.

"This is what's at stake this fall," Tomasky concluded. "Forget policy. It's this: endless hearings and investigations until they find something that gets the public worked up, or until the public just cries uncle and says oh okay we're sick of hearing you crazy people, if it'll shut you up, just impeach the bastard already."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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SHOULDERING RESPONSIBILITY -- PERHAPS TOO MUCH.... Back in September 2004, John Kerry had an assessment of the Bush/Cheney presidency that I'd always wished had caught on: "His is the Excuse Presidency -- never wrong, never responsible, never to blame. President Bush's desk isn't where the buck stops -- it's where the blame begins."

It wasn't that Bush led an error-free presidency; it was that he was never willing to accept responsibility for missteps. Slow economy? It's Enron's fault. No WMD in Iraq? It's the intelligence community's fault. Job losses? Clinton's fault. Record deficits? Osama bin Laden's fault. Health care crisis? Trial lawyers' fault. Frayed international alliances? France's fault. If you had a problem, Bush had a scapegoat.

Dana Milbank argues today that while his predecessor "refused to accept blame," President Obama seems to accept too much blame.

"In case you were wondering who's responsible," he added, "I take responsibility."

That's very clear, sir. But why not share some with the guys at BP who actually are responsible for the spill?

I don't want to take this out of context here. Milbank's column was generally quite critical of the president. Milbank thinks it's "refreshing" to see a president speak candidly about missteps, but the columnist nevertheless complained about his perceptions of Obama's "cool, almost bloodless" emotions.

This is obviously the media establishment's new favorite -- if they can't think of specific steps the president should take but hasn't, they'll complain over and over and over again about what they think about his ability to emote.

But Milbank's more limited point -- Obama sure is willing to shoulder a lot of blame, whether it's warranted or not -- seems far more interesting.

I searched the White House website for instances in which the president said publicly that the "buck stops" with him. It turns out the president has claimed responsibility for not only the oil spill crisis, but also on everything from Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing, to the $1.3 trillion budget deficit Republicans left for him to clean up, to the Wall Street crisis that began long before he took office.

When it comes to leadership qualities in a crisis, having a president who doesn't just causally pass the buck is a pleasant change of pace.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MITCH MCCONNELL'S ANTI-GOVERNING CRUSADE.... It was a fairly busy week on Capitol Hill, and an effort to clear some of the backlog of unconfirmed nominees slipped largely under the radar. That's a shame; what transpired was important.

There are, at present, about 240 administration nominees waiting for a confirmation vote, an almost comically ridiculous number given how long they've been waiting. On Thursday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) tried to reduce the number by seeking unanimous consent to approve about a third of the pending nominees as a bloc. The total of about 80 officials was made up of nominees who'd already been through the vetting process, had already been approved by the relevant committee, and were filling government posts that are currently vacant.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused. It wasn't because the nominees weren't qualified; it was because McConnell's feelings were hurt when the White House gave a recess appointment to Craig Becker to serve on the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year.

And so, important government posts remain vacant, and qualified officials wait patiently for months (or years) for no apparent reason, because Mitch McConnell isn't especially concerned with whether our federal government has the personnel in place to function as it's supposed to.

James Fallows explained what a ridiculous mess this is.

[I]t is bad for America to leave so much of its governmental and diplomatic leadership vacant for months or years at the beginning of each administration -- and it's worse, in the long run, to allow a process that makes many talented people think, Why would I ever want to go through that? Why would I want to spend half a year on the financial and security vetting, during which time I was not supposed even to tell my friends I was being considered; and then another half-year being ready to switch from my normal life to a new role somewhere else, but not knowing when that would happen, if ever?

Mitch McConnell objects to Craig Becker's role on the NLRB? Fine. Let him make his case. But can we stand a system that allows him to gum up the whole rest of the government at his whim? Rule by laws, not men, is supposed to be the idea here. For now the main countervailing force is to put a spotlight on the petulant men behaving this way.

It's yet another reminder that Republican lawmakers are, far too often, fundamentally unserious about their duties. I realize these kinds of developments remain invisible to the typical American voter, but that's unfortunate. There's no reason to reward a child-like political party that punishes the country over petty piques and tired tantrums.

There's nothing wrong with the design of the system. It doesn't function the way it should because reckless and irresponsible miscreants refuse to let it function.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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MARK KIRK'S EXAGGERATED SERVICE RECORD.... About two weeks ago, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's (D) service record became the subject of intense scrutiny, after a speech emerged in which the Senate candidate said he served "in," rather than "during," the war in Vietnam. Upon further inspection, it appeared that Blumenthal had merely misspoken, and voters in Connecticut didn't seem to care.

But the story has brought into focus the service record of other candidates, and in the case of Rep. Mark Kirk's (R) Senate campaign in Illinois, that's proving to be an unwelcome development.

Kirk, a U.S. Naval Reserve officer, really has served honorably. The problem appears to be his tendency to embellish this record.

First, Kirk claimed to be "the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom." That turned out to be untrue -- Kirk served during the conflict, not in it. Second, Kirk claimed to "command the war room in the Pentagon," which also turned out to be untrue.

Today, we learn of Kirk's third strike.

The Republican candidate for President Obama's old Senate seat inaccurately claimed to have received the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award for service during NATO's conflict with Serbia in the late 1990s.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Navy reservist elected to Congress in 2001, acknowledged the error in his official biography after The Washington Post began looking into whether he had received the prestigious award, which is given by top Navy officials to a single individual annually. The Post's inquiries were sparked by complaints from a representative of state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Kirk's Democratic opponent in the Illinois Senate race.

Kirk, an Appropriations Committee member, changed his Web site last week to incorporate a different account of the award. Kirk wrote on his blog that "upon a recent review of my records, I found that an award listed in my official biography was misidentified" and that the award he had intended to list was given to his entire unit.

How did the bogus claim end up on Kirk's biography? Perhaps because he boasted about the honor in a congressional hearing, bragging to his colleagues, "I was the Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year." It's a claim, we now know, was greatly exaggerated.

Again, just to reemphasize, Kirk really does have an impressive service record, which he has every reason to be proud of. This truth makes it all the more curious why the Republican candidate has felt the need to embellish this record on multiple occasions.

As for the larger discourse, it will also be worth watching to see if the media treats the Kirk story with nearly as much enthusiasm as the Blumenthal story.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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'TOP KILL' SCRAPPED AFTER EFFORT COMES UP SHORT.... The "top kill" approach had been deemed the best short-term solution to the gusher of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. Officials pumped 30,000 barrels of mud into the well, and there was some evidence mid-week that the attempts were having an effect.

The progress proved to be illusory, and the pressure of the gusher proved to be too strong. After some fits and starts, yesterday, "top kill" was scrapped altogether.

In another serious setback in the effort to stem the flow of oil gushing from a well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers said Saturday that the "top kill" technique had failed and, after consultation with government officials, they had decided to move on to another strategy.

Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production, said at a news conference that the engineers would try once again to solve the problem with a containment cap and that it could take four to seven days for the device to be in place.

"After three full days of attempting top kill, we now believe it is time to move on to the next of our options," Mr. Suttles said.

An anonymous technician on the scene said, "The engineers are disappointed, and management is upset. Nothing is good, nothing is good."

The next effort will be an adapted version of a previous attempt, with a containment structure intended to fit over the leak. The structure would then funnel the oil to ships on the surface. A similar previous effort failed, but BP officials claim to have learned valuable lessons from that experience.

Then again, BP officials claim a lot of things, and even if this works exactly as planned, the mechanism will still only capture most of the oil, not all.

This new cap procedure will be ready in four to seven days.

The ideal solution, everyone seems to agree, are the two relief wells, which are continuing to move forward. But while the wells are the most likely to work, they're also the slowest -- the drilling of the relief wells is not scheduled to be complete until August. One of the two wells is reportedly ahead of schedule, but even if that pace continues, it won't be ready until July.

Once "top kill" had been scrapped, the White House issued a statement from the president, which said in part, "As I said yesterday, every day that this leak continues is an assault on the people of the Gulf Coast region, their livelihoods, and the natural bounty that belongs to all of us. It is as enraging as it is heartbreaking, and we will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole."

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

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May 29, 2010

WITHOUT PRECEDENT -- EXCEPT FOR ALL THE OTHER TIMES.... Monday is, of course, Memorial Day, and President Obama will honor the day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, while Vice President Biden appears at Arlington National Cemetery. This, apparently, has caused a stir in some circles.

Glenn Beck told his minions this week that that the president "has decided not to honor our troops on Memorial Day," which isn't even close to true. The deranged media personality, apparently referring to Obama's decision not to be at Arlington, added, "Maybe this has happened before. I don't recall it. "

In reality, this isn't especially unusual.

Obama is not the first president to miss the Arlington ceremony. Ronald Reagan spoke at West Point one year, and went to his California ranch another year. George H.W. Bush, a war veteran, did not go at all. Bill Clinton, who did not serve in Vietnam and had a rocky time with the military, went to Arlington all eight years, and George W. Bush, who also avoided combat service in Vietnam, attended from 2003 onward.

Obama's plans, in other words, are generating some criticism, but there's really not much new here. The president's Memorial Day schedule is a "story," despite being fairly routine.

Which, as it turns out, one of the defining trends of the political discourse over the last 16 months. Several months ago, Atrios noted, "When Dems are president, perfectly normally ways of doing things are rebranded as somehow odd."

Ain't that the truth.

* Teleprompters: This trend of characterizing routine developments as controversial started very early in the Obama presidency. Every modern president has used teleprompters, but Republicans and the media thought it was hilarious and wildly important when Obama did the same thing.

* Bowing: Several presidents have been photographed bowing to foreign heads of state, but Republicans and the media thought it was absolutely scandalous when Obama did the same thing when meeting leaders where bowing is customary.

* Talking to school kids: Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush spoke to school children in national addresses, even taking a little time to push their political agendas. When Obama delivered a speech encouraging kids to do well in school, Republicans freaked out; Fox News compared the president to Saddam Hussein; and the New York Times literally ran a front-page story about it.

* Czars: For a half-century, presidents have relied on so-called "czars" for various policy areas. By one count, George W. Bush had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his two terms. No one cared. Obama's use of czars became the subject of months of media scrutiny, and even congressional hearings in response to Republican apoplexy.

* Oval Office attire: Several modern presidents have been seen in the Oval Office without wearing a suit jacket. When Obama did it, Republicans ran to the press to complain, and the media actually published pieces on the subject.

* Criticizing partisan media: White House complaints about unfair media coverage are as old as the republic. When the Obama White House noted what is plainly true about Fox News -- it's a Republican outlet -- the media went a little berserk, with the Washington Post and NPR characterizing the administration's criticism as "Nixonian."

* Reconciliation: Republican policymakers have relied on reconciliation to get around filibusters for decades. When Obama recommended the same tactic for health care, the GOP pretended it was an outrageous assault on the political process, and the media pretended Republicans' cries were legitimate.

* Industry bailouts: Government bailouts of struggling American industries and major companies have been common for decades. When Obama rescued GM, it was used as an example of his purported desire to a communist dictator.

* Campaign intervention: Every president has had a hand in campaign activities, with several presidents offering jobs to candidates to get them out of various races. When the Obama White House intervened in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary -- offering a House member an unpaid advisory gig -- the media found it fascinating and Republicans called for the FBI and a special prosecutor to intervene.

* Memorial Day: Many presidents have not appeared at Arlington on Memorial Day. When Obama does it, there's a "controversy."

I'm all in favor of holding presidents to high standards. They have enormous power and leadership responsibilities, and it stands to reason that much will be expected of them. I enthusiastically endorse demanding the most of our leaders.

But for a year and a half, the political world seems to have created whole new rules for Obama, which aren't applied to others -- and haven't even been applied to other presidents.

This week's flaps over Sestak and Memorial Day plans only reinforce how truly ridiculous the phenomenon has become.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an increasingly tense dispute over plans to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. To say that conservatives are throwing a tantrum over this would be quite an understatement.

At issue is the proposed Cordoba House, a Muslim community center which would stand 15 stories tall and would be built not directly at Ground Zero, but rather at Park Place, two blocks north of where the Twin Towers stood in lower Manhattan. The center would include a prayer space, a performing arts center, a swimming pool, and other amenities. The effort is being spearheaded by a longtime local imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has said the center would "bridge and heal a divide" and has said it's his mission to fight radicalism. A local community board voted this week by 29-1 to support the project.

But in the nightmares of right-wingers, the project has been transformed into something more like a shrine to the 9/11 terrorists stuck on top of the site where victims of the attack lay buried, and pushed by a radical Islamic cleric.

The far-right Washington Times argued a Muslim community center may represent "an attempt to hijack the memory of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks," a sentiment endorsed by Liz Cheney's right-wing activist group. A right-wing radio host told listeners he hopes "somebody blows it up" if the Cordoba House is built. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is disappointed that, under the First Amendment, the facility cannot legally be blocked.

One wonders if these conservatives appreciate the way this undermines the nation's diplomatic and foreign policy interests -- or the way in which this will be used by terrorists trying to recruit followers.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) tried to push a provision into this week's defense spending bill that would have empowered military chaplains to proselytize at public events. Military chaplains can already lead sectarian prayers at sectarian worship services, but for Bachmann that wasn't good enough. Her amendment failed.

* Gallup continues to track the growing number of Americans who have no religious identity: "Americans have become increasingly less tied to formal religion in recent decades, with the percentage saying they do not have a specific religious identity growing from near zero in the 1950s to 16% this year and last." (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

* The Obama White House this week hosted a reception marking Jewish Heritage Month. That may not seem especially noteworthy, but it was the first time any White House has hosted such an event.

* And finally, about three years after Rupert Murdoch purchased Beliefnet, one of the largest and most prominent religion sites online, the News Corp. CEO is looking to sell it.

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NO DRILLING, NO ENERGY BILL?.... It's tempting to think common sense would have a greater influence over the debate on a new energy/climate policy. With the oil spill disaster constantly getting worse, the need for alternative energies growing more obvious, and the public's appetite for coastal drilling fading fast, the way forward seems pretty clear.

And yet, a few too many policymakers fail to see it that way. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who recently walked away from his own tri-partisan proposal after months of work, argued yesterday that Democratic reluctance to expanded drilling means the legislation will likely die.

"Why would a person who really believes in drilling put a bill on the floor right now to expand drilling and revenue sharing, knowing it can't get 50 votes?" Graham told The Hill. "The resistance to drilling has hardened on the Democratic side, so we [Republicans have] got more votes to make up."

In other words, if Democratic skepticism of drilling is intensifying -- hardly an unreasonable position, under the circumstances -- then Republicans, who still demand more drilling, aren't willing to cooperate, no matter how dire the need.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who supported the lease sale off his home state's shores, said he backed Obama's decision [to freeze exploratory wells]. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), a crucial Republican swing vote on the climate bill, said the Gulf accident had created a crisis of confidence in drilling procedures and technology.

Graham believes this has sapped his rationale for convincing fellow Republicans to support the comprehensive energy and climate change legislation.

"If I go back into conference, what would I tell them?" he said.

Well, that one seems pretty easy, actualy. Graham can tell them the energy bill is still absolutely necessary in helping to create a new energy framework. He can point out the fact that the legislation will help create jobs and lower the deficit. He can tell them it improves American competitiveness in the key industry of the 21st century. He can point out the painful reality that under the status quo the GOP seeks to protect, much of our energy policy is built around sending exorbitant sums of money to the Middle East. (He might also mention combatting global warming, but I know his caucus considers it a Marxist plot to be ignored.)

Graham knows this. He must realize that the Republican Party can't be taken seriously if the entirety of their energy policy is coastal drilling at a time when an oil spill is wreaking havoc on an entire region.

Graham is worried about what he'll tell the Republican conference if Dems balk at more drilling. He should be worried about what he'll tell the country if the GOP blocks this much-needed legislation.

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'TIME TO MOVE ON'.... One of the more annoying angles to the Sestak "story" was the underlying dullness. In any political "controversy," there are best-case and worse-case scenarios when measuring severity and consequences. When it came to the Sestak allegations, under the best-scenario, the story was meaningless. Under the worst-case scenario, it was still meaningless.

It was one of those rare stories in which news outlets played along, knowing full well that the entire matter was manufactured silliness.

And now that the story had run its course, those who know what they're talking about want to put a period at the end of already-obvious sentence. Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics officer under George W. Bush, took a look at the information released yesterday and told Greg Sargent that it's even clearer now that there's nothing of interest here.

"Based on the information disclosed from the White House, it's even more apparent that this is a non issue," Painter said. "No scandal. Time to move on."

Sam Stein talked to Steve Bunnell, who led the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, and has seen more public corruption cases that practically any lawyer in the country. He not only said the Sestak matter passes the smell test, he told Stein there's nothing to smell.

"I looked through it," Steve Bunnell of the firm O'Melveny & Myers, said of the job-offering related document released by the White House on Friday. "I don't see anything criminal about what happened. Basically you are talking about political horse-trading, which strikes me as an inherent part of democracy. There is nothing inherently bad about it unless you think politics and democracy are bad."

Bunnell added, "I don't understand what the big deal is."

Join the club.

Stepping back, it's also hard to miss the trend -- conservatives become convinced they've stumbled onto some wildly important "controversy," work themselves into a tizzy, and look pretty silly when the facts come out. Remember how excited the right was about the Gerald Walpin firing? Or the time conservatives were convinced that the White House was closing car dealerships based on owners' political contributions?

Kevin Drum had a very good item a year ago, arguing that there's nothing especially wrong with far-right activists watching the administration like a hawk, doing what the opposition is supposed to do. There's certainly something to be said for this -- if conservatives want to hold elected officials' feet to the fire, more power to 'em. It's what being politically engaged is all about.

The problem is, these folks keep crying "wolf" without thinking it through. Conservative bloggers and talk-radio hosts are constantly finding scandalous schemes and outrageous abuses relating to the White House, all of which appear pretty foolish soon after. As a result, it's easy to start ignoring them.

Maybe the right can start being a little more selective?

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TWO STEPS FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK.... The pattern is increasingly discouraging. On Thursday morning, officials dealing with the BP oil spill disaster offered some initial words of encouragement about the response efforts. As the day progressed, that optimism grew more tempered, and the top kill attempts had to be temporarily halted.

On Friday, we saw a replay -- cautious optimism in the morning, followed by measured remarks, followed by temporary suspension of pumping operations.

The New York Times reported this morning that by late in the day, officials "acknowledged that the effort was no closer to succeeding than when they started."

BP engineers struggled Friday to plug a gushing oil well a mile under the sea, but as of late in the day they had made little headway in stemming the flow.

Amid mixed messages about problems and progress, the effort -- called a "top kill" -- continued for a third day, with engineers describing a painstaking process of trying to plug the hole, using different weights of mud and sizes of debris like golf balls and tires, and then watching and waiting. They cannot use brute force because they risk making the leak worse if they damage the pipes leading down to the well.

Despite an apparent lack of progress, officials said they would continue with the process for another 48 hours, into Sunday, before giving up and considering other options, including another containment dome to try to capture the oil.

That the discussion is already moving to the consideration of "other options" suggests the expectations for top kill are moving in the wrong direction.

"I won't say progress was zero, but I don't know if we can round up enough mud to make it work," an anonymous technician on the project said. "Everyone is disappointed at this time."

For the record, BP we may not know with certainty about the outcome until tomorrow -- or perhaps later.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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May 28, 2010

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

* Two junk shot attempts in the Gulf have come up short: "BP's renewed efforts at plugging the flow of oil from its runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico stalled again on Friday, as the company suspended pumping operations for the second time in two days, according to a technician involved with the response effort."

* POTUS on the scene: "Under pressure to step up his response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, President Barack Obama tried to assure the country Thursday that he and his administration are in charge and working feverishly to clean up the mess."

* "You are not alone, and you will not be abandoned," Obama said. "We are on your side, and we will see this through."

* A deadly milestone in Afghanistan: "The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, launched in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reached a milestone today as reports of one more service member killed in the conflict raised the total number of U.S. military deaths in and around Afghanistan to 1,000."

* There's ample reason to be deeply skeptical about BP's claims.

* I continue to be amazed the deficit hawks are willing to undermine our fragile recovery: "The House passed a $93 billion package of jobless benefits and business tax breaks Friday after moderate Democrats fed up with deficit spending forced leaders to slice billions of additional dollars from the legislation. The House voted, 215 to 204, to approve the measure, which would extend expanded benefits for the unemployed through November, finance thousands of summer jobs and renew for one year dozens of expired tax credits and deductions for businesses and individuals."

* Consumer spending flattened in April.

* Peggy Noonan's column today was one of the more ridiculous pieces I've seen in quite a while. I lacked the stomach to pick it apart, but Andrew Sullivan, Ron Chusid, and Steve M. showed more patience.

* Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics officer under George W. Bush, considered the latest information in the Sestak "story." He told Greg Sargent, "Based on the information disclosed from the White House, it's even more apparent that this is a non issue. No scandal. Time to move on."

* And yet, when Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) held another ridiculous press conference, MSNBC carried the whole thing live. It's painful to see the kind of judgments major media outlets will sometimes make.

* Will Folks released phone records today documenting phone calls between himself and South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (R). Ed Kilgore bravely summarizes the latest details of the story.

* The Condition of Education is released with some interesting new revelations.

* And Glenn Beck used his radio show today to mock President Obama's 11-year-old daughter for several minutes. He later apologized, but it's a reminder that some of the leading right-wing voices are not only deranged, they're also classless.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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NRCC STOPS MEASURING THE DRAPES.... For the last several months, congressional Republicans acted as if taking the majority of at least one chamber was practically a foregone conclusion. The question wasn't whether the House GOP would be in the majority in 2011, but how big it would be.

Have you noticed the dramatic shift in rhetoric of late?

After spending months measuring the drapes in the Speaker's office, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this week it would be a "steep climb" for the GOP to take control of the House this year. A few months ago, NRCC Recruitment Chair Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he saw Republicans gaining 45 seats this year, enough to get the majority.

The message has obviously changed.

McCarthy said that top GOPers have told him they hope to win in the neighborhood of 37 seats rather than 40 so they're in a stronger position to have good back-to-back cycles and win the WH in '12.

I find that pretty hard to believe. For a leading NRCC congressman, it's better not to get a House majority when the party thinks it has the wind at its back? Last month, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said anything less than a majority is worth "a warm bucket of spit." Now they're looking to set the party up for gains in the following cycle? It's not exactly persuasive.

Regardless, what's behind this shift? Why would McCarthy use 45 seats as a benchmark a few months ago, and use 37 now? Some of it is no doubt an effort to play a rhetorical game. If the Republican base assumes a House takeover is in the bag, the party may grow complacent. The NRCC fundraising letter, then, is easy to envision: "We're on track to win 37 seats, which is not quite enough for a majority, but if you write us a big check today...."

But I also wonder if some of the lowered expectations are the result of a rough spring for Republicans at the ballot box. The NRCC invested heavily in Tim Burns' race in Pennsylvania's 12th, and considered it a must-win. He lost by a quite a few. The NRCC was excited about Vaughn Ward in Idaho's 1st, and he lost in a primary. The RNCC saw Jeff Reetz in Kentucky's 3rd as a rising star, and he got beat in a primary, too. The NRCC had very high hopes about former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania's 4th, but she not only lost in a primary, she lost by 34 points.

It raises questions about the NRCC's judgment in picking candidates, not to mention whether NRCC support still means anything to voters.

But it also helps explain why party leaders have traded measuring the drapes for measured expectations.

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

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HAS ACCOUNTABILITY BEEN DEEMED IMPOLITE?.... The name of the game is, "Talk about the oil spill disaster without implicating the Bush administration in any way, ever." Kate Sheppard reports on some of the latest efforts to play the game effectively.

The Obama administration has faced harsh criticism for its oversight of offshore oil and gas development in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The most absurd commentary, of course, comes from Republicans who have consistently pushed back against any attempts to regulate industry for years. The administration has been fighting back, but no one wants to actually call the problem by its name: the Bush administration.

At a House hearing Wednesday, Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) accused Salazar of "harping on what MMS did or didn't do in the previous administration. "Why aren't we talking about the here and now?" asked Lamborn.

Salazar shot back about the efforts they've taken to reform the beleaguered agency. "Unlike the prior administration, this is not the candy store for the oil and gas kingdom that you and others were a part of," he deadpanned.

Lamborn's question for Salazar was almost comical. "Why aren't we talking about the here and now?" Well, we are. And in the here and now, we're dealing with some of the consequences of the Bush administration's corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement. It's not some academic or partisan exercise -- the line between Bush/Cheney-era policies and today's nightmares is straight and direct.

But apparently no one is supposed to mention this. Blaming Bush/Cheney for their own administration's spectacular failures has been deemed ... rude. Uncouth. Downright uncivilized.

At yesterday's White House press conference, CBS News' Chip Reid sounded downright annoyed by efforts to connect Bush-era corruption and mismanagement to the mess -- not because the efforts were wrong, but because the statute of political limitations had apparently run out.

But that's ridiculous. As we talked about yesterday, it wasn't Obama who approved this rig. It wasn't Obama who ignored the need for remote acoustic shutoff switches. It wasn't Obama who corrupted the MMS. It wasn't Obama who spent eight years downplaying the need for regulations and oversight of the oil industry.

Sheppard added:

...Republican badgering of the administration over the issue is fairly absurd. Fixing the troubled agency was one of the very first things Salazar sought to address after taking office, announcing a restructuring of MMS's royalty-in-kind program, calling for a Justice Department investigation, and instating a new conduct code for the agency in the first days after taking office.

The Obama Department of Interior could have done more, of course, to improve the beleaguered agency. But the root of this is still the one name they won't say: George W. Bush.

I suspect the right wants to make discussion of Bush/Cheney off limits for one inescapable reason: the truth hurts.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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MAYBE TEA PARTIERS ARE HELPING -- THE OTHER PARTY.... Marc Ambinder ponders an interesting question today: "With the exception of Scott Brown's miraculous Senate race victory in Massachusetts -- and even there, one can question the premise -- has the Tea Party movement really done anything to help the Republican Party this cycle?"

As far as I can tell, not much. The trend started early on, in the special election in New York's 23rd congressional district, where Tea Party activism helped a Democrat win a seat that's been held by Republicans for about 150 years.

But notice how this has continued in the ensuing months. The Senate race in Kentucky was going to be an easy one for Republicans, but thanks to the Tea Party crowd, now it's a Democratic pick-up opportunity. The Senate race in Florida was a lock for the GOP, but thanks to Tea Partiers, the frontrunner is currently an independent who might caucus with Dems. The Senate race in Nevada looked very bad for Majority Leader Harry Reid (R), but thanks to Tea Party, his prospects have improved considerably in recent months.

In several other races -- Illinois, California, Colorado, Connecticut -- Tea Partiers keep pushing Republicans further and further to the right, which in turn gives Democrats stronger chances of success.

The Tea Party crowd also had a hand in ending Sen. Bob Bennett's (R) career in Utah, and while the race is almost certainly out of reach for Dems, the ordeal made the entire Republican Party look bad.

Ambinder explained:

[A]s one of my Twitter followers points out, it has helped to rid the party of its RINOs, which I suppose might be a good thing, but then again, depending upon your view of electoral politics, it might not.

I don't think the TPs energized the GOP base any more than it was already energized. The TP, indeed, is actually distributing that energy to regions of political space that might be harmful to the party itself. Democrats now have a foil, just as Republicans have Obama.

I had assumed that the TP movement would be beneficial to the party in the short-term and harm it in the long-term, but today, it is hard to see where the short term benefits are. Even Scott Brown is tacking back to the center and distancing himself from the TP movement.

That part about Dems having a foil seems especially interesting. We've all heard quite a bit in recent months about the "enthusiasm gap." Democratic voters may be more inclined to get excited about the midterm elections if the alternative is the success of candidates backed by unhinged, misguided, right-wing Tea Partiers.

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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WHAT SESTAK WAS OFFERED.... The year's thinnest, most vapid, most manufactured political "controversy" appears to be ending with a whimper.

President Obama's chief of staff used former President Bill Clinton as an intermediary to see if Representative Joe Sestak would drop out of a Senate primary if given a prominent, but unpaid, advisory position, people briefed on the matter said Friday.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, asked Mr. Clinton to explore the possibilities last summer, according to the briefed individuals, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the politically charged situation. Mr. Sestak said no and went on to win last week's Pennsylvania Democratic primary against Senator Arlen Specter.

The White House did not offer Mr. Sestak a full-time paid position because Mr. Emanuel wanted him to stay in the House rather than risk losing his seat.

When Sestak first claimed in February that he'd been offered a job, that was a bit of an exaggeration. The discussions apparently included a spot on the Intelligence Advisory Board, but even that was quickly dismissed as an idea because he couldn't serve on the panel while remaining in Congress.

So, what are we left with? Perhaps the dullest, most inconsequential White House "controversy" in a very long time.

The White House counsel's office prepared a memo, explaining the situation in a way that even Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) can understand: "There have been numerous, reported instances in the past when prior Administrations -- both Democratic and Republican, and motivated by the same goals -- discussed alternative paths to service for qualified individuals also considering campaigns for public office. Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements."

Obviously. When the Reagan White House offered Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R) a job in 1981 in the hopes of convincing him to drop out of the Republican Senate primary race in California, no one cared. When George W. Bush's White House approached Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) about a job in the hopes of convincing him not to run for re-election, no one cared. Mundane political efforts like these fail to raise an eyebrow because they're the very definition of routine. As Ron Kaufman, who served as President George H.W. Bush's White House political director, said this week, "Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington."

In this case, it's even thinner, since Sestak wasn't even offered a job, but rather an unpaid advisory position, which a) wasn't particularly enticing; and b) was quickly dismissed anyway.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told Greg Sargent that this couldn't constitute bribery. "Beyond that, Sloan adds, the Federal bribery statute requires an offer of something of value in exchange for an official act. Sloan says that not running for Senate would not constitute an official act in any case, even if a paid position were offered in return for dropping a run for office."

The political world can now move on, hopefully feeling chastened for taking this nonsensical story seriously in the first place.

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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.

* A new Research 2000 poll of Pennsylvania's Senate race shows Rep. Joe Sestak (D) with a narrow lead over former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), 43% to 40%. A few weeks ago, Research 2000 found Toomey ahead by five.

* In the first poll of Kentucky's Senate race taken after revelations about Rand Paul's (R) extremist worldview, Research 200 shows the GOP candidate with a narrow lead. The results, released late yesterday, has Paul up by three over state Attorney General Jack Conway (D), 44% to 41%.

* In Arkansas' Democratic Senate primary, Research 2000 shows Lt. Gov. Bill Halter inching past incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, 47% to 44%. In general election match-ups, Rep. John Boozman (R) leads Lincoln by 20 points, while Halter trails Boozman by 11.

* A new Mason-Dixon poll in Nevada shows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) far more competitive against his increasingly bizarre GOP challengers. Reid trails Sue Lowden by three points (42% to 39%) and leads Sharron Angle (R) by the same margin. In the Republican primary, Lowden now leads Angle by one, 30% to 29%.

* On a related note, as recently as 2006, Nevada Senate hopeful Sharron Angle voiced her support for Prohibition. Angle is also facing new questions about ties to the Church of Scientology.

* A new Ohio Poll shows the state's very competitive U.S. Senate race about as close as it can be. The survey find Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) with a one-point lead over former Bush Budget Director Rob Portman (R), 47% to 46%,

* The same Ohio Poll shows incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D) leading John Kasich (R), 49% to 44%.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) hasn't ruled out supporting former wrestling executive Linda McMahon (R) in this year's Senate race in his home state.

* And in Wisconsin, Republicans appear to be clearing the field for plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson to take on Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in November. Yesterday, Terrence Wall dropped out, without explanation.

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

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'TERMINAL SILLINESS'.... Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) has some thoughts on the politics of the BP oil spill disaster.

"In fairness, there's not a lot we can do. The federal government has no vehicle capable of going down there. None of our submarines can go down there. That is a pre-existing condition that was not the fault of the Obama administration."

But, he added, "As we know, politics is as much perception as reality." He said a "clear risk factor" in the fallout of the spill going forward was that it would sully the administration's record.

Rendell also noted a difference between Obama's style and that of the last Democratic president, a famous micromanager: "If Bill Clinton was president, he'd have been in a wetsuit, you know, trying to get down to see the spill," the governor said with a laugh.

I wish that were funny, but as Matt Zeitlin noted, it's an example of the "terminal silliness" of much of the crisis analysis.

I think this perfectly captures the vast majority of purely perception based criticism of Obama's personal response to the oil spill. Best I can tell, very few of the people who are saying that Obama hasn't been publicly aggressive and involved enough actually specify what he should have done as a matter of policy once the spill happened. Most of the commentary seems to be on the level of getting in the wetsuit.

Or complaining that the president doesn't "seem" to be "sufficiently enraged."

Our discourse too often leaves so much to be desired.

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IS IMPEACHMENT ON THE TABLE FOR THE GOP?.... It's too soon to know if Republicans will re-take the House majority, but it's probably a good time to consider the consequences of a GOP majority. The obvious outcome is gridlock, with Republicans passing right-wing legislation, which would either be blocked by the Senate or vetoed at the White House.

But Jonathan Bernstein argues that we can also expect a GOP majority to at least try to impeach President Obama.

I continue to believe that if Obama sits in the White House for six years with a GOP majority in the House of Representatives that the odds are very good -- better than 50 percent -- that he'll be impeached. Not convicted, of course, but impeached, forcing a Senate trial. [...]

In fact, impeachment talk moved [Wednesday] from Tea Party rallies to at least one Republican Member of the House, Darrell Issa. And Issa's not an obscure backbencher; he's the ranking Republican on Oversight and Government Reform, and he also sits on the Judiciary Committee.

The incentives all run to impeachment, as far as I can tell. The leaders of such an effort would find it easy to cash in (literally, I mean) with books and appearances on the conservative lecture circuit. It's hard to believe that Rush, Beck and the rest of the gang wouldn't be tripping over each other to wear the crown of the Host Who Brought Down the socialist gangster president. And we've seen the ability, or I should say the lack thereof, of rank-and-file GOP pols to stand up to the talk show yakkers. Besides, it's not as if a new Republican majority would have a full agenda of legislative items to pass, and what they did have would face an Obama veto (and most likely death in the Senate at any rate). Against all that is the collective preference of the Republican Party not to have a reputation as a pack of loons, but that doesn't seem to be much of a constraint in practice.

It's tempting to think of impeachment as a far-fetched, silly idea, barring actual impeachable offenses. But the more I think about it, the more I remember this is the House Republican caucus we're dealing with. They're a creative bunch, with no real appreciation for norms or limits.

For that matter, the GOP base would welcome the development -- in February, a national Research 2000 poll found that a plurality of rank-and-file Republicans wants to see President Obama impeached. About what? It didn't matter.

With the base and at least one GOP lawmaker already talking about this, it seems more than fair to ask Republican candidates to go on the record on this.

Throughout 2006, when Republicans realized that Democrats had a very good shot at reclaiming the congressional majority, one of the single most common GOP attacks before the elections was that Dems would try to impeach Bush and/or Cheney if they were in the majority. (The party had no policy platform or accomplishments to point to, so this became their campaign message.)

The talk was so common that Democratic leaders, much to the chagrin for the party's base, declared unequivocally before the election that impeachment was "off the table."

So, are Republicans prepared to also take impeachment off the table in advance of these midterm elections? There's no reason for the GOP to avoid the question -- they're the ones who brought it up.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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MORE EARLY SIGNS OF PROGRESS IN THE GULF.... Yesterday, around this time Adm. Thad Allen sounded very encouraged about the "top kill" efforts in the Gulf. Soon after, officials subtly walked his remarks back a bit -- Allen was apparently a little over enthusiastic -- and it would take more time before the results were clear.

This morning, the initial signs are, once again, generating cautious optimism.

By injecting solid objects as well as heavy drilling fluid into the stricken well leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico overnight, engineers appeared to have stemmed the flow of oil, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, the leader of the government effort, said on Friday morning. But he stressed that the next 12 to 18 hours will be "very critical" in permanently stanching what is already the worst oil spill in United States history.

Admiral Allen, who spoke on ABC's Good Morning America, said the biggest challenge will be to sustain the "top kill" effort, which involves pumping material into the well to counteract the upward pressure of the gushing oil so that the well can be sealed."They've been able to push the hydrocarbons and the oil down with the mud," he said, referring to the heavy drilling fluid. "The real challenge is to put enough mud into the well to keep the pressure where they can put a cement plug over the top."

BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, also told ABC that the efforts were "going pretty well according to plan." He added, however, that he put the odds of success at 60 to 70 percent.

We'll know more in 48 hours.

In the meantime, with President Obama headed to the Gulf this morning, BP has revised its estimate of the scope of the disaster. While the company initially projected a "very modest" impact, the oil company now characterizes the spill as an "environmental catastrophe."

You don't say.

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

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SELECTIVE EMBRACE OF THE CONSTITUTION.... It's hard not to notice that self-described "constitutional conservatives" are a bit like conservative Biblical literalists -- their fealty to the text depends on their preferred outcome.

Jillian Rayfield noted this morning the latest item on the list of Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul's (R) "out-there" policy positions.

Paul recently suggested to a Russian TV station that the U.S. should abandon its policy of granting citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants -- even if they're born on U.S. soil. [...]

The real problem, Paul said, is that the U.S. "shouldn't provide an easy route to citizenship" because of "demographics."

According to Paul, the proportion of Mexican immigrants that register as Democrats is 3-to-1, so of course "the Democrat [sic] Party is for easy citizenship."

He added: "We're the only country that I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen. And I think that should stop also."

Some right-wing House Republicans are on board with this, too.

The position is wrong for a variety of reasons, but of particular interest, Paul and his allies claim to base their positions on a strict reading of the Constitution. And yet, the text is unambiguous: the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that those "born ... in the United States" are "citizens of the United States."

For that matter, the Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that a baby born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants was legally a U.S. citizen, even though federal law at the time denied citizenship to people from China. The court said birth in the United States constituted "a sufficient and complete right to citizenship."

If Paul and his cohorts want to argue that the Constitution is wrong, then they should make their case. If they want an amendment to alter the text, they can call for one. But the disconnect between "constitutional conservatives" who aren't particularly concerned with what the Constitution actually says makes it tough to take their worldview seriously.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IF THE GOP WANTS TO TALK ABOUT PROPAGANDA, WE CAN TALK ABOUT PROPAGANDA.... Of all the things for congressional Republicans to pick a fight over, this one seems especially misguided.

As the secretary of health and human services explains it, the government has an obligation to spread the word about the new health-care law. To that end, the department spent millions of dollars printing a glossy brochure and mailing it this week to 40 million Medicare beneficiaries detailing what Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called "the facts."

Among the facts:

There are "Improvements in Medicare You Will See Right Away." There are "Improvements in Medicare You Will See Soon." There are "Improvements Beyond Medicare That You and Your Family Can Count On." And that's not all: These improvements "will provide you and your family greater savings and increased quality health care."

This hardly seems unreasonable. Given the significant changes to the health care system in the new Affordable Care Act, it stands to reason that the Department of Health and Human Services would produce materials informing the public about the new policy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and some of his cohorts are complaining that the brochures constitute illegal government propaganda.

If McConnell and the GOP really want to talk about government propaganda, we can do that.

In 2001, the Bush administration sent letters to taxpayers through the Treasury Department to tout tax rebate checks and the "long-term tax relief" the administration was offering. McConnell & Co. thought this was fine. In 2004, Bush/Cheney sent out letters through HHS to tout Medicare Part D, and GAO later found that the taxpayer-financed letters included notable omissions and other weaknesses." McConnell & Co. had no problem with this, either.

The Bush administration also had a nasty habit of using our money to secretly pay political pundits to agree with its agenda; creating fake-news segments to be distributed to local television statements, to be aired without public disclosure; and hiring retired military officers to appear in the media to say they agree with the Bush administration's policies.

And just this week, House Republicans launched their "America Speaking Out" project, an election-year gimmick funded entirely by taxpayers.

In all of these cases, Mitch McConnell and his cohorts thought these efforts were entirely legitimate and an appropriate use of Americans' tax dollars.

But an HHS brochure about Medicare changes qualifies as illegal government propaganda? Please.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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A BREAKTHROUGH DAY FOR DADT REPEAL.... About seven months ago, a strategy was put in place to scrap the existing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Dems would add repeal to the defense appropriations bill, get the White House's blessing, and wrap the whole thing up by the early summer.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said at the time, "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was always going to be part of the military authorization." President Obama, Frank added, was "totally committed to this and has been from the beginning."

As it turns out, everything appears to be going according to plan.

The House voted Thursday to let the Defense Department repeal the ban on gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the military, a major step toward dismantling the 1993 law widely known as "don't ask, don't tell."

The provision would allow military commanders to repeal the ban. The repeal would permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military for the first time.

It was adopted as an amendment to the annual Pentagon policy bill, which the House is expected to vote on Friday. The repeal would be allowed 60 days after a Pentagon report is completed on the ramifications of allowing openly gay service members, and military leaders certify that it would not be disruptive. The report is due by Dec. 1.

A few hours before the House vote, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a similar measure, adding a repeal provision to the Pentagon spending bill that's headed to the Senate floor.

In the House, the final vote was 234 to 194. It was not a straight party-line vote, but it was close -- 26 Blue Dogs voted with the Republicans to protect the status quo, while five Republicans voted with Dems to support repeal. In the Senate Armed Services Committee, the vote was 16 to 12, with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) voting with Republicans, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) siding with the Democrats.

After the votes, the White House issued a statement from the president applauding the votes. "Our military is made up of the best and bravest men and women in our nation, and my greatest honor is leading them as Commander-in-Chief," Obama said. "This legislation will help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity."

As for what's next, the House still needs to approve the larger spending bill, and will probably vote on it today. In the Senate, the appropriations measure will almost certainly face a Republican filibuster, though it's unclear if the GOP can sustain obstructionism against a bill that funds U.S. troops during two wars.

Regardless, we're quickly approaching a new day -- one in which all American patriots will be able to volunteer to serve their country and wear the uniform proudly. It's change I can believe in.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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May 27, 2010

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

* The "top kill" efforts had to be temporarily halted this afternoon, but officials intend to re-start the pumping tonight. We won't have a sense of the efficacy for a while, but there's still a fair amount of optimism about the strategy.

* Tensions continue to rise around the Korean peninsula: "North Korea said on Thursday that it was cutting off a naval hot line used to prevent clashes on its disputed sea border with South Korea, while the South conducted a large naval drill in a show of force after the sinking of one of its warships."

* The White House's first formal National Security Strategy was released today.

* Are the votes there in the House to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Speaker Pelosi thinks so. We may see a vote tonight.

* New unemployment filings dropped by 14,000 last week. The numbers are -- let's all say it together -- still far too high, and the modest drop was not as strong as expected.

* Germany may not fully appreciate what the regional economic crisis will do to Germany.

* First quarter GDP numbers were slightly lower than originally estimated.

* Do House Dems have the votes to pass a new, post-Citizens United, campaign finance reform bill? The leadership thinks so, and we can expect a vote on the DISCLOSE Act fairly soon.

* The Justice Department are moving forward with plans to challenge Arizona's new anti-immigrant law.

* Justice Antonin Scalia and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor don't see a problem with Elena Kagan's lack of judicial experience.

* It's just astounding that "more than 113 census takers have been the victims of assaults or attacks this month."

* Kaplan University's agreement to offer some California Community College courses isn't working out well.

* And as a rule, House Republicans are at their absolute nuttiest when they're trying to rationalize their hatred of gay people. It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OTHER AMERICANS CAN SPEAK OUT, TOO.... This week, House Republicans launched their "America Speaking Out" project, a taxpayer-financed, election-year gimmick intended to help the GOP come up with a policy agenda to run on in the midterms. Participants are encouraged to go to the site and consider various conservative ideas, which, at least initially, proved to be something of a mess.

In its return volley, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has come up with a rival site that allows participants to vote for the worst Republicans ideas.

GOPContractWithAmerica.com is a campaign website that links to a new Facebook application that allows supporters to fill out a poll and share it with their Facebook friends. Republicans have said their new site is not campaign oriented.

"The DCCC launched this new initiative to enable our four million plus grassroots supporters to vote for the worst GOP priorities that benefited big corporate special interests under George W. Bush," DCCC Spokesman Ryan Rudominer told CNN in an e-mail. "The DCCC will continue on the cutting edge in allowing our grassroots supporters' voices to be heard."

As far as I can tell, the Dems' project is paid for with party money, not tax dollars.

Salon's Mike Madden, meanwhile, reports on another potential down-side to the Republicans' site: if it becomes more popular, it costs taxpayers more money. "[C]oncerned about keeping government expenses in check?" Madden asked. "Whatever you do, don't click on America Speaking Out."

Doug Thornell, a spokesperson for DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), added, "Republicans did enough damage while in power recklessly spending the American people's money on huge tax cuts for CEOs and big corporations, and an unpaid-for government-run prescription drug plan. The fact that they are continuing this fiscally irresponsible behavior with their glitzy new taxpayer-funded website reflects the GOP's arrogant belief that they should be held to a different standard from the people they lecture daily on government spending."

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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DEFINE 'SUFFICIENTLY ENRAGED'.... The New York Times's Jeff Zeleny live-blogged President Obama's press conference this afternoon, and wrapped things up asking whether the president demonstrated to the country that he's "in control of the crisis on the Gulf."

During a full hour of questioning, he illustrated that he has a grasp of the technical challenges at work in the oil spill. He said the government was calling the shots, the buck stopped with him and the ultimate responsibility rested in the Oval Office.

But it remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama's presidency -- a detached, calm, observational pitch -- served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.

At least he resisted the urge to compare Obama to Spock.

Look, I appreciate the importance of appearances in politics, and I'm well aware of the general media criticism that the president is calm, professorial, and seemingly unflappable -- far too much for reporters' liking.

But basing an analysis of a presidential press conference on whether Obama seemed "sufficiently enraged" seems like an awkward standard. How does one even measure such things? If he's not pounding the podium with his fist, is he somehow less engaged?

And if he is pounding the podium, is that relevant to the response to the crisis?

Kevin Drum watched the CNN coverage, and saw the various on-air personalities "solemnly advising us one after one that Obama really needed to be more emotional because that's what the American people want."

I'm not going to pretend I know what "the American people" want -- and I wish CNN wouldn't either -- but if I had to guess, I imagine the public is more interested in stopping the oil gusher in the Gulf and mitigating the effects of the disaster, and less interested in whether the president meets some ambiguous, undefined standard of being emotional.

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DOES HATCH REALLY WANT TO GO DOWN THIS ROAD?.... We learned yesterday that this was coming, but part of me hoped someone would pull Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) aside and explain that this is a mistake.

No such luck. Hatch wants to amend an existing law, which makes it illegal to lie about military service, to also make it illegal to make false claims about having served in a war. The Utah senator said:

My amendment would add to this existing statute, making false statements regarding participation in combat operations. It appears to me that individuals make these false claims in order to obtain honorariums, employment, elected office or other positions of authority.

If convicted of this misdemeanor offense, the perpetrator could face 6 months in jail and/or a fine. This is the same penalty for falsely obtaining and wearing awards or medals.

It seems pretty obvious that Hatch is targeting Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), since Hatch has spent 34 years in the Senate, and it never occurred to him to pursue this measure until this week.

But I wonder if the senator appreciates what his partisan stunt might mean for some of his Republican friends. George W. Bush made false claims about his war record, as did Ronald Reagan. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) greatly exaggerated his service in the first Gulf War, and Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois, claimed on his website to be "the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom," which isn't true. In California, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Chuck DeVore has had some trouble on this front, too.

Does Hatch really want to subject his GOP allies to a fine and possible jail time?

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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INADVERTENTLY ACCEPTING THE PREMISE.... Soon after the BP oil spill disaster became a genuine crisis, White House critics and the media were very aggressive in pushing the "Obama's Katrina" frame. The line faded, due in large part to the fact that it didn't make any sense.

And now it's back. Just because. NBC's Chuck Todd even asked the president directly today to respond to the media's interest in the comparison. Obama dismissed the inquiry, saying he's far more focused on the problem itself than what pundits have to say about historical comparisons.

But Karl Rove is doing his part to revive the narrative, prompting Alex Seitz-Wald to raise a good point.

Today in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove pens an op-ed titled: "Yes, the Gulf Spill is Obama's Katrina." He predictably places blame on Obama for a "lethargic," "slow," and "unacceptable" response to the BP oil spill. But the real significance of the op-ed is not what Rove has to say about Obama; rather, it's that Rove is implicitly acknowledging that Bush screwed up the response to Katrina. Rove is essentially trying to make the case that Obama mismanaged a disaster almost as terribly as he and Bush did.

This is breaking news because, for years, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Rove has defended his administration's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina.

Exactly. Rove and Republicans invested heavily in the notion that the Bush/Cheney response to the Katrina disaster was perfectly admirable. The criticisms, they said, were groundless. Using Katrina as the basis for comparisons for failed government responses just wasn't fair.

And now Rove and other Republicans are accepting the premise.

As Jon Stewart recently explained, "The crazy part is, it's conservatives and Republicans that are in the biggest rush to make the comparison. 'Remember that terrible thing that Bush did that we fought for eight years to convince you wasn't bad, but actually good? Well, now we use those very incidents as the low-water mark for your guy.' ... The best part is they can't even recognize their own tacit admission of the previous administration's failure."

Indeed, it wasn't Obama who approved this rig. It wasn't Obama who ignored the need for remote acoustic shutoff switches. It wasn't Obama who corrupted the MMS. It wasn't Obama who spent eight years downplaying the need for regulations and oversight of the oil industry.

Karl, I hate to break it to you, but the BP oil spill disaster certainly seems like Bush's Katrina.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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BIGGEST SPILL IN AMERICAN HISTORY.... The magnitude is just staggering.

A federal team created to produce a more precise estimate of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has determined that the rate is at least twice what was previously acknowledged and possibly five times as much, officials said on Thursday.

If the team's estimates are accurate, this spill would be far bigger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and the worst in United States history.

Using two methods -- one based on the amount of oil on the surface and the other based on video of the oil emanating at the source -- the group settled on preliminary estimates of 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons) a day to 19,000 barrels (800,000 gallons) a day, said Dr. Marcia McNutt, director of the United States Geological Survey and the leader of the team.

Also this morning, the White House is "extending the moratorium on permits to drill new deepwater wells for six more months."

President Obama's press conference on the crisis is ongoing, and I'll have more on this later.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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CHUTZPAH WATCH.... Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation into his humiliating sex-ethics-corruption scandal. The Senate Ethics Committee has also initiated a probe. The investigation appears to be heating up, and by some accounts, expanding.

Ensign's fellow Republicans don't want to be seen with him, and in the first three months of the year, the senator raised exactly $50 in campaign contributions -- the result of two donations from one guy.

What amazes me is that Ensign seems to think he can recover from all of this.

After delivering a floor speech against the financial overhaul bill last week, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) walked out of the Capitol into the spring sunshine and spoke optimistically of getting back to raising money for his reelection campaign -- never mind the looming ethics cloud stemming from his admitted affair with an aide. [...]

The Nevadan has started organizing fundraisers and making calls to donors for help in winning a third term in 2012. Ensign, once a rising star in the Republican leadership, collected a mere $50 during the first quarter of this year, but he's confident that is about to change.

Assuming, that is, that Ensign can stay out of jail.

Just last week, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), another far-right moralist who's spent his career touting "family values," resigned after confessing to an affair. There wasn't anything unusually scandalous about Souder's story -- married congressman sleeps with part-time aide -- but there was an immediate realization that stepping down was the right thing to do.

With Ensign, it's much worse. He cheated with his friend's wife, while condemning others' moral failings. His parents offered to pay hush-money. He ignored ethics laws and tried to use his office to arrange lobbying jobs for his mistress' husband. The likelihood of Ensign being indicted seems fairly high.

That he's planning to run again is just astounding.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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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.

* Rand Paul, the Republican Senate nominee in Kentucky, replaced his campaign manager yesterday, following last week's extreme difficulties.

* In Connecticut, speculation that the Vietnam story would derail Richard Blumenthal's (D) Senate bid appears to have been misplaced. A new Quinnipiac poll shows Blumenthal leading Linda McMahon (R), 56% to 31%. The pollster's analysis added, "The more voters get to know McMahon the less they like her."

* In related news, former Rep. Rob Simmons, who dropped out of the Senate GOP primary in Connecticut this week, said he doesn't think McMahon can win, and doesn't appear anxious to campaign on her behalf.

* And speaking of Connecticut, Quinnipiac also polled the gubernatorial race, and found Ned Lamont (D) and former ambassador Tom Foley (R) leading their respective primary fields.

* In Nevada's closely-watched Senate race, Sue Lowden's (R) troubles got a little worse, with the right-wing Club for Growth launching attack ads against her for not being conservative enough.

* The latest California survey from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) struggling with a low approval rating, but nevertheless maintaining modest leads over all of her potential Republican challengers.

* Disgraced former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) will not be making a comeback this year after all.

* Also in New York, businessman Myers Mermel has entered the field of Republicans running for governor.

* And in Kansas, the latest SurveyUSA poll shows Rep. Jerry Moran pulling away in the Republican Senate primary, leading Rep. Todd Tiahrt by 24 points, 52% to 28%. The winner of the primary will be heavily favored to win in November.

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

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CLEANING HOUSE AT MMS.... For eight years, we saw an administration in which officials were kept on the job, regardless of job performance. Indeed, in many bizarre instances, we had a president who'd promote those who failed.

There's more accountability now.

Democratic sources say the Obama administration has fired the head of the U.S. Minerals Management Service in response to blistering criticism over lax oversight of offshore drilling.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity before the official announcement, tell The Associated Press that President Barack Obama will announce the decision Thursday.

I guess this answers the question of whether "anyone in the government [will] be fired" as a result of the disaster in the Gulf.

Of course, whether anyone at the energy companies -- BP, Transocean, Halliburton -- might also lose their job remains to be seen.

Liz Birnbaum's departure, after less than a year at the Interior Department, comes just 10 days after the White House also accepted the resignation of Chris Oynes, the top Interior Department official who oversees offshore drilling for the MMS.

Given the damage to the Minerals Management Service during the Bush/Cheney era, and the breathtaking corruption that became the norm at the agency, it stands to reason the staff departures aren't finished yet.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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POLITICS IS NOT A CRIME.... Add David Broder to the list of media voices who finds importance in the administration's possible job offer to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

Obama cut his political teeth in Chicago, where the Democratic Party had held formal "slating" sessions at which the elder Mayor Richard Daley and his colleagues decided who was worthy of machine backing for jobs large and small.... But Daley's son, the current mayor, Richard M. Daley, has recognized that times have changed, even in Chicago, and in a system dominated by primaries, voters want to choose candidates for themselves.

Apparently, some operatives at the White House didn't get the memo.... It's not the only time that this White House has been caught ham-handedly trying to play party boss. The governor of New York and his appointee to the U.S. Senate have both been targets of such manipulation -- with Gov. David Paterson being shoved out the door and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand protected from challenge.

So, David Broder is complaining because the president is a politician, and his White House exerts influence in developments related to his political party. In 2010, this is what constitutes a political controversy worthy of scrutiny, and to some, special prosecutors.

Maybe it's me, but I get the impression that our political discourse is growing more farcical by the day.

Similarly, Slate's John Dickerson, whose work I usually enjoy, complained yesterday that a White House talking to a Senate candidate about a possible job offer is somehow inconsistent with the president's promises about "new levels of transparency."*

I'm not even sure what this means. Obama really has brought about the highest levels of transparency in American history. A phone call between an official and a candidate is evidence of secrecy? Is that where the bar has been set? Every conversation that takes place between a White House official and a member of Congress must be quickly made public or the president is violating a campaign promise?

This may be the shallowest, most vapid political controversy in years.

For what it's worth, Jon Chait makes the case against the story at a conceptual level: "There's no such thing as offering somebody a job in return for them dropping out of a Senate race. The acceptance of a job means dropping out of a Senate race. The concept of offering somebody a job "in exchange" for them declining to seek another job is like offering to marry a woman in exchange for her not marrying some other guy. It's conceptually nonsensical."

* Update: Dickerson emails to note that the reference to "new levels of transparency" was criticism of the White House response to questions, not the issue itself.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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GOP PREPARED TO FILIBUSTER TROOP FUNDING OVER DADT.... With Democrats likely to add a provision to the Pentagon appropriations bill to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Republicans are moving forward with Plan B: blocking the vote on troop funding.

Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain said Thursday that he would "without a doubt" support a filibuster if the bill goes to the floor with language that Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) plans to offer as an amendment during today's markup.

"I'll do everything in my power," the Arizona Republican said, citing letters from the four service chiefs urging Congress not to act before a Pentagon review of the policy is complete. "I'm going to do everything I can to support the men and women of the military and to fight what is clearly a political agenda."

Another Armed Services Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker, also said he would support a filibuster if the repeal language makes it into the version of the bill that goes to the floor, possibly during the post-Memorial Day work period.

Just so we're clear, consider exactly what Senate Republicans are saying here. The GOP is prepared to refuse an up-or-down vote in the Senate on a bill that funds the troops during two wars because Americans will eventually be able to serve in the Armed Forces, regardless of their sexual orientation. That the policy has been endorsed by the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- both Republican appointees -- is irrelevant.

What's more, as Dante Atkins added, "The funny part about this whole ordeal? The compromise that the Republicans are threatening to filibuster allows the Pentagon to have the final say in the issue, which is precisely why it is not receiving the broadest support in activist circles. And yet, despite the fact that the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs get to be the ultimate arbiters of whether the policy is repealed, that's not good enough for today's homophobic Republican Party. Today's Republicans don't want gay people to be able to serve in the military -- even if the Pentagon says it's okay."

I seem to recall Republicans screaming that those who oppose funding the troops during two wars are necessarily unpatriotic terrorist sympathizers, aiding and abetting the enemy. Now these same Republicans are boasting about their intention to prevent the Senate from even voting on troop funding.

It's funny how GOP standards change, isn't it?

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SOME INITIAL SIGNS OF 'TOP KILL' PROGRESS.... We likely won't have a full account of whether the "top kill" method was successful in stopping the oil gusher in the Gulf until later today, at the earliest. But the initial reports offer some encouragement.

Engineers have succeeded in stopping the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico from a gushing BP well, the federal government's top oil spill commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Thursday morning.

The "top kill" effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by industry and government engineers, has pumped enough drilling fluid to block all oil and gas from the well, Allen said. The pressure from the well is very low, but persists, he said.

Once engineers have reduced the well pressure to zero, they will begin to pump cement into the hole to entomb the well. To help that effort, he said, engineers are also pumping some debris into the blowout preventer at the top of the well.

Allen added, "We'll get this under control."

Update: As much as everyone hopes these initial assessments are accurate, we may not know the extent of the efforts success for several days.

For now, it appears the leak has slowed dramatically. That doesn't mean it can't start up again, and officials on the ground (and on the water) insist they're far from declaring victory.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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GOP NARRATIVES VS. PUBLIC NEEDS.... House Democrats are ready to move forward on a package of economic policies -- jobless benefits, temporary health care subsidies, job creation investments -- that would bolster the ongoing recovery. But it's struggling, not because of its merits, but because many Democrats are worried about Republican narratives.

"We have put together a wonderful bill, and every piece in it can be justified as good public policy," said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a freshman Democrat from Virginia. "But it is not paid for. Until somebody shows me a path for this being paid for, I am a no."

Aiming for a vote on Thursday, House Democratic officials said they had agreed to cut the cost of the measure by more than $40 billion by limiting a provision on Medicare fees paid to doctors and extending unemployment benefits through Nov. 30 instead of Dec. 31. Aides said the changes would result in about $90 billion of the measure's overall costs of around $150 billion being branded as emergency spending and added to the deficit -- a level they hoped a majority could swallow. [...]

[T]he difficulties top Democrats were experiencing in securing votes in both the House and the Senate illustrated the intensifying power of spending as a campaign issue and real concerns among lawmakers about the consequences of the growing debt.

During the Bush/Cheney era, it was, as Republicans have already conceded, "standard practice not to pay for things." Now, however, many Democratic lawmakers are terrified of deficit spending -- no matter how many people it will help, and no matter how fragile the economic recovery -- because they'll face attack ads launched by those who turned a huge surplus into a huge deficit, and who have no credibility on fiscal responsibility.

"Right now, jobs matter more than deficits," AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said yesterday. "And even if the deficit is your top concern, imagine what will happen to it if hundreds of thousands more Americans lose their jobs."

As sensible as this sounds, lawmakers' desire to help the economy is clearly in conflict with lawmakers' anxiety over common Republican/media frames ("spending = bad").

The spending bill carries a price tag on $127 billion bill, but would add $84 billion to the deficit, with some costs offset by new oil fees and tax reforms affecting multinational corporations. It also addresses the Medicare "Doc Fix."

Expect some close votes today.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DADT SUPPORTERS GET A LITTLE HYSTERICAL.... We'll know fairly soon if the effort to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy will succeed, but as the decision draws near, supporters of the status quo are having to scramble.

In general, Republicans on Capitol Hill, who will be nearly unanimous in their support for the discriminatory policy, have kept their response relatively low-key. They want to keep the ridiculous status quo in place, but given the popularity of repealing DADT, Republicans don't see the value in being particularly vocal about it. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is taking a leading role in trying to kill the Democratic proposal, but even his work is going on largely behind the scenes. [Update: Perhaps I spoke too soon on this front.]

The religious right movement, meanwhile, is doing what it does best: it's getting hysterical.

Unable to come up with compelling justifications for an expensive, discriminatory policy that undermines military readiness, religious right groups have gone off the deep end.

Here's how the Family Research Council envisions things going if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed: first, more straight soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will be fellated in their sleep against their will. Then, commanders afraid of being labeled homophobes will refuse to do anything about it. Eventually, the straight service members will quit out of fear.

On a conference call with reporters today, FRC Senior Fellow for Policy Studies Peter Sprigg delivered the results of what he said was the first-ever study of "homosexual assault" in the military. Joined by several former military officers opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, he warned Congress that the DADT repeal language currently under discussion with the agreement of the White House will turn the U.S. military into a terrifying free-rape zone where no heterosexual is safe.

The Family Research Council, which is a religious right powerhouse, has quite a case. As the right-wing group sees it, 8.2% of sexual assaults in the military were homosexual in nature. (I have no idea if that's true, and it's best not to take the FRC's word for it.) FRC added that less than 3% of the national population is gay (again, a dubious number). Ergo, gay soldiers commit more sexual assaults than straight soldiers, and ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would unleash a wave of gay sexual predators who will terrorize American fighting forces.

Who could argue with logic like this?

It wasn't just the Family Research Council. The FRC's friends at the American Family Association have begun pushing the line that Adolf Hitler was gay, and he recruited "homosexuals to make up his Stormtroopers," because Hitler believed that only gay soldiers "had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after."

There's no evidence to support any of this nonsense, of course, but I can't help but find it amusing to hear the unhinged right argue that we can't have gay soldiers -- because gays are mean.

It seems unlikely that any of this will actually influence the policy debate, but it's a reminder of just how weak the conservative case against repeal really is. This garbage is the best the right can come up with.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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May 26, 2010

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

* The "top kill" effort to stop the oil gusher in the Gulf is underway. There is, of course, no guarantee it will work.

* BP's internal investigation of the disaster "points to a series of equipment failures, mistakes and missed warning signs that led to the blowout and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, according to lawmakers briefed by the company."

* The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service is not held in high regard right now.

* Photo essays of the Gulf are not for the faint of heart.

* The State Department continues to state its support for South Korea, as tensions with North Korea escalate.

* New home sales got another boost, thanks to government tax credits. Orders on durable goods also offers signs of hope.

* With Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announcing his support, the Senate Armed Services Committee is likely to approve a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

* Service chiefs, however, still want to wait until after December (which, politically, would likely push off repeal until 2013, at the very earliest).

* Conservatives don't want to hear this, but police chiefs believe anti-immigrant measures like the one in Arizona will make crime worse, not better.

* The right has some new attack against Elena Kagan. It's already been debunked.

* Opponents still outnumber supporters, but health care reform's popularity has grown quite a bit over the last couple of months.

* Speaking of health care, the Affordable Care Act won't hurt state budgets.

* The return of the 'al-Qaeda Seven' witch hunt?

* Is the awards system for scientists way off?

* Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) is wrapping up his final year in the chamber on a classy note.

* Right-wing activist James O'Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

* And finally, once in a while, Fox News's style of reporting is offensive and wrong, even conservative congressional Republicans can't take it. Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said on the House floor this week, "I don't know what they're doing at Fox News, but they should stop smoking it and get back to reporting the facts."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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OBAMA MAKES THE ENERGY CONNECTION.... Many progressive voices have been urging President Obama to be more forceful and direct in connecting the BP oil spill disaster with the need for a comprehensive energy/climate bill pending on the Hill. We're starting to see evidence that he's doing just that.

The president, for example, appeared in San Francisco, and highlighted the larger context.

"Even if you hadn't seen the catastrophe down in the Gulf, the reason that folks are now having to go down a mile deep into the ocean, and then another mile drilling into the ground below, that is because the easy oil fields and oil wells are gone, or they're starting to diminish."

He added, "That tells us that we've got to have a long-term energy strategy in this country. And we've got to start -- we've got to start cultivating -- we've got to start cultivating solar and wind and biodiesel. And we've got to increase energy efficiency across our economy in our buildings and our automobiles."

Commenting on his message to Senate Republicans yesterday, Obama added, "There's been some good work done by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. Let's go. Let's not wait."

The president emphasized a related point just a few hours ago:

"[T]he spill in the Gulf, which is just heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources. We're not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now. But think about it, part of what's happening in the Gulf is that oil companies are drilling a mile underwater before they hit ground, and then a mile below that before they hit oil. With the increased risks, the increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we're going. We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use.

"[E]ven as we are dealing with this immediate crisis [in the Gulf], we've got to remember that the risks our current dependence on oil holds for our environment and our coastal communities is not the only cost involved in our dependence on these fossil fuels. [...]

"[T]hat's why we've placed a big emphasis on clean energy. It's the right thing to do for our environment, it's the right thing to do for our national security, but it's also the right thing to do for our economy.... [W]e've still got more work to do, and that's why I'm going to keep fighting to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation in Washington. We're going to try to get it done this year, because what we want to do is create incentives that will fully unleash the potential for jobs and growth in this sector."

I haven't heard the president mention "this year" on the climate/energy bill in a while, so that was at least mildly encouraging, though he did preface it with "try," as opposed to "will."

In either case, drawing the connection between the disaster and the need for a new comprehensive policy is key. Here's hoping we'll hear this message more often, starting immediately.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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IN SEARCH OF A 'VILENESS/ABSURDITY THRESHOLD'.... Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who seems unfulfilled unless she's engaged in some kind of pointless feud, has decided to lash out wildly at an investigative journalist. The details aren't especially interesting.

What is interesting is a question Greg Sargent raised in light of the latest Palin nonsense.

A question for fellow reporters and editors: At what point do Sarah Palin's attacks and smears become so vile and absurd that they no longer merit attention? Is there such a point?

Palin, who has broken the mold in so many ways, has defied the laws of political and media gravity in another fashion: Despite the ever-mounting ridiculousness of her claims, she continues to get attention. This isn't so with other figures. Frequently those who traffic in absurdity and smears to get media attention keep upping the ante until their assertions become so grotesque and self-parodic that they are no longer newsworthy.

It's kind of like inflation: Keep printing more money and the value of it keeps dropping. That hasn't happened with Palin.

Quite right. I'd quibble a little with Greg's point about the applicability of the laws of political and media gravity -- Newt Gingrich is mad as a hatter, but the political establishment still takes him seriously and showers him with the attention he craves -- but the larger observation is compelling and persuasive. Palin just keeps getting more ridiculous, and there appears to be no breaking point. No matter how far she goes, there is no threshold to cross.

Making matters worse, the conspicuously unintelligent right-wing hero is shamelessly manipulating the media -- refusing to engage in actual interviews, she puts out bizarre messages on Facebook, and major outlets pass the missives along to the public, stenography-style.

So, what's a media professional to do?

I'll concede that I've been torn over this. Regular readers may not believe it, but I only mention a small fraction of the Palin-related nonsense that crosses my radar screen. I wasn't even going to mention the new feud against the investigative journalist.

I tend to keep an informal criterion in mind:

* Is Palin's latest nonsense part of a larger argument, echoed by others, that's likely to influence the national discourse?

* Is Palin's latest nonsense related to an issue of national significance, including errors in need of correction?

* Is Palin's latest nonsense deeply amusing, and further evidence of why her misguided minions need a new idol to follow?

To Greg's point in particular, I think the problem is not just that Palin's attacks and smears have become so vile and absurd that they no longer merit attention, but rather, that major media outlets pass along Palin's vile and absurd attacks without telling the public that her nonsense is nonsense.

As long as she remains a credible candidate for national office, I can appreciate why news outlets make note of her inexplicable garbage. I don't seriously expect a major paper or network to formally decide one day, "OK, that's it. Palin is now officially too pathetic to cover."

Sure, that'd be nice, but I know it's not going to happen.

For me, the issue isn't so much an attention threshold which, if Palin crosses it, she gets shunned. Rather, we need a credibility threshold which, if she crosses it, she becomes the humiliating laughingstock sensible people know her to be.

By most reasonable measures, Sarah Palin represents the very worst American politics has to offer -- a dim-witted, right-wing, demagogic liar, worshipped by misguided millions. This would be far less painful if media professionals had the courage to stop playing stenographer, and start scrutinizing the substance -- or lack thereof -- behind her vile, child-like gibberish.

Ruth Marcus asked today whether there's "value in pointing out that the empress has no clothes." There is, but only if Marcus' colleagues throughout the media are willing to be as candid.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THERE'S ALWAYS ANOTHER NOVEMBER.... Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee commented on the reportedly tense discussion yesterday, between Senate Republicans and President Obama. (via Kevin Drum)

"We simply have a large difference of opinion, which [will] not likely ... be settled until November."

Really, Lamar? And then what happens?

If you had asked Alexander and his GOP colleagues exactly two years about the disputes between Democrats and Republicans, they likely would have offered the identical message -- there are large differences of opinion, which voters can settle in November.

And if the 2010 midterms come and go, and Republicans fall short of their majorities (and expectations), they'll go right back to the same tactics we're seeing now. And if asked when the GOP might start trying to play a constructive role in American governance, Alexander and his fellow Republicans can once again remind that there are large differences of opinion, which voters can settle in November 2012.

Which is exactly why Alexander's point is so vapid. To hear him tell it, the only time elections have consequences is when Republicans win.

We talked about this a few months ago, but I still marvel at the circumstances. Voters were confronted in 2008 with two parties with large differences of opinion, and asked to set the country in one direction or the other. Democrats dominated -- Obama had the highest popular vote percentage of any candidate in either party in 20 years, and the highest for a non-incumbent in 56 years. Senate Dems scored the biggest majority in two decades. House Dems were awarded the biggest majority in three decades.

Congressional Republicans decided, en masse, that after voters "settled" the debate, the majority still hadn't earned the right to govern. Why? Because the GOP didn't like the election results. It's the first time in memory that a major political party decided that elections simply shouldn't have consequences.

So, here's my follow-up for Lamar Alexander: if voters will settle the inter-party arguments in November, what do you consider the results from last November?

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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SENATE REPUBLICANS WANT SPECIAL PROSECUTOR.... It's hard to overstate how incredibly dumb this is.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder today, all seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee "urge the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Congressman Joe Sestak's claim that a White House official offered him a job to induce him to exit the Pennsylvania Senate primary race against Senator Arlen Specter."

The seven -- Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Jon Kyl or Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- allege that the offer would appear to violate federal criminal laws, including 18 U.S.C. 600, which prohibits promising a government position "as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity" or "in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office."

If I had to guess, I'd say these seven conservative senators are well aware of how blisteringly stupid this is, but desperate political considerations have led to this pointless manufactured outrage.

How misguided is this? Let us count the ways....

1. Given the timeline of events, it's not even clear that there was a job offer.

2. Even if a job offer was discussed, legal experts -- including the chief ethics lawyer for the Bush/Cheney administration -- have concluded that there's nothing scandalous about this. Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor with the Justice Department's Public Integrity unit, said, "Talk about criminalizing the political process! ... It would be horrible precedent if what really truly is political horse-trading were viewed in the criminal context of: is this a corrupt bribe?"

3. Every modern administration -- and even plenty of not-so-modern administrations -- uses appointment opportunities as leverage in political negotiations. Reagan did it; Clinton did it; Bush did it. The notion that any of this necessitated a special prosecutor is madness. Ron Kaufman, who served as President George H.W. Bush's White House political director, said, "Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington."

And just as an aside, the seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee really ought to be ashamed of themselves. These same senators saw the Plame scandal, Scooter Libby and his get-out-of-jail-free card, the warrantless-wiretap scandal, the torture memos, the purge of U.S. Attorneys for political reasons, the no-bid Halliburton contracts, the cost estimates of Medicare Part D deliberately hidden from Congress, Interior Department officials literally in bed with oil company officials, the pundits paid to toe the administration's line in the media without disclosure, the probably illegal fake-news segments the administration created to run on local news outlets without disclosure, the misuse of "faith-based" grants to help Republican congressional candidates, Karl Rove's campaign "briefings" to federal offices in violation of the Hatch Act, and plenty more alleged crimes committed by the Bush/Cheney gang that I'm probably forgetting.

The seven GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee not only saw no need for a special prosecutor in any of these scandals, but they didn't even want to hold hearings on the controversies.

And now they literally want to make a federal case out of Sestak's dubious claim? It's genuinely pathetic.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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LINDSEY GRAHAM'S BAD ADVICE.... I don't see the logic behind this at all.

The chief Senate Republican negotiator on energy legislation urged President Obama and Democrats to abandon comprehensive reform for the time being and push passable components of the bill instead.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday said that in the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf the votes simply aren't there for the Senate to pass far-reaching legislation.

"You have a comprehensive approach that can sell and I don't think many people believe that the oil spill has helped get more votes for offshore drilling," he said. "It has made it a hard climb. Let's do smaller version of the energy climate bill... and be realistic about what is possible or not."

Let me see if I get this straight. For Lindsey Graham, when the desperate need for an overhaul to the U.S. approach to energy policy is less obvious, he's willing to work on an ambitious, comprehensive solution. When there's a catastrophe, shining a bright light on the urgent need for a comprehensive approach, Lindsey Graham wants policymakers to scale back and accept less.

Or put another way, pre-catastrophe, Graham wanted to aim high. Post-catastrophe, Graham wants to aim low.

It seems pretty obvious that this is backwards. What more evidence could Graham and his cohorts need that a compressive approach -- which, as recently as a few weeks ago, had Democratic, Republican, and independent support -- needs immediate attention?

Graham reportedly conveyed his advice to the president yesterday at the Senate GOP luncheon. The White House issued a statement that said the president told Republican senators that the BP oil spill disaster "should heighten our sense of urgency to hasten the development of new, clean energy sources that will promote energy independence and good-paying American jobs."

That, apparently makes too much sense to succeed.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BOEHNER GETS BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS (LOBBYIST) FRIENDS.... Given the larger political environment, it's tempting to think political leaders would try to avoid being overly cozy with corporate lobbyists. Even for those members of Congress that serve as little more than K Street lackeys, there's a general desire to give the appearance of distance between them and the lobbying elites.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn't even seem interested in keeping up appearances. Roll Call reports today that "lobbyists are not-so-quietly cozying up to the Ohio Republican," with the expectation that he might be the next Speaker of the House.

A regular on the cocktail and fundraising circuit, Boehner has long been friendly with a number of corporate and contract lobbyists -- a network that he is increasingly relying on now as he eyes the Speakership. Altria's Gates, along with his wife, Joyce Gates, who once served as Boehner's chief of staff, and Quinn Gillespie's Lampkin are considered key members of Boehner's inner circle, as are Gary Andres of Dutko Worldwide, Terry Holt, a former Boehner aide who is now with the Republican lobbying firm HDMK, and John Fish, an in-house lobbyist with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Ohio native Steve Clark of Clark, Lytle & Geduldig, his partner Sam Geduldig, who was Boehner's political director, and Glover Park Group's Brian Gaston, another one-time Boehner staffer, are also tight with the top House Republican.

"I think that he has an excellent relationship with a lot of people on K Street," Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) said.

I don't doubt that this is true. The oddity is the willingness to brag about it.

Indeed, this reinforces fears that Republicans' electoral success in 2010 will create a Capitol very much like the one we saw the last time the GOP was in charge -- with the corrupt scheme known as the "K Street Project," which already seems to be making a comeback, and with corporate lobbyists writing legislation affecting their industries, just like old (pre-2007) times.

What's more, Lee Fang reminds us that over the last year or so, Boehner has "consistently prioritized the interests of lobbyists over the public," including brazenly huddling with 100 corporate lobbyists to kill Wall Street reform, and an incident last July in which Boehner "interrupted House proceedings so Republican lawmakers could attend his annual 'Boehner Beach Party' fundraiser with corporate lobbyists."

Refresh my memory: isn't this the sort of thing the Tea Party crowd is supposed to find offensive? Under the circumstances, it's curious that the so-called "movement" is prepared to help make Boehner the Speaker of the House.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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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.

* House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), apparently hoping to lower the same expectations that he built up, said yesterday it would be a "steep climb" for Republicans to retake the House majority in the midterm elections.

* A new Quinnipiac poll shows Dems back out in front on the generic congressional ballot, leading 42% to 36%. Two months ago, the GOP led, 44% to 39%.

* In the latest twist in Arizona's Senate Republican primary, Sen. John McCain's campaign is strongly suggesting in a new web ad that former J.D. Hayworth is "dumb." The criticism comes on the heels of a video in which Hayworth insisted that the United States never declared war on Nazi Germany.

* As expected, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) formally kicked off his Senate campaign in the state of Washington this morning.

* After struggling badly for months, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) is starting to look a little stronger. A new Suffolk University poll shows the incumbent with a 13-point lead over Republican challenger Charlie Baker, 42% to 29%, with state Treasurer Tim Cahill (I) third with 14%/

* In Florida, the latest poll commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/BayNews9/Central Florida News 13, shows state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) leading in this year's gubernatorial race, but not by much. The survey shows him up by just two points over state CFO Alex Sink (D), 34% to 32%.

* Speaking of Florida's gubernatorial race, state Sen. Paula Dockery (R), struggling to get noticed, ended her statewide campaign this week. Dockery cited poor fundraising in a statement.

* New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this morning that Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy (D) will be his running mate in this year's gubernatorial campaign.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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DRIVING AWAY A GROWING CONSTITUENCY, CONT'D.... We talked a few weeks ago about the risk Republicans are facing on immigration politics -- the party feels the need to satisfy the demands of the GOP's far-right base, while hoping to cultivate ties to Hispanic-American voters, a growing American constituency that's often considered a "swing" group of voters.

It's a fine line to walk, and as recent developments in Arizona have shown, Republicans aren't exactly pursuing both approaches with equal care.

We're now starting to see the results. Hispanic voters in Colorado and Arizona, for example, are moving quickly to support Democratic candidates.

Today, a new NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll shows a similar trend at the national level, where "Latinos, once a semi-swing group of voters, now have swung overwhelmingly for President Obama and the Democratic Party, and younger Hispanics are moving to the Democrats in even greater numbers."

For example, 68% of Latinos approve of Obama's job (compared with 48% of overall respondents and 38% of whites), and they view the Democratic Party favorably by a 54%-21% score (versus 41%-40% among all adults and 34%-48% among whites). And their views of the Republican Party? In the poll, the GOP fav/unfav among Latinos is 22%-44%.

What's more, Latinos think Democrats would do a better job than Republicans in protecting the interests of minorities (by 58%-11%), in representing the opportunity to move up the economic ladder (46%-20%), in dealing with immigration (37%-12%), and in promoting strong moral values (33%-23%). The only advantage they gave Republicans was in enforcing security along the border (31%-20%). And Latinos remain a sleeping -- yet growing -- political giant: 23% of them aren't registered voters (compared with 12% of whites and 16% of blacks).

As recently as 2004, Bush/Cheney was making real inroads with Hispanic voters, and there was some evidence to suggest the GOP would remain fully competitive with Democrats with this constituency for years to come.

In the years since, the Latino vote went from being up-for-grabs to solidly Democratic -- in large part because Republicans decided to stop trying to reach out.

The GOP can take some solace in the poll results, since they're getting a small bump in support from white voters who like the hard-line approach adopted in Arizona. But over the long term, Republicans have to realize the demographic trends do not work in the GOP's favor.

For what it's worth, Hispanic support for Democrats may fall if immigration reform fails this year, and voters blame the White House (even if it's Republicans and conservative Dems who are responsible for killing the bill).

It creates a very strong incentive for the GOP -- fight like hell to prevent immigration reform from succeeding. If voters blame the president, Republicans win. If voters blame the GOP, they'll be largely in the same position they're in now.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IT'S NOT LIKE SOUTH CAROLINA NEEDED ANOTHER SCANDAL.... I've been reluctant to mention the sex scandal involving South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (R), in large part because the reports have seemed a little thin. One person claimed there was an affair; the other person argued the affair never happened. It's not much to go on.

The story, however, appears to be getting more interesting.

First, a quick primer for those just joining us. Will Folks, a former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford (R), announced this week that he had an "inappropriate physical relationship" with Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley. Folks has been a Haley supporter, so at least on the surface, he would not have an incentive to make her look bad. Haley, a state representative and the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, "categorically" denied the accusation, calling it a "disgraceful smear."

Folks wrote on his site -- which features the tag line, "Unfair. Imbalanced" -- that the affair happened "several years ago," before he was married. He offered no proof, but was apparently hoping to get out in front of local media outlets, which were looking into rumors about the affair. (A Columbia, S.C., paper later confirmed it's been working on a story about the supposed affair.) Folks added that he still supports Haley's campaign.

Folks subsequently said he has evidence -- text messages, emails, and phone records -- to bolster his claim, but no one knew if the evidence exists or not.

Today, Folks released what he says are text messages between himself, an AP reporter, another GOP political operative, and Nikki Haley's campaign manager.

The texts, posted on Folks site, FITSNews, are dated about 10 days ago and consist of discussions about various reporters working on a story that involves Haley and Folks, and how to kill the story. In one May 15 text, Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson tells Folks "I'm telling you man, we keep this under wraps and nh is going to win."

Just one of the texts, purportedly sent from GOP operative Wes Donehue to Folks on May 14, actually describes the topic of the story being discussed: "Now, I don't give a fuck of you believe me or not. Your the one who screwed her. You're the one who bragged about it. She's the one who told BJ. Yall point fingers at your own damn selves and leave me the fuck out of it."

According to Folks, "BJ" is B.J. Boling, a staffer for Haley opponent Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-SC).

It prompted David Kurtz to advise campaign consultants everywhere: "Do NOT have written communications with the alleged lover of your candidate."

For the record, I'm still not entirely convinced the story's legit. We don't even know if this morning's evidence is genuine. The story is, however, getting more interesting, not less, and if Haley is caught lying about the affair, her campaign is in very serious trouble.

The Republican primary is on June 8 -- less than two weeks away.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AMERICA SPEAKING OUT, BUT NOT VERY WELL.... House Republicans launched their "America Speaking Out" project yesterday, an election-year gimmick intended to help give the GOP a policy platform to run on. One of the key problems, as we talked about yesterday, is that the party is asking taxpayers to foot the bill for this.

But there's also the matter of the Republicans' online discussion itself. As part of the initiative, the GOP is creating a forum for their supporters to discuss potential policy ideas. One of the first proposals, apparently promoted by a Rand Paul fan*, was to eliminate provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Republican officials monitoring the submissions removed it from their site.

But Dana Milbank highlighted some of "the early responses to the Republicans' request for ideas."

"End Child Labor Laws," suggests one helpful participant. "We coddle children too much. They need to spend their youth in the factories."

"How about if Congress actually do thier job and VET or Usurper in Chief, Obama is NOT a Natural Born Citizen in any way," recommends another. "That fake so called birth certificate is useless."

"A 'teacher' told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!" a third complains. "And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story."

That last one was my particular favorite.

In fairness, there's no way to know if the participants are sincere. Some of the more ridiculous content may come from far-right nuts, or perhaps progressives who are trying to make Republican activists look stupid. Tragically, it's surprisingly difficult to tell the difference lately.

Republicans might want to take a hard look at the suggestion that "we need to reframe the discussion" about the BP oil spill to counteract the "environmental whackos" worried about wildlife. Republicans, this person proposed, should argue that "BP is creating a new race of faster dolphins. These fish are unable to compete against the fish of other countries, but now their increased lubrication will allow them to fly through the water. Faster fish = good."

I don't think I fully appreciated the comedic possibilities "America Speaking Out" offers.

* Update: Apparently, this wasn't a Rand Paul fan, but rather, was posted by a progressive who was testing to see how actual Tea Party ideas fared on the GOP's website. Like I said, the distinction between right-wing activists and progressives making fun for right-wing activists is often blurred.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THE STIMULUS WORKED -- PART MMCXVII.... A few months ago, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) insisted that the economic recovery effort that prevented a depression "hasn't created one new job." A reporter gave him a chance to clarify, asking, "It didn't create one new job?" The new senator replied, "That's correct."

For Republicans in general, this is simply assumed to be true. Indeed, the standard conservative line is that the stimulus actually hurt the economy.

The evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming, the debate is over.

The $800 billion U.S. stimulus package has had a slightly bigger effect on the U.S. economy than was projected when it was passed more than a year ago, the Congressional Budget Office estimated Tuesday.

Through the first quarter of 2010, the stimulus boosted employment by an estimated 1.3 million to 2.8 million jobs, about a quarter or half million more than projected. Gross domestic product was 1.7 to 4.1 percentage points higher than it would have been without the stimulus, the nonpartisan budget office said.

Similarly, the unemployment would be up to 1.5 percentage points higher in the absence of the stimulus, according to the non-partisan CBO.

Looking ahead, the CBO projects that as many as "3.7 million American jobs could be attributed to the Recovery Act by the end of the September."

There's a word to describe a recovery effort like this: success.

Facing the greatest economic crisis in generations, the nation had two choices early last year: the Democratic stimulus or the Republicans' proposed five-year spending freeze. We're all very fortunate the latter was in the minority.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DADT SHOULD BE AN EASY LIFT -- BUT IT'S NOT.... There's no shortage of contentious political disputes in Congress right now, but getting rid of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy should be fairly straightforward.

After all, repealing DADT enjoys the support of nearly 80% of the country. A compromise worked out this week enjoys the support of the White House, the Pentagon, and the leadership of both chambers. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has endorsed both repeal and the compromise measure, as have two of his predecessors. Even Dick Cheney is on board.

So, this is an easy one, right? Well, it should be, but in this climate, even wildly popular, common-sense proposals can come up short.

Yesterday, a few key senators announced their positions, and not all of the news was good. To her credit, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine said she'll support DADT repeal, but Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who was considered a possible pick-up, announced his opposition. Perhaps more alarming, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will likely vote on this tomorrow, said he'll oppose repeal.

With some center-right Dems wavering, and Republicans nearly unanimous in their opposition, Roll Call reports this morning that ending the discriminatory policy remains "in doubt" the day before expected votes.

Gay rights advocates and their allies were furiously whipping a deal brokered Monday by the White House that would attach the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law to the defense authorization bill. House Democrats face a floor fight on the issue, perhaps later this week, while the Armed Services panel is gearing up for a pivotal vote on the issue Thursday.

Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said Tuesday he still is not sure whether he has enough support to overturn the policy and will be talking to his colleagues heading into this week's markup.

Democrats enjoy a 16-12 edge on the committee, but with Webb voting with the GOP on repeal, and no committee Republicans willing to do the right thing, there's very little margin for error.

In the House, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) of Pennsylvania is confident he has the votes, but there are still plenty of Blue Dogs who put the measure's fate in jeopardy. Complicating matters, repeal would be added to a defense appropriations bill, which many liberals Dems intended to vote against since it funds wars they disagree with. The repeal amendment may pass, under one scenario, only to see the larger spending bill falter for different reasons -- conservatives will oppose it because it ends discrimination, and liberals may oppose it because it finances current military policies.

Monday's agreement was a breakthrough, and I'm still cautiously optimistic, but this isn't going to be easy. Proponents of ending the existing policy are hoping to see the public get more involved in contacting members' offices over this issue, particularly today. Stay tuned.

Update: Sources tell me Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) will support repeal. This is unconfirmed, but if true, makes success more likely.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A GOP UPSET IN IDAHO.... The Republican primary in Idaho's1st congressional district would, under normal circumstances, fail to generate national attention. But Vaughn Ward (R) proved to be so endlessly entertaining, the primary contest took on unexpected significance, just by virtue of the sheer comedic value.

In a bit of a disappointment for those of us hoping to use Ward for amusing blog posts for the rest of the campaign season, the Republican favorite was handed an upset defeat in the Gem State last night.

Top national GOP recruit Vaughn Ward on Tuesday lost his primary in Idaho after a series of missteps by his campaign, throwing the Republican Party's chances in doubt against top-targeted Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho).

Ward was trailing state Rep. Raul Labrador (R) 48 to 39 percent, with 90 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race for Labrador early Wednesday.

For reporters anxious to argue that establishment-backed candidates are in trouble this year, I suppose Ward will be a useful data point. The national Republican Party is aggressively targeting Rep. Walt Minnick, Congress' most conservative Democrat, in a reliably "red" district. The state and national party enthusiastically embraced Ward as one of the year's top Republican contenders.

Indeed, the NRCC included Ward as one of the first candidates on the campaign committee's "Young Guns" program, and just last week, a certain former half-term governor campaigned alongside Ward in Idaho. Ward also enjoyed a six-to-one fundraising edge over primary challenger, Labrador.

But Ward managed to lose badly anyway, despite all the institutional support, because he was arguably the year's worst congressional candidate. His recent troubles included blatant plagiarism from an Obama speech; blatant plagiarism on his website of Ward's policy positions; and odd remarks during a debate in which he characterized Puerto Rico as a foreign country. Ward was also reprimanded last month for violating military protocol when he gave the impression that the U.S. Marine Corps was supporting his campaign.

The Republican Party stood by him anyway, making his defeat that much more embarrassing for everyone involved.

So long, Vaughn Ward. We knew ye a little too well.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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May 25, 2010

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

* This better work: "The most critical moment in the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is at hand, as BP engineers armed with 50,000 pounds of dense mud and a fleet of robotic submarines are poised to attempt a "top kill" maneuver to plug the leaking well a mile below the surface."

* President Obama will be back in Louisiana on Friday to assess the response to the BP oil spill disaster. In announcing the visit, the White House noted in a statement that the administration "has mobilized one of the largest responses to a catastrophic event in history, with more than 1,200 vessels in the region and more than 22,000 people, including many of the brightest scientific minds from both the public and private sector, working around the clock to mitigate the oil's impact."

* As far as the White House is concerned, there's no doubt this is the worst oil spill in American history.

* Tensions continue to rise: "Relations between North and South Korea, already strained over the sinking of a South Korean warship, deteriorated to their worst point in many years on Tuesday as the South Korean president redesignated the North as its archenemy, and the North retaliated by severing its few remaining ties with the South."

* Along the border: "President Obama will send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and increase spending on law enforcement, yielding to demands from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers there that border security be tightened, administration officials said."

* U.S. consumer confidence rises to its highest level since August 2007.

* For the first time in seven years, there are more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than Iraq.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sees action on the climate/energy bill in mid-Summer.

* The administration weighs a new approach to the line-item veto.

* Get ready for Round 3 in the congressional fight to extend unemployment benefits.

* Fox News aired footage from Obama's speech at West Point, but carefully edited out all of the applause.

* Because college financial aid is tricky, many families rule out colleges they might be able to afford.

* Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) doesn't take criticism well.

* The chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush believes there's nothing untoward about the Joe Sestak job offer.

* Vice President Biden will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day. Some conservatives are outraged that the president isn't doing this himself. They shouldn't be.

* Ouch: "When Ann Curry, news anchor of the Today Show, gave the commencement speech at Wheaton College in Massachusetts last Saturday, she listed several famous graduates -- Wes Craven and Billy Graham among them -- of the wrong Wheaton College."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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PAT ROBERTS WANTS OBAMA TO BE LESS 'SERIOUS'.... President Obama spoke to the Senate Republican caucus' lunch today, and by all accounts, there was no love lost. The discussion was held behind closed doors at the GOP's request, but participants later described the back and forth with words like "testy," "candid," and "frank."

Which, of course, is fine. Senate Republicans want to take the country in one direction; the president has a very different vision. The two sides disagree about practically everything. When they get together to chat about policy, it stands to reason that they would clash.

But there was one quote from a participant that stood out for me.

"The more he talked the more he got upset," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) said. "He needs to [take] a valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans and just calm down, and don't take anything so seriously. If you disagree with someone, it doesn't mean you're attacking their motives -- and he takes it that way and tends then to lecture and then gets upset." [emphasis added]

I haven't the foggiest idea what Pat Roberts is talking about here. He's complaining that the president cares too much about the substance of the discussion? That Obama should be less "serious"?

What?

Look, I know Pat Roberts isn't an especially profound senator, but he should at least appreciate the larger situation. President Obama is leading in a time of multiple generational crises, all of which he inherited from a failed Republican administration. While trying to clean up the mess, Senate Republicans have opposed everything -- usually just for the sake of opposing -- and taken institutional obstructionism to scandalous levels, without precedent in American history. On most of the major policy challenges, the same Senate Republican caucus has not only blocked reasonable proposals, it's also spent a fair amount of time blatantly and shamelessly lying.

No compromise, no good faith negotiations, no willingness to meet in the middle, no understanding that elections have consequences. This is the m.o. of the Senate Republican caucus for the last 16 months, no matter how much effort the White House invested in pointless "bipartisanship." I can see why Obama might feel a little aggravated when talking to a group that helped create the mess, refuses to help clean up, and spends every waking moment attacking him for the way he's tending to their mess.

So, when the president and this caucus get together for a chat, some heated exchanges are to be expected. But we can do without the frequently confused senior senator from Kansas encouraging the chief executive to "take a valium" and not take matters "so seriously."

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... We talked yesterday about former Nevada state Rep. Sharron Angle, a leading Republican candidate in the race to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D). Angle, who enjoys the enthusiastic support of the Tea Party crowd, has some unorthodox views about a wide variety of issues.

Here, for example, is Angle reflecting on her childhood:

"We moved to the state of Nevada when I was three-and-a-half. My father bought a small business out in front of the convention center in Reno -- and it wasn't a convention center then; it was an onion field. But his small business was a motel. And so we did those things as a kid growing up that Americans don't do. We cleaned bathrooms and made beds and swept floors, did laundry, those kinds of things." [emphasis added]

In my experience, Americans clean bathrooms, make beds, sweep floors, and do laundry all the time, even in motels.

For the record, the video in which Angle makes the remarks wasn't captured by some tracker hoping to embarrass the far-right candidate -- it was posted to YouTube by the Angle campaign.

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THE ARC OF HISTORY BENDS JUST A LITTLE MORE.... Public attitudes about the LGBT community have, slowly but surely, grown more progressive in recent decades. Tolerance and respect had nowhere to go but up, but attitudes have improved. With that in mind, a new Gallup poll is not only encouraging, it points to something of a breakthrough.

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Asked about gay and lesbian relations, a majority of Americans, for the first time ever, believes the relations are morally acceptable. The number currently stands at 52%, an all-time high, while 43% consider the relations "morally wrong," an all-time low.

To be sure, I'd prefer to see these numbers split 100% to zero. That 43% of Americans, in the 21st century, consider gay and lesbian relations immoral is embarrassing for the country. But it's hard not to feel encouraged by the clear and obvious trend in the right direction. What's more, much to the religious right's chagrin, there's no reason to think these numbers will ever reverse course.

We do, however, still have plenty of room for improvement. A narrow majority (53%) still opposes gay marriage, but 58% believe gay and lesbian relations should be legal. That, again, may sound painfully low, but that support has nearly doubled nationwide since the Reagan era.

Summarizing its findings, Gallup concluded that a "gradual cultural shift under way in Americans' views toward gay individuals and gay rights. While public attitudes haven't moved consistently in gays' and lesbians' favor every year, the general trend is clearly in that direction."

With each passing year, Republicans' ability to use LGBT issues as a divisive wedge gets a little more difficult. Good.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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KRISTOL'S SELECTIVE EDITING.... The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol mocked a quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from a speech she delivered last weekend to a group of artists. Here's how Kristol reported it:

"We see [health care reform as] a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You won't have to be job-locked."

Kristol used this to make an obtuse point about Marxism.

But people, of course, don't speak in brackets. Jon Chait, who has noticed Kristol distorting Pelosi quotes before, had the good sense to check the original to see how the Weekly Standard editor changed the wording. What did Pelosi actually say?

"We see it as an entrepreneurial bill -- a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative..."

This is a pretty significant difference. Kristol's version, which deliberately edited out the notion of the entrepreneurialism in the Affordable Care Act, makes it seem as if Pelosi is talking about Americans leaving the workforce to become bohemians.

But that badly misses the point, and through creative editing, Kristol is misleading his readers. Pelosi's point is an important one -- the existing health care system makes it extremely difficult for many Americans to start small businesses. They can't give up the health coverage from one job, and can't afford the premiums if they start their own enterprise.

This isn't just limited to those who want to be artists. Americans who have an idea for a tech start-up, or a pizza parlor, or a blog are all in the same boat -- they want to take a chance on a new idea, but frequently find that they can't because of the broken health care system.

The Affordable Care Act changes this, and encourages the American entrepreneurial spirit. If Kristol disagrees, he can make his case. But creative editing is unprofessional and dishonest.

Chait added:

Democrats are not, of course, proposing to provide some kind of welfare dole to individuals who wish to create art rather than work. Musician and artist, Kristol may be interested to learn, are actual job categories. And Pelosi was speaking to musicians and artists, so her emphasis on that category of self-employed businessperson is perfectly sensible.

Of course, one reason Kristol made this line the centerpiece of a Standard editorial is that artists and musicians are a prime example of the class of people who are Not Real Americans. Kristol never loses an opportunity to employ the classic trope of communist propaganda, embraced by neoconservatives on their journey from far left to far right, of painting liberals as coastal cosmopolitans, intellectuals, and other untrustworthy categories.


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THE BOEHNER BAILOUT.... The House Republicans' "America Speaking Out" project was, as promised unveiled this morning at a glitzy event in D.C. Because Republicans are asking American taxpayers to finance the initiative, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) maintained the facade -- the project intended to help the GOP create its campaign agenda has nothing to do with the campaign.

House Minority Leader Boehner told reporters that the site was paid for out of members' personal budgets, and that it was not intended as a campaign program. The GOP has faced criticism from Democrats who say the House GOP is using public funds for campaign activity.

Boehner assured skeptical reporters that the GOP will likely roll out an agenda for the next Congress a la the 1994 Contract With America, but AmericaSpeakingOut.com is not it.

"Apart from this, Republicans are in discussions to present our plans for the future," he said. Boehner said that the new project and those discussions are "very separate."

Yes, of course. Why would anyone think otherwise? All we have here is a Republican election-year initiative, billed as a way to shape the Republican agenda, and used to produce a platform that will be released in September -- too late to be considered this year, and just in time for the midterm elections.

But this has nothing to do with the campaign cycle. Heaven forbid.

Unfortunately for the party, the memo to GOP leaders apparently wasn't explicit enough. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who's spearheaded the "America Speaking Out" project, told ABC News, "There are a number of seats that you get just by being 'no.' But you don't get a majority by just being 'no.' You've got to say what you're for."

I see. So, simultaneously, Republican leaders want us to know that the initiative is not about the elections and that the initiative is about helping Republicans win elections. Got it.

If taxpayers weren't paying for this, it might even be amusing. If Boehner & Co. think a gimmick like this will serve their party well, they really ought to have their party finance it.

Nevertheless, now that the project is underway, and the public is free to get engaged, how's the process going? The early favorite among the proposed idea is "DEFUND, REPEAL, & REPLACE GOVERNMENT-RUN HEALTH CARE." I guess that means "America Speaking Out" intends to get rid of Medicare and the V.A. hospitals?

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THE POINTLESS INTEREST IN THE SESTAK 'JOB OFFER'.... During his Democratic primary fight against Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak claimed the Obama administration had offered him a job in the hopes he'd end his campaign. I'm still not exactly sure what point Sestak hoped to make -- that he's immune to pressure, perhaps? -- but Republicans seized on the claim as potentially scandalous.

As foolish as this may be, the GOP is genuinely excited about this. Karl Rove told Fox News last night that the job offer may have been illegal, because the law "prohibits a federal official from interfering -- a government employee -- with the nomination or election for office." Fox News' "Fox & Friends" openly speculated this morning -- without a hint of humor -- about whether the job offer may have been an "impeachable offense."

Now, predictably, real outlets are also starting to take this seriously, including the editorial board of the Washington Post. It was also a topic of conversation on the Sunday shows.

So, is there anything to this? Not really. To even call this a "controversy" is to define the term down to the point of meaninglessness.

First, the job that was reportedly offered to Sestak was a chance at becoming the secretary of the Navy. We know for sure that this isn't true; the timeline of events proves it.

Second, the allegation at the root of the story is itself largely meaningless.

"People offer members of Congress things all the time," Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and now the executive director of the liberal government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told CNSNews.com. "I don't think there is any issue. I don't see the crime." [...]

If it is true, such a trade would be an indictment of the system, Sloan of CREW said, but not likely illegal.

"A quid pro quo has to offer something of value in exchange for something," Sloan said. "If you agree not to run for the Senate and we'll make you secretary of the Navy -- that offers no monetary value. It's just the unseemly side of politics."

Third, to me, it hardly even reaches the level of being "unseemly," given how exceedingly common and routine occurrences like these are. Every White House for decades -- even Ronaldus Magnus -- intervened in key elections and used possible job opportunities when negotiating with candidates. Literally criminalizing politics is ridiculous, even by contemporary Republican standards.

But of particular interest is Karl Rove's whining. If White House intervention in an election is illegal, Rove should prepare for a life sentence.

Indeed, as Satyam Khanna noted, "No one expects much from Fox, but could they have brought on a worse messenger to argue that the federal government should keep its hands out of elections? Remember GSA chief Lurita 'cookies on the table' Doan and Rove's powerpoint? The U.S. Attorney scandal? That whole year-long investigation into the Bush White House's political activities? The list is endless. I guess all those guys should have been fined or thrown in the slammer."

Move along. When it comes to the Sestak allegations, there's really nothing to see here.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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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.

* To the delight of the NRSC, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) has agreed to run against Sen. Patty Murray (D) in Washington this year. Rossi, who is best known for losing two close gubernatorial races in 2004 and 2008, has already hired a former Dick Armey aide to help run his campaign. Initial polling shows Murray with a narrow lead.

* The Service Employees International Union is enlisting a candidate to take on Rep. Larry Kissell (D), a Blue Dog from North Carolina, this year. The SEIU has already "privately reached out to Wendell Fant, an Iraq War vet, who used to work for Kissell, and is now in the process of collecting signatures to get him on the ballot as an independent."

* The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows Gov. Rick Perry (R) up by nine in his re-election fight against Houston Mayor Bill White (D), 44% to 35%.

* A new SurveyUSA poll in California shows Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman with comfortable leads in their respective Senate and gubernatorial Republican primaries.

* Despite finishing third in the special election in Hawaii's 1st, former Rep. Ed Case (D) fully intends to try again in November. This time, he'll likely face state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa in a primary.

* The latest Siena poll in New York shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), slowly but surely, building a strong base of support.

* In Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) picked up an endorsement for his Senate bid from the Florida AFL-CIO, but he'll share an endorsement from the Florida Education Association with Gov. Charlie Crist (I).

* In related news, Crist is facing a lawsuit from the Talking Heads' David Byrne for using "Road to Nowhere" without permission or proper licenses.

* In Alabama, a Research 2000 poll shows Rep. Artur Davis (D) and Bradley Byrne (R), the chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, leading their respective gubernatorial primaries.

* And in Colorado, Tom Wiens (R) ended his Senate campaign, throwing his support to the Tea Party-backed Ken Buck.

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'JAM THROUGH' MAKES A COMEBACK.... Throughout the debate on health care reform, Republicans would routinely complain that if lawmakers voted to pass legislation they approved of, it was evidence of "jamming through" bills.

The odd phrase is back.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lamented on Tuesday what he said were efforts to "jam through" a repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he welcomed a review of the military's prohibition on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers, but was chilly toward a deal struck by congressional Democrats and the White House on a roadmap to abolish the policy.

"This 'Don't ask, don't tell' issue, they're going to try to jam that through without even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be," McCain said on KBLU radio in Arizona.

In the abstract, McCain's credibility on the issue is already non-existent. The senator publicly assured voters that he would reverse course on DADT "the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy.'" That happened in February, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told McCain it's time to end the policy. McCain not only ignored them, he also questioned their integrity.

But putting that aside, McCain's complaints are rather foolish on substantive grounds. For one thing, when lawmakers approve a measure by voting for it, this isn't an example of trying to "jam through" legislation. By McCain's reasoning, literally every vote in Congress is evidence of the majority trying to "jam" something through.

For another, the notion that policymakers aren't "even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be" suggests McCain isn't paying attention to current events. Thanks to multiple congressional hearings, lawmakers should already be well aware of the expected impact of the new policy. What's more, as part of the agreement reached yesterday, implementation of the DADT repeal would be delayed until after the Pentagon review is complete in December, and even then, would take effect only after the administration concluded that the new policy will not adversely affect military readiness, recruitment, and retention.

Does McCain not understand what that means? Or is he just appearing on radio shows, talking about subjects without getting his facts straight?

In the meantime, a new CNN poll shows support for DADT repeal at a whopping 78% of the public. CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said support for the Democratic proposal "is widespread, even among Republicans."

I guess they haven't heard the powerful and persuasive "jam through" talking point yet?

Update: In related news, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who wanted Congress to wait until after the December review was published, "can accept" the agreement reached by Democratic policymakers yesterday.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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CONNECTICUT OFFERS A SIGN OF THE TIMES.... At first blush, Rob Simmons looked like a very strong Senate candidate in Connecticut. A retired Army Colonel and fairly moderate, former three-term House member, Simmons kicked off his Senate bid last year and appeared very competitive. Democrats had reason to worry.

This morning, however, Simmons is done, effectively ending his campaign rather than fight an uphill primary battle against former wrestling executive Linda McMahon.

Simmons made the announcement on WXLM-FM in New London, but he stopped short of definitively saying he was dropping out of the race. He said he was releasing all his staff, ceasing fundraising and would no longer issue news releases.

Simmons planned an announcement later Tuesday morning. A Republican with knowledge of Simmons' plans told The Associated Press that Simmons is expected to withdraw from the race.

"I will no longer be campaigning," Simmons said during the radio interview.

As campaign developments go, this one is tough to understand. Indeed, after last week's controversy over state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's (D) rhetoric about his military service, Simmons would presumably be an even stronger candidate -- he's a decorated Vietnam vet.

So, why would Connecticut Republicans push aside the war hero with a track record of winning congressional elections, in favor of an inexperienced candidate best known for helping run a controversial wrestling company?

Part of it came down to ideology. Simmons had a moderate voting record, while McMahon, now the likely GOP nominee, embraced a far-right, Tea Party platform. For some Connecticut primary voters, Simmons may have been the stronger choice in November, and he tried to pretend to be as conservative as the party base is, but he just wasn't right-wing enough.

And then there's the money -- McMahon's lucrative wrestling business made her extremely wealthy, and she committed $50 million of her own money on the campaign. Simmons couldn't keep up, so he's quitting.

If the purported Republican "wave" fails to materialize in the midterm elections, it will have something to do with bizarre Republican electoral decisions like this one.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MMS MANAGES TO LOOK EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS.... That the Minerals Management Service, the agency within the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling, was farcical during the Bush/Cheney era isn't exactly a new revelation. MMS became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history, embracing an anything-goes atmosphere that led to literally Caligula-like corruption and debauchery -- including federal officials trading cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts.

But as the BP oil spill disaster gets worse every day, and scrutiny of the scandal-plagued agency intensifies, new details make the Minerals Management Service look even more ridiculous.

Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil — and then turned them over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency, according to an inspector general's report to be released this week. [...]

The report includes other examples of troubling behavior discovered by investigators. In mid-2008, a minerals agency employee conducted four inspections on drilling platforms when he was also negotiating a job with the drilling company, a cover letter to the report said.

And an inspector from the Lake Charles office admitted to investigators that he had used crystal methamphetamine, an illegal drug. Investigators said they believe the inspector may have been under the influence of the drug during an inspection.

The department's acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall, emphasized that all of the misconduct occurred before the Obama administration took office in January 2009. The Interior Department's efforts to clean up the MMS have been ongoing, and the agency's ethics code was overhauled soon after the transition between administrations.

Also today, the Washington Post reports that MMS officials "repeatedly ignored warnings from government scientists about environmental risks in its push to approve energy exploration activities quickly." Documents also show that the department "frequently changed documents and bypassed legal requirements aimed at protecting the marine environment."

We'll be dealing with the consequences for a very long time.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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AMERICA SPEAKING OUT -- WITH AMERICA FOOTING THE BILL.... Sixteen years ago, House Republicans put together the "Contract With America" based on polls and focus groups. This year, House GOP leaders are launching the "America Speaking Out" project, in the hopes of crafting a new "contract" based on public feedback and interactive social media.

The biggest difference, however, is that this time, American taxpayers are being asked to finance the partisan initiative.

Republican officials will kick off the project with an event in D.C. this morning, and it's been described, accurately, as an initiative intended to help the GOP craft "a set of policy items that Republicans would pursue if they won back control of the House in November."

When asked about this yesterday, GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) was vague about financing. "'America Speaking Out' is not a project of the political" campaign arm, Pence said, reluctant to go into further detail.

Now we know why. Republicans are claiming that the project will be kept separate from their campaign committees, and can therefore be financed by taxpayers.

Congressional scholar Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it is not credible to say the agenda is not intended for the 2010 campaign cycle.

"Its only purpose is as a campaign document," Mann said in an e-mail. "They are in no position to shape policy before the election. It is a defensive move, to deal with the criticism that they are the party of 'no.'"

But Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said Republicans have to maintain that the document is not meant for the campaign trail, even if it is only a charade. "If they don't, they are in danger of using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes," she said.

But given what Republicans have already stated publicly, the notion that the "America Speaking Out" project isn't intended for the midterm elections is ridiculous.

This isn't even thinly veiled -- the partisan, campaign-related function is as plain as day.

House Republicans will unveil on Tuesday a Web site they will use to solicit policy ideas from the public, the first step in the development of a platform that they will present to voters this fall. [...]

The Web site formally starts the GOP's process of touting its own vision and policies to voters, after spending most of the last 16 months bashing President Obama and congressional Democrats.

And Republicans, aware that some of the anti-Washington fervor among the public is aimed at both parties, don't want to simply put out a formal agenda without buy-in from voters, particularly conservatives. So, along with the site, House Republicans will hold town hall meetings around the country starting next week. They want to use this process to get ideas for the "Contract With America"-style policy document they are set to release closer to the election, which would list principles and proposals that Republicans would adopt if they won control of the House.

Keep in mind just how transparently silly the argument is. Republicans will argue that all of this -- the website, the social media, the town-hall events, and the document to be released in September -- has nothing to do with the party's campaign efforts in the fall. They have to maintain this fiction with a straight face, in order to justify use of our money to pay for the effort.

This probably isn't the ideal way for the GOP to prove it can be trusted to spend the public's money wisely.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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WHEN RAND PAUL PUTS OTHERS ON THE SPOT.... One of the main downsides to a national controversy over the beliefs of a high-profile candidate: other candidates start fielding questions about their takes on the matter.

Last week, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul articulated his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as part of his larger extremist ideology. But given the controversy it generated, it was only a matter of time before Republicans elsewhere started feeling the heat, too.

In Nevada, Sue Lowden, the controversial GOP Senate hopeful, spoke to Politico yesterday, and refused initially to talk about her health care views. When the discussion turned to Paul, she refused to talk about that, too.

At the end of the interview, Lowden declined to discuss whether she shared Paul's views on the Civil Rights Act.

"You can't resist this, can you? I have no idea what another candidate says," Lowden said.

Asked whether she had any concerns about the law's reach into private business, Lowden said, "I'm going, thank you," then abruptly hung up the phone.

In Kentucky, Republican congressional candidate Andy Barr was less rude, but no more forthcoming when asked whether he agrees with Paul's worldview.

"Well, we'll, we'll, we'll certainly answer those questions later on."

At that point, Barr walked away, rather than continue the discussion.

A couple of things to consider moving forward. First, these questions are likely to continue. Republican campaigns would probably be wise to come up with a stock answer to the inquiries.

Second, coming up with that answer should be pretty easy. For crying out loud, we're talking about the Civil Rights Act and the ADA. I realize the Republican Party has shifted aggressively to the hard-right, but in the 21st century, even in contemporary GOP politics, there's nothing wrong with a Republican candidate endorsing some of the bedrock legislation of modern America.

"I support the Civil Rights Act of 1964." How hard is that to say?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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DEAL IN PLACE FOR DADT REPEAL.... The effort to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy faced a challenge that put success at risk. The White House supported repeal, but was deferring to the Pentagon on timetables and implementation. The Pentagon supported repeal, but wanted to wait until after a review was complete in December. Congressional Democrats supported repeal, but were reluctant to move forward without the administration's endorsement. Worse, waiting until after the elections was a recipe for almost certain failure.

Yesterday, leading Democratic policymakers worked out the details of a breakthrough deal, and it appears that repeal is finally on track.

President Obama has endorsed a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military's policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1.

In a letter to lawmakers pushing for a legislative repeal, White House budget director Peter Orszag wrote Monday that the administration "supports the proposed amendment."

Giving the effort an added boost, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced his endorsement of the agreement, as well.

As part of the deal, implementation would be delayed until after the Pentagon review is complete in December, and even then, would take effect after the administration concluded that the new policy will not adversely affect military readiness, recruitment, and retention.

Gay rights groups, which have been aggressive in urging DADT's repeal, are on board with the agreement. The Human Rights Campaign hailed the deal, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network announced that it is "enthusiastically" urging members of Congress to support it.

The only variable at this point happens to be the most important one: it's still "not clear whether the deal had secured the votes necessary to pass the House and Senate." Efforts to convince wavering Dems, most notably some Democratic moderates on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are continuing apace. The agreement is in place, but no one should assume that passage is a foregone conclusion.

We're likely to see votes as early as Thursday. With support from the White House, the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Democratic leadership in both chambers, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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May 24, 2010

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

* With tensions escalating quickly, South Korea is ending nearly all trade with North Korea, and blocking North Korean merchant ships access to South Korean shipping lanes.

* Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described U.S. support of South Korea as "unequivocal," and announced that the American military and South Korean forces would initiate joint military exercises.

* Yemen: "Yemeni tribesmen kidnapped two American tourists, a man and a woman, Monday morning outside the capital city of Sana, the American Embassy in Yemen confirmed on Monday." The kidnappers are reportedly seeking the release of an imprisoned ally.

* Construction gains: "The drills, saws and sanders that fell silent during the economic slowdown are beginning to whir again. For the first time in years, U.S. builders are hiring laborers. The nation's construction industry added 14,000 jobs nationwide in April, according to the Labor Department, marking the first back-to-back monthly gains in that sector since 2006."

* Housing gains: "Homebuyers rushed to take advantage of government incentives and low mortgage rates in April, giving the housing market its biggest boost in five months."

* The Kandahar operation: "The Obama administration's campaign to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan's second-largest city is a go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will succeed."

* Texas gubernatorial hopeful, Houston Mayor Bill White (D), will, if elected, try to undo the damage done to the state curriculum by the Texas Board of Education.

* There were many predictions that the Great Recession would lead to an increase in crime rates. The opposite occurred.

* Bagram: "A federal appeals court ruled Friday that three men who had been detained by the United States military for years without trial in Afghanistan had no recourse to American courts. The decision was a broad victory for the Obama administration in its efforts to hold terrorism suspects overseas for indefinite periods without judicial oversight."

* Ron Chusid sets Arthur C. Brooks straight.

* Fox News' on-air news team probably shouldn't use the word "we" when talking about Republicans, at least if the network intends to keep up appearances.

* Can a college's emphasis on research prestige actually undermine undergraduate education?

* I have no idea why anyone at a major news outlet would find the crossing of Elena Kagan's legs interesting.

* Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's wife apparently calls him "Mr. Clueless." She's referring to his familiarity with technology, but I kind of like the broader applicability of the label.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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GIMMICK #3.... If the House Republican leadership invested as much energy into learning public policy as it did into coming up with new political gimmicks, they might be more effective lawmakers.

The first gimmick was the National Council for a New America, spearheaded by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), which would engage the nation in a dialog about Republican ideas. The project organized an outside-the-Beltway event, which just happened to be inside the Beltway. Despite having been launched to significant fanfare, the NCNA was unceremoniously scrapped.

The second was the YouCut project. Here, Republicans pick government programs they don't like, and invite the public to vote on which one they want to see eliminated. GOP lawmakers then try to cut the "winning" program, responding to public demand. The YouCut website garnered a fair amount of traffic, but the project ended up targeting a bipartisan jobs program, which made the whole initiative look rather foolish.

Which brings us to Gimmick #3.

House GOP leaders have planned a high-profile event at Washington D.C.'s Newseum Tuesday morning to launch the start of their "America Speaking Out" project.

Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is in charge of the initiative to result in the release of a set of policy items that Republicans would pursue if they won back control of the House in November.

According to officials involved in the effort, "America Speaking Out" will focus on gathering feedback from Americans on what items that lawmakers should be focusing on in the future.

GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) touted the project, but was oddly cryptic about which arm of the party was sponsoring it.

In any case, all things considered, this might be the least compelling gimmick so far. Democrats have been arguing for quite a while that Republicans are effectively out of ideas and have no meaningful policy agenda to speak of. The "America Speaking Out" project seems to be the GOP leadership's way of saying, "We're hoping the public will help us figure out what we think and what we want to do." Indeed, the materials announcing the initiative specifically say they want Americans to help the Republican leadership "develop a new governing agenda."

I can appreciate bottom-up politics as much as the next guy, but less than six months before national elections, the party that intends to take the majority needs help from the public figuring out its own agenda?

This is about the time in the process in which voters turn to the parties and candidates and say, "Tell me more about your priorities and principles." Under this new initiative, the Republican response seems to be, "You tell us."

Fewer gimmicks, please.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CHRIS CHRISTIE AND HINTS OF WHAT'S TO COME.... We talked earlier about the fact that the Republican agenda is clear -- cut spending, reduce the size of government, cut taxes -- but the details remain elusive. We don't know what the GOP would cut, or by how much, or who would be affected. We don't which taxes the GOP would cut, or by how much, or to whose benefit. The details matter.

Reader L.G. reminds me, however, that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), just four months into office, is offering a blueprint of the kind of decisions we might see mirrored in D.C. in the event of a Republican takeover. In particular, Christie is slashing spending on everything from schools to first responders to mass transit to health care.

Republicans and their allies are giddy over Christie's budget ax. A fair number of his constituents are less impressed.

More than 30,000 angry New Jersey residents marched to the state capitol Saturday, delivering a blistering message to the governor in an effort to protect their turf and their paychecks.

At times resembling both a rock concert and a pep rally, more than 30,000 union employees and community activists gathered for a massive protest at the capitol to blast the governor.

Lately, it seems the only people taking to the streets are those who want to increase the burdens on working families. It's nice to see the opposite, for a change.

Indeed, Eric Boehlert reminds us that the "conservative Woodstock" in Nevada in March drew a whopping 10,000 people, and the media covered it extensively. "That massive NJ crowd blows away the turnout for virtually every state-run Tea Party rally held over the last year," Boehlert noted. But don't tell reporters, many of whom seem convinced that the Tea Party movement remains hugely important and growing by the day."

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DID VAUGHN WARD THINK NO ONE WOULD NOTICE?.... In Idaho, Vaughn Ward is running for the Republican nomination in Idaho's 1st House district, and has received a fair amount of support from prominent right-wing voices. On Friday, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Fox News) even made a campaign appearance with him.

But Ward is quickly becoming one of the year's most embarrassing candidates.

Idaho Republican Vaughn Ward has already come under fire for mimicking other candidates' policy language on his website, but now the congressional candidate is facing accusations of plagiarizing from another source: President Barack Obama.

In a kickoff speech for his campaign in January, Ward used language that closely followed Obama's 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, and a conservative Idaho blog spliced together the two sets of remarks to show their similarities, accusing Ward of cribbing from Obama's remarks.

After watching the video released by a local far-right activist, it's hard to deny the fact that parts of Ward's speech were lifted directly, word for word, from Obama's 2004 speech. In fact, it seems more than a little bizarre that Ward and his campaign would assume no one would notice -- that '04 convention speech was pretty widely seen. Someone was bound to think, "Wait, that sounds kind of familiar."

In response, a Ward campaign spokesperson responded, "If anyone thinks he's anything like Obama, they're dead wrong." Of course, that's not the point -- the question here is why Ward's kickoff speech lifted whole sentences out of Obama's six-year-old convention speech.

What's more, Ward seems to keep running into trouble. Last week, he was asked in a debate whether he would vote in Congress to support Puerto Rican statehood, Ward said he opposes "extending statehood to some, to any other country," adding that he doesn't care "what country ... wants to become part of America." Told that Puerto Rico is an American territory, not a foreign country, Ward said, "I really don't care what it is."

Ward was also reprimanded last month for violating military protocol when he gave the impression that the U.S. Marine Corps was supporting his campaign.

And just to add insult to injury, Ward's published positions on a variety of issues were found to have been "borrowed," again word for word, from other campaign websites without attribution. (thanks to J.E. for the tip)

Where does the party find these guys?

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

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RNC FUNDRAISING ANXIETY GROWS MORE INTENSE.... Since Michael Steele took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee, the party's budgetary decisions have been the subject of widespread consternation, intensified by the fact that RNC fundraising has fallen far short of expectations.

These concerns have escalated in recent months, in light of expense reports pointing to unnecessary spending on private planes, limousines, catering, flowers, softball equipment, and an outing at lesbian-themed bondage nightclub.

A CNN report this afternoon will likely raise the anxiety levels among Republicans to new heights.

An internal Republican National Committee document obtained by CNN paints a damning picture of the committee's financial standing compared to the past five election cycles.

The document, pulled together during a recent review sparked by concerns over RNC spending practices, said the committee had $12.5 million in cash on hand at the end of April.

By comparison, the average cash on hand at the end of April from 2002-2009 was $40.4 million. And that average includes the odd numbered years when there are fewer election contests.

Looking only at even-numbered years, this year's $12.5 million end of April COH is less than one-third the amount the RNC had on hand on April 30 for the 2002 ($47 million) and the 2006 ($44.6 million) midterms.

Republicans clearly believe 2010 represents a unique opportunity to elect a slew of right-wing candidates, and possibly even take control of Congress. But the fear within the party has been that the RNC would lack the resources necessary to take advantage of the opportunity. Those fears appear justified.

Indeed, the underlying message is a bit of a disaster -- while arguing that the GOP is best suited to manage the nation's books effectively, the GOP's national party is failing to manage their own books effectively.

There is, however, a catch, which should bring some comfort to the Republican base -- as donors have moved away from the RNC, at least in part due to a lack of confidence in the party's humiliating chairman, they haven't stopped donating altogether. Fundraising at the NRCC and NSCC has been strong, as have the totals from the Republican Governors Association.

And that's just the official party entities. Karl Rove is helping orchestrate a new Republican fundraising/mobilization machine, with vast amounts of money from far-right supporters.

Still, the RNC is supposed to lead the Republican charge, especially in a key election year. At this point, it's struggling -- with money, staff, message, and relevance.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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WHITE HOUSE GETS INVOLVED IN ADVANCE OF DADT REPEAL VOTE.... It's a big week for the effort to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and the outcome of the dispute remains uncertain.

Key votes pending in Congress this week on whether to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law that prohibits openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military remain too close to call, advocates on both sides say.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to vote by the end of the week on an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would end "don't ask, don't tell," which Congress passed in 1993. Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) favors a repeal, but it is unclear whether he has enough votes, with six senators on the panel considered undecided, legislative sources said.

The House is expected to vote on a similar measure this week, based on a repeal proposal sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran. The House Armed Services Committee declined to act on Murphy's bill in passing its version of the defense spending measure last week, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has told gay advocacy groups that she will allow a floor vote if there is enough support in favor of a repeal.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called this an "'all hands on deck' moment," adding, "For repeal to succeed, it is critical that all proponents for full repeal weigh in now, including the White House. We are only a few days away from this historic vote."

There have been rumors about increasing engagement on this issue from the Obama administration, and The Advocate reports that there were concurrent meetings this morning at the White House and on Capitol Hill that "could help clear the way" for a deal that would add a repeal provision to the upcoming defense appropriations bill.

According to one person familiar with the White House meeting, the proposal that is being considered would repeal the current statute this year, but implementation of repeal would not take place until after completion of the Pentagon's working group study in December. Further, repeal would require certification from President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen that the new law will not have a negative impact on readiness, recruitment, retention and other key factors that affect the military.

We may see an S.A.P. (Statement of Administration Policy) on this as early as tomorrow, which would give the effort another added boost.

At this point, the scuttlebutt seems encouraging, but it's safe to assume the lobbying efforts -- including constituents reaching out to lawmakers -- will be fairly intense this week, especially when it comes to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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BLAME WHERE BLAME IS DUE.... The headline on the Politico was no doubt meant to be provocative: "Obama campaigns against Bush -- again." The lede delivers the message that Republicans and much of the media establishment will no doubt embrace.

President Barack Obama is trying to ride the wave of anti-incumbency by taking on an unpopular politician steeped in the partisan ways of Washington.

It doesn't matter that George W. Bush left office 16 months ago.

The White House's mid-term election strategy is becoming clear -- pit the Democrats of 2010 against the Republicans circa 2006, 2008 and 2009, including Bush.

It's a lot to ask an angry, finicky electorate to sort out. And even if Obama can rightfully make the case that the economy took a turn for the worse under Bush's watch, he's already made it -- in 2008 and repeatedly in 2009.

It's not clear that voters still want to hear it.

Let's unpack this a bit, because I feel like we run into this analysis quite a bit, and it seems pretty misguided, despite its ubiquity.

First, the notion that Obama is campaigning against Bush is itself dubious. Indeed, I think it's backwards -- many Dems wish the president invested far more time in blaming his failed predecessor, not less. Looking through the entire 1,300-word Politico piece, how many examples are there of Obama "taking on" Bush/Cheney? Zero.

There was room for eight separate sources complaining about Obama blaming Bush for Bush's spectacular failures, but there wasn't room for some evidence to bolster the premise of the argument? Maybe that's because the trend isn't as common as we're supposed to believe.

Second, while it may not be clear what voters "still want to hear," it's worth noting that several recent polls continue to hold Bush far more responsible than Obama for the ongoing mess(es) the president inherited last year.

And third, there's the small matter of reality. Bush really is responsible for the ditch we're slowly crawling out of. The inconvenience of this detail does not undermine its accuracy. As Paul Krugman explained, "To demand that everyone let Bush off the hook for where we are now because 16 months have passed under his successor is to defy the overwhelming evidence of history."

Jon Chait concluded, "What's false is the Republican effort to imply that Obama caused the problems -- an argument that collapses upon the slightest empirical pressure. But somehow the standard here is not what's correct but what's polite, and it's impolite for Obama to blame Bush."

It's quite a scam.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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.

* Following a week of criticism, Connecticut Attorney General and Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal (D) apologized for having used misleading rhetoric about his military service. He told the Hartford Courant, "I have made mistakes and I am sorry. I truly regret offending anyone."

* As expected, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) launched his gubernatorial campaign on Saturday. A new Siena poll already shows him with enormous leads over his GOP challengers.

* A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll released over the weekend shows Gov. Charlie Crist's (I) departure from the Republican Party continuing to help his Senate prospects. Crist currently leads in the three-way match-up with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio (R) at 27%. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) is running third with 15%. (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

* Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon (R) won her state party's endorsement in the Connecticut Senate race. Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), the one-time favorite, had said he would drop out of the race if he didn't receive the state GOP's nod at the convention. He's since changed his mind, and will take on McMahon in a primary.

* Colorado's major parties held their party conventions over the weekend. On the Republican side, Weld County Prosecutor Ken Buck came out on top, though former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton skipped the convention and plans to petition her way onto the primary ballot. Among Dems, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff defeated appointed Sen. Michael Bennet.

* Karl Rove began offering Rand Paul's Senate campaign in Kentucky some strategic/media advice last week.

* In a surprise move, Dick Leinenkugel ended his Republican Senate campaign in Wisconsin yesterday, just a month after getting started. Leinenkugel threw his support to businessman Ron Johnson, who kicked off his campaign after being inspired by a Dick Morris appearance on Fox News.

* The latest Research 2000 poll in California shows former Rep. Tom Campbell leading Carly Fiorina in the GOP Senate primary, 37% to 22%. The same poll shows Meg Whitman still leading the GOP gubernatorial primary over Steve Poizner, but the margin has shrunk from 33 points to 10.

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

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THE INFLUENCE OF OIL COMPANY DONATIONS As part of the Republican efforts to blame the White House for the BP oil spill disaster, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) appeared on Fox News yesterday to share a conspiracy theory of sorts.

"I don't know why the question isn't asked by the mainstream media and by others if there is any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration, and the support by the oil companies to the administration," Palin said, "If there is any connection there to President Obama taking so dog-gone long to get in there and dive in there and grasp the complexity and the potential tragedy that we are seeing here in the Gulf of Mexico."

Let's just pause a moment to appreciate the humor in the dimwitted Fox News personality accusing anyone of failing to "grasp the complexity" of anything.

Soon after, "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the accusation. "I'm almost sure that the oil companies don't consider the Obama administration a huge ally," Gibbs noted, adding that Palin should probably "get slightly more informed as to what's going on."

But in case anyone's inclined to take the substance (I use the word loosely) of Palin's nonsense seriously, the Wall Street Journal had a worthwhile report.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans receive far more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than do Democrats.

So far in 2010, the oil and gas industries have contributed $12.8 million to all candidates, with 71% of that money going to Republicans. During the 2008 election cycle, 77% of the industry's $35.6 million in contributions went to Republicans, and in the 2008 presidential contest, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain received more than twice as much money from the oil and gas industries as Obama: McCain collected $2.4 million; Obama, $898,000.

This is a decades-long trend, the center says: Since 1990, oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties, with 75% of the money going to Republicans.

To borrow Palin's phrase, does she wonder if there's any connection between the contributions made to Republican candidates and the Republican Party's support for the oil companies. "I don't know why the question isn't asked by the mainstream media and by others."

What's more, as Ben Armbruster noted, even conservatives seem to think Palin is on the wrong track with this one. Ed Morrissey warned Republicans not to "overplay their hand on this issue."

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE LESSONS OF MARK SOUDER.... It was bad enough when we learned that Mark Souder, the conservative Republican House member from Louisiana Indiana, resigned in disgrace last week because of a sex scandal. Souder was one of Congress' most pious moralists and a close ally of the religious right, making the revelations more potent.

But the story got just a little worse when we learned that Souder had an affair with a part-time aide, with whom he'd recorded a video just six months ago -- all about his tireless work in support of abstinence programs.

Souder, who officially gave up his office on Friday, talked to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, his hometown paper, over the weekend. Reflecting on the video, the Republican didn't sound especially embarrassed. "If some people see this abstinence video, I'm living proof of what we're saying in it," Souder said. "If they actually listen to the words, maybe it's worth it."

Souder may not fully appreciate this, but the abstinence video is now a punch-line, not a serious reflection on the issue. When the two people in the clip engaged in an extra-marital affair after preaching about abstinence, no one's going to take it seriously, nor should they.

E.J. Dionne Jr., meanwhile, notes in his column today that he "took no pleasure in Souder's resignation," having worked with the conservative lawmaker in the past. Despite the columnist disagreeing with Souder on many issues, Dionne said he found him to be "both serious and thoughtful in his approach to religious and political questions."

But Souder's fall from grace, Dionne added, can also serve as a teaching moment to the Christian right.

Enough with dividing the world between moral, family-loving Christians and supposedly permissive, corrupt, family-destroying secularists.

Enough with pretending that personal virtue is connected with political creeds. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, and then insisting upon understanding after the failures of someone on your own side become known to the world. And enough with claiming that support for gay rights and gay marriage is synonymous with opposition to family values and sexual responsibility.

It's not the self-righteousness of religious conservatives that bothers me most. We liberals can be pretty self-righteous, too. It's the refusal to acknowledge that the pressures endangering the family do not come from some dark secular leftist conspiracy but from cultural and economic forces that affect us all.

That's valuable guidance, which the religious right and its allies will no doubt ignore. If they didn't have self-righteous, oblivious moralizing, what would this crowd have left?

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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RAISING THE PROSPECT OF PUSHING BP 'OUT OF THE WAY'.... For a month now, federal officials and BP have been acting as reluctant partners in addressing the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The angle that the administration has pursued has been that the oil company created this mess, so it's inclined to have the oil company take the lead in addressing it*.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, I believe for the first time, raised the specter of removing the ineffective and unreliable company from its role in the response.

"I am angry and I am frustrated that BP has been unable to stop this well from leaking and to stop the pollution from spreading. We are 33 days into this effort and deadline after deadline has been missed," Salazar said at a press conference after meeting with BP officials in Houston.

Salazar noted that officials from the Energy Department and other federal agencies are involved in the effort to end the leak from BP's undersea well and contain the spreading pollution.

BP is the party responsible for the spill, but Salazar did not rule out a federal takeover.

"With respect to the rest of the responses, including keeping the oil from coming near shore and onshore and dealing with those ecological values, BP, again, is the responsible party and is on the hook for doing everything that needs to happen," Salazar said.

"If we find that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately and we'll move forward to make sure that everything is being done to protect the people of the Gulf Coast, the ecological values of the Gulf Coast, and the values of the American people," Salazar added.

The cabinet secretary was not specific as to what would force BP out, but Salazar added that he's "not completely" confident in the oil company's efforts, which is one of the reasons why the administration has so many top officials and departments on hand to oversee the response.

In the meantime, the EPA told BP late last week to start using a less-toxic chemical dispersant to break up the oil in the Gulf. Over the weekend, the company responded, "No." The administration, in turn, is "evaluating all legal options."

As for the next move, the new plan to address the still-gushing oil leak is what's called a "top kill," which involves shooting heavy mud and cement at the breach. That effort will reportedly get underway on Wednesday morning.

* One assumes that if the administration had immediately done the opposite, forcing BP out and putting officials in charge of the entire response, the same conservative Republicans who are complaining now would be howling about a "government takeover," and a heavy-handed federal government wasting tax dollars, when it should leave this to private enterprise.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE OTHER REPUBLICAN IN NEVADA.... As of a couple of months ago, the Senate race in Nevada appeared to be following a predictable trajectory. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was struggling in the polls, and Republicans were rallying around Sue Lowden, a former one-term state senator and the former head of the Nevada Republican Party. The central question of the race was how Reid would close the gap and manage to win re-election.

One chicken and a felonious campaign contribution later, Lowden and Reid have largely switched places. Last week, a survey from Public Policy Polling even found Lowden slipping to second place in the Republican primary, narrowly trailing former state Rep. Sharron Angle.

Perhaps now's a good time to ask, who's Sharron Angle?

Reid campaign spokesman Jon Summers said the majority leader is prepared to run against any possible opponent, but the campaign clearly relishes the thought of taking on Angle -- and claiming Lowden's scalp. Reid's campaign has already cut anti-Angle ads, and its oppo research operation has begun digging into her record.

Democrats are eager to lump Angle together with other tea party candidates across the country -- particularly amid the controversy Rand Paul has created with his comments about the Civil Rights Act.

And they believe an Angle win in the June 8 Nevada GOP primary would give them an appealing national narrative: that the Republicans' November ticket across the country is filled with "extreme" candidates well outside the mainstream of American politics.

On her website -- full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors -- Angle declares: "Like a soldier going to war, I am fighting for my country, the Constitution and a free society."

And as part of this effort, Angle reportedly wants to go to the Senate to fight to privatize Social Security; build nuclear power plants inside Yucca Mountain; eliminate the federal income tax; pull the country out of the United Nations; and allow unlimited campaign contributions. She's also a hard-right culture warrior, backing the far-right line on immigration and supporting bans on nearly all abortions.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, a conservative paper, conducted a survey that identified Angle as the Nevada Assembly's "Worst Member." Twice.

Angle does, however, enjoy the enthusiastic support of right-wing Tea Party activists, and thanks to Lowden's humiliating missteps, now has a credible shot at winning the GOP primary, which is just two weeks away.

The growing optimism at Reid campaign HQ is no accident.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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LAST ONE OUT, TURN OFF THE LIGHTS.... It can't be easy doing working for the human resources department at the Republican National Committee. The turnover is brutal.

RNC Research Director Jeff Berkowitz has left his post, POLITICO has learned, becoming the latest party official to part ways with the national committee.

Berkowitz's departure was made official on Friday but it's unclear if he voluntarily left or was pushed out.

An ally of the oppo man , lamenting the state of the committee, said Berkowitz was asked to leave. RNC spokesman Doug Heye declined to offer details about why the staffer left.

Berkowitz's deputy, Matt Moon, parted ways with the RNC at the same time.

The departures began in earnest about two months ago, shortly after reports of the RNC spending nearly $2,000 in donor money at a nightclub called Voyeur West Hollywood, an establishment where "impromptu bondage and S&M 'scenes'" are "played out on an elevated platform by scantily clad performers throughout the night."

The heads have been rolling ever since, even in departments that had nothing to do with the controversy.

It's been tough to keep track of the staff shake-ups. The party's finance chief and deputy finance director were recently forced out, as were three members of the RNC's communications team. Those announcements came on the heels of departures from the party's chief of staff, a top RNC strategist, and Alex Castellanos, who was brought on to help shape the party's message. All of this has unfolded since late March.

The party may want to consider revolving doors at RNC headquarters.

It's hard to say exactly what's behind all of this. Some of the staffing changes are the result of the embarrassing "Voyeur" story, but other departures are reportedly the consequence of disarray in the main office.

It's quite a professional operation Michael Steele is running.

Update: And just like that, another RNC staffer is gone. This time, it's Elizabeth Saylor, who ran the party's Eagles fundraising program for top donors.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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BE SPECIFIC.... The NYT's Thomas Friedman was part of the roundtable on "Meet the Press" yesterday, and raised a point that doesn't come up nearly often enough.

The columnist noted that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was on the program earlier in the hour talking about cutting government, which, of course, is boilerplate rhetoric.

"Just tell me, 'Which service do you want to take away?'" Friedman asked. "Is it police, fire, Army, you know? I think we -- that's a serious discussion to have, smaller government. But to say we want smaller government, less government intrusion, tell me what you want to take away."

That seems like a reasonable expectation. Indeed, it seems more than fair to think one of the key missing elements of conservative discourse -- specificity -- should be addressed as part of the debate in advance of the midterms.

Speaking in broad strokes, the Republican vision couldn't be any more transparent: cut spending, reduce the size of government, cut taxes. It's only when one gets close that it becomes obvious that these broad strokes have no details. Cut spending where? By how much? Affecting whom? Cut which taxes? At what cost? GOP officials and candidates never quite get around to filling in these gaps, and seem to hope desperately that voters just don't ask.

It's politics by platitude, executed by those who can't be bothered to take public policy seriously. We're still recovering from the last time our elected leaders tried governing this way.

In some ways, it's almost amusing that, less than six months before the elections, no one seems to have the foggiest idea exactly how Republican officials intend to pursue their most sought after goals. The most detailed look we've seen on this front comes by way of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) "YouCut" gimmick, which told us a) GOP officials haven't identified much of anything in the way of waste in the budget; and b) when Republicans eye spending cuts, they have worthwhile programs that work in mind.

"Tell me what you want to take away." I'll look forward to the Republicans' response.

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

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May 23, 2010

YEARS, NOT MONTHS.... When we think about responses to disasters, we tend to consider recovery time frames in weeks and months. The BP oil spill disaster is another animal entirely. (via Atrios)

For those saddened by the scenes of thick oil washing into Louisiana's coastal wetlands a month after the BP oil disaster began, experts on oil spills and the coastal ecosystem have some advice: Get used to it.

The crews mopping up oil on beaches and marsh shorelines this week are fighting just the first of what will probably be a series of rolling skirmishes that will last for months, if not years -- even after the runaway well is finally capped. In fact, the untold millions of gallons of oil already fouling the Gulf off the Louisiana coast could stay in the area for at least a decade, and on the sea floor for more than 100 years. [emphasis added]

Robert Barham, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "I think we're looking at many months of intense activity, but then years of follow-up work.... I've been told by the ocean experts this stuff could hang out there on the bottom of the Gulf for more than 100 years. And as long as it's out there, it can come ashore. We might not see big black waves, but we may be seeing a smaller, but serious problem, for years and years to come."

Meanwhile, the White House announced yesterday the creation of an independent commission to investigate the causes of the disaster, and assess culpability. It will be chaired by former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly.

Also, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told CBS News this morning that the Justice Department is considering criminal charges against those responsible for the spill and has already begun "to gather information on this."

This comes within a week of members of the House Environment and Public Works Committee urging Attorney General Eric Holder to explore whether BP made "false and misleading statements to the federal government regarding its ability to respond to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico."

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Following up on an earlier item, RNC Chairman Michael Steele conceded he's not "comfortable" with Rand Paul's opposition to the Civil Rights Act." It only took him the whole week to say so.

But on ABC's "This Week" earlier, host Jake Tapper asked a related question, which goes beyond the embarrassing chairman's comfort level.

TAPPER: [D]o you condemn that point of view? I mean, where would African-Americans be if the federal government hadn't come in and said, hotels, you have to--

STEELE: Exactly. That's very much a part of the debate back in the '60s, as it is going forward. But the reality of it is, our party has stood four-square behind, you know--

TAPPER: But do you condemn that view?

STEELE: I can't condemn a person's view. That's like, you know, you believe something and I'm going to say, "Well, you know, I'm going to condemn your view of it."

I have no idea what that means. In politics, when a prominent public figure believes something that's wrong, offensive, or insulting, condemnations are a daily occurrence. Michael Steele has condemned Democrats' beliefs every day for a year.

One of Steele's highest-profile statewide candidates this year opposes the Civil Right Act. Steele's not "comfortable" with such extremism, but he's also not prepared to condemn it? Why, because it's "like, you know, Rand Paul believes something"?

Soon after, Steele talked to Fox News, where he explained, "Rand Paul's philosophy got in the way of reality."

Now there's a ringing endorsement. Vote for the Senate candidate who puts philosophy ahead of reality. Brilliant.

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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VOTERS, MOTIVATION, AND THE 'ENTHUSIASM GAP'.... In the abstract, groups of voters are motivated by two forces, which aren't mutually exclusive. Voters can, for example, feel excited about supporting their preferred candidates because those candidates have performed well and delivered on key priorities/promises.

Voters can also feel motivated when they're disgusted by other party's candidates and agenda, and get engaged to prevent those rivals from succeeding.

This year, the Democratic Party really hopes that it can benefit from both. On the one hand, they argue, Democratic policymakers have an impressive list of accomplishments, mirroring the platform they ran on -- economic recovery, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan overhaul, withdrawing troops from Iraq, restoring the nation's global stature, advances on civil rights, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanded stem-cell research, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. On the other hand, the Democratic argument goes, Republicans have moved sharply to the right, and generally act as if the GOP has gone stark raving mad.

It's a recipe for Democratic voter motivation, right? One might think so, but as Frank Rich notes in his column today, "the enthusiasm gap remains real," and it benefits Republicans.

Tea Partiers will turn up at the polls, and not just in Kentucky. Democrats are less energized in part because even now the president has not fully persuaded many liberal populists in his own party that he is on their side. The suspicion lingers that a Wall Street recovery, not job creation, was his highest economic priority upon arriving at a White House staffed with Goldman alumni. No matter how hard the administration tries to sell health care reform and financial reform as part of the nation's economic recovery, these signal achievements remain thin gruel for those out of work.

The unemployment numbers, unlikely to change drastically by November, will have more to say than any of Tuesday's results about what happens on Election Day this year. Yes, the Tea Party is radical, its membership is not enormous, and its race problem is real and troubling. But you can't fight an impassioned opposition merely with legislative actions that may bear fruit in the semi-distant future. If the Democrats can't muster their own compelling response to the populist rage out there, "Randslide" may reside in our political vocabulary long after "Arlen Specter" is leaving "Jeopardy" contestants stumped.

That sounds about right. Democrats have a reasonable pitch -- "We've delivered on a progressive agenda, and Republicans have become radical nutjobs" -- but the party is making it under difficult circumstances and repeating it to an angry electorate.

The midterms are less than six months away. Whether Dems will use them wisely -- sprinting to the finish line and generating excitment among Democratic voters -- remains to be seen.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BLAMING MADDOW FOR RAND PAUL'S EXTREMISM.... This week, Rand Paul explained his opposition to the Civil Rights Act in a variety of media settings. Today, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said it's time to point the finger where it belongs: at Rachel Maddow. After all, the MSNBC host had the nerve to provide Paul with a platform, and then -- get this -- ask the Senate candidate about his stated views on government.

"One thing we can learn in this lesson that I have learned and Rand Paul is learning now is don't assume that you can engage in a hypothetical discussion about constitutional impacts with a reporter or a media personality who has an agenda, who may be prejudiced before they even get into the interview in regards to what your answer may be," Palin said [on "Fox News Sunday"]. "You know, they are looking for the gotcha moment. And that evidently appears to be what they did with Rand Paul, and I'm thankful he clarified his answer about his support for the Civil Rights Act."

Paul sparked several days worth of controversial coverage when he suggested to Maddow that the government had meddled too far into private enterprise in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other legislation.

As a rule, it's pointless to seriously consider arguments from such a conspicuously unintelligent person. But Palin isn't the only one to suggest this week that it's somehow Rachel's fault that Rand Paul has radical beliefs.

So, here are some follow-up questions for the former half-term governor and her cohorts to consider:

* When Rand Paul was asked about his opposition to the Civil Rights Act weeks ago by the editorial board of the Courier Review-Journal, did this have something to do with Rachel Maddow's "agenda"? How about when Paul made the same remarks to NPR before appearing on MSNBC? Was it all one elaborate conspiracy?

* While explaining his opposition to the Fair Housing Act, Rand Paul wrote in 2002 that "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin." Was his concession the result of media "prejudice"?

* While campaigning for like-minded allies in 2008, Rand Paul warned of efforts to create a "NAFTA Superhighway," which doesn't exist in reality, and raised the specter of a "North American Union's" embrace of the "Amero," which is limited to overactive right-wing imaginations. Did Rachel Maddow make Paul spew nonsensical conspiracy theories two years ago?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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BUSH DOCTRINE, R.I.P.... Eight years ago, then-President George W. Bush delivered the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and presented a vision that some labeled the "Bush Doctrine." His vision was one of pre-emption -- the United States would launch military strikes against potential foes, with or without international support, before the threat was imminent. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize," he said, "we will have waited too long."

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the same venue, and offered a fundamentally different view of how the nation would execute its national security strategy going forward.

President Obama previewed a new national security strategy rooted in diplomatic engagement and international alliances on Saturday as he essentially repudiated his predecessor's emphasis on unilateral American power and the right to wage pre-emptive war.

Eight years after President George W. Bush came to the United States Military Academy to set a new security doctrine after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Obama used the same setting to offer a revised vision vowing no retreat against enemies while seeking "national renewal and global leadership."

"Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system," the president told graduating cadets. "But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation. We have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't."

Mr. Obama said the United States would "be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well," while also trying to "build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions." He added: "This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times."

The president is schedule to formally unveil a National Security Strategy this week, but we can safely consider his remarks yesterday as a sneak preview.

Spencer Ackerman has more, including his description of Obama's vision: "[A]n assertive multilateralism with 'American innovation' -- that is, a vigorous, healthy and balanced American economy -- at the core of the international order. And it's a rejection of the proposition that American power is either restricted by international cooperation or generally on the decline."

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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STEELE 'NOT COMFORTABLE' WITH SOME RAND PAUL VIEWS.... Rand Paul, the Republicans' U.S. Senate candidate in Kentucky, has repeatedly stated his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This morning, ABC's Jake Tapper asked RNC Chairman Michael Steele if he's "comfortable with" Paul's extreme ideology.

"I'm not comfortable with a lot of things," Steele said.

"It sounds like you're not comfortable with it," Tapper said.

"I just said I wasn't comfortable with it," Steele replied.

Well, Steele hadn't just said that, but it looks like he got there eventually.

The RNC chief added that Paul is motivated by a "philosophical position" and "philosophical perspective." I suspect that's probably true. But that doesn't change the fact that Rand Paul's political worldview is a) is poorly thought out; b) not even close to the American mainstream; and c) the kind of political philosophy that leads to unacceptable real-world consequences.

In other words, it's not much of a defense. Steele's point seems to be that Rand Paul is motivated by racism. That may be true. But when a U.S. Senate candidate in the 21st century opposes the Civil Rights Act, it's hardly acceptable for his allies to argue, "It's O.K.; his opposition is 'philosophical.'"

As for the electoral context, Steele, who had to know Tapper's question was coming, just handed Democrats a script for a campaign ad in Kentucky: "How extreme is Rand Paul? Even the Republican National Committee has said it's 'not comfortable' with Paul's ideology."

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE ORIGINAL KING OF IRONY LIVES.... Karl Rove thinks the Obama White House, unlike its predecessors, is filled with mean people who say bad things about their political opponents.

"President Bush, for example, never allowed a White House staffer or administration spokesman to go out and do what this administration and our predecessor routinely did -- that is to engage in calling the leaders of the opposition party disparaging labels and question their motives," he said.

The underlying complaint is itself dubious. This White House has its flaws, but in the face of hysterical criticism from clowns like Rove, the president and his team have shown considerable restraint when it comes to using "disparaging labels" and questioning critics' motives.

But the irony of Rove's criticism is that he's guilty of engaging in the very tactics he's whining about now. In 2005, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the Bush administration's torture policies and system of secret prisons as being reminiscent of "Soviets in their gulags." As Alex Seitz-Wald reminds us, Karl Rove, at the time a high-ranking White House official, argued that Durbin's quote was evidence that liberals are anti-American traitors.

If Bush "ever allowed" his aides to question rivals' motives, why did Rove specifically question, to use his words, "the motives of liberals"?

But the larger, and arguably more entertaining point, is that Karl Rove has made a habit of blasting Obama and his team for doing the exact same things Rove did when he helped run the White House.

Rove ran a White House that embraced a "permanent campaign," so he's accused the Obama team of embracing a "permanent campaign." Rove embraced the politics of fear, so he's accused Obama of embracing the politics of fear. Rove relied on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted " political events, so he's accused Obama of relying on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted" political events. Rove looked at every policy issue "from a political perspective," so he's accused Obama of looking at every policy issue "from a political perspective." Rove snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan, so he's accused Obama of snubbing snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan. Rove had a habit of burying bad news by releasing it late on Friday afternoons, so he's accused Obama of burying bad news by releasing it late on Friday afternoons.

A lesser hack may find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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GOP FINALLY WINS A HOUSE SPECIAL ELECTION.... Since President Obama's nomination, Democrats had gone seven for seven in special elections to the U.S. House, including wins in some traditionally "red" congressional districts. Yesterday, the streak came to an end, but the GOP's success comes with an asterisk.

A Republican candidate has prevailed over a crowded special election to represent President Obama's Hawaiian birthplace in the House of Representatives. The victory of Charles Djou, a Honolulu city councilman, was not a surprise, but it served to bolster his party as it seeks to chip away at the Democratic majority.

The special election was called after Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, announced last year that he would resign before completing his 10th term in order to focus on his candidacy for governor.

Mr. Djou beat out 13 other candidates with 39.5 percent of the vote in Hawaii's First Congressional District, which encompasses the Honolulu metropolitan area and gave Mr. Obama 70 percent of its vote in 2008.

In a statement, RNC Chairman Michel Steele said Djou's win is "evidence his conservative message ... knows no party lines."

It was a half-hearted boast because no one, not even Steele, seriously believes the special election was a legitimate Republican triumph. Hawaii's 1st is a heavily Democratic district, which would have stayed "blue" had this been a traditional match-up of one Dem vs. one Republican.

But it wasn't. There was no primary, and two credible Dems -- State Senate president Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case -- were both on the ballot. Party leaders hoped to force one from the field, but personality conflicts and lingering hard feelings from a previous cycle made that impossible. The DCCC, realizing that the two candidates would inevitably split the Democratic vote, gave up on the contest altogether weeks ago.

On its face, it's silly when partisans argue that the only races that count are the ones they win, but in this case, the Dems' argument has merit. Unlike Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, the Hawaii special election is impossible to interpret as some kind of important GOP coup. The only real lesson here is that a party that has two credible candidates on the ballot at the same time is almost certainly going to lose.

Looking ahead, count on Hawaii's 1st being near the top of the Democrats' list of midterm pick-up opportunities.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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May 22, 2010

EVIDENCE OF A 'THIRD WAVE'.... I'm occasionally reminded of a David Brooks column from early February. Scott Brown had just been sworn in to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, and there was a real and pervasive sense that the Obama presidency was not just moving in the wrong direction, but would fail to achieve anything else of consequence.

"If, a year ago, you had been asked to describe the administration's goals in one sentence it would have been this: Barack Obama will usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform," Brooks wrote at the time. "Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Obama would take the third step, transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life.... It was not to be.... [T]he original Obama project, the third Democratic wave, is dead."

Three months later, with milestone accomplishments having been completed and Wall Street reform nearing completion, the NYT's David Leonhardt considers an alternate look at the same historical model.

With the Senate's passage of financial regulation, Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition. Like the Reagan Revolution or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the new progressive period has the makings of a generational shift in how Washington operates.

First came a stimulus bill that, while aimed mainly at ending a deep recession, also set out to remake the nation's educational system and vastly expand scientific research. Then President Obama signed a health care bill that was the biggest expansion of the safety net in 40 years. And now Congress is in the final stages of a bill that would tighten Wall Street's rules and probably shrink its profit margins. [...]

[T]he turnabout since Jan. 20 -- the first anniversary of Mr. Obama's inauguration and the day after Scott Brown, a Republican, won a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts -- has been remarkable. Then, commentators pronounced the Obama presidency nearly dead. Today, he looks more like a liberal answer to Ronald Reagan.

Of course, the very notion of a liberal Reagan has been to reverse the public's approach to how (and whether) government should be used. President Obama's efforts to shift the paradigm away from Reagan's first inaugural ("government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem") have been subtle but persistent, though public attitudes haven't budged significantly.

Then again, it's hard to change three decades of a prevailing political ideology in 16 months -- and in the midst of multiple crises.

But the president is giving it a shot. "The last 16 months seem most similar in scope to three other periods in the last 80 years," Leonhardt noted, identifying FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society, and Reagan's conservatism as the three benchmarks of the 20th century.

Electorally, the next question is whether the beneficiaries of the shift will punish those laying the new foundation.

Leonhardt emphasized the fact that Obama's efforts have a theme:"try to lift economic growth while also reducing income inequality."

Since 1980, median household income has risen only 30 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average incomes at the top have tripled or quadrupled. Every major piece of the Obama agenda is meant, in part, to push back against inequality. Government may grow, but the bigger change will be how the government is spending its money.

The health bill expanded insurance coverage largely for middle-class and poor families and paid some of the bill by taxing households making more than $250,000 a year. Attached to the final health bill were also education provisions that cut subsidies to banks making student loans, and used much of the money for college financial aid instead.

The financial regulation bill, meanwhile, would take several steps likely to reduce Wall Street's profits -- and Wall Street has created more multimillionaires in recent decades than any other industry.

It's possible, if not likely, that the middle class that stands to benefit most from a progressive agenda will reward those fighting against their interests. It wouldn't be the first time. The benefits of the policymaking from 2009 and 2010 can far outlive the results of a midterm election cycle.

Either way, when we can look back at this transitional moment in history with hindsight, it's hardly unreasonable to think the accomplishments of Obama's first two years will belong in the same conversation as the first two Democratic "waves."

Steve Benen 5:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THE FAMILIAR RING OF THE K STREET PROJECT.... The notorious K Street Project became synonymous with Republican excesses of the Gingrich/DeLay/Bush era, and for good reason. Among its components was a heavy-handed scheme to "encourage" corporate PACs to contribute to Republican candidates, or face adverse consequences.

It became a devastating scandal for the Republican Party, and Exhibit A in the culture of corruption that drove the GOP from power in 2006. Indeed, when John Boehner (R-Ohio) sought a leadership post in January 2006, he vowed that under his guidance, "[T]here will no longer be a K Street Project, or anything else like it."

The elaborate scheme has not been resuscitated, at least not yet. But corporate PAC money has shifted heavily in Republicans' direction this year, at least in part because of the kind of tactics we saw when the K Street Project was in full force.

Corporate America is gambling on the minority in its political giving this year, assuming that Republicans will win big in the November midterm elections, an analysis of campaign finance reports shows.... The change comes as top Republicans lawmakers appeal more directly to business leaders, putting them on notice that the GOP is keeping track of the corporate donations ledger and will remember who stood by the party.

As part of an effort dubbed "Sell the Fight," House Republican leaders have met privately with corporate executives and lobbyists to argue that their giving has tilted too far toward Democrats and that they need to steer more money to industry-friendly GOP candidates in key races in 2010.

"These corporate leaders and lobbyists have got interests and clients they need to look out for, and they are reading the tea leaves just like everyone else," said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the deputy chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has made several private pitches to corporate PAC leaders.

When the K Street Project began, part of the larger scheme included Tom DeLay keeping a list of corporate lobbyists categorized as "friendly" and "unfriendly" based on campaign contributions. "Friendly" corporate lobbyists who directed PAC contributions to Republicans were rewarded with influence and access. "Unfriendly" corporate lobbyists and those who dared to donate to Democrats were locked out, or in some cases, blacklisted.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest these tactics have been brought back in earnest. But we're starting to see hints of the old, ugly, corrupt machine when Republicans leaders not-so-subtly remind business leaders that the party is "keeping score." In other words, GOP officials expect to be back in the majority in 2011, and if corporate lobbyists want to start writing legislation again, the way they did before there was a Democratic majority, they'll have to buy that influence again.

When the NRCC's Greg Walden met with 80 corporate PAC leaders in March, for example, he said he wasn't making any threats. He simply said Republican leaders are "evaluating giving patterns," and in the next breath, he pointed to competitive congressional races where these lobbyists "can make an investment in a Republican candidate you will like."

I seem to recall subtle messages like these being featured on "The Sopranos." I can hear Boehner now, "That's a nice amendment you want in the appropriations bill. It'd be a shame if something happened to it."

Republicans gave the American political system a bad name during their reign of error. There are already hints that the sequel will be more offensive than the original.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WHEN EXTREMISM AND IGNORANCE COLLIDE.... Republican Senate candidate and right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul got into a little trouble this week while explaining his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To a lesser extent, his disagreement with the Americans With Disabilities Act also raised a few eyebrows.

When Wolf Blitzer asked Rand about his ADA opposition, he tried to make his concerns sound reasonable. "[L]et's say you have a local office and you have a two-story office, and one of your workers is handicapped," the Republican said. "Should you not be allowed maybe to offer them an office on the first floor or should you be forced to put in a $100,000 elevator? ... [M]y understanding is that small business owners were often forced to put in elevators, and I think you ought to at least be given a choice. Can you provide an opportunity without maybe having to pay for an elevator?"

At first blush, that may not sound ridiculous. The problem, as Yahoo News' John Cook discovered, is that Rand Paul has no idea what he's talking about, complaining publicly about the ADA without knowing what's in it.

The legislation specifically exempts the vast majority of buildings three stories and under from any requirement to install elevators. In other words, if you are a small business owner and you have a two-story office and one of your workers is handicapped, no one can force you to build an elevator. It's true that the exemption doesn't apply to health care facilities or shopping malls or buildings four stories and up -- and Paul, who has an ophthalmology practice, may have been thinking of those provisions when he insisted that businesses are "often forced to put in elevators."

Trouble is, we searched far and wide for a single instance in which a private employer was successfully sued under the ADA for failing to provide an elevator, or was compelled by a lawsuit to do so, and we came up empty. We searched the case law, contacted ADA experts -- both proponents and opponents of the law -- the Justice Department, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Not one of them knew of any case involving the government-ordered installation of an elevator. It looks like Rand Paul is either peddling a myth or spinning some vanishingly small number of elevator installations we've yet to hear of into an epidemic big-government overreach.

That's because, while the ADA does impose a burden on employers and business owners to make their facilities accessible, it also contains reasonable restrictions on what owners and operators of existing buildings can be forced to do.

When Cook asked the Paul campaign to substantiate the candidate's concerns, it did not respond.

Paul's bizarre worldview is troubling enough; is it too much to ask that he read up on the issues he claims to care about?

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting twist at the intersection of religion and politics. Generally, at least in recent years, when policymakers reach out to evangelical Christians, it's Republicans seeking support on culture-war measures. Now, we're seeing efforts to build a very different coalition.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have turned to evangelical Christians in a last-ditch effort to move immigration reform and climate change legislation.

Democrats are making a direct appeal to the GOP base by turning to evangelical Christian and other religious leaders, and there's some evidence that the talks could be fruitful.

In particular, Schumer has been engaged directly with Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, about generating support for a comprehensive immigration reform package. Kerry has reached out to evangelical leaders, including Florida mega-church leader Joel Hunter, in the hopes of giving a boost to his climate/energy bill.

Burns Strider, a former aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has also been part of the larger effort, keeping in regular contact with evangelical groups, including state affiliates of the Christian Coalition,

"It's very surprising," Hunter said. "These are times of interesting coalitions."

Whether these efforts pay legislative dividends is, however, another matter. The Democrat's health care reform initiative generated considerable support in a variety of faith communities, but that didn't stop Republicans from unanimous opposition and endless demagoguery -- even if it meant bearing false witness.

Still, it's a trend worth watching.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Earlier this week, the Vatican offered its "most detailed defense yet against claims that it is liable for U.S. bishops who allowed priests to molest children." Among the new arguments: the Roman Catholic Bishops are not technically Vatican employees.

* Late last year, a critically ill woman at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, had an abortion in order to save her life. She was, at the time, 11 weeks pregnant, when pulmonary hypertension made the abortion necessary. This week, the head of the Phoenix diocese excommunicated the hospital nun who signed off on the surgery, despite the fact that her decision saved a woman's life. (thanks to reader D.J. for the tip)

* Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, is lashing out wildly and attacking Islam following reports of a mosque being built in Manhattan, not far from 9/11's Ground Zero. Williams referred to the Islamic deity as a "monkey-god" and to Muslims as "the animals of allah." He added that Islam attracts "mental cases," and published an image of the prophet Muhammad with a swastika on top of his head. Another setback in the effort to make the Tea Party crowd appear tolerant and mainstream.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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ALL-TOO-COMMON VIOLENCE.... It's genuinely tragic that the concerns raised by the Department of Homeland Security last year, about potentially violent anti-government extremists, look increasingly prescient.

An antigovernment Ohio man who had had several run-ins with the police around the country was identified Friday as one of two people suspected of gunning down two officers during a traffic stop in Arkansas.

The Arkansas State Police on Friday identified the pair -- killed Thursday during an exchange of gunfire with the police -- as Jerry R. Kane Jr., 45, of Forest, Ohio, and his son Joseph T. Kane, believed to be 16.

About 90 minutes before the shootout with the police, Sgt. Brandon Paudert, 39, and Officer Bill Evans, 38, were killed with AK-47 assault rifles after stopping a minivan on Interstate 40 in West Memphis, Ark., the authorities said.

Jerry Kane is obviously an anti-government extremist who, just last week, was shown in a YouTube video saying, "You have to kill them all. So what we're after here is not fighting, it's conquering. I don't want to have to kill anybody, but if they keep messing with me, that's what it's going to have to come out. That's what it's going to come down to, is I'm going to have to kill. And if I have to kill one, then I'm not going to be able to stop, I just know it."

Examples of these politically-motivated attacks from extremists seem to be increasingly common. Just this year, John Patrick Bedell opened fire at the Pentagon; Joe Stack flew an airplane into a building; and the Hutaree Militia terrorist plot was uncovered. Last year, James von Brunn opened fire at the Holocaust memorial museum; Richard Poplawski gunned down three police officers in Pittsburgh, in part because he feared the non-existent "Obama gun ban"; and Dr. George Tiller was assassinated. In 2008, Jim David Adkisson opened fire in a Unitarian church in Tennessee, in part because of his "hatred of the liberal movement."

Obviously, deranged madmen are responsible for their own violent actions. It's not unreasonable, though, to wish that some of the leading far-right voices would lower the rhetorical temperature a bit, helping to cool the tempers of those who might be inclined to hurt others.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE TEXAS TEXTBOOK TRAVESTY.... After a contentious debate and international scrutiny, right-wing activists in control of Texas' State Board of Education did exactly what they set out to do: they approved a new social studies curriculum that ignores reality, and reflects history the way they wish it happened.

The State Board of Education Board, ending nearly two years of politically divisive deliberations, approved new social studies curriculum standards for the state's 4.7 million students despite vigorous objections from the board's five minority members.

The revisions have drawn national attention amid complaints that conservative Republicans on the board are attempting to alter history and trying to inject their political beliefs into the curriculum. [...]

The curriculum, which will be used in classrooms beginning with the 2011-12 school year, will also serve as a template for new textbooks. They will remain in effect for more than a decade.... With one member absent, the board voted 9-5 to accept the new curriculum for kindergarten, elementary school and high school.

As we've been reporting for months, the board's version of history is a fairly ridiculous one, which will now be imposed on public school students.

The new standards say that the McCarthyism of the 1950s was later vindicated -- something most historians deny -- draw an equivalency between Jefferson Davis's and Abraham Lincoln's inaugural addresses, say that international institutions such as the United Nations imperil American sovereignty, and include a long list of Confederate officials about whom students must learn.

Of particular interest, the new standards dictate that students must "describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association."

A majority of the state board took an especially hostile view of the separation of church and state -- which, of course, has been removed from the curriculum -- and board member Cynthia Dunbar (R) spoke for her cohorts when she insisted the nation's origins were "a Christian land governed by Christian principles," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

At its core, this is not just a travesty for academic integrity and students in Texas, but it's also a reminder of what's gone horribly wrong with the twisted right-wing worldview. These state officials have decided they simply don't care for reality, so they've replaced it with a version of events that makes them feel better. The result is an American history in which every era has been distorted to satisfy the far-right ego.

Of course, the concern outside of Texas has been that the state-mandated ignorance might spread -- Texas is the nation's second-largest customer for textbooks, and "publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers." This week, however, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told CNN that he does not believe there will be a "ripple effect" that undermines education elsewhere.

Texas school kids, however, will be punished by the right-wing agenda, and there's not much anyone can do about it.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME -- OR SUNDAY MORNING.... After Rand Paul won Kentucky's Republican Senate primary this week, he was invited to appear on "Meet the Press." The right-wing ophthalmologist agreed. Why not try to capitalize on a victory that drew national attention?

Of course, that was before the media took notice of Paul's extremist ideology -- and before Republicans noticed that Paul's media appearances seemed to make things worse. Yesterday afternoon, the GOP candidate broke his commitment and backed out of the interview.

After a series of interviews on national TV that stirred an uproar over his views on civil rights and other issues, Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Senate in Kentucky, has canceled a scheduled appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" program on Sunday.

Betsy Fischer, the producer for the news program, said that Mr. Paul's press secretary, Jesse Benton, had notified them a few hours ago that he would not be appearing on the show. She said Mr. Paul's campaign had committed to the show on Wednesday, but that his aide said he was tired after a long week.

It's only the third time in the show's history that a guest agreed to appear on the program, and then backed out -- Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia were the other two. "Meet the Press" could have invited Paul's opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway (D) -- who, incidentally, received 20,000 more votes than Paul did on Tuesday -- but the producers decided not to.

In terms of an explanation for breaking the candidate's commitment, Paul aides gave conflicting accounts. By one account, Paul cancelled because he's "had a long week," and "he's tired." Around the same time, the campaign suggested the cancellation has less to do with fatigue and more to do with message: "Rand did Good Morning America today, set the record straight, and now we are done talking about it. No more national interviews on the topic."

Neither explanation is compelling. The former sounds weak -- he needs more than 48 hours to recuperate after an interview on "Good Morning America"? If Paul is so exhausted, why didn't he also cancel his campaign event in Frankfurt this morning?

But it's the latter justification that's especially odd. Indeed, I'm not sure what "no more national interviews on the topic" even means. If Rand Paul talks to a national news outlet again sometime over the next six months, his radical worldview is likely to come up. Will the Republican campaign try to come up with ground rules for journalists? You can interview the Senate candidate, just so long as you don't ask about his views on government?

I have no idea how voters in Kentucky will respond to developments like these, but from a distance, the entire fiasco appears humiliating -- for Paul, the Tea Party "movement," and the Republican Party of Kentucky.

As for my favorite headline, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this gem from my friend John Cole: "And I Rand, I Rand So Far Away."

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

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May 21, 2010

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

* BP oil spill disaster: "Officials closed the public beach [at Grand Isle, Louisiana] Friday as thick gobs of oil resembling melted chocolate washed up, a very visible reminder of the blown-out well that has been spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico for a month. Up to now, only tar balls and a light sheen had come ashore."

* Answering the question, at least for now, of whether Germany is committed to addressing the regional fiscal crisis: "Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany narrowly pushed the country's share of the nearly $1 trillion stabilization package for the euro through Parliament Friday in the face of significant public opposition."

* On a related note, Steven Pearlstein explains why it's Germany, not Greece, that's at the heart of the ongoing crisis.

* North Korea has to realize it's playing with an intensifying fire: "Citing 'overwhelming' evidence that North Korea sank a South Korean warship, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned the communist state Friday of international consequences."

* Another good move on emissions: "President Barack Obama called for first-ever mileage and emissions standards for big rig and work trucks Friday, seeking to limit pollution from the large vehicles that contribute a big share of it."

* Ugh: "About 15 hours after Massey CEO Don Blankenship told Congress that worker safety is the company's top priority, another Massey miner died in West Virginia."

* The leading contender for the DNI job is James R. Clapper, the Pentagon's top intelligence official.

* The cost of the 2008 financial industry bailout has fallen again, this time by $11.4 billion.

* Support on the left is hardly universal, but both Paul Krugman and Ed Andrews are quite pleased with the Wall Street reform package that passed the Senate last night.

* The right-wing members of the Texas Board of Education, as part of their painful textbook crusade, really are proving themselves to be stark raving mad.

* Colleges with large endowments weren't victims of the recession; they may have precipitated it.

* Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told Fox News he isn't part of the Republican establishment. I think he was serious.

* The bad news is, the Republican National Committee spent donor money on softball equipment. The good news is, the RNC spent slightly more on softball equipment than on an outing to a lesbian-themed bondage nightclub.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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IT'S NOT JUST '40-YEAR OLD LEGISLATION'.... On "Good Morning America," Republican Senate candidate and right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul dismissed questions about his opposition to the Civil Rights Act by suggesting his views on the matter are irrelevant. To hear him tell it, there's no point in "bringing up 40-year-old legislation."

I've seen some Paul defenders make the same point -- unless Congress is planning to actually vote on repealing the Fair Housing Act or related laws, which isn't going to happen, what difference does Rand Paul's hypothetical opposition really make? It's not like eliminating child-labor laws will work its way to the Senate floor anytime soon. Settled law, the argument goes, is settled law.

It's hard to overstate how mistaken this is.

We're not only getting a closer look at the twisted worldview of a bizarre political movement, but we're learning that a man who may very well be a U.S. senator in January doesn't believe the federal government has the authority to interfere with private enterprise at all -- not even to end racial segregation.

As Ezra noted yesterday, it's hardly a stretch to think this might have public policy implications.

For instance: Can the federal government set the private sector's minimum wage? Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors? These are the sort of questions that Paul needs to be asked now, because the issue is not "area politician believes kooky but harmless thing." It's "area politician espouses extremist philosophy on issue he will be voting on constantly."

"Constantly" is not an exaggeration. Legislation related to private enterprise is a fixture of federal policymaking. Rand won't be in a position to evaluate proposals on the merits, because he's already decided that the underlying efforts have no merit -- if the government is considering a measure that interferes with the practices of a private entity, it's necessarily unacceptable.

(Unless, of course, we're talking about a woman's uterus or a gay couple's bedroom, which Rand Paul defines as public entities.)

If the federal government can't tell businesses what they can and cannot do, monopolies are fine, as is price-fixing. Food-safety regulations are objectionable, as are home-safety building codes. Where does Paul draw the lines drawn, exactly? It's hard to say -- the Kentucky Republican has drawn them in a radical way when it comes to racial discrimination and Americans with disabilities, and now he no longer wants to talk about the scope of his strange worldview.

A voter may or may not find all of this scary, but to dismiss a radical worldview as irrelevant because the Civil Rights Act is "40-year-old legislation" is a mistake.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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WHEN NEWT COMPARES AMERICANS TO NAZIS.... From time to time, far-right voices will complain that MoveOn.org ran ads several years ago comparing the Bush administration to Nazis. The ads don't exist in reality, but facts aside, conservatives keep pushing the myth precisely because of its perceived power: those who compare Americans, especially America's elected leadership, to Nazis are necessarily loathsome radicals.

We now know, of course, that those rules no longer apply. Not only do assorted right-wing activists appear at Tea Party events with pictures of President Obama with a Hitler mustache, but disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has published a book that draws the parallels explicitly.

[Gingrich] is promoting his new book, To Save America, which argues repeatedly that the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress are a "secular-socialist machine" that "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union."

Gingrich has repeatedly defended this claim, telling both NBC's Meredith Vieira and Fox News' Chris Wallace that he truly believes that the Obama administration is an equivalent "threat" to America as brutal dictators like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. [...]

In reaching to make his case, Gingrich repeatedly tries desperately to connect the Obama administration with Nazi Germany.

Remember, MoveOn.org was supposed to be expelled from public life forever for an ad the group didn't run, but Newt Gingrich is sought out by major media outlets as a credible, sane voice on international affairs, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

In fairness, I've been pleasantly surprised by the conservatives who agree that Gingrich has gone too far this time. Joe Scarborough described Gingrich's latest lunacy as "sick" and "shameful" this week. Former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), who was part of Gingrich's caucus in the 1990s, called Gingrich's comparison "just crazy."

But the disgraced, humiliated former Speaker just keeps defending the comparison, insisting that the president and his allies pose an existential threat to the United States, just like the Nazis and the Soviets.

By any reasonable measure, Gingrich really has turned into an unhinged nut, and an embarrassment to himself. It wasn't too long ago -- say, before January 2009 -- that comparing American leaders to Nazis was simply beyond the pale of reasonable discourse. And yet, ol' Newt has done little else recently.

The remaining question is the same as it always is: will this drive Gingrich from polite society? Or will major media outlets continue to perceive the stark raving mad former Speaker as a legitimate, important observer (or, as David Broder called him, a "visionary")?

I think we know the answers, which is precisely the problem -- there's nothing prominent Republicans can say or do to be driven from the discourse.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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AN ODD SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT.... Talking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday, Republican Senate candidate and right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul made an interesting comment, right at the outset.

"Well, first of all, Wolf, I thought I was supposed to get a honeymoon. When does my honeymoon start, you know, after my victory?"

This morning on "Good Morning America," Paul made a very similar remark, in response to the very first question.

"Good morning, George. Good morning, Robin. When does my honeymoon period start. I had a big victory. I thought I got a honeymoon period from you guys in the media."

I really can't figure out what Paul is talking about here. What "honeymoon"? Is there some kind of tradition of Senate candidates getting a grace period after winning a primary? It seems like the kind of thing I would have heard of.

Indeed, it's perhaps the weakest, whiniest response to allegations of ideological extremism imaginable -- don't ask Paul tough questions because he just won a primary campaign. He'd like some time to bask in the glory of an expected victory, six months before the general election, before mean reporters ask him to defend his own stated worldview.

How bizarre.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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THE PARTY OF CIVIL RIGHTS.... Given the new-found electoral relevance of the Civil Rights Act, I suppose this was inevitable.

The GOP went there. In an email sent to reporters in the height of the Rand Paul firestorm yesterday, the NRSC defended its Senate nominee in Kentucky by pointing out that it wasn't Republicans who were the most vocal opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it was in Congress.

"As a side note, I would point out the irony - which seems to have been lost in some of the news coverage -- that the same party seeking to manufacture this issue today, is in fact the same political party which led the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act in 1964," NRSC spokesperson Brian Walsh wrote.

This comes up from time to time, whenever Republicans are feeling particularly defensive about the civil rights issues. But in light of the party's confusion, it's probably time for a quick refresher.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to competing constituencies -- southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. In the wake of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party welcomed the white supremacists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform. It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition -- leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.

In the ensuing years, Democrats embraced their role as the party of diversity, inclusion, and civil rights. Republicans became the party of the "Southern Strategy," opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms and Thurmond.

Indeed, as the chairman of the Republican National Committee recently conceded, his party deliberately used racial division for electoral gain for the last four decades.

Just a minor detail, which seems to have been lost in some of the news coverage, and which the NRSC might have forgotten.

Update: For the record, 46 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act, while 21 Democrats and 6 Republicans opposed.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE NEXT SENATOR FROM PENNSYLVANIA?.... Before his humiliating defeat in 2006, Rick Santorum (R) was elected to the Senate in Pennsylvania -- twice. With that in mind, it's hardly inconceivable that former Rep. Pat Toomey, the Republican Senate nominee this year, can get elected.

But just how far to the right is Toomey? Harry Enton published an item recently that evaluated the former lawmaker's ideology, using the independent DW-Nominate scores, which score members of Congress based on their roll-call votes.

Enton found that Toomey is much more conservative than even Santorum.

Using joint House and Senate scaling (which treat the House and Senate a single body to compare scores across chambers), we find that Pat Toomey (.718) had a considerably more conservative voting record than Rick Santorum (.349). To put that number into context, Lincoln Chafee (the ultimate liberal Republican and now independent) had a DW-Nominate score of .002 and Republican Arlen Specter had a score of .067. Republican Specter was slightly to the right of Chafee; Santorum was considerably right of Chafee; and, Toomey was much further right.

Still, I wanted to get a better idea of how conservative Toomey voting record was. So, I pulled the DW-Nominate score of every United States legislator (House and Senate) since 1995.... Toomey ranked more conservative than 97.9% of all United States legislators since 1995. He had a more conservative voting record than J.D Hayworth, Jim DeMint, and was about as conservative as Jesse Helms. Only Tom Coburn and Tom Tancredo scored further to the right.

To put it into prospective, Pat Toomey would most likely be the second most conservative Republican in the United States Senate.

That doesn't mean it's impossible, of course, but given that Barack Obama won by double digits in Pennsylvania just two years ago, it'll be tough for Toomey to convince voters in the Keystone State that his very conservative background is in line with the state's mainstream.

Can "Pennsylvania's Jesse Helms" win? Toomey starts off as something of an underdog, and will have to hope voters don't pay too close attention to his beliefs and/or policy agenda.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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DON'T LET ONE AREA OF EXTREMISM DISTRACT FROM ANOTHER.... Republican Senate candidate and right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul is making headlines again today, following a head-shaking appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." But there's no reason to let one area of extremism distract from another.

Reflecting on the BP oil spill disaster, which is quickly becoming even more catastrophic, the Kentucky Republican took issue with President Obama's criticism of the negligent oil company. "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticisms of businesses," Paul said of the president's drive to hold the company responsible.

There was no evidence Paul was kidding. He seriously believes the U.S. president's criticism of a foreign oil company responsible for a disastrous oil spill "sounds really un-American."

As for the disaster itself, the GOP Senate hopeful added that society should simply understand "the fact that sometimes accidents happen."

And while there's no doubt that these remarks represent further evidence of a truly ridiculous candidate, let's not overlook the fact that "GMA" host George Stephanopoulos also asked Rand Paul about his extreme anti-government views.

Indeed, Paul would not explain his stated opposition to the Fair Housing Act, and didn't want to talk about the minimum wage, either.

When one strips away the spin and stupidity, what we're left with is an extremist candidate who suddenly finds himself uncomfortable talking publicly about his own fringe beliefs. As Greg Sargent explained earlier, Paul "cannot bring himself to say -- clearly and unequivocally -- that the Federal government should have the power to prohibit private businesses from discriminating on the basis of skin color, religion, or national origin."

Paul had a chance this morning on ABC News to clarify his views on the proper role of Federal power vis-a-vis discrimination by private entities and institutions. He conspicuously declined to do so.

During that remarkable appearance, George Stephanopoulos read aloud from that 2002 letter Paul wrote attacking the Fair Housing Act, in which he said "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination" and added that discrimination should not be "prohibited for private entities."

Pressed repeatedly on whether he stuck by those views, Paul refused to answer.

It seems clear Paul received some very specific instructions yesterday from his handlers about how to deal with the radical nature of his beliefs: "Sound like you're answering the question, but don't." So, for example, when asked about his opposition to the Fair Housing Act, Paul said he doesn't support repealing it, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a liar. That's fine, but it's misleading when the question is about his core beliefs.

As long as his actual positions, principles, and values are not part of the conversation, Rand Paul is confident his candidacy will be in good shape. And maybe that's true.

But this necessarily makes yes-or-no questions his enemy. Mr. Paul, do you believe the government has the authority to pass and enforce laws prohibiting businesses from discriminating? Mr. Paul, do you believe the government is right to set a minimum wage that private employers are required to pay? Mr. Paul, do you think the government abused its authority by outlawing child labor?

We know what he thinks -- Paul has already told us -- but his goal for the next six months is getting through the campaign while avoiding answering these basic questions, which nearly every other candidate in the country would have no trouble answering.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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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 April fundraising totals, the DNC outraised the RNC, $10.4 million to $6.9 million. Among the Senate campaign committees, however, the NRSC outraised the DSCC, though the DSCC still has a narrow edge in cash on hand.

* In the first poll since Pennsylvania's primary, Rasmussen shows Rep. Joe Sestak (D) leading former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), 46% to 42%.

* In Nevada's closely watched Senate race, Public Policy Polling shows Sue Lowden slipping badly in her Republican primary. Former state Rep. Sharron Angle is now out in front in the GOP field with 29% support, followed by Lowden at 26%, and former college basketball player Danny Tarkanian a close third with 24%.

* With just a month until the runoff election in North Carolina's Democratic Senate primary, Cal Cunningham's staff is undergoing a significant shake-up, including the departures of his campaign manager and communications director.

* Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) announced yesterday that he will not wage a write-in campaign after all.

* In Minnesota, there's a fairly large field of credible Democratic gubernatorial candidates, and the latest Minnesota Public Radio/Humphrey Institute poll shows former Sen. Mark Dayton leading the primary field.

* In Washington, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) has been contemplating a campaign against incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D), but the right appears to have grown tired of waiting for him. Yesterday, former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) announced her support for retired football player Clint Didier's Senate campaign. The filing deadline is June 11.

* And in Idaho, Vaughn Ward is running for the Republican nomination in Idaho's 1st House district. Asked in a debate this week whether he would support a measure on Puerto Rican statehood, Ward said he opposes "extending statehood to some, to any other country," adding that he doesn't care "what country ... wants to become part of America." Told that Puerto Rico is an American territory, not a foreign country, Ward said, "I really don't care what it is."

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

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PELOSI EYES DADT REPEAL.... The debate has been relatively quiet over the last few weeks, but scrapping "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remains part of the Democrats' to-do list. House Speaker Pelosi sounded quite optimistic about the repeal effort this week.

The Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy will be nothing but a memory by year's end, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared Wednesday.

Pelosi, in an interview with The Hill, stopped short of laying all of her strategic cards on the table. She wouldn't say whether the House will take the lead on the issue or predict when the Clinton administration-era tenet would be repealed.

But she made it clear ending "Don't ask, don't tell" is at the top of her agenda.

"I don't have any doubt that 'Don't ask, don't tell' will be a memory by the end of this year," she said.

The Speaker's optimism notwithstanding, the measure's future remains unclear. As of this week, legislation to end DADT has 192 co-sponsors, which is impressive, but well shy of 216.

Of course, the plan has been to pursue repeal through an amendment to the defense authorization bill, not free-standing legislation. And on this front, the clock is ticking loudly -- consideration of the spending measure isn't far off. Indeed, it may come as early as next week.

One of the key complications will be Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who not only wants to keep DADT in place -- he hasn't explained why -- but is afraid of the issue in light of a challenging re-election issue in his competitive district. His opposition would complicate efforts at the committee level.

In the meantime, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the lead sponsor of repeal legislation, is working with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on the most effective legislative strategy. Both seem relatively confident that the effort will come together this year.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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GRADING ON A CURVE.... Of all the reactions to Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) extreme beliefs, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R) take was my favorite.

"If I were you guys I'd give him a little leeway," Hatch told reporters. "He just got elected. It's a tough thing for him to get in the middle of this cauldron."

Similarly, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) complained that Rachel Maddow asked Paul about his views during a television interview. "I think it was sort of a gotcha question," Cornyn said. "If I'm walking down the street minding my own business and somebody sticks a microphone under my nose about a law that was passed 40 years ago, without more detail -- I think it probably caught him a little bit by surprise."

I can appreciate how tough it is to spin on behalf of a Republican nominee for the Senate who opposes the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Housing Act, but this argument isn't exactly compelling. To hear Hatch and Cornyn tell it, the public should simply go easy on Rand Paul because, well, he's new at this.

Um, no. Paul has been running for the Senate for quite a while, and he won a statewide primary this week for an important public office. It's a "tough thing" for him to talk about his own beliefs? If so, perhaps he's not quite ready to serve in the United States Senate. Maybe he could start with city council or something and work his way up.

I can just imagine the reaction if a Democratic Senate nominee, soon after a primary, suggested in multiple interviews that public ownership over the means of production is underrated. If Dems argued that the candidate deserves "leeway" because he/she "just got elected," would that be persuasive to someone like Orrin Hatch?

For that matter, no one stuck a microphone in Paul's face while he was walking down the street minding his own business. Rand Paul articulated his beliefs to the Louisville Courier-Journal, and then again on NPR, and then again to Rachel Maddow. These are the same beliefs Paul stated as far back as 2002. This wasn't, in other words, some slip of the tongue, or a rookie candidate flubbing a complicated question after getting caught "by surprise."

Paul stated his beliefs accurately; he just happens to be an extremist. If Republicans are going to make excuses for his bizarre worldview, they'll have to do better than this.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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NO DEPORTATION FOR MOM OUTED BY DAUGHTER.... It was a sad exchange to watch. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a Maryland elementary school this week, and was asked by a young girl about the administration deporting undocumented immigrants. Obama agreed that this is "something we have to work on," to "make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers."

The girl replied, sad and with her voice trailing off, "But my mom doesn't have any papers."

The First Lady agreed that "we have to work on that. We have to fix that. Everybody's got to work together on that in Congress to make sure that happens."

The exchange, however, raised a related concern: did that 7-year old girl inadvertently expose her own mother as an immigrant who lives in the country illegally?

Fortunately, Obama administration officials said yesterday that they have no intention of deporting the girl's mother.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not take action against the mother, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

"ICE is a federal law enforcement agency that focuses on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities," spokesman Matthew Chandler said in an e-mail. "Our investigations are based on solid law enforcement work and not classroom Q and As."

Good move. It was sad enough to see that little girl's question; it would have been tragic if officials went after her mom as a result.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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CANDIDATES, MILITARY SERVICE, AND TALL TALES.... This week, a New York Times report on Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal (D) put allegations of exaggerated military service back on the front burner. The NYT's reporting, inspired by Republican opposition research, hasn't stood up especially well, but the ensuing coverage has raised a related question -- has anyone else misstated their service?

We've talked about the examples of exaggerated rhetoric from George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) But the list is getting a little longer.

In California, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Chuck DeVore has gone to great lengths to tout his years in uniform, but the LA Times reports today that his rhetoric has pushed the accuracy envelope on the campaign trail. (via Taegan Goddard)

During a radio debate with them in early March, DeVore talked of being the sole candidate in the Senate race with military experience. "I'm a lieutenant colonel of military intelligence within the U.S. Army," he said. His campaign material shows he's a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army retired reserves.

DeVore said both references are accurate because the retired reserves are part of the Army: "My nameplate says U.S. Army."

He spoke during the debate of being "shot at in Lebanon" but did not make clear that the shooting occurred in the 1980s while DeVore was a college student studying Arabic and other subjects in the Middle East. Nor did he note that while the shooting was in his vicinity, there was no indication he was a target or was in actual danger.

In a separate interview, DeVore pointed to the shooting incident he witnessed as part of a media tour, which he suggested was perilous. "The Syrians shot at us and kind of drove us off the hill, because they didn't want press over there. It was like warning shots," DeVore said.

The Republican noted that ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick was there, but Zelnick said DeVore's version of events is incorrect: "Nothing I saw or experienced could reasonably be interpreted as our having been driven off the hill by Syrian fire."

In related news, Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois, claimed on his website to be "the only member of Congress to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom." That isn't true -- Kirk served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, just as Blumenthal served during Vietnam, but the Republican Senate candidate did not serve in the war in Iraq.

In the meantime, a leading Connecticut broadcast journalist reported on the air last night, "I can tell you that I've covered Dick Blumenthal hundreds of times over the last 30 years, and that I have never, ever, heard him misrepresent his military service. Not even once."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WHEN A WALK-BACK BECOMES A SPRINT.... It all started with a simple, 11-word question: "Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?" The question was posed by the editors of the Louisville Courier-Journal to Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky.

The answer proved problematic -- Paul says he's opposed to discrimination, but also opposes laws that impose restrictions on free enterprise. The Civil Rights Act went too far, Paul argued, when it mandated requirements on private entities. That's what he told Courier-Journal, NPR, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, and it's consistent with what he wrote in 2002 when he articulated his opposition to the Fair Housing Act for the same reasons.

Indeed, Rachel specifically asked Paul if a private business should be able to refuse service to black people. The Republican candidate replied, "Yes."

And then the evolution of Rand Paul kicked into overdrive.

Over the course of 24 hours, Paul went from opposing the Civil Rights Act to opposing repeal of the Civil Rights Act to considering the Civil Rights Act settled law to actually supporting the legislation he said he would have opposed.

[Paul] said he would have voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act if he were in the Senate at the time, calling the racial climate at the time "a stain on the South and our history."

"There was an overriding problem in the South that was so big that it did require federal intervention in the Sixties," he said. "The Southern states weren't correcting it, and there was a need for federal intervention."

Presented again with the original question that got him in trouble in the first place, the Kentucky Republican said, "Yes, I would have voted yes" on the Civil Rights Act.

As political flip-flops go, Rand Paul's reversal is one for the books. "Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?" He had a very specific answer before yesterday, which he'd articulated on multiple occasions, over the course of many years. It just happens to be the exact opposite of the position he endorsed while on CNN.

It appears that Paul had a choice: defend his deeply held principles and try to convince voters of the merit of his ideas, or abandon those principles when they became politically problematic and put his Senate bid in jeopardy. Paul has obviously made his decision.

Indeed, he's trying to soften other extreme beliefs, too. Paul has already voiced opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, but when asked about the ADA by Wolf Blitzer yesterday, the Senate hopeful said, "I'd have to look at it and see."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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SENATE PASSES WALL STREET REFORM.... As recently as Wednesday afternoon, the Wall Street reform package, months in the making, was in a bit of trouble. The Senate leadership attempted to end debate and move towards a vote, but fell a couple of votes short of ending a Republican filibuster. It wasn't clear when the legislation would finally come together.

A day later, the sweeping regulatory reform bill passed the Senate with at least a modicum of bipartisan support. Despite intense industry lobbying and GOP obstructionism, Congress now stands at the brink of approving "the most sweeping regulatory overhaul since the aftermath of the Great Depression."

The bill seeks to curb abusive lending, particularly in the mortgage industry, and to ensure that troubled companies, no matter how big or complex, can be liquidated at no cost to taxpayers. And it would create a "financial stability oversight council" to coordinate efforts to identify risks to the financial system. It would also establish new rules on the trading of derivatives and require hedge funds and most other private equity companies to register for regulation with the Securities and Exchange Commission. [...]

The Senate bill, sponsored primarily by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the banking committee, would seek to curb abusive lending by creating a powerful Bureau of Consumer Protection within the Federal Reserve to oversee nearly all consumer financial products.

In response to the huge bailouts in 2008, the bill seeks to ensure that troubled companies, no matter how big or complex, can be liquidated at no cost to taxpayers. It would empower regulators to seize failing companies, break them apart and sell off the assets, potentially wiping out shareholders and creditors.

To coordinate efforts to identify risks to the financial system, the bill would create a "financial stability oversight council" composed of the Treasury secretary, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the comptroller of the currency, the director of the new consumer financial protection bureau, the heads of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and an independent appointee of the president.

The bill would touch virtually every aspect of the financial industry, imposing, for instance, a thicket of rules for the trading of derivatives, the complex instruments at the center of the 2008 crisis. With limited exceptions, derivatives would have to be traded on a public exchange and cleared through a third party.

After ending the Republican filibuster in the afternoon, the final vote last night was 59 to 39. Two Democrats -- Washington's Maria Cantwell and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold -- sided with the minority, arguing that the bill wasn't tough enough. Four Republicans -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Massachusetts' Scott Brown, and Iowa's Chuck Grassley -- broke ranks and voted with the Democratic majority. (Sens. Arlen Specter and Robert Byrd did not vote last night.)

Of particular interest, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the lead GOP negotiator on Wall Street reform, supported the filibuster and opposed the legislation, as did Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who also tried to reach a deal with Dodd about moving the bill to the right.

Oddly enough, Corker's efforts were not only unsuccessful, but in a rare legislative dynamic, the Senate actually kept moving the bill to the left. While the upper chamber is notorious for watering down bills to overcome procedural hurdles, the Wall Street reform bill improved in recent weeks, due in large part to political considerations -- the industry is so unpopular, policymakers saw electoral value in toughening up the legislation. It's a rare instance in which the Senate bill is arguably stronger the House version.

As for what's next, there will be a formal House-Senate conference, which is expected to take several weeks. The White House will reportedly play a key role in shaping the final package to the president's liking, and the process is not expected to be especially difficult. While there are differences between the two bills, they're based on a similar blueprint, and as House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told reporters yesterday, "It is not a hard bill to conference."

The goal is still to have the signing ceremony by July 4.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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May 20, 2010

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

* BP oil spill disaster: "BP conceded Thursday that more oil than it estimated is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico as heavy crude washed into Louisiana's wetlands for the first time, feeding worries and uncertainty about the massive monthlong spill."

* On a related note, the Obama administration today ordered BP to use a less-toxic chemical dispersant to break up the oil in the Gulf.

* ABC News' Jake Tapper reports that President Obama will replace the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair (ret.), possibly as early as tomorrow.

* It looks pretty clear that North Korea fired a torpedo in March that sank a South Korean ship, killing 46. Tensions are quickly escalating.

* The weekly jobless claim numbers were not at all encouraging: "New jobless claims filed last week rose by 25,000 to 471,000, the government reported moments ago, defying predictions that they would drop. It's the largest rise in three months."

* On a related note, Frank Ahrens has a good summary of why things are so ugly on Wall Street right now.

* Mexican President Felipe Calderon addressed a joint session of Congress today, and singled out the Arizona anti-immigrant law for criticism.

* Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who's had quite a difficult time with racial issues, described Rand Paul's opposition to the Civil Rights Act as "wrong."

* The House Democratic caucus is back to 255 members, as Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) was sworn in this afternoon. Critz won a special election in Pennsylvania's 12th on Tuesday.

* There's something decidedly sketchy about universities paying admissions personnel bonuses based on the number of students they enroll.

* For reasons I'll never understand, CNN.com published a piece on the newly-crowned Miss USA, a Lebanese-American, with this headline: "Miss USA: Muslim Trailblazer Or Hezbollah Spy?"

* And finally, Bruce Bartlett reflects on Rand Paul: "As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation... Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn't work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse. I don't believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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AN EASILY DEBUNKED DENIAL.... After multiple interviews in which Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul explained his opposition to the Civil Rights Act infringing on private enterprise, his campaign aides have decided to try a new tack. As of this afternoon, the new strategy is to simply pretend that the positions the candidate has already articulated are not actually the positions the candidate believes.

In other words, afraid of how explosive this may be, the Rand Paul Senate campaign is giving lying a shot.

This afternoon, a spokesman for the Paul campaign told Greg Sargent, "Civil Rights legislation that has been affirmed by our courts gives the Federal government the right to insure that private businesses don't discriminate based on race. Dr. Paul supports those powers."

Except, of course, he doesn't. We know Paul doesn't support this policy because he's told us he doesn't support this policy. Indeed, just last night, Rachel Maddow asked the Republican candidate, "Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?" Paul replied, "Yes."

Worse, this has always been Paul's position. This afternoon, Dave Weigel notes remarks the right-wing ophthalmologist made several years ago.

In a May 30, 2002, letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul's hometown newspaper, he criticized the paper for endorsing the Fair Housing Act, and explained that "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin." (Hat tip: Page One Kentucky.)

"The Daily News ignores," wrote Paul, "as does the Fair Housing Act, the distinction between private and public property. Should it be prohibited for public, taxpayer-financed institutions such as schools to reject someone based on an individual's beliefs or attributes? Most certainly. Should it be prohibited for private entities such as a church, bed and breakfast or retirement neighborhood that doesn't want noisy children? Absolutely not."

In language similar to the language he's used talking about the Civil Rights Act, Paul criticized racism while defending the right of businesses to discriminate.

"A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination," wrote Paul, "even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin. It is unenlightened and ill-informed to promote discrimination against individuals based on the color of their skin. It is likewise unwise to forget the distinction between public (taxpayer-financed) and private entities."

So, when the campaign spokesperson argues that Rand Paul "supports" government restrictions on private enterprise regarding discrimination, that's plainly false. That, or Paul woke up this morning with a policy position entirely at odds with everything he's said and/or thought on the subject for years.

Indeed, this new report drives the point home nicely -- Paul not only thinks the Civil Rights Act was excessive, but he doesn't even support the Fair Housing Act, for the same reason.

Far be it from me to give the Paul campaign advice, but lying about this is the wrong way to go. Paul's only legitimate avenue is to make the philosophical argument -- he finds racism offensive, but doesn't want government to interfere with business' choices -- and hope voters buy it.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WALL STREET REFORM ADVANCES IN SENATE.... The third time was the charm on ending debate on Wall Street reform.

The Senate voted on Thursday afternoon to close debate on a far-reaching financial regulatory bill, putting Congress on a glide path to approving a broad expansion of government oversight of the increasingly complex financial markets that is intended to prevent a repeat of the 2008 economic crisis.

The vote was 60 to 40, with three Republicans joining the Democratic majority in favor of ending the debate. Two Democrats voted with 38 Republicans in opposition to finalizing the bill.

"We have made great progress," the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said after the vote. "It has been hard to get to this point."

Ain't that the truth. Even today wasn't easy -- not only did the 60-vote majority leave no margin for error, Reid needed three Republican votes (Snowe, Collins, and Brown) to overcome the defection of two Democrats (Cantwell and Feingold) who supported the GOP filibuster.

The successful vote on cloture means a final vote can take place within 30 hours, sooner if members unanimously agree to waive the delay.

The bill is expected to pass, at which point it will need to be reconciled with a House version passed late last year. The goal, according to Democratic sources, is to have the final bill signed into law by July 4.

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

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REMEMBER WHEN TERRORISM WAS THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT?.... For quite a while after 9/11, there wasn't much of a debate about the national threat. The greatest danger facing Americans came from terrorists, the conventional wisdom said. The word "but" need not follow.

It's been interesting in the years since to see conservatives abandon this line. Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for example, has a new book out, which argues that terrorists are bad, but Americans he disagrees with are worse.

In the 20th Century, America fought and defeated Nazism, Fascism, Imperialism and Communism -- four existential threats to our survival.

In this century, America is facing two different kinds of threats, though no less grave. This time, the threat does not come from nation-state superpowers, but from non-state networks, each pursuing an agenda based upon radical ideologies. The first motivates non-state terrorist networks to kill Americans both here and abroad. But even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists is a second threat that is right here at home. It is an ideology so fundamentally at odds with historic American values that it threatens to undo the cultural ethics that have made our country great. I call it "secular-socialism."

The Left has thoroughly infiltrated nearly every cultural commanding height of our civilization.

Got that? Foreign radicals who are at war with the United States are a problem, but the "threats" posed by liberals are "even more disturbing." Such is the world through Newt Gingrich's eyes.

Of course, it's not just Newt. Last November, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said Americans have "more to fear" from health care reform than terrorists. Similarly, in October, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said health care reform legislation is more important than the 9/11 attacks.

A few years ago, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson dismissed the 9/11 perpetrators as just "a few bearded-terrorists." The real threat, he said were liberal federal judges.

It wasn't too long ago that the right considered al Qaeda and other terrorists the single most serious threat imaginable. It was, they said, the existential threat of the 21st century. Those who downplayed the dangers posed by terrorists were naive fools, not to be trusted on matters of national security.

I guess conservatives' priorities have changed?

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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REPUBLICANS PRESSED ON REACTIONS TO RAND PAUL.... When a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate publicly announces his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's not unreasonable to think news outlets might ask other Republicans for their thoughts on the matter.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who played a prominent role in boosting Rand Paul's (R) candidacy in Kentucky, was initially reluctant to talk about the matter this morning. But pressed by ThinkProgress, DeMint said he supports the Civil Rights Act, adding, "I'm going to talk to Rand about his positions."

That's not exactly a bold denunciation, but other GOP leaders preferred an even vaguer approach.

Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he's "really not in a position to comment." House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, "Not being familiar with the context of his response or his questions, I really can't opine as to his position."

Aside from the obvious -- no Profile In Courage Award nominations for these two -- it's worth emphasizing that avoiding comment won't do as a political strategy. Rand Paul was some oddball Kentucky ophthalmologist, but he's now the Republican Party's nominee for a U.S. Senate seat. At some point, the party will need a response to Paul's extreme ideology.

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who endorsed Paul's primary opponent in his home state, issue a statement that was fairly characterized as "frosty."

Among Senator McConnell's most vivid memories and most formative events in his career was watching his boss Sen. John Sherman Cooper help pull together the votes to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well.

The two probably won't be campaigning together much.

As for the NRSC, Cornyn had no comment, but the campaign committee nevertheless issued a statement attacking Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) for having been on the wrong side of the civil rights debate in the 1960s.

Note to the NRSC: if you really want to debate right now which party is stronger on civil rights, I have a hunch the DSCC would gladly engage.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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CANTOR INTENDS TO ELIMINATE JOBS PROGRAM.... If House Republicans follow through on their promise, they'll try to force a floor vote today on eliminating the $2.5 billion Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund. It's the result of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) "YouCut" gimmick -- and it's a spectacularly bad idea.

If you're just joining us, Cantor's new toy was launched last week -- Republicans will pick government programs they don't like, and then encourage the public to vote on which one they want to see eliminated. GOP lawmakers will then try to cut the "winning" program, responding to public demand.

This week, the initial round of voting wrapped up, and the first measure on the chopping block is the TANF emergency fund -- which will enable states to place 186,000 unemployed individuals in subsidized jobs by the end of the summer, and which Cantor's office deliberately mischaracterized to YouCut participants.

Yep, House Republicans plan to force a vote on cutting a jobs bill.

The Fund is enabling states to create or expand work-focused welfare-reform programs in which low-income people work in actual jobs. It also is helping states assist the increased numbers of very poor children and parents who are seeking help as a consequence of the deep economic downturn, so that they do not fall into severe destitution or even homelessness.

Without the Fund, many fewer low-income parents would be working today. In addition, more of the nation's poorest children and parents would have neither earnings nor TANF assistance and would face severe hardship that could have lasting effects on children's development. [...]

If Congress fails to extend the TANF Emergency Fund beyond September 30 when it is slated to expire, states will have no additional resources to respond to the increased need that stems from the recession, and most of the subsidized jobs they have created will disappear, increasing the ranks of the unemployed and pushing many children whose parents want to work into severe poverty.

It's not even an especially partisan issue -- even Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has urged Congress to extend the TANF emergency fund.

Remember, for Cantor and the Republican leadership, this is their best example of the kind of government spending they're anxious to slash. As Jon Chait noted the other day, "If you want to argue that the government should have lower taxes, lower spending and less debt, you should have to produce the numbers. If you're going to cop out and just pledge to cut some tiny program benefiting a weak constituency whose cost amounts to a fraction of a percent of the size of the cuts you pledge, you should be able to find a genuinely wasteful program. The fact that the worst program the GOP could identify is actually a good program is a devastating rejoinder to their beliefs about government waste."

It also underscores the problem of a child-like political party trying to govern through gimmicks. In this case, the YouCut publicity stunt is playing a dangerous game that, if successful, would hurt a lot of people.

If Eric Cantor would just leave governing decisions to the grown-ups, we'd all be better off.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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RAND PAUL ATTEMPTS TO CLARIFY.... As the controversy over his remarks on the Civil Rights Act gains steam, Republican Senate hopeful Rand Paul seems to realize that the story is getting away from him. Paul's campaign in Kentucky issued a statement about an hour ago, intending to "set the record straight."

Most of the 325-word statement is about what one would expect -- the right-wing ophthalmologist opposes racism and discrimination; he believes the "federal government has far overreached in its power grabs"; the "liberal establishment" is out to get him, etc.

But here's the heart of the matter:

"Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

"As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years."

Let's unpack this a bit. Rand Paul doesn't want to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and I'm glad, but that's not the point. He was asked whether he would have voted for it, and Paul suggested he would not have because of concerns about government interference with private enterprise. No one's talking about specific votes he might cast; everyone's talking about his extremist worldview.

Similarly, he believes these issues "have been settled by federal courts," and they have. But that misses the point, too. The concern here is that Rand Paul, due to his strange ideology, disagrees with those court rulings. If it were up to him, the matter would have "been settled" in the other direction.

And then there's the key quote: "I support the Civil Rights Act." Of course, that's not what he said yesterday, and it's the kind of insincere "support" that would have led Paul to oppose the very legislation he now claims to endorse.

My concern here is that the media will see the words "I support the Civil Rights Act" and assume the matter has been resolved. It has not. The Republican nominee for Senate has, on more than one occasion, articulated his philosophical opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other bedrocks of American society. A misleading walk-back should make the situation worse for the candidate, not better.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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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.

* In the first polls of Kentucky's Senate race since the primaries, Rasmussen finds right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul leading state Attorney General Jack Conway, 59% to 34%.

* Speaking of Kentucky, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) has reversed course and will not request a re-canvassing of the state's voting machines and absentee ballots.

* California's gubernatorial race is getting more competitive, with a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showing former eBay CEO Meg Whitman leading state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, 38% to 29%, in the Republican primary. Whitman has generally led by huge margins.

* On a related note, the same poll shows an increasingly competitive Republican Senate primary in California, too. The PPIC survey has Carly Fiorina leading Tom Campbell, 25% to 23%, with Chuck DeVore a competitive third at 16%.

* Interesting tidbit that may be of concern to Kentucky Republicans: Rand Paul easily won his Senate primary with 206,159 votes. In the Democratic Senate primary, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo received 221,269 -- and came in second.

* In South Carolina, Rasmussen shows Nikki Haley out in front in the Republican gubernatorial primary, with 30% support. Three other candidates are between 19% and 12% support.

* Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) has been flirting with the idea of running a write-in campaign, and will formally announce his plans in a press conference this afternoon.

* The latest survey in Colorado from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Michael Bennet (D) leading former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), 44% to 41%. Norton has been leading this race for months.

* And Glenn Beck has apparently partnered with FreedomWorks to elect more right-wing extremists this year.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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BEN NELSON NEEDS TO GET OUT MORE.... As part of the ongoing effort to approve Wall Street reform in the Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), among others, has been pushing for restrictions on banks imposing ATM fees.

As Harkin sees it, when a customer uses an ATM, he/she shouldn't be hit with $5 in fees just to take out $20. The senator has characterized the practice as "legal thievery." Republicans, of course, oppose the effort on philosophical grounds. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said preventing government price controls is more important than helping consumers.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), however, isn't sure what to think. It's not that the policy is too confusing; it's just that he's never used an ATM. (via Nico Pitney)

The Nebraska Democrat pleaded ignorance when asked this week whether Congress should cap ATM fees. Nelson said that while he's no fan of unnecessary fees, he's unfamiliar with the charges.

"I've never used an ATM, so I don't know what the fees are," Nelson said, adding that he gets his cash from bank tellers, just not automatic ones. "It's true, I don't know how to use one.

"But I could learn how to do it just like I've . . . I swipe to get my own gas, buy groceries. I know about the holograms."

Apparently, Nelson's reference to "holograms" was his way of describing bar-codes on products.

Nelson isn't up for re-election until 2012, but at this point, the "out of touch" campaign ads seem to write themselves.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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EXPLORING THE LIMITS OF RAND PAUL'S IDEOLOGY.... We talked earlier about Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and his opposition to the Civil Rights Act on the basis of libertarian principles. It appears the national media is just now starting to pick up on the story.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, referring to Paul, said this morning, "He needs to come up with an answer today, or Kentucky will be Arizona: a battleground for ugly, racial politics. He has 24 hours."

But that suggests Paul needs to find a way to explain himself. That's not quite the problem here -- Paul has already explained himself. He's now done three interviews -- with the Courier-Journal, NPR, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- in which he's made clear that he doesn't see a role for the federal government in prohibiting discrimination in private enterprise. "He needs to come up with an answer"? We've already heard Paul's answer.

The next step isn't a further explanation; it's a further exploration of this ideology. Salon's Joan Walsh noted last night:

It's going to become increasingly clear that the Tea Party movement wants to revoke the Great Society, the New Deal and the laws that were the result of the civil rights movement.

Right, and that's really the next challenge for Rand Paul's Senate campaign. He's against the Civil Right Act of 1964 to the extent that interferes with private enterprise. He's against the Americans with Disabilities Act for the same reason.

It will invariably lead to a new parlor game: what other bedrocks of American society does Rand Paul find offensive for ideological reasons?

If we follow the logic he's already articulated, Paul must necessarily oppose the minimum wage, for example. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, in light of their burdens on private companies, would be equally problematic. Social Security must be out of the question. Child-labor laws would obviously be a problem, as would workplace safety regulations and OSHA.

We can even start exploring more details on discrimination. Paul talked about segregated lunch counters yesterday, but let's also explore employment discrimination. If a private company decided to fire a woman for getting pregnant, Rand Paul would necessarily conclude that it's not the government's business. If a private employer refused to hire Jewish applicants, that, under Paul's worldview, would be legally permissible, too.

Rand Paul will spend the next six months trying to defend his philosophical worldview. It should be interesting to watch.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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OF ALL THE POLS TO ATTEMPT A COMEBACK.... About a year ago, disgraced former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) started taking steps to suggest he was interested in a comeback. It was a little hard to believe.

After all, we learned in 2008 that the conservative Republican lawmaker had a secret second family, including a secret love child, separate from his wife and kids in New York. This came to light after a DUI charge in Virginia that led to some jail time for Fossella. It was a good story for a melodrama, but not exactly a recipe for electoral success.

And yet, one year after his arrest, the Staten Island Republican expressed an interest in getting back into the political game. A year after that, he's apparently on his way.

In a move sure to raise political eyebrows, the executive committee of the Staten Island Republican Party bypassed two other candidates to overwhelmingly nominate Fossella for his old congressional seat.

He would challenge the Democratic incumbent, Michael McMahon, in November.

Fossella was not at Wednesday night's meeting, but his name was put up by party Chairman John Friscia, a source told the Daily News.

"There was no explanation. Everybody walked out with their mouths [hanging] open," said the insider.

Now, it's not a done deal -- Fossella hasn't publicly declared his candidacy, and the full committee of the Staten Island Republican Party won't vote until next week.

But it's nevertheless fascinating to see what's possible in GOP politics in 2010.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE LOWDOWN ON LOWDEN.... It's a tough call deciding which of Sue Lowden's ongoing problems is worse. The Republican Senate hopeful in Nevada, who clearly hasn't had a particularly good spring, seems to have proven herself not quite ready for prime time. The question, though, is which of her two main controversies will do more damage.

The first is the ongoing humiliation surround Lowden's chickens-for-checkups problem. This week the Republican candidate participated in a forum with her primary rivals, and Nevada journalist Jon Ralston brought up the controversy. He noted Lowden's original quote, in which she talked about bartering and concluded, "I'm not backing down from that system." Lowden responded, "No, I never said 'from that system.' I never said, 'from that system.'"

Her response was an unambiguous lie.

But at least the chicken debacle and Lowden's subsequent untruths aren't illegal. Accepting a $100,000 in-kind contribution, however, is a felony.

This week, we learned that Lowden's campaign bus, an RV worth more than $100,000, was donated to her by a former casino owner who supports her Senate bid.

"Let's talk about my RV," she told a local reporter. "It was donated. I'm really fortunate. Anyone could have had an RV if they had a supporter who wanted to donate."

And that'd be true, if the value of the RV were a few thousand dollars. But as a would-be senator (or at least her staff) should know, there are legal limits on campaign contributions.

To try to spin her way out of the mess, Lowden changed course yesterday, and said she "misspoke." The RV wasn't actually "donated" after all, the Republican candidate insisted.

But Nevada's Department of Motor Vehicles came to a different conclusion, noting that Lowden's name is on the title.

Here's the part I don't get: why are Republicans in D.C. putting up with this? Lowden is their preferred candidate, and the best bet, in their opinion, to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in November.

Haven't they sent out competent staffers to help her out? Shouldn't the party have prepped her on how to be a capable candidate for statewide office? At this point, Lowden seems to be embarrassing herself, and the GOP establishment must be kicking itself for not having done more to get Lowden on track.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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RAND PAUL, THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, AND 'THE HARD PART' OF 'FREEDOM'.... When Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, sat down with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the paper understandably wanted to get a better sense of the right-wing ophthalmologist's ideology. It led to a logical question about the scope of government power.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I'm all in favor of that.

INTERVIEWER: But?

PAUL: You had to ask me the "but." I don't like the idea of telling private business owners -- I abhor racism. I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant -- but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that's most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

When the interviewer noted that Paul's approach would have allowed lunch counters to deny service to Dr. Martin Luther King, based on nothing but his race, the Republican candidate said he would not go to that lunch counter, and he would criticize that lunch counter, but suggested it would be wrong to legally prohibit a business from discriminating. "[T]his," Paul said, "is the hard part about believing in freedom."

This wasn't an isolated exchange. Paul was on NPR yesterday, explaining that he only supports laws to prohibit "institutional" racism, not discrimination in private enterprise.

Paul then spoke to Rachel Maddow last night on MSNBC, and during the interview, the Republican candidate was more than a little evasive, perhaps realizing that his ideological extremism probably doesn't sound compelling to the American mainstream. Nevertheless, when Paul was asked about the desegregation of lunch counters, he replied, "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion."

Rachel replied, "Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen's lunch counters despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership. This is not a hypothetical Dr. Paul."

I have to admit, I find myself at a rare loss for words. At a certain level, I just find it painful to fathom the notion that, in the 21st century, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate would publicly express his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I'm well aware of the dangerous shift of today's GOP, but I like to think there are some lines that even Republicans wouldn't cross. And yet, here we are.

We all casually throw around words like "crazy" and "fringe" when describing contemporary politics, but once in a while, developments like Rand Paul's candidacy come along, and the need to reevaluate the blurred lines between Republican politics and sheer madness becomes apparent.

In the larger context, I also suppose it's time to start asking Republican leaders across the country a straightforward question: "Your party's Senate candidate in Kentucky has a problem with the Civil Rights Act. Do you think he's right or wrong?"

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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STRUGGLING TO 'COMPETE'.... I've come to think of the America COMPETES Act as a terrific example of how Congress tries to function in 2010, but comes up short in the face of ridiculous and reflexive Republican opposition.

The legislation seems like the kind of measure that could be approved without a lot of partisan sniping. The America COMPETES Act is a jobs bill with a specific focus on boosting investing in science, research, and training programs. It's even garnered Republican co-sponsors.

Last week, however, House approval was scuttled by a farcical Republican motion related to pornography, which made GOP leaders look like spoiled children.

But House Democrats genuinely believe the effort is worthwhile, so it made a good-faith effort to made the bill palatable to a broad majority. They scaled down the price tag from $85 billion to about $47 billion over three years, and even endorsed the Republicans' anti-porn amendment.

But Republicans killed it again anyway.

It was strike two for a major science funding bill yesterday as House Republicans again united to derail legislation they said was too expensive.

Going down to defeat was legislation that would have committed more than $40 billion over three years to boost funding for the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies involved in basic and applied science, provided loan guarantees to small businesses developing new technologies, and promoted science and math education.

Congress enacted a first version of the legislation in 2007 with a large majority in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. But in this election year, with Republicans out to show their antispending credentials, things are different.

"Different," in the sense that congressional Republicans now reject jobs bills they used to support.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D), a Blue Dog from Tennessee, explained that he had made a "sincere attempt to compromise'' with Republicans on the legislation, which he believes is vital to the U.S. maintaining a technological edge over foreign competitors. I don't doubt that he did.

But by all appearances, Gordon was wasting his time trying to reach out to the GOP, which is about as interested in compromise as it is in scientific advances and America's competitive edge.

The final vote was 261 in favor to 148 against. Ordinarily, that'd be enough, but House leaders needed a two-thirds majority for approval, using a procedure that prevented Republicans from playing stupid procedural games.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) vowed to give this another try fairly soon.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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May 19, 2010

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

* A brief reprieve for Florida: "News spread quickly Wednesday that tar balls found on beaches in the Lower Florida Keys were not from the Gulf of Mexico spill, a welcome reprieve for residents still fearful about the fate of their vacation mecca."

* The oil spill disaster nevertheless has Floridians feeling panicky.

* The housing crisis isn't over: "The number of U.S. homeowners who are behind on their mortgages rose to a record level in the first quarter, according to industry data released Wednesday that also included tentative signs the nation's foreclosure crisis may be starting to ease."

* At least inflation isn't even close to being a problem.

* Violence continues to rock Bangkok as civil unrest worsens.

* President Obama welcomed his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, to the White House today for only the second state visit since Obama took office last year.

* The NYT defends its Blumenthal story, but it's not exactly a compelling response.

* Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings will begin on June 28.

* A dreadful milestone in Afghanistan: "On Tuesday, the toll of American dead in Afghanistan passed 1,000, after a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least five United States service members. Having taken nearly seven years to reach the first 500 dead, the war killed the second 500 in fewer than two. A resurgent Taliban active in almost every province, a weak central government incapable of protecting its people and a larger number of American troops in harm's way all contributed to the accelerating pace of death. "

* Former V.P. Walter Mondale reminds the Senate about the importance of reforming the filibuster.

* Michael Gerson's understanding of the U.S. debt leaves much to be desired.

* Campbell Brown is leaving CNN. She admits it's the result of low ratings, giving the network a chance to try something different.

* The story of the guy who conned his way into Harvard really sounds like a bizarre Hollywood script, even though it's all real.

* And Rep. Mark Souder's (R-Ind.) impassioned speech in support of "traditional marriage" -- delivered just six months ago -- appears far more extraordinary with the benefit of hindsight.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SO MUCH FOR FINREG CLOTURE.... On Monday, the Senate leadership announced the debate on Wall Street reform had gone on long enough, and started the clock on a cloture vote on Wednesday afternoon. For a while, things looked encouraging -- Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announced he'd vote with the majority, as would Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Olympia Snowe (R).

So, problem solved? Of course not.

Senate Democrats failed this afternoon to get the 60 votes they needed to end debate on the financial reform bill.

Two Republicans crossed the aisle and voted with the Democrats. But with multiple Democrats voting against cloture, and another absent, the Democrats fell just short. The final vote was 57-42.

Some Democrats whose votes were still in doubt earlier today -- like Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) -- voted in favor of cloture. But others -- Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) -- voted against cloture.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) switched his vote to opposition for purely procedural reasons (by voting "nay" he can bring the motion to the floor again). The absent senator was Arlen Specter, who likely would have voted with the majority.

But Cantwell and Feingold, both of whom reportedly wanted more consideration for their preferred amendments, sided with Republicans and blocked the process from moving forward.

The leadership will no doubt try again sometime soon.

Update: The AP adds, "Still left for the Senate to address are whether to exclude auto dealers from the oversight of a consumer financial protection bureau. Other amendments still being considered would ban commercial banks from trading in speculative investments and impose state interest rate caps on credit card issuers."

Steve Benen 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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MAYBE IT'S NOT 'DISQUALIFYING' AFTER ALL.... Yesterday, responding to allegations surrounding Richard Blumenthal and his military service, Marc Ambinder noted, "In the United States, military service is sacral; it conveys an instant authority, a pedigree, a cultural backstop for character. Lying about it, even exaggerating about it, is therefore instantly disqualifying."

There is, however, some evidence to the contrary. As we talked about yesterday, George W. Bush made plainly and demonstrably false claims about his military service -- repeatedly, over the course of several years -- and faced minimal public criticism.

Ronald Reagan used to tell a story about serving in a U.S. Army unit assigned to film Nazi death camps, but the anecdote had no basis in reality -- Reagan spent World War II in Hollywood, making training films, and didn't get near a Nazi camp.

In an even more contemporary example, Jamison Foser flags this piece from Bob Somerby, who notes Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) exaggerated rhetoric about the first Iraq war.

What happened in 1998 when Graham, then a Republican congressman, was caught up in a much more extensive version of this mess? Graham had endlessly told the world that he was a "Gulf War veteran," although his service during that period hadn't taken him off the east coast. (The east coast of the U.S. ) By the way: In Graham's case, we weren't discussing a single misstatement from a single, two-year-old speech; Graham had endlessly presented himself as a "Gulf War veteran." [...]

Graham should refer to himself as a ''Gulf War era veteran," we were told -- and that's pretty much the basis on which this flame was allowed to blow out. The flap about Graham blew over quickly, helped along by this sage advice. The fiery young fellow was allowed to proceed with the important business of impeaching the president.

And today, some twelve years later? Of course! On page one, the New York Times indicts a major Democrat, complaining that he once said, completely correctly, that he served "during the Vietnam era." The use of "era" solved Graham's problem. Twelve years later, the same construction is used, by the Times, to define Richard Blumenthal's "lies."

The Hill reported in 1998 that Graham made "repeated statements that he served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm."

I guess it's not "instantly disqualifying" after all? At least not for Republicans anyway.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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WHY JOURNALISTS 'GOT IN THE BUSINESS'.... Perhaps no problem is more pernicious in American political journalism than the "he said, she said" phenomenon. Media outlets have come to believe telling news consumers the truth, rather than what "both sides" are saying, is somehow irresponsible. Coverage, then, tends to simply pass along competing talking points, while the public turns to blogs to help separate fact from fiction.

Occasionally, outlets like the Associated Press get it right, and publishes meaningful, constructive fact-checking pieces. Greg Sargent chatted today with its D.C. bureau chief, Ron Fournier, about the practice.

[H]e told me something fascinating, if not all together unexpected: Their fact-checking efforts are almost uniformly the most clicked and most linked pieces they produce.

Journalistic fact-checking with authority, it turns out, is popular. Who woulda thunk it? [...]

"What we tend to forget in journalism is that we got in the business to check facts," Fournier says. "Not just to tell people what Obama said and what Gingrich said. It is groundless to say that Kagan is anti-military. So why not call it groundless? This is badly needed when people are being flooded with information."

Amen.

The fact that these worthwhile pieces tend to be the most successful ones should tell the industry something -- if you give the public what it needs to know, the public will probably respond positively.

The AP is far from perfect on this front, but it does deserve credit for getting it right. I recently applauded its piece, for example, rejecting efforts to characterize the BP oil spill disaster as "Obama's Katrina." Greg noted a few other recent articles, including a solid piece pushing back against Republican criticism against Elena Kagan on "judicial experience."

"The ones that get the most traction are the fact checks," Fournier added.

I can only hope that means he'll publish more of them.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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OMITTING THE EXCULPATORY PART.... Clearly, the most damaging part of yesterday's New York Times report on Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) was one particular sentence he uttered more than two years ago. Speaking an event honoring veterans, Blumenthal said, "We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam."

That's false -- Blumenthal served during the Vietnam era, but was not deployed -- and he concedes that he misspoke at that event. There's no available evidence that Blumenthal repeated that false claim anywhere else, but there's nevertheless a video of the mistaken remarks.

The Associated Press, to its credit, took a closer look at that video, and found some relevant details.

The crisis erupted when The New York Times reported that Blumenthal had repeatedly distorted his military service. The story included quotations and a video of Blumenthal saying at a 2008 event that he had "served in Vietnam." The newspaper also said Blumenthal intimated more than once that he was a victim of the abuse heaped on Vietnam veterans upon their return home.

A longer version of the video posted by a Republican opponent also shows Blumenthal at the beginning of his speech correctly characterizing his service by saying that he "served in the military, during the Vietnam era."

That seems like a pretty important detail that the NYT didn't include in its report. In fact, if Blumenthal were trying to deliberately deceive the public, he wouldn't have told the truth and accurately characterized his service in the exact same speech in which Blumenthal apparently misspoke.

It's reasonable, then, to wonder why the Times' report included the damaging mistake, but not the exculpatory part of the speech. It's possible the NYT was relying on the opposition research given to the paper by Linda McMahon's Republican campaign, and the campaign only presented the part of the speech it wants the reporters to see.

Jamison Foser added, "Either way, the Times should explain why it chose to omit Blumenthal's correct characterization of his service."

And in the electoral context, it's also much easier for Blumenthal and his allies to dismiss this as an honest mistake when there's only one example of the misstatement, and he told the truth in the exact same speech.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE STRANGEST CANDIDATE OF THEM ALL.... The 2010 election season features quite a cast of characters, but there's probably no one quite like Rand Paul, the right-wing ophthalmologist who easily won the Republican nomination in Kentucky's Senate race yesterday.

If you haven't followed Paul -- whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), has a cult following that's helped the son's campaign -- it's a little tough to know where to start. To capture the true nuttiness of Rand Paul's ideology would take a while. When he denounced the Americans with Disabilities Act over the weekend, for example, for not being "fair to the business owner," it barely raised any eyebrows. Sure, it's a pretty extreme position for American politics, but Paul takes so many strange stances -- eliminate the Department of Education, eliminate corporate income taxes, etc. -- it was hardly worth getting excited about.

I've seen others characterize Paul as a hard-line libertarian, but that's not quite right, either. He clearly hates government intervention in most areas, but Paul has no problem with the government using its power to restrict gay rights, and he would like to sponsor legislation "restricting federal courts from hearing cases like Roe v. Wade," which is both nutty and unconstitutional. For that matter, Paul's bizarre rhetoric on immigration policy also puts a lot of distance between him and the libertarian line.

But Josh Marshall looks beyond ideology and policy, and considered whether Rand Paul is, well, kind of a jerk.

So is Rand Paul, on a personal level, just a deeply unlikeable guy? One of the weird things about his acceptance speech last night was that he held it at the local country club -- to what looked uncannily like a members-only crowd. This morning he defended the venue by saying that Tiger Woods has made golf a lot more popular. More to the point, news came out overnight that Paul allegedly refused to take Trey Grayson's concession phone call last night.

I think this last charge requires a little caution. The one making the charge is Grayson's campaign manager, who obviously is far from a neutral observer. And Paul's campaign manager says it wasn't a sleight. He was just "in transit and could not take the call." So who knows?

But I am getting the impression that Paul -- aside from just being very unlikeable in personal terms -- may be a much more divisive figure than one might from any Tea Party candidate who snatches away a nomination from an establishment party figure.... I get the sense there's a whole issue of personality (and messianism) that's going to be in play in that race beyond quite apart from ideology narrowly construed.

Kevin Drum added, "That's what I like to hear: I think it would be great if the tea party cranks lost big in November just because they're a bunch of stubborn, unlikeable, messianic crackpots."

Update: Yglesias' thoughts on Paul are worthwhile, too: "The rise of Rand Paul and his securing the GOP nomination for the Kentucky Senate seat is one of the things that will spark divergent reactions in DSCC headquarters and in the minds of responsible liberals. By nominating a lunatic, Republicans have suddenly taken what should be a hopeless Senate race and turned it into something Democrats can win. At the same time, by nominating a lunatic, Republicans have suddenly raised the odds that a lunatic will represent Kentucky in the United States Senate."

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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ABOUT THAT ANTI-INCUMBENCY STORY LINE.... Reviewing the media coverage of yesterday's elections, it's impossible to miss the dominant story line: incumbents are in deep trouble.

But is that the right interpretation, or is it the overly-simplistic conclusion of media outlets too quick to see developments through a preconceived lens? A longtime reader, whom I affectionately call "Morbo," emailed this morning with a question, which I'm republishing with permission.

[I]s it just me or this "anti-incumbency" story line just something the media is determined to push? Look at the results:

PA: Yeah, Specter lost. He's also 80 friggin years old and had switched parties. Huge mitigating factors.

KY: R. Paul, a right wing candidate in a state that trends right, won -- in a race that did not feature an incumbent.

PA House: Again, no incumbent. And the guy close to the (albeit dead) incumbent won.

AR: Incumbent did not lose outright, forced into runoff.

It seems to me the media is just determined to push this "incumbents are threatened" line no matter what.

I'm quite sympathetic to this line of thinking. The "incumbents are in trouble" narrative is a little lazy, and has become something of a crutch for analysts.

In fairness, it's not entirely baseless. News outlets are running with this story line in part because there's a whole lot of polling data available, and all of it shows an angry electorate that hates the status quo and is ready to "throw the bums out." Indeed, surveys show voters ready to vote against their own representatives at the highest levels since 1994 -- and as I recall, that turned out to be an interesting year for shaking up Congress.

But it's the nuances and details that poke some important holes in the "anti-incumbent" narrative. Specter didn't struggle because he's a sitting senator; he lost because he ran in a Democratic primary after serving as a Republican for 30 years -- a Republican who backed Bush, Cheney, Santorum, McCain, and Palin. Lincoln's career isn't in jeopardy because she's already in office; she's in trouble because Democratic voters aren't pleased with her voting record and aren't convinced she can win in November.

Even among Republicans, the major shake-ups -- in Kentucky, in Florida, in Utah -- have very little to do with incumbency and a great deal to do with ideology.

The media's rush to oversimplify things is consistent with how major outlets cover developments like these. It's just what they do. But it also leads to unhelpful reporting that doesn't fully capture the larger dynamic.

Put it this way: if yesterday's results were really a signal that incumbents are in deep trouble, one would assume that Dems would be panicky today, since they're in the majority. But the opposite is true -- Republicans are reeling after setbacks in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and Democrats are feeling increasingly optimistic.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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'THE BART SIMPSONS OF CONGRESS'.... The House was all set last week to approve the America COMPETES Act, a jobs bill with a specific focus on boosting investing in science, research, and training programs. It was scuttled by a deliberately absurd Republican motion related to pornography, which Dems were afraid to vote against because they knew it'd be used in attack ads.

The little stunt -- eerily reminiscent of a farcical scene from "The Simpsons" 15 years ago -- delayed consideration of the bipartisan bill, which is due to come back to the House floor today. (Under a suspension of the rules, the GOP won't be able to use a motion to recommit, but the bill will need a two-thirds majority to pass.)

The American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein explains in his latest column that last week's antics, orchestrated by the House Republican leadership, were a sad display. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were "visibly exultant" when the America COMPETES Act was needlessly delayed, which only reinforces our worst fears about their abilities as lawmakers.

John Boehner used to be a serious legislator. Eric Cantor is smart and a justifiably rising star in the GOP firmament. But they are becoming the Bart Simpsons of Congress, gleeful at smarmy and adolescent tactics and unable and unwilling to get serious. Instead of encouraging a constructive relationship with the serious and fair-minded legislators on the Democratic side, they are adding to the traction of their take-no-prisoners counterparts. What a shame.

Ornstein has a higher opinion of Boehner's and Cantor's abilities than I do -- I simply cannot recall a time when Boehner was a "serious legislator" -- but the larger point is an important one. The leaders of the House Republican caucus, including a man who may be Speaker of the House in January, are at their most comfortable acting like children. They've grown to love gimmicks and stunts, and approach the substance of policymaking with all the seriousness of a kid who enjoys the popping sound of bubble-wrap a little too much.

And if Republicans excel in the midterms, Boehner and Cantor will perceive it as a reward for their antics, which will only encourage them to be more ridiculous.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* Rasmussen polled the Connecticut Senate race yesterday, following a report on state AG Richard Blumenthal (D) using misleading rhetoric about his military service. The poll shows Blumenthal still leading his GOP challengers, but by narrow margins.

* Kentucky Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) conceded last night after losing a narrow Senate primary fight against state AG Jack Conway (D), but Mongiardo is nevertheless calling for a re-canvassing of the votes. Officials do not expect this to alter the outcome.

* Nevada Dems have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over Sue Lowden (R) receiving an expensive RV from a donor.

* There's ample evidence that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is concerned about his prospects in the GOP primary this year, but a new Rasmussen poll shows him leading former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) by 12, 52% to 40%.

* In North Carolina's Senate Democratic primary, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall will face former state Sen. Cal Cunningham in a June 22 runoff, and she'll now enjoy the support of attorney Ken Lewis, who finished third in the initial primary.

* Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) won a gubernatorial primary last night in the hopes of getting his old job back. He'll face retired basketball player Chris Dudley, who won his Republican primary.

* State Rep. Jeffrey Perry (R), hoping to replace retiring Rep. Bill Delahunt (D), is now at the center of a disturbing controversy over "two illegal strip searches of teenage girls conducted by an officer under Perry's command."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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A TALE OF TWO ESTABLISHMENTS.... The DNC issued an item this morning declaring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday's "biggest loser." The Dems' case seems pretty compelling.

"After the candidate he handpicked to replace the sitting Senator he forced out was crushed in his own backyard, it's fair to say that Mitch McConnell was election night's biggest loser. If the loss weren't bad enough on its own, it may also impact McConnell's leadership position. Going into last night, several commentators saw the Kentucky Republican primary as proxy fight between the McConnell-backed Grayson and DeMint backed-Paul. A fight that McConnell lost, and that not only weakens his leverage in Washington and in Kentucky, but deepens the schism between the far-right and extreme right of the Republican Party."

It's worth noting the obvious question here: if McConnell looks awful, doesn't the Democratic establishment look just as bad? After all, if Rand Paul's success embarrassed McConnell (and it did), shouldn't the results in Arkansas and Pennsylvania be equally problematic for Democratic leaders?

There may be something to this -- defeats for establishment-backed candidates are defeats for establishment-backed candidates -- but I think the nuances and context matter. In fact, there are key differences to explain why Mitch McConnell and his cohorts this morning are feeling quite a bit worse than the White House and the DNC.

Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, to be sure, enjoyed their party's backing. But to an extent, it was obligatory -- they were incumbent lawmakers, who necessarily had to receive the Democratic establishment's support or the entire party system starts to deteriorate.

With McConnell, it was a different animal entirely. This was an open Senate primary -- there was no incumbent -- in a reliably "red" state, which just so happens to be the home state of the Republican Party's most powerful elected official. The party establishment recruited a strong candidate, who was eventually formally endorsed by McConnell himself, among other GOP leaders, all of whom could have remained neutral.

Their guy was then trounced by 24 points at the hands of a bizarre right-wing ophthalmologist who'd never sought public office, and whose worldview isn't even close to the American mainstream.

To draw a meaningful parallel, we'd have to see, for example, an open Senate Democratic primary in Illinois, where President Obama and Dem leaders rallied to support one candidate, who proceeded to lose in a landslide. That, of course, didn't happen.

This, when combined with the special election in Pennsylvania's 12th and some related down-ballot setbacks, made last night much worse for the Republican establishment than their Democratic counterparts.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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FRIGHTENED BY WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN.... The latest stop on the White House's "Main Street" tour brought President Obama to Youngstown, Ohio yesterday. He noted an economic truth that usually goes overlooked.

President Obama came Tuesday to this area long synonymous with economic distress to take a few strides on a victory lap for the policies he credits with helping create jobs and to knock Republicans for standing in the way.

"Despite all the naysayers in Washington, who are always looking for the cloud in every silver lining, the fact is our economy is growing again," Mr. Obama told an audience of several hundred workers in a cavernous -- and expanding -- pipe-making plant, citing four months of job growth.

The president mocked Republicans in Congress who voted in near unanimity against his economic stimulus plan but at home participate in ribbon-cuttings for the job-creating projects it has helped finance.

"If the 'just say no' crowd had won out," he said, "if we had done things the way they wanted to go, we'd be in a deeper world of hurt than we are right now."

Now, the notion that the economy has significantly improved is incontrovertible, despite the ongoing difficulties facing so many, and the fragility of the recovery. But it's that second point that seems especially important.

Indeed, if 2010 should be a referendum on anything, it should be in response to one straightforward question: when the Great Recession was at its worst, and the economy stood at the brink of collapse, who got it right and who got it wrong?

Obama said yesterday that "we'd be in a deeper world of hurt" if we'd listened to Republicans. It's hard to overstate who painfully accurate this is. Go back and look at the GOP arguments from January and February 2009. How did they propose dealing with the crisis? By cutting government spending, pushing a balanced-budget amendment, demanding a capital gains tax cut, and imposing a five-year spending freeze.

Faced with the most pressing economic challenge in generations, the GOP proposed dangerous gibberish. The consequences of the Republican prescription would likely have been catastrophic.

There's ample room for debate about whether the recovery efforts have been ambitious enough, and whether more can/should be done. But what's beyond debate is that the United States was extremely fortunate that there was a Democratic majority in place 16 months ago. There's certainly nothing wrong with the president reminding folks about this nagging detail.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE GOP ESTABLISHMENT'S OTHER KENTUCKY SETBACK.... Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Vice President Dick Cheney were embarrassed a bit last night. Their preferred Senate hopeful in Kentucky was trounced by right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul, who reveled in his "outsider" status.

But down ballot, the GOP establishment suffered another key setback in Kentucky yesterday.

UPS pilot Todd Lally ran away with the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth in Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District, which centers on Louisville. He beat three candidates, including Jeff Reetz, a Pizza Hut franchise owner who was the favorite of the House Republican campaign committee.

Lally is strongly pro-gun rights and anti-abortion rights. The Louisville Courier-Journal's editorial page said that during his endorsement interview, he said President Obama wouldn't be able to get a security clearance if he wasn't president and said health care reform was for the benefit of "freeloaders."

The National Republican Congressional Committee has a "Young Guns" program, backing select Republican challengers in competitive district, and included Reetz as a rising star in the party.

Despite the party's enthusiastic backing -- or perhaps because of it -- Reetz finished a distant third.

As Rachel Slajda summarized, "In Kentucky, the national Republican Party backed the wrong candidate in not one but two primaries."

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) conceded that the results were "undoubtedly disappointing."

Funny, between this and the special election in Pennsylvani's 12th, I don't imagine the DCCC is thinking anything of the sort this morning.

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

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THIS STILL ISN'T AN 'IDEOLOGICAL PURIFICATION'.... Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, now a Washington Post columnist, takes a look at yesterday's primary results, and finds that his suspicions have been confirmed.

Last night two centrist Democratic incumbents failed to stave off challenges from the left in Democratic Senate primaries. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was defeated by left-wing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak. And Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff by her left-wing challenger Gov. Bill Halter [sic].

But don't hold your breath waiting for commentators to decry these shameful efforts at the ideological purification of the Democratic party. When Sen. Bob Bennett is challenged from the right, it is an ideological purge. But when centrists like Specter and Lincoln are challenged from the left, it's democracy in action.

This is consistent with the victim mindset Thiessen has been talking up in recent weeks -- Republicans are facing criticism for purging those who stray from a far-right line, but Dems face no heat at all for primaries against some of their own.

Thiessen's assumptions are badly flawed, leading to conclusions that don't make a lot of sense.

When Bennett was rebuked by his own party, it was evidence of a party that's shifted in an extreme direction -- he has, after all, been a reliable conservative voice, who was this year deemed not quite right-wing enough. It's a textbook example of an ideological purge -- Bennett has been a rigid, conservative ideologue for years, but the GOP base decided they wanted someone even less open-minded.

The parallels to the Arkansas and Pennsylvania races are practically non-existent. In the former, for example, Thiessen's comparison would only make sense if Blanche Lincoln were a liberal senator deemed insufficiently left-wing by the party base. But that's foolish; Lincoln has proven herself to be a disappointment to most Democrats, not because of a handful of isolated votes, but because of her departures from party priorities on a wide range of issues, over the course of several years. Besides, charactering Lt. Gov. Bill Halter as a "left-wing challenger" is pretty silly given his issue positions.

In Pennsylvania, Specter and Sestak were largely on the same point on the political spectrum, giving primary voters a choice that had less to do with ideology, and more to do with Specter's 30-year career as a member of the other political party.

If anything, the message from yesterday's results had less to do with incumbency and the establishment, and more to do with Democrats backing candidates more in line with the Democratic mainstream.

Thiessen is understandably anxious to make it seem as if both parties are engaged in the same "ideological purification" efforts, but it still doesn't have a basis in reality. After Crist, Specter, Scozzafava, Bennett, Grayson, and possibly even McCain, we see a Republican Party that's effectively put a sign on the RNC's door: "Only hard-right ideologues need apply."

If there's evidence to suggest Democrats are taking related steps, it's hiding well.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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'WHERE IS THE WAVE?'.... Arguably the most important election yesterday wasn't a primary race, but rather, the congressional special election in Pennsylvania's 12th -- a contest to fill the vacancy left by the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D).

Observers in both parties considered the race something of a bellwether. Democrats ran Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer, against businessman Tim Burns, who touted his "outsider" status and association with the right-wing Tea Party "movement."

It was the race Republicans felt like they had to win, and the RNC boasted repeatedly that a victory in Pennsylvania's 12th would foretell significant gains in the midterms. It didn't work out the way they'd hoped.

[T]he special election in Southwestern Pennsylvania suggested that Democrats were able to score victories in this challenging political environment. Mark Critz, a former aide to Mr. Murtha, defeated Tim Burns, a Republican businessman. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Critz had 53 percent, compared with 45 percent for Mr. Burns.

Though Democrats dominate in the district, its voters are blue-collar conservatives and it is exactly the type of swing district carried by Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential race that Republicans must win if they are to reach their goal of taking control of the House in November. The loss dealt a blow to Republicans, who have been raising expectations for the fall.

"If you can't win a seat that is trending Republican in a year like this, then where is the wave?" asked Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, who said Republicans will need to examine what went wrong.

That's hardly an unreasonable question.

This is the only district in the country that backed Kerry in 2004, but McCain in 2008, suggesting it was trending heavily in the GOP's direction. If there's going to be a backlash against Dems right now, this should be the place to find it. Indeed, it was the bulk of Burns' platform -- he specifically ran against Washington, Speaker Pelosi, and the Obama presidency, a pitch Republicans intend to duplicate in other competitive districts through the fall.

And while polls showed Burns with a slight edge going into the election, Critz nevertheless won fairly easily.

Marc Ambinder noted yesterday, long before the polls even closed, "If the Republican doesn't [win], I think us pundits in Washington are going to have to revise our thinking about whether this is a wave election year for Republicans."

Once the results were in, Politico added that "Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition.... The district itself couldn't have been more primed for a Republican victory."

In fairness, there are some relevant caveats here. There was a Democratic Senate primary, which may have boosted turnout a bit in Critz's favor. For that matter, Critz didn't exactly run as a bold progressive -- he touted his opposition, for example, to the Affordable Care Act and cap-and-trade.

But Republicans decided weeks ago that this is the kind of district that they'll have to win this year. RNC Political Director Gentry Collins conceded yesterday that this is "exactly the kind of seat that we have to win." Last week, Newt Gingrich said, "This year, we have mobilized millions of people from all over the country, and they are ready to take back this country. It's going to start right here, right now in" Pennsylvania's 12th.

They lost by eight points. It raises uncomfortable questions for Republican strategists, who've done nothing but raise expectations about what's possible in November.

For those keeping score, there have been seven special elections for U.S. House seats since the president's inauguration 16 months ago: NY20, IL5, CA32, CA10, NY23, FL19, and PA12. Democrats have won all seven.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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SUPER TUESDAY SHAKES UP POLITICAL LANDSCAPE.... I've seen some media accounts arguing that yesterday offered bitter news for Democrats. The New York Daily News' lede said, "Tuesday's balloting is a fresh reminder of what all the combatants have understood for months: It's a lousy year to be a Democrat, an incumbent or President Obama."

I don't quite see it that way. Indeed, it seems Dems and progressive activists are waking up this morning with broad smiles on their faces -- and new-found optimism about the 2010 cycle.

In terms of the key statewide races, let's take them one at a time.

Pennsylvania

What happened: Rep. Joe Sestak defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter in a Democratic Senate primary, 54% to 46%.

Analysis: Like all incumbents, Specter enjoyed the support of the party establishment, and his eight-point defeat is being characterized as part of a larger anti-incumbent, anti-establishment wave. But Specter's case was rather unique -- he was a Republican for more than three decades, and ads presenting him as an ally of Bush and Palin were fairly devastating.

What's next: Sestak will face former congressman and right-wing activist Pat Toomey (R) in November. Republicans were reluctant to admit it out loud, but they saw Specter as easier to beat, and recent polls show Sestak as the stronger general election candidate. Dems' chances of keeping the seat very likely improved with yesterday's results.

Kentucky

What happened: Right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul defeated Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in a Republican Senate primary, 59% to 35%. State Attorney General Jack Conway defeated Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the Democratic Senate primary 44% to 43%.

Analysis: Paul's landslide primary victory is the exact opposite of what Republican leaders, who worked hard to recruit Grayson, had in mind for this race. It suggests the Kentucky GOP base has become significantly radicalized, and at least in Kentucky, the so-called Tea Party "movement" carries more weight than the Republicans' elected leaders. Conway's success, meanwhile, is another victory for progressives, over the more conservative Mongiardo.

What's next: Conway, the more progressive of the two Dems, hopes to present himself as the mainstream alternative to Paul's extremism, while the GOP has to pretend it doesn't mind its nominee's bizarre beliefs.

Arkansas

What happened: Incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln edged Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a Democratic Senate primary, 45% to 42%, falling short of the 50% she'd need to avoid a runoff. Rep. John Boozman won a multi-candidate Republican Senate primary with 54% support.

Analysis: While most of the media coverage is, again, suggesting that Lincoln's troubles are part of an anti-incumbent wave, the truth is Lincoln's voting record has generated ill will between her and Democratic voters. Halter's success was largely the result of enthusiastic support from the progressive base and labor unions.

What's next: Lincoln and Halter will face off again in a runoff in three weeks. As with Pennsylvania, Republicans perceive Lincoln as more vulnerable in the general election, but are loath to say so out loud.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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May 18, 2010

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

* Diplomatic breakthrough: "The Obama administration announced Tuesday a deal with other powers, including Russia and China, to impose a fourth set of sanctions on Iran in as many years, touching off a contest with Tehran to win support in the United Nations Security Council."

* Taliban takes credit for deadly bombing in Afghanistan: "A powerful car bomb exploded early Tuesday within a few feet of a passing military convoy on the western edge of Kabul, killing at least a dozen Afghan civilians and six foreign troops, including five Americans, U.S. military and Afghan officials said."

* This is likely to come with consequences: "South Korea will formally blame North Korea on Thursday for launching a torpedo at one of its warships in March, causing an explosion that killed 46 sailors and heightened tensions in one of the world's most perilous regions, U.S. and East Asian officials said."

* How many Republicans will end up voting for Wall Street reform? Probably four or five.

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on ratifying the new nuclear arms treaty.

* Did Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and his mistress hook-up in state parks?

* The first batch of paperwork on Elena Kagan -- hundreds of pages worth -- heads to the Senate for review.

* In the meantime, his party's talking points notwithstanding, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) does not consider Kagan "anti-military."

* The Democratic effort to eliminate secret holds in the Senate gets a little GOP support. A pleasant surprise, to be sure.

* One of the members of that team of scientific elites sent to the Gulf to deal with the oil spill crisis turned out to be a bit of a crackpot.

* On a related note, a presidential commission, tasked with identifying exactly what happened with this spill and why, is in the works.

* Just think of all the money we'd save if we didn't care about malnourished children.

* GM is doing pretty well thanks to the reviled "government takeover." Who would have thought it? Well, we did.

* Interesting research at the University of Vermont on understanding the way in which different students learn.

* A math teacher in an Alabama public high school hoped to teach angles to his geometry students by talking about how to assassinate President Obama.

* And finally, Michael Kinsley had an interesting thought this week: "Now that the sex lives of Supreme Court justices have become grist for commentators, we are finally free to discuss a question formerly only whispered about in the shadows: Why does Justice Antonin Scalia, by common consent the leading intellectual force on the Court, have nine children? Is this normal? Or should I say 'normal,' as some people choose to define it? Can he represent the views of ordinary Americans when he practices such a minority lifestyle? After all, having nine children is far more unusual in this country than, say, being a lesbian."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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BLUMENTHAL ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY FOR 'A FEW MISPLACED WORDS'.... Connecticut Attorney General and Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal (D) hosted an event this afternoon to respond to reports of misleading rhetoric about his military service. While he expressed "regret" for his errors, Blumenthal's tone was more defiant than contrite.

"On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service and I take full responsibility," he said, surrounded by a group of veterans. "But I will not let anyone take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country."

Of course, I'm not sure if anyone actually has tried to "impugn" his service, but the message was representative of the underlying message: Blumenthal doesn't intend to be put on the defensive about this controversy.

He fielded questions from reporters -- a good move, since the alternative would have looked awful -- and emphasized that he "misspoke" on occasion, sometimes saying "'in' instead of 'during,'" but his errors were "absolutely unintentional." He also stressed the fact that his service in the Marine Reserves was not the result of special treatment.

Blumenthal was repeatedly interrupted by applause from his veteran allies. They became especially animated when a reporter asked if the state AG would apologize. He did not.

Will the response help get the story under control and save his candidacy? If I were a betting man, I'd give Blumenthal pretty good odds of persevering.

Greg Sargent's take was very much in line with my own: "Whatever the truth, he insisted with a great deal of conviction that his lapses weren't intentional. And the evidence so far suggests that in other settings, he didn't intend to mislead. Perhaps most important, no Dems are cutting and running right now. They seem to have closed ranks behind him. Botttom line: It seems clear he'll survive."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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CANTOR'S YOUCUT TARGETS TANF EMERGENCY FUND.... Last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) launched the latest in a series of gimmicks. The new one is called "YouCut," and the idea is pretty straightforward -- Republicans pick government programs they don't like, and then encourage the public to vote on which one they want to see eliminated. Then, GOP lawmakers try to cut the funding.

The idea was widely mocked by people like, well, me. Regardless, a week later, the initial round of voting is complete, and Republicans know what they want to slash first.

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) announced Tuesday that a $2.5 billion welfare program will be the first project marked for elimination through the House Republican YouCut initiative.

The welfare emergency fund won the first YouCut poll with 29.07 percent of the online vote, edging out four other government programs that Republicans identified as "wasteful."

At issue is the welfare emergency fund, included in last year's Recovery Act. It carried a $5 billion price tag, half of which has already been spent. Here's the way Cantor's office characterized the emergency fund to YouCut voters:

The program was recently created to incentivize states to increase their welfare caseloads without requiring able-bodied adults to work, get job training, or otherwise prepare to move off of taxpayer assistance. Reforming the welfare program was one of the great achievements of the mid 1990s, saving taxpayers billions of dollars and ending the cycle of dependency on welfare. This new program, created in 2009 is a backdoor way to undo those reforms.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that Cantor doesn't seem to understand the program he now wants to cut. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained today that this so-called "wasteful" program will actually enable states to place 186,000 unemployed individuals in subsidized jobs by the end of the summer. The notion that it "incentivizes states to increase their welfare caseloads" is simply wrong.

But like most Republican gimmicks, this has nothing to do with what's real, and everything to do with what Cantor and his cohorts can get people to believe.

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

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PERHAPS 'CLASS' IS THE WRONG WORD.... When Republicans talk about the 2010 midterms, they invariably use 1994 as a benchmark, and hope to duplicate that level of success.

Electorally, that makes sense; '94 was the cycle Republicans took the majority in both chambers. But in terms of quality, the GOP should probably aim higher. After all, in hindsight, the historic, "revolutionary" Class of '94 looks a little ... sleazy.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), for example, announced his resignation this morning, in light of the "family-values" conservative's new sex scandal. Dave Weigel takes stock of his cohorts from the same class:

Rep. Jim Bunn (R-Ore.) divorced his wife and married his chief of staff in 1995; he lost reelection in 1996.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) resigned in 2006 after pleading guilty to corruption charges.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned in 2006 after former pages accused him of sexually harassing them.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) admitted an affair with a former campaign aide in 2009 -- he lost a leadership post but stayed in the Senate.

Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), elected to the House in 1994, admitted an affair with an Argentine journalist in 2009 but retained his job.

And now, Souder.

But why stop there? Rep. Enid Greene (R-Utah ) was elected in 1994, but didn't seek re-election after authorities learned her campaign was financed in part by funds embezzled by her husband. Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) was elected in 1994, and was perhaps best known for having carried on a six-year extra-marital affair. And then there was Rep. Wes Cooley (R-Ore.), who became something of a national joke for wild fabrications on his resume, and who was later indicted on "federal money laundering and tax charges in connection with his role in an alleged scheme that prosecutors said bilked more than $10 million from investors."

It was quite a class, wasn't it?

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHEN THE SOURCE BECOMES PART OF THE STORY.... Connecticut Attorney General and Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal (D) clearly has a problem to overcome. When describing his Vietnam-era military service, there are some instances in which he's used misleading rhetoric.

But when learning about this earlier, it was hard not to wonder where the story originated. Did someone set the New York Times on Blumenthal's trail? In a rare twist, a GOP rival is claiming credit.

Pulling back the curtain on journalistic sausage-making usually hidden from voters, a Republican Senate candidate is taking credit for the front-page New York Times story. [...]

The campaign of World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder Linda McMahon, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Blumenthal, is doing little to discourage suggestions it provided the sort of opposition research to The Times that is known around campaigns as an "oppo dump."

A McMahon spokesperson boasted this morning that the campaign "discovered some very troubling disparities" about Blumenthal. In case that was too subtle, the McMahon campaign promoted an item from a Republican blogger that stated plainly that the revelations were "fed to the paper by the Linda McMahon Senate campaign," and came as a result of "more than 2 months of deep, persistent research by Republican Linda McMahon's Senate campaign," which reportedly spent millions to dig up dirt on the candidate's rivals.

This is certainly an odd strategy. Democrats are anxious to characterize the NYT article as a politically-motivated "hit piece," and a leading far-right candidate made that argument easy by bragging and taking credit. If the McMahon camp had kept its mouth shut, it would have been harder for Dems to turn the revelations around.

Indeed, by boasting about the successful attack, McMahon also opened the door to her primary opponent reminding reporters that McMahon made some deceptive claims about her own background.

It took a while, but eventually the McMahon campaign realized that it wasn't doing itself any favors by bragging about planting the Blumenthal story, and aides scrubbed the campaign website of any references to its role in this. But it's probably too late -- Blumenthal has to explain his misstatements, but he'll likely try to characterize the whole mess as a partisan attack from a desperate, far-right candidate who's trailing in the polls, and there'll be some truth to that.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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GOP AGAIN BLOCKS HIGHER CAP ON OIL COMPANY LIABILITY.... The political circumstances would seem to benefit the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act." Under existing law, there's a $75 million liability cap for oil spills. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) want to increase it to $10 billion.

The impetus for approving the measure should be obvious -- the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf keeps getting worse, and may soon no longer be limited to the Gulf. It's hardly a good time for a politician to take a shameless stand to limit industry liability costs.

And yet, it keeps happening. Last week, it was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Today, it was Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) stopped Democrats' efforts on Tuesday of passing a measure to increase oil companies' liability for accidents resulting from offshore drilling.

Inhofe objected to a unanimous consent request by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who took a second stab Tuesday at passing the bill in an expedited way.

Menendez and his partners on this intend to keep trying -- and the DSCC intends to use Republican opposition as a campaign issue.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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OIL SPILL MOVES EAST.... Last night, the Coast Guard reported 20 tar balls found along the shore at a state park in Key West. Researchers are analyzing them -- the tar balls aren't necessarily the result of the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf -- but the development renewed fears about the spill getting caught up in the loop current and heading east.

The AP reports that some scientists expect this to intensify.

University scientists are forecasting that oil from the spill off Louisiana could reach Florida's Key West by Sunday.

University of South Florida researchers said Tuesday the southern arm of the massive spill has entered or is near the so-called loop current, which circulates in the Gulf and takes water south to the Florida Keys and the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream could eventually take the oil up Florida's Atlantic coast.

In the meantime, about a fifth of the entire Gulf of Mexico has been deemed unsafe for fishing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shut down fishing in a 45,728-square-mile section of the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said Tuesday.

The federal government has jurisdiction over the area, which is 19 percent of the Gulf.

Brad Johnson has more, including satellite imagery suggesting the oil spill has, in fact, been captured by the loop current, which may yet push the oil up along the Atlantic coast -- and eventually, towards Europe.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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

* At this point, the Democratic establishment continues to support Richard Blumenthal's Senate campaign in Connecticut. That should help his chances, barring any additional revelations.

* Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has a theory to explain why he's losing to right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul in the Republican Senate primary: Paul is on Fox News all the time, getting softball questions, and Grayson isn't.

* It seems implausible, but Sen. Bob Bennett (R), defeated at the Utah Republican Party's convention and ineligible for the primary ballot, continues to drop hints about a possible write-in campaign.

* Speaking of Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) has heard rumors about facing a primary challenge, but he's committed to running for re-election in 2012 anyway.

* Scott Walker, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful in Wisconsin, criticized Arizona's scandalous immigration law on Friday, saying, "In America, we don't want our citizens getting pulled over because of how they look." Less than a half-day later, Walker announced his support for Arizona's law. By Saturday, he announced he would have signed the Arizona measure into law.

* It seems all but certain that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) will run for governor this year, but he won't announce before the state Democratic Party convention begins in about a week.

* And Greg Sargent had a very smart piece yesterday about the primary campaigns of Bill Halter and Joe Sestak, who, if successful, really would represent a victory for the left.

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

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CHUTZPAH WATCH.... It's wrong when members of Congress commit adultery. It's even worse when the lawmaker is a "family-values" conservative Republican. But one of the more remarkable details of Rep. Mark Souder's (R-Ind.) sex scandal makes his story one for the books.

According to Fox News, Souder's adultery was as a result of an affair with Tracy Jackson, a part-time aide. That wouldn't be especially interesting, except for the video in which Tracy Jackson interviews Mark Souder in November 2009 about his years of work in support of abstinence education.

Why "The Daily Show" always seems to be on a break when these stories come to public light I'll never know.

On a related note, Souder's resignation announcement -- which, for some reason, was issued in all caps -- included a few odd nuggets. The conservative lawmaker complained, for example, that he does not "have any sort of 'normal' life." I have no idea why he's telling us this.

The statement also lamented the "poisonous environment" of D.C. politics, in which "any personal failing is seized upon, often twisted, for political gain."

I see. Mark Souder has spent 16 years on his moral high horse, condemning those whose "values" and "lifestyles" he finds offensive. We then find out that he cheated on his wife with an aide to whom he boasted about his support for abstinence programs.

But the problem is with Washington's "poisonous environment" that makes it tough for a guy like Souder to get away with misconduct committed by guys like Souder?

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

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A CROWD THAT'S TOUGH TO PLEASE.... Josh Green spent some time in Kentucky, in advance of its high-profile Republican Senate primary. If the polls are right, right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul will defeat Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in their contest today, despite the enthusiastic support Grayson enjoys from the GOP establishment.

Green noted that the support from the party doesn't effectively translate into votes, in large part because angry right-wing voters don't think highly of the party's leadership.

In my talks with voters on the campaign trail today and yesterday, the idea that the Republican Party is as complicit as the Democratic Party in what ails the country is something I heard again and again. I made a point of seeking out registered Republican voters, and the frustration with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and the Senate Minority Leader, seemed indistinguishable from -- or perhaps better to say, "was a large part of" -- the general frustration with Washington.

"Republicans in Washington, D.C. are just playing 'follow the leader,' Janice Cox told me at a rally in Paducah earlier today, to which she'd brought her daughter, grandchildren, and a jumbo-sized American flag. "We need a true constitutional conservative."

Jon Chait had the same reaction to this that I did:

McConnell must want to tear his hair out. What more could he possibly do to oppose Obama's agenda? He put intense pressure on his party to pull out of negotiations over health care reform. He maintained a united wall of opposition on virtually everything. He used every parliamentary trick at his disposal, slowing down Congress by filibustering even totally uncontroversial measures and low-level appointments. What more could he do? Do these people want him to use actual violence?

Right. For anyone to seriously think Mitch McConnell has been a reasonable, conciliatory Minority Leader, willing to work in good faith and play a constructive role in the policymaking process, is silly. He's taken obstructionism to depths unseen in American history, effectively breaking the institution of the Senate.

If McConnell's base wants him to be even more aggressive in blocking affairs of state, I shudder to think what their expectations might include.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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ANOTHER 'FAMILY-VALUES' REPUBLICAN RESIGNS AFTER SEX SCANDAL.... In the House of Representatives, Christian conservatives and religious right groups have no more reliable an ally than Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana. It makes these shocking revelations all the more interesting.

Indiana Rep. Mark Souder (R) will resign his congressional seat after an affair with a staffer came to light, he said in a statement this morning.

"It is with great regret I announce that I am resigning from the U.S. House of Representatives as well as resigning as the Republican nominee for Congress in this fall's election," said Souder.

"I sinned against my God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part time member of my staff," added Souder. "I am so shamed to have hurt those I love."

Every time a conservative Republican gets caught up in a sex scandal, it carries a little extra punch -- the GOP, after all, claims the moral high ground as the party of "family values" -- but Souder's scandal is especially humiliating. The Indiana Republican, after all, has made the "fight to uphold traditional values" the centerpiece of his professional life. His official website declares, "The family plays a fundamental role in our society.... I am committed to preserving traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman... I am committed to fighting the assault on American values." Souder has been especially active in fighting against gay rights and for abstinence-only funding

Oops.

At this point, Souder is quitting Congress altogether, not just announcing his retirement. The timing is a little awkward for the Indiana GOP -- Souder just won a tough primary two weeks ago -- but Dave Weigel has heard that Hoosier Republicans can replace Souder on the ballot when the state party hosts its convention in mid-June.

But then there's the larger context: those "family-values" Republicans sure do have a lot of sex scandals, don't they? It's getting difficult to keep track of them all. Souder is the newest, but his humiliation comes on the heels of Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) scandal. That came to light around the same time as Gov. Mark Sanford's (R-S.C.) sex scandal, which came soon after Gov. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), which itself followed Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

If we look back a little further, we also find disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. If go back a little more, names like Vito Fossella, Tim Hutchinson, Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, and Bob Livingston also come to mind. And those are just the office-holders.

For the better part of a generation, the Republican Party has demanded higher moral standards of all of us, while failing to meet these standards. It's far easier for the public to tolerate personal mistakes and human failings than it is to accept shameless hypocrisy.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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GIVING 'UNDER THE BUS' A WHOLE NEW MEANING.... In Nevada, Republican Senate hopeful Sue Lowden became something of a laughingstock recently with her thoughts on medical cost controls, which included the infamous "bring a chicken to the doctor" suggestion. The ensuing controversy made it seem as if Lowden simply wasn't ready for prime time.

But as humiliating as that story was for Lowden, it simply cast her in a ridiculous light. Now the far-right candidate has a new problem, which isn't as funny, but which is arguably more serious.

Sue Lowden, a leading Republican contender to challenge Sen. Harry Reid, is being accused by a chief competitor of breaking campaign finance law for accepting a luxury campaign bus as a campaign contribution.

A campaign contributor is "leasing" to Lowden the RV she is using as her campaign bus, according to her campaign. But Lowden's name is on the title along with the name of the supporter, Carl Giudici, seemingly indicating they co-own the bus.

Campaign finance rules allow in-kind contributions of $2,400 -- equal to the cash limit. The contribution of a luxury RV, which commonly costs more than $100,000, would be a violation of the law.

Apparently, Giudici, a former casino owner, bought the RV about a year ago. Lowden launched her campaign a few months later, and accepted the RV as a donation.

Except that's likely not legal. Both Giudici and his wife have maxed out their campaign contributions, and even if they hadn't, candidates can't accept a luxury campaign bus worth more than $100,000 as a campaign donation.

Lowden's lawyers are arguing that the campaign pays Giudici fair-market value on the days they drive it, so everything's kosher. As for Lowden's name appearing on the title as a co-owner, those same lawyers insist the lease agreement "supersedes" the title.

Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington dismissed the defense, telling the Las Vegas Sun, "He gave [the RV] to her. She owns it. She's on the title, and it's in her custody and control. It's an excessive campaign contribution."

Lowden was already struggling. This will likely make matters worse.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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WE'VE SEEN THIS (AND WORSE) BEFORE.... Following up on an earlier item, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) clearly has a problem on his hands, after misleading rhetoric about his Vietnam-era military service. As far as the political implications go, there's one key question: is this controversy survivable, or is it a career-killer?

We'll know fairly quickly whether Blumenthal can persevere -- either he and his campaign will be effective in responding to this, or it won't. Blumenthal hasn't been tested much as a candidate, and this will clearly constitute the biggest test of his professional life.

But speaking generally, it's not unreasonable to think a politician can survive -- and even thrive -- after a controversy like this one. One particularly high-profile figure comes to mind.

Remember George W. Bush?

You may recall, for example, that when Bush launched an unsuccessful congressional campaign, he claimed to have "served in the U.S. Air Force." That was clearly not true.

In 2002, Bush claimed that he'd "been to war." That was clearly not true, either.

In many instances, Bush claimed to have completed his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard. Again, that wasn't true.

In 2007, Bush claimed to have "firsthand" experience with the consequences of combat. That, at a minimum, is misleading.

My point here is not to rehash the former president's deceptive descriptions of his military service. My point is that a politician can be caught misleading voters about a service record, and still do very well on Election Day. In Bush's case, he made dishonest claims about serving, and managed to nevertheless get elected president -- twice.

Update: Bush also claimed in his ghost-written auto-biography that he "continued flying with" his unit for "the next several years" after completing pilot training in 1970. That wasn't true, either.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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BLUMENTHAL SERVICE RECORD SHAKES UP CONN SENATE RACE.... When Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) announced his retirement a few months ago, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) immediately stepped up and became the frontrunner. With huge leads in statewide polls, Blumenthal would be formally nominated at the state party convention later this week, and was on his way to victory.

A damaging New York Times report has put all of this in jeopardy.

At a ceremony honoring veterans and senior citizens who sent presents to soldiers overseas, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut rose and spoke of an earlier time in his life.

"We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam," Mr. Blumenthal said to the group gathered in Norwalk in March 2008. "And you exemplify it. Whatever we think about the war, whatever we call it -- Afghanistan or Iraq -- we owe our military men and women unconditional support."

There was one problem: Mr. Blumenthal, a Democrat now running for the United States Senate, never served in Vietnam.

The NYT report added that Blumenthal has "often" used "misleading" rhetoric to characterize this part of his life. That seems entirely fair -- he's clearly described his service in such a way as to give the wrong impression. Blumenthal spent several years in the Marine Corps Reserves, but thanks to five deferments, he was not deployed overseas, and never saw combat.

That said, the controversy here is not entirely clear cut. Based on the article, it appears the NYT only found one instance in which Blumenthal specifically claimed that he "served in Vietnam." That's definitely not true, and he conceded that he "misspoke" when he made those remarks more than two years ago.

But in most other instances, Blumenthal appears to have sliced the truth pretty thin, using language the NYT described as "ambiguous." For example, at a 2008 ceremony in front of a Veterans War memorial, he said, "I served during the Vietnam era," which is technically true, though vague, perhaps deliberately so.

If, however, Blumenthal was trying to create a fictional service record, he didn't try very hard. Just two months ago, in a televised debate, he responded to a question about national security by saying, "Although I did not serve in Vietnam...."

As a rule, people who lie about serving in Vietnam don't announce on television that they did not serve in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny how embarrassing this story is for Blumenthal. There's no shortage of questions about what today holds for his Senate campaign: will Dems rally behind him or throw him overboard? With the filing deadline next week, will Blumenthal now face a credible primary opponent? Will veterans' groups put pressure on him to withdraw?

For what it's worth, Blumenthal will host a press conference in Connecticut today, standing alongside supportive veterans. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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May 17, 2010

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

* The good news is, BP's mile-long pipe is doing fairly well in capturing some of the oil in the Gulf, and diverting it to a drill ship on the surface. The bad news is the pipe is only catching about 1,000 barrels a day -- meaning it's containing the flow, not stopping it -- and the gushing continues apace.

* In the meantime, "Lawmakers on Monday voiced anger towards federal regulators and oil companies in the aftermath of the Gulf disaster, with some going as far as demanding a criminal investigation."

* Iran has reportedly agreed to send the bulk of its nuclear material to Turkey. The White House, not surprisingly, is skeptical of the deal between Turkey, Brazil, and Iran.

* General Motors scored its first quarterly profit in nearly three years: "The $865 million first-quarter profit is a dramatic reversal from the huge $6 billion loss in the same period last year."

* On a related note, Chrysler has paid back American taxpayers $1.9 billion, out of the $4 billion it received in loans.

* Controversial 7-2 ruling: "The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered 'sexually dangerous' after their prison terms are complete." Then why bother with sentencing at all?

* President Obama's first two nominees to head the TSA didn't work out well. The White House hopes the third time's the charm, and has sent John Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, to the Senate for confirmation.

* Signing the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act into law: "President Obama signed legislation on Monday intended to promote free press around the world, a bipartisan measure inspired by the murder in Pakistan of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

* Kevin Drum takes the Obama administration to task over its record on civil liberties.

* The global-cooling crowd has some tough numbers to spin.

* For the thousandth time, Elena Kagan is not anti-military.

* For that matter, her college thesis isn't as exciting as right-wing bloggers would have you believe.

* Fox News' Brit Hume, in his infinite wisdom, doesn't think the BP oil spill disaster is such a big deal because he hasn't seen much oil.

* If you have a few minutes, the new video from D.C. Douglas L. Baxterstein Jr. -- you know, the guy who lost his Geico voiceover job for drunk-dialing FreedomWorks -- is pretty darn funny. (thanks to D.M. for the tip)

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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HATCH HOPES YOU HAVE A SHORT MEMORY.... Matt Yglesias and Matt Corley flag this very amusing exchange between Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and far-right media personality Laura Ingraham. Hatch was asked whether he understands the rage from Tea Partiers who helped drive his colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, from Congress.

OH: Yeah, I do. And I'll tell you why because I listen to these folks, I don't disagree with them. They're angry for good reasons. I mean, my gosh, these people in Washington are running this country right into the ground. And I think people are dog-gone angry about it.

LI: But aren't you part of Washington?

OH: Hell no. I've never been. I've never considered this a job. I've had, people have asked me, they said, "Say, Senator Hatch, don't you just love being a U.S. senator?" My constant answer is this. No, I don't love it at all, but I'm good at it.

There are a few interesting angles to this. The first, which Yglesias noted, is that it's pretty tough for Hatch to say he isn't part of Washington -- not only has he been in the Senate for 34 years, but his son is a highly-paid lobbyist in D.C., too.

But let's go a little further. It's also amusing because Hatch claims he shares common ground with the right-wing Tea Party crowd. What he neglected to mention is that he's been bashing these same activists for months. Apparently hoping that the right wing of his party doesn't have Google, Hatch argued in February that the Tea Partiers must do more to support moderate Republicans and stop being so dogmatic. More recently, Hatch said these activists too often "don't have an open mind and they won't listen."

As for Hatch's belief that "these people in Washington are running this country right into the ground," it'd be easier to take the senator seriously if he weren't just a transparent hack. When Hatch and his friends ran the government, they pushed the economy to the brink of collapse; racked up trillions of dollars in debt; expanded the size of government without paying for it (Hatch said "it was standard practice not to pay for things" when the GOP was in charge); bungled two wars, one of which was launched under false pretenses; and ignored and/or neglected nearly every area of domestic public policy.

But "these people" are undermining the United States? In Grown-Up Land, "these people" have spent 16 months trying to clean up the painful and humiliating mess Hatch and his buddies left for the nation to deal with.

Seems like a senator who's "good at" his job would be aware of this.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WALL STREET REFORM -- ENDGAME.... The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was "likely" to file cloture today on the Wall Street reform package pending in the chamber. Christina Bellantoni added this afternoon that Reid will do just that this evening, starting the clock on a final vote in a few days.

And while there's reason for some optimism -- even Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) conceded yesterday that he expects the legislation to pass -- like every other major bill, this won't be easy.

...Reid is still facing the threat of a filibuster from retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan, who hasn't tipped his hand yet today on whether the Democrats have convinced him to vote for moving ahead with the bill. An aide told me that Dorgan (D-ND) expects to get a vote on his amendment dealing with credit default swaps but would not say if anything has changed since he told leadership he would block the bill from a final vote last week.

Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor this afternoon he's aiming for a final vote by the end of the week, perhaps as early as Thursday.... Several more amendments will be considered this evening, though Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Arlen Specter (D-PA) are unlikely to be here for the vote while they are campaigning back home in advance of tomorrow's primary elections.

Annie Lowrey suggests Reid's schedule is ambitious, and may not come together as planned, but "the final vote should come soon."

If Reid files for cloture today, my guess is that he might not have 60 votes to end debate, as too many amendments are pending and too many senators have pet issues they want to see resolved. Additionally, if Reid files for cloture and the motion does pass, the Senate can debate the bill for only 30 hours more and no new amendments can be filed. That means no new compromise amendments on issues such as the Volcker rule, possibly meaning Reid might delay for another day or two.

Paul Krugman, meanwhile, described the current bill as a "stronger version than almost anyone expected."

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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TOP MMS OFFICIAL SHOWN THE DOOR.... When it comes to assigning blame for the oil spill disaster in the Gulf, the list of culprits isn't exactly secret. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton failed miserably, and the consequences are severe.

But last week, when President Obama noted "there is enough responsibility to go around," he included the federal government on the list. "For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill," he said.

Obama was referring, of course, to the Minerals Management Service, the agency within the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling. In the Bush/Cheney era, MMS became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history, embracing an anything-goes atmosphere that led to literally Caligula-like corruption and debauchery -- including federal officials trading cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts.

It became obvious that the agency is in need of a shake-up. Today, we see the first step in that direction.

Chris Oynes, the top Interior Department official who oversees offshore oil and gas drilling for the Minerals Management Service, announced Monday that he will retire on May 31, The Washington Post has learned.

Oynes, who has overseen oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico for 12 years before being promoted to MMS associate director for offshore energy and minerals management, has come under fire for being too close to the industry officials he regulated.

The announcement comes just a few days after we learned that MMS "gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species -- and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf."

Some of these decisions were made last year, but before the White House could bring in its own team to the Interior Department. A spokesperson for the cabinet agency said Obama administration officials are "working very hard to change the culture" in the relevant agencies.

That means replacing the old guard with a new one. It seems more than likely that Oynes will not be the only one who's replaced.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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'JACK BAUER REPUBLICANS'.... I've been fascinated lately by the kind of folks running for office this year as Republicans. I'm specifically thinking of people who've failed and/or embarrassed themselves in various areas of public life, and seek to capitalize on their ignominy, counterintuitive though this may be.

Rob Portman, for example, is running for the Senate in Ohio, despite his work as the head of the Bush/Cheney budget office. Dan Coats is running for the Senate in Indiana, despite having been a corporate bank lobbyist in D.C. for the last several years. Rick Scott is running for governor in Florida, despite his role in the Columbia/HCA scandal in the 1990s, and his loathsome work as head of the right-wing Conservatives For Patients during the health care debate.

But the list keeps growing. Benjy Sarlin wrote a fascinating item about "Jack Bauer Republicans," highlighting two U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq who "left the military after surviving charges of crimes against detainees," but who hope to parlay their scandals into electoral success.

Ilario Pantano, the Republican nominee in North Carolina's 7th, is of particular interest.

In April 2004, Pantano killed two unarmed Iraqi detainees, twice unloading his gun into their bodies and firing between 50 and 60 shots in total. Afterward, he placed a sign over the corpses featuring the Marines' slogan "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy" as a message to the local population.

Pantano said that he acted in self-defense and that the two suspects were charging at him, but the military accused him of premeditated murder. The case became an international news story and Pantano's defense a popular cause for conservatives. In 2005, military prosecutors dropped the charges, in part because a key witness's testimony could not be corroborated.

Pantano's former primary opponent, Will Breazeale, also an Army veteran of both wars in Iraq, said it would be "dangerous" to elect Pantano to Congress. "To shoot two unarmed prisoners 60 times and put a sign over their dead bodies is inexcusable," Breazeale told Sarlin.

And then there's retired Lt. Col. Allen West (R), running in Florida's 22nd.

West was forced to retire from the Army and fined $5,000 after he admitted to apprehending an Iraqi policeman he suspected of planning an ambush, watching as his troops beat him, and then firing a gunshot by the Iraqi's head in order to scare him into divulging information. West said the decision saved lives by preventing an ambush. But no plot was ever discovered and the policeman in question later told The New York Times that he had no knowledge of any attacks.

Such an incident might be a source of shame for some officers. But not for West, who has developed a superstar following among Republicans by portraying himself as a real-life Jack Bauer.

Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge and current law professor at Georgetown University, told Sarlin both of these GOP candidates have no business seeking public office given their "disgraceful" misconduct.

It's just such an odd dynamic in Republican politics right now -- the party goes out of its way to reward, encourage, and promote those who fail spectacularly. Some of these guys seem like they should be running for the hills, not running for powerful offices.

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

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MURKOWSKI'S 'RESOLUTION OF DISAPPROVAL'.... While the Senate ponders how (and whether) to proceed with a climate/energy bill, there's still another avenue for policymakers hoping to combat global warming.

Though it's not ideal, the Environmental Protection Agency can use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions, and as of last week, the EPA presented its latest blueprint to curb greenhouse gases from the largest sources, including power plants and oil refineries. It wouldn't affect all emisions, but it would cover several hundred major polluters.

As far as the White House is concerned, the EPA avenue can be effective leverage with Congress: pass the Kerry/Lieberman American Power Act or we'll have no choice but to let the EPA use its regulatory authority. It's the administration giving lawmakers a choice: either you act or we will.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who's already proven herself as a puppet for wealthy energy corporations, has an idea for a third option. Kate Sheppard had this report earlier today:

Murkowski's office released a statement Friday afternoon reminding reporters that the Alaska Republican still has a resolution of disapproval in reserve. Murkowski is seeking to use the disapproval resolution, a rarely-used procedural maneuver that enables Congress to overturn regulations set by the executive branch, to block the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. She can attempt to pass the resolution anytime between now and June 7. [...]

Murkowski's office says she has not yet decided on a date to call up her resolution of disapproval, but that she "will seek that vote by the June 7 deadline." So far, her measure has the support of 35 Republicans and four Democrats.

Rumor has it that Murkowski may bring up her measure as early as this week, and it cannot be filibustered -- if it gets 51 votes, it passes. The Alaskan senator would effectively need all of the Senate Republicans -- which may itself be tricky, since Snowe, Collins, and Brown are hesitant -- and 10 Senate Democrats. That may sound like too high a threshold, but Murkowski already has four Dems, and the senators from West Virginia and Virginia have not yet weighed in.

Stay tuned.

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

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CONSERVATIVES FIND GREAT IMPORTANCE IN MISS USA PAGEANT.... Who knew political conservatives cared so deeply about a beauty pageant?

Last week, organizers of the Miss USA pageant published promotional photos recently of contestants wearing lingerie. Fox News' Sean Hannity and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) were outraged, and Gohmert suggested the promotional shots can be linked to "economic chaos," which in turn leads to Americans being "willing to give up liberty."

Now that the pageant has come and gone, we can move on to more meaningful matters, right? Wrong -- the right is outraged again, because conservatives disapprove of the winning contestant. Indeed, it's apparently the single most important story of the day on far-right blogs.

One complaint was particularly amusing.

A new Miss USA was crowned last night, the first time a Muslim, Arab-American woman won the honor. But for Daniel Pipes, a neocon pundit who writes for the National Review and was a Bush appointee to the Peace Institute, that's one too many.

On his blog yesterday, Pipes pointed out five other Muslim women who've won beauty contests in the U.S., Britain and France over the last five years.

"They are all attractive, but this surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action," he wrote.

My favorite part of Pipes' conspiracy theory? He noted that the results "prompted" him to "recall some prior instances of Muslim women winning beauty contests in Western countries."

In other words, a prominent conservative "thinker" is not only bothered by the winner of the Miss USA pageant, but he cares enough about the matter to "recall" similar instances -- as if he actually keeps track of such things.

And Pipes is hardly alone. Zaid Jilani noted one right-wing media personality who blamed the results on a "politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate" in America, adding that the winner is a "Lebanese Muslim Hezbollah supporter with relatives who are top terrorists."

I realize right-wing political observers get worked up over strange things, but even for conservatives, this is bizarre.

Update: Adam Serwer notes, "[T]he tone and substance of the fever swamp's reaction to an Arab-American winning a beauty contest is at least useful for pointing out how some people's political opinions aren't based so much in questions of policy as anti-Muslim animosity. The level of anger is just so plainly disproportionate to the matter at hand as to be self-implicating."

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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

* In the final Quinnipiac poll in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Joe Sestak leads Sen. Arlen Specter by just one point, 42% to 41%. Last week, Specter led by two, suggesting Sestak is closing well.

* By some accounts, the White House now expects Specter to come up short tomorrow.

* In the final survey from Public Policy Polling in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary, right-wing ophthalmologist Rand Paul continues to have a big lead over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, 52% to 34%.

* Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said his re-election campaign is on track, and media reports to the contrary are wrong. Over the weekend, McCain lost both his campaign manager and part-time deputy campaign manager.

* As expected, Democratic leaders in Indiana formally chose Rep. Brad Ellsworth on Saturday to run to replace Sen. Evan Bayh (D). Ellsworth will face corporate lobbyist Dan Coats (R), who won his primary fight last week, in November.

* Former eBay executive Meg Whitman's (R) gubernatorial campaign in California has struggled of late, but she's getting some additional support from the Republican establishment. Yesterday, Dick Cheney endorsed her.

* Charlie Crist's post-announcement bounce may be ending in Florida's Senate race. A new Rasmussen poll shows former right-wing House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) back out in front, leading Crist by eight, 39% to 31%.Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) is third with 18%.

* In Texas, Rasmussen shows Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) leading Houston Mayor Bill White (D) in this year's gubernatorial race, 51% to 38%. Most recent polls have showed the two far closer.

* And in Florida's gubernatorial race, state CFO Alex Sink (D) has been struggling a bit in the polls, and there are new reports that Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, son of the late Florida governor and senator, is thinking about challenging Sink in a Democratic primary.

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

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NO MORE LIFE SENTENCES FOR MINORS WHO HAVEN'T MURDERED.... In yet another 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said this morning that incarcerated minors can't receive life sentences if they haven't killed anyone.

By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court says the Constitution requires that young people serving life sentences must at least be considered for release.

The court ruled in the case of Terrance Graham, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17. Graham, now 22, is in prison in Florida, which holds more than 70 percent of juvenile defendants locked up for life for crimes other than homicide.

"The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. "This the Eighth Amendment does not permit."

The Eighth Amendment, of course, prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts also sided with the minority, though he agreed with the majority on the specific case of Terrance Graham's fate.

In Justice Kennedy's majority ruling, he made note of the "global consensus" against life-sentences for youths who haven't committed murder. The sentence will likely enrage the far-right, which tends to throw a fit when justices take note of international developments.

In a concurrence, Stevens, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor, threw an elbow at one of their colleagues: "While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old ... Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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EYEING THE PENTAGON BUDGET FOR COST SAVINGS.... It's not common to find cabinet secretaries calling for less money for their department, which helps make Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent efforts are the more admirable.

There has been a feeding frenzy at the Pentagon budget trough since the 9/11 attacks. Pretty much anything the military chiefs and industry lobbyists pitched, Congress approved -- no matter the cost and no matter if the weapons or programs were over budget, underperforming or no longer needed in a post-cold-war world.

Annual defense spending has nearly doubled in the last decade to $549 billion. That does not include the cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which this year will add $159 billion.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has now vowed to do things differently. In two recent speeches, he declared that the nation cannot keep spending at this rate and that the defense budget "gusher" has been "turned off and will stay off for a good period of time." He vowed that going forward all current programs and future spending requests will receive "unsparing" scrutiny.

Gates hasn't recommended cuts to the Pentagon budget, but he has suggested slowing its growth, trimming the bureaucracy, and eliminating specific ineffective and/or unnecessary weapons systems. Given the nation's larger budget challenges, the Defense Secretary believes existing military spending is simply unsustainable -- and he's right.

Congress, however, doesn't quite see it that way.

Lawmakers from both parties are poised to override Gates and fund the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- two weapons systems the defense secretary has been trying to cut from next year's budget. They have also made clear they will ignore Gates's pleas to hold the line on military pay raises and health-care costs, arguing that now is no time to skimp on pay and benefits for troops who have been fighting two drawn-out wars.

The competing agendas could lead to a major clash between Congress and the Obama administration this summer. Gates has repeatedly said he will urge President Obama to veto any defense spending bills that include money for the F-35's extra engine or the C-17, both of which he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate last year.

Members of Congress, rhetoric about spending cuts and eliminating waste notwithstanding, recognize the political benefits associated with more spending on Defense programs. The Pentagon, then, is the only part of the government that asks Congress for less money, and gets more than it requested.

Gates, to his enormous credit, had considerable success on this front last year, getting the kind of spending cuts the Bush/Cheney administration couldn't. This year may prove more difficult, but I'm glad the administration, and the Pentagon in particular, is tackling this effort.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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PLEASE, MESS WITH TEXAS.... The Texas Board of Education continues to move forward with its painfully dumb new social studies curriculum, but let's not forget, the lesson plans can get worse.

With the long-running Texas history textbooks standards fight scheduled to end with a final vote by the State Board of Education Friday, arch-conservative board member Don McLeroy is proposing a new set of changes that read like a tea party manifesto.

The new amendment, which is expected to get a vote on Thursday, would require high school history students to "discuss alternatives regarding long term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio" and also "evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U. S. sovereignty."

McLeroy, who lost a Republican primary recently but will continue with his silly crusade for the rest of the year, said students should be aware of his paranoid delusions, possibly involving the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

Keep in mind, the right-wing activists on the board are just relying on their own wishes -- no historians, sociologists, educators, or economists have been consulted on the new curriculum. The ideologues simply decide what kind of "truths" they like best, and then shape the state's curriculum accordingly.

As we've reported for months, the results are predictably ridiculous, but apparently, they're not quite done.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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IN ANTICIPATION OF TOMORROW'S SPIN.... Tomorrow should be a pretty interesting day for primary campaigns. Chris Cillizza has already labeled it "one of the most important voting days of the year."

That's only slightly hyperbolic. Pennsylvania's Senate Democratic primary, Arkansas' Senate Democratic primary, both parties' Senate primaries in Kentucky, and two House special elections will offer some strong hints about public attitudes, anti-incumbent trends, prevailing winds, and the position the parties occupy in advance of the midterms.

But we can probably guess how the media will perceive the results, in large part because the message is already being disseminated. Dana Milbank has described the Democratic primaries, for example, as "purity putsches." The Washington Post editorial board used the primaries to lament the "ideological purification of both parties."

It was good to see E.J. Dionne Jr. knock the silly effort to draw parallels between recent developments in both parties.

This year's elections may exacerbate the difference between our two political parties, but not in the way most people are talking about.

With incumbent Democratic senators under threat in two more primaries on Tuesday, the conventional view is that Republicans and Democrats will emerge from this election more ideologically polarized than ever. Primaries will push Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left.

That's only half true. Republicans will, indeed, end the year a more philosophically coherent right-wing party. But the Democrats will, if anything, become more ideologically diverse.

Imagine that. For all the assumptions about and "party purges," Dems aren't "purifying" the party along ideological lines at all. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost his primary to a challenger from the right. Mark Critz is poised to do fairly well tomorrow in Pennsylvania's 12th despite running away from the progressive agenda. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) has been pretty reliably progressive on legislative matters in recent months, but he may very well lose tomorrow.

"[A]ll this underscores the real difference between the two parties," Dionne noted. "The Democrats will remain an intricate coalition that struggles to hold together the left, the center and bits of the right. Republicans, as Arlen Specter could tell you, are the ones opting for ideological purity."

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF TALKING POINTS.... Republican critics of Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination are still looking for the go-to attack that might prove effective. So far, the search isn't going well.

The first tack was questioning Kagan's lack of judicial experience, but that faded when we learned that more than a third of the court's justices had never been a judge. Detractors moved on to questions about military recruiters at Harvard, but that fizzled upon closer scrutiny. By late in the week, Republicans went after Kagan as someone who may not be independent enough from the White House, but that one fell apart rather quickly, too.

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried out a fourth line of attack. He argued on "Meet the Press" that Kagan, as part of her Citizens United argument, endorsed book-banning (not like Sarah Palin's book-banning efforts in Alaska, but in a more general sense).

"Solicitor Kagan's office, in the initial hearing, argued that it'd be okay to ban books," McConnell said. "And then when there was a re-hearing, Solicitor Kagan herself, in her first Supreme Court argument, suggested that it might be okay to ban pamphlets. I think that's very troubling."

It's not a bad try, I suppose. It is wrong, though.

The argument that campaign books paid for by corporate funds could be banned was made by a deputy solicitor general five days after Kagan was confirmed. Bossie's group was the plaintiff in Citizens United v. FEC, a Supreme Court case dealing with the constitutionality of the Federal Elections Commission's decision that Citizens United could not air a movie advocating against Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy if that movie was paid for by federal funds. On March 24, 2009 -- five days after the Senate confirmed Kagan -- the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case. Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart stated during the oral argument that, in addition to a movie, the federal government could "prohibit the publication of [a] book using the corporate treasury funds" if that book ended by saying "vote for X."

When the case was reargued, Kagan specifically argued that federal law had never banned books and likely could not do so. In June 2009, the Supreme Court decided to postpone its decision in Citizens United, asked the litigants to brief additional issues, and ordered the lawyers to reargue the case in September 2009. Kagan argued on behalf of the federal government. She stated that if the government tried to ban books under campaign finance laws, "there would be quite good as-applied challenge" to the law, meaning that the corporation attempting to publish the book would have a good constitutional case that the book couldn't be banned. Kagan later added: "[W]hat we're saying is that there has never been an enforcement action for books. Nobody has ever suggested -- nobody in Congress, nobody in the administrative apparatus has ever suggested that books pose any kind of corruption problem, so I think that there would be a good as-applied challenge with respect to that."

I continue to appreciate the variety of the GOP attacks. Most of the time, after Republican arguments are debunked, conservative voices just keep repeating them anyway. New bogus arguments don't improve the discourse, but they do keep the debate from getting stale.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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GINGRICH, MEET GODWIN.... It was the latest in a series of reminders that this is nothing -- literally, nothing -- that a far-right media personality can say to be driven from polite American society.

Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), inexplicably one of the nation's most ubiquitous Sunday-show guests, sat down with Chris Wallace yesterday on "Fox News Sunday." The host confronted Gingrich with one of his recent quotes: "The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

Wallace said, "Mr. Speaker, respectfully, isn't that wildly over the top?" "No," Gingrich replied, insisting that he believes President Obama intends to "decide who earns how much."

The host pushed back, but Gingrich was entirely serious. As the former Speaker sees it, President Obama believes there's such a thing as excessive wealth, which means the president intends to be "the arbiter of your dreams," which means the president will try to "decide who earns how much," which means the president is some kind of communist. Or something.

Gingrich added that the Obama administration therefore poses a threat comparable to the Nazis and Soviets, not on a "moral" plane, but as "a very serious threat to our way of life."

Now, I think it's fair to say most reasonable people would charitably describe this as idiocy. Comparing America's leadership to Nazis and Soviets is as offensive as it is ridiculous. This isn't exactly a new observation, but Newt Gingrich, the disgraced pseudo-intellectual, is quite obviously stark raving mad.

But here's the kicker: it won't make a bit of difference. Given the way the political establishment is "wired" for Republicans, there simply aren't any consequences for this kind of abject stupidity.

Gingrich was driven from office by members of his own party more than a decade ago, under a cloud of ethical lapses, policy failures, and personal scandal. He hasn't held office since, but the media can't stop turning to him -- he was the single most frequent guest on "Meet the Press" in 2009 -- giving him a national platform to spew nonsense, including yesterday, when he defended previous remarks comparing Americans to Nazis.

The media-driven discourse of 21st-century America often leaves much to be desired.

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

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May 16, 2010

ASYMMETRICAL POLARIZATION.... The Washington Post's editorial board recently lamented polarization in American politics, and much to my chagrin, chalked up the problem to "the ideological purification of both parties."

Brookings' William Galston and Thomas Mann acknowledged the polarization, which is unrivaled in modern American history, but reminded the editors that "these developments have not produced two mirror-image political parties."

We have, instead, asymmetrical polarization. Put simply: More than 70 percent of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40 percent of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. It is far easier for congressional Republicans to forge and maintain a united front than it is for Democrats. George W. Bush pushed through his signature tax cuts and Iraq war authorization with substantial Democratic support, while unwavering Republican opposition nearly torpedoed Barack Obama's health-reform legislation. When Democrats are in the majority, their greater ideological diversity combined with the unified opposition of Republicans induces the party to negotiate within its ranks, producing policies that not long ago would have attracted the support of a dozen Senate Republicans.

Consider the episode that The Post cited as Exhibit A for polarization: Sen. Robert Bennett's commendable work with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden to develop a bipartisan health bill, which was used against him by conservative Utah activists to deny him renomination. The Post failed to note, however, that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell pulled the plug on the Wyden-Bennett initiative well before health reform was taken up last year.

Bennett and other Republican co-sponsors of this bipartisan bill were told in no uncertain terms that the party strategy was to block every major domestic policy initiative of the new administration and not to engage in substantive negotiations that could produce bipartisan majorities on the floor. During the lengthy health debate, not one Senate Republican spoke in support of the Wyden-Bennett bill. Tea Party activists outraged at Republican incumbents for cavorting with the enemy (i.e., Obama and the Democrats) took their cue from Republican Party leaders.

The media establishment is no doubt uncomfortable with this reality -- though I give kudos to the Post for running the Galston/Mann piece -- but here's hoping the "both sides are always equally wrong, even when they're not" crowd takes note.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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IT'S LIKE DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN.... I'm not sure why, but "Fox News Sunday" invited disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on this morning, giving the strange man a chance to say all kinds of odd things.

Of particular interest, ol' Newt wants to see the Elena Kagan nomination withdrawn.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Sunday that President Barack Obama should withdraw the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.

"I think the president should withdraw it," Gingrich said plainly when asked on "Fox News Sunday" what he thought of the solicitor general's nomination.

If this seems kind of familiar, it's because a year ago this month, shortly after Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for the high court, Newt Gingrich insisted that she should be "forced to withdraw," too.

So, to review, a disgraced right-wing pseudo-intellectual, who hasn't served in public office for over a decade, keeps making the same clownish demands. The man has no relevance with anyone other than those who handle bookings for television news programs, perhaps because he says crazy things on a fairly regular basis.

But now Newt Gingrich once again wants the president's Supreme Court nominee to withdraw? I'm sure the White House will get right on that.

Steve Benen 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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KAGAN FILIBUSTER EFFECTIVELY OFF THE TABLE.... About a month ago, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) conceded that President Obama's Supreme Court nominee would only be subjected to a Republican filibuster under "extraordinary circumstances."

It wasn't much of a concession -- given that the GOP would likely need all 41 Republican senators to refuse to allow an up-or-down floor vote, Kyl wasn't really in a position to saber rattle effectively anyway.

This week, after Elena Kagan was introduced as the president's choice, Kyl went on to admit that it's hard for him to envision a GOP filibuster of Kagan's nomination.

And this morning, Kyl went a little further still.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) on Sunday said that Republicans will not filibuster Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's nomination.

"The filibuster should be regulated to the extreme circumstances and I don't think Elena Kagan will represent that," he told CBS's "Face the Nation."

Now, it's very hard to know in advance what kind of information may arise during the confirmation process. That said, barring any scandalous revelations, it certainly seems as if Kagan's nomination is quickly becoming a very safe bet. It appeared likely anyway, but with Kyl effectively taking the filibuster off the table, confirmation is likely approaching the "sure thing" category.

At a minimum, this won't help far-right efforts to rally opposition to Kagan. Kyl appears to have taken the wind from far-right sails.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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DISCRIMINATION WITH A DEGREE OF SEPARATION.... There was an interesting story near Boston this week, involving a young child facing discrimination because of his parents' sexual orientation.

A Roman Catholic school in Massachusetts has withdrawn its acceptance of an 8-year-old boy with lesbian parents, saying their relationship was "in discord" with church teachings, according to one of the boys' mothers.

It's at least the second time in recent months that students have not been allowed to attend a U.S. Catholic school because of their parents' sexual orientation, with the other instance occurring in Colorado.

The Massachusetts woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about the effect of publicity on her son, said she planned to send the boy to third grade at St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham in the fall. But she said she learned her son's acceptance was rescinded during a conference call Monday with Principal Cynthia Duggan and the parish priest, the Rev. James Rafferty.

"I'm accustomed to discrimination, I suppose, at my age and my experience as a gay woman," the mother said. "But I didn't expect it against my child."

According to the mother, the priest doesn't have a problem with the 8-year-old boy, but the school doesn't want him because the church disapproves of the child's parents being lesbians, which is "in discord with the teachings of the Catholic Church." That the lesbian couple is Christian, and wants their boy to get an education that emphasizes Christian values, didn't matter. The parents were also willing to pay the tuition costs. The school, after already accepting the child, changed its mind anyway.

When the story started generating negative publicity for the Boston Archdiocese, it announced its intention to help the family find a different Catholic school for the young boy. We'll see how that goes.

But after hearing this story the other day, I realized my first reaction was probably off-base. My instinct was to be outraged by the Catholic school's callousness. Why would a church turn its back on a child? Why would a Christian school refuse entry to an 8 year old based on what his parents do in their bedroom?

Upon further reflection, though, it occurred to me that the elementary school can do as it pleases. It's part of a private religious ministry that can hate whomever it wants to hate. It's cruel, but the First Amendment protects churches and their schools that want to discriminate for all kinds of reasons.

But, and this is key, don't even think about asking taxpayers to subsidize this. A private religious school wants to reject children based on their parents' sexual orientation? Fine. It's deeply offensive, but fine. But this becomes far more problematic when that same private religious school says, "And we want voucher money, too."

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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ACT FIRST, THINK SECOND.... I've made a conscious effort to avoid coverage of a certain former half-term governor lately, but Sarah Palin's recent remarks demanding more coastal drilling seem pretty important under the circumstances.

It's not just the topical nature of her misguided comments -- there is, in case she hasn't heard, a devastating oil spill in the Gulf, that gets worse every day -- but Palin's demands are also evidence of a larger problem with the far-right approach to public policy.

"After inheriting a good pro-development GOP plan that opened up both coasts for drilling, the Obama administration halted development ... and now we're gonna study, more study of the South Atlantic and parts of the Gulf of Mexico ... my goodness, folks, these areas have been studied to death ... I have seen so many, many studies!

"I say, let's send the White House this message: that, you know, we can save taxpayer time, save money and announce: there is oil and gas down there, and we can produce it safely and responsibly! We don't need more studies, we need more action! Because energy produced in America is security for America, and it is jobs for American workers, jobs that can't be outsourced. Let's drill baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!"

It's hard not to chuckle at the notion that the conspicuously unintelligent former half-term governor has actually "seen so many, many studies" -- as if she spends her free time digging through reports from the Department of Interior.

But the larger point Palin is trying to make here is pretty straightforward: stop being methodical, stop worrying about consequences, stop getting the facts together, and just do stuff. Evidence and research are fine for eggheads and East coast intellectuals, but who needs thinking when there are oil rigs to erect along the nation's coastline? Everything will probably work out for the best, right? We can obviously count on oil companies to do the right thing and deal with any problems that arise.

The right-wing media personality couldn't possibly understand this, but her approach is exactly what helped create this nightmare in the first place. Federal officials cleared drilling in the Gulf "without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species -- and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf." Officials could have also required remote acoustic shutoff switches, but were more concerned with getting the process underway -- without "stalling" -- with minimal burdens on the industry.

In other words, we already tried the "act first, think second" approach Palin recommends. We'll be dealing with the costs for a very long time.

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

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ANOTHER ANGEL LOSES ITS WINGS.... Just three weeks ago, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank had a perfectly reasonable column on the Republican Party's shift to the hard-right. It was premised on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist "being drummed out" of the GOP, but it captured nicely the larger context of the party's increasingly radical transition.

But Milbank couldn't leave well enough alone. In a column devoted to highlighting Republican extremism, the Post writer just had to say, "Both parties have been undergoing ideological cleansing." The observation was both wrong and superfluous.

Today, Milbank has an even more compelling column, which is just devastating for the GOP. It laments the "crackup of the Republican Party," chronicling Bob Bennett's purge in Utah, and the truly ridiculous new platform adopted by the Maine Republican Party. He proceeded to make note of the larger trend, which also includes the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Alabama who's under fire for only being a partial Biblical literalist, and Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) literally laughable new anti-immigration campaign ad.

The Republican Party, Milbank observed, "is turning into this One-World-Government, Obama-worships-Satan, Jesus-opposes-climate-bill melange."

It's a really strong, persuasive, well-argued piece, raising an important point that many observers at major media outlets deliberately avoid.

But once again, Milbank just had to go there.

Democrats are having purity putsches, too, in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

[bangs head against desk]

First, Democratic primaries are not necessarily evidence of "purity putsches." We've been through this. Taking the Pennsylvania case, for example, we see Arlen Specter facing a Democratic challenger in large part because Specter was a Republican for the last three decades, and he endorsed Bush/Cheney and McCain/Palin. Subjecting him to a primary is hardly an example of the Democratic base imposing some kind of rigid ideological test, or moving too far to the hard-left.

Second, there's really no comparison between a handful of Senate primaries and a Republican Party that, by Milbank's own admission, appears to have gone stark raving mad.

And third, reporters at major outlets have to realize one of these days that there's nothing wrong with publishing a piece critical of the GOP -- and leaving it at that. I'm well aware of the unwritten rule -- all criticism of Republicans has to include related criticism of Democrats, whether it makes sense or not -- but it's wildly unnecessary, and at a certain level, misleads the public into thinking "both sides" are equally guilty of the same transgressions. They're not.

There's no need to put a pox on both houses, when only one deserves it.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PLUMES IN THE GULF.... Lately, there seems to be a pattern in developments surrounding the BP oil spill disaster: the news is always bad.

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

"There's a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water," said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. "There's a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column."

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. "If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months," she said Saturday. "That is alarming."

The AP, meanwhile, reports that BP launched a new effort to use a mile-long pipe to capture much of the oil flowing into the Gulf, "but engineers failed to connect two pieces of equipment a mile below the water's surface."

Officials from BP said they're confident the pipe can be adjusted and that this effort may prove to be effective, but then again, officials from BP say a lot of things.

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

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May 15, 2010

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WALL STREET AND SCHOOL TEACHERS.... It's been a little under the radar this week, but a key policy dispute is unfolding over federal aid to prevent teacher layoffs.

As states and municipalities continue to struggle with budget shortfalls, schools are being forced to let teachers go. Last year's stimulus bill saved over 400,000 teaching jobs, but it's a new year, and it will take another effort to prevent a massive number of teacher layoffs.

Estimates vary, but my accounts, we're talking about 100,000 to 300,000 job losses in public schools nationwide.

Democratic policymakers hope to do just that. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) are, with the White House's enthusiastic support, pushing the Keep Our Educators Working Act, which calls for $23 billion in emergency support to preserve these education jobs.

Yesterday, House Minorty Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his position on the legislation. Care to guess what he thinks? Yep, he's pro-layoff.

"The American people recognize that Washington's out-of-control spending is hurting our economy and stifling job creation, and they're asking their elected leaders to make tough choices on fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, the Administration's call for another $23 billion to pad the education bureaucracy will only make state governments more dependent on the federal government and more vulnerable when the federal funding explosion disappears. [...]

"Giving states another $23 billion in federal education money simply throws more money into taxpayer-funded bailouts when we should be discussing why we aren't seeing the results we need from the billions in federal dollars that are already being spent."

Whether Boehner actually believes his own press releases is a matter worthy of debate, but either way, his arguments seem oddly detached from reality. Spending is "hurting our economy and stifling job creation"? In Grown-Up Land, spending rescued the economy and generated the strongest job creation in years.

Just as importantly, what does Boehner think the economic impact will be if 300,000 school teachers are forced from their jobs nationwide?

Of course, notice Boehner's emphasis on this being a "bailout" -- a line Fox News is running with. As Republicans see it, emergency aid to prevent teacher layoffs must necessarily be connected in the public's mind with rescuing Wall Street with TARP.

Please.

Doug Thornell, a spokesperson for DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said in a statement, "Yesterday, job-killing House Republicans blocked a bipartisan plan that would help get more Americans back to work. Today, it appears John Boehner and House Republicans want to stand in the way of important funds that would help save teachers' jobs. It is unbelievable that John Boehner, who begged his Conference to support Bush's bailout of Wall Street banks, has the nerve to use teachers and children as pawns in his cynical game to regain the trust of the right wing of his party."

Well, perhaps "unbelievable" is the wrong word -- it's actually sadly predictable -- but the rest of Thornell's sentiment sounds about right.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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BACK TO WORK.... Ron Brownstein published a paragraph this week that actually seemed hard to believe: "If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush's presidency."

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At first blush, it's tempting to think that couldn't possibly be true. The Republican economic policies -- tax cuts for the wealthy, huge deficits, weak recovery, minimal public investment, even less oversight and regulation -- were a spectacular mess that failed miserably. But can 2010 really top the job creation of Bush's entire presidency?

Actually, yes. This chart, published by the Washington Post in January, tells a pretty remarkable story, showing job growth by decade. (You can click on the chart to see it larger.) Notice that red line down towards the bottom? That shows the anemic job creation over the first decade of the 21st century.

Indeed, it went largely ignored at the time, but the Republican Bush/Cheney ticket sought a second term in 2004 despite the fact that it was the first administration in the modern era to go four years with a net job growth of zero. The campaign was largely about national security, so voters overlooked this painful detail.

And so it creates the dynamic that Brownstein describes. If job growth holds steady the rest of this year -- by no means a certainty, of course -- the U.S. economy will create a net gain of about 1.7 million jobs. From start to finish, the net gain under Bush was about 1 million.

The Obama presidency, of course, will have a long way to go before it can start talking about a net gain. It inherited an economy in freefall, and over 4 million jobs were lost in 2009 alone. Making up that kind of lost ground will take quite a long time, though the stimulus has obviously helped get us back on track.

But in some ways, that only helps make the Bush comparison worse -- he inherited an economy with a 4% unemployment rate, a huge surplus, and sunny skies ahead. Worse, Bush/Cheney and congressional Republicans got exactly what they wanted in terms of huge tax cuts, but the economic benefits they promised never materialized.

Oddly enough, these same Republicans think the economy will soar if we just return to Bush-era policies and repeat the same mistakes they already made. Why anyone who hasn't suffered trauma would find this credible remains a mystery.

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

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A 'HIGH POINT' IN GOVERNMENT DISASTER RESPONSE.... As of about a decade ago, there was an assumption among much of the public that the government was pretty good at disaster response. By 2000, the Clinton administration's FEMA was considered a model government agency, able to act quickly and effectively to almost any scenario.

A decade later, the public's confidence has been badly rattled, and for good reason -- among its many problems, the Bush administration's mismanagement on this front became a national embarrassment. It wasn't long before it became a template for those hoping to discredit the efficacy of government itself -- if the government can't even respond ably to a hurricane in New Orleans, how can we expect it to [fill in the blank]?

With that in mind, Marc Ambinder Joshua Green raised an important yesterday that often goes overlooked: the government's disaster response efforts have already vastly improved over the last 16 months.

An eternal fact of Washington is that government gets much more attention when it performs badly than when it performs well. As an illustration of the former, recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To illustrate the latter, consider how the media is covering government right now. By my count at least three major natural disasters have occurred in recent weeks: the Nashville flooding, the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes, and the BP oil spill (admittedly not "natural" but threatening to be a major environmental disaster). Let's throw in an attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, too. On every front, government has performed ably -- and often better than ably. And yet it's understating things considerably to say this success has not been widely recognized.

It should be recognized, though, because when it comes to government disaster response, the Bush years marked a low point and right now we're experiencing a high point.

That may seem like cold comfort to those along the Gulf Coast -- there's only so much the government can do about the BP oil spill disaster, and at this point, the crisis is getting considerably worse -- but Green's observation is nevertheless an accurate one. Obama was intent on quickly improving the federal government's ability to respond to these kinds of disasters, and those efforts have been successful.

Green noted several recent examples from the last month, but let's not overlook the administration won (and deserved) plaudits for its handling of the H1N1 epidemic, and the administration's response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti has not only been exemplary, but it's even exceeded expectations.

Paul Waldman noted recently, "[I]t seems that the better job the Obama administration does with this [BP oil spill] and future disasters, the less it will matter in the public's perception of what government is capable of."

I hope that's right, because the debate in recent years has gone in a ridiculous direction. At issue has never been whether the government can effectively respond to disasters, but rather, the difference between an administration that guts response agencies and promotes incompetent lackeys, and one that takes these issues seriously.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is the latest developments in the Roman Catholic Church's international scandal involving the sexual abuse of children. On Tuesday, the pope shifted gears, at least rhetorically, and offered his most direct remarks on the matter to date.

In his most direct condemnation of the sexual abuse crisis that has swept the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday said that the "sins inside the church" posed the greatest threat to the church, adding that "forgiveness does not substitute for justice."

"Attacks on the pope and the church come not only from outside the church, but the suffering of the church comes from inside the church, from sin that exists inside the church," Benedict told reporters aboard his plane en route to Portugal, speaking about the abuse crisis.

"This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church," he added. "The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice."

In placing the blame for sex abuse directly on the church, Benedict appeared to distance himself from other church officials who in recent weeks have criticized the news media for reporting on the sex abuse crisis, which they called attacks on the church.

The pope's comments were unscripted. While the notion that "forgiveness does not substitute for justice" struck many as an encouraging concession, he did not elaborate on what kind of justice the Vatican has in mind for those involved with the scandal.

That said, reader D.J. reminds me that the pope did accept the resignation this week of a German bishop who is under investigation for sexual abuse and financial misconduct.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Supreme Court recently ruled on the constitutionality of a seven-foot-tall Latin cross in the middle of both the Mojave Desert. This week, the cross went missing.

* To the delight of civil libertarians, Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Judiciary Committee this week that the administration does not support publicly-funded employment discrimination as part of "faith-based" grants. The position represents the key distinction between the Obama administration's approach and that of the Bush administration.

* Ergun Caner has been an effective and charismatic president of Liberty University's theological seminary, founded by Jerry Falwell, the deceased radical televangelist. Part of Caner's success is a result of his personal backstory -- he claims to have been born in Turkey to a devout Sunni Muslim family, which made him a "jihadist." Evidence emerged recently that suggests Caner's story is an elaborate lie.

* The National Evangelical Association is taking a more aggressive role in rallying support for comprehensive immigration reform.

* And though many had assumed he'd just go away, Ted Haggard formally incorporated a new church in Colorado Springs this week. Haggard, of course, was a high-profile mega-church leader who admitted to soliciting oral sex and buying crystal meth from a male prostitute in 2006.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BLANCHE LINCOLN NEGLECTS TO DO HER HOMEWORK.... It's peculiar to me that Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) would invest so much time and energy in repealing the estate tax. With an enormous budget deficit, and a budget in which scarce resources are needed for a variety of policy goals, pushing tax cuts that exclusively benefit millionaires and billionaires seems to reflect misguided priorities.

But Lincoln has worked on this issue for years, and whether it makes sense or not, she's not giving up the fight.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) on Thursday told The Hill that a fix for the estate tax should be aimed at helping small businesses, and not wealthier taxpayers since they have the resources to weather whatever tax rate Congress throws at them. [...]

"I don't think there's any American out there who believes you should work all of your life to find that when you die, 55 percent of [your estate] has got to go to the government," the senator said. "Coming up with more balanced exemptions and rates is critical."

That may sound reasonable at first blush, but Pat Garofalo explains that Lincoln's description of the policy is simply wrong.

[T]he estate tax -- like the personal income tax -- is calculated on marginal income, the particular percentage is only levied on amounts above the exemption. So if the exemption is $3.5 million, the first $3.5 million of the estate is passed on entirely tax free. Tax is only paid on the first dollar in excess of that. So an estate worth $3,500,001 would have a tax bill of .45 cents under 2009 law.

The effective tax rate -- the amount paid as a percentage of the entire estate -- owed by people who actually had to pay any estate tax at all in 2009 was about 14 percent. There were no grieving widows who have to hand over half of everything they own to the government.

As for Lincoln's concerns for small businesses, her argument is, again, unsupported by reality.

It's bad enough that the conservative Democrat's concerns for the Walton family have compelled her to push this bad idea, but the least she could do, after years of effort, is get the details right.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CAN'T BRING THESE FOLKS ANYWHERE.... The Maine Republican Party raised a few eyebrows this week when it endorsed a right-wing party platform combining "fringe policies, libertarian buzzwords and outright conspiracy theories." Almost as interesting was the Maine GOP's behavior at the meeting where the platform was adopted.

Republican activists held their annual gathering at the Portland Exposition Building, near a local middle school. GOP members used an eighth-grade classroom for a caucus meeting, and took it upon themselves to start making some changes. (thanks to several alert readers for the tip)

"We allowed them to use the space and I'm appalled that they would go through a teacher's things, let alone remove something from a classroom," [School Committee member Sarah Thompson] said Wednesday. "We want the public to use school spaces, but they need to respect that it's a school and understand that they should leave it the way they find it." [...]

When [studies teacher Paul Clifford] returned to school on Monday, he found that a favorite poster about the U.S. labor movement had been taken and replaced with a bumper sticker that read, "Working People Vote Republican."

Later, Clifford learned that his classroom had been searched. Republicans who had attended the convention called Principal Mike McCarthy to complain about "anti-American" things they saw there, including a closed box containing copies of the U.S. Constitution that were published by the American Civil Liberties Union.

There's just something oddly spectacular about Republican activists describing a copy of the U.S. Constitution as "anti-American" because they didn't approve of the group that distributed the copy.

Party officials later apologized for the members' misconduct.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, BRING IN THE SCIENTISTS..... It sounds a bit like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, but I'm pretty sure Bruce Willis will not be joining this team.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu signaled his lack of confidence in the industry experts trying to control BP Plc's leaking oil well by hand-picking a team of scientists with reputations for creative problem solving.

Dispatched to Houston by President Barack Obama to deal with the crisis, Chu said Wednesday that five "extraordinarily intelligent" scientists from around the country will help BP and industry experts think of back-up plans to cut off oil from the well, leaking 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below sea-level.

Members of the Chu team are credited with accomplishments including designing the first hydrogen bomb, inventing techniques for mining on Mars and finding a way to precisely position biomedical needles.

In the wake of the unsuccessful "dome" effort, Chu has tasked this team to develop "plan B, C, D, E and F," while looking for solutions to stop the oil from gushing into the Gulf.

Looking over these scientists' backgrounds, they look like a pretty creative bunch. Here's hoping for the best.

On a related note, Chu has also crafted a plan to use gamma rays to better understand the geologic nature of this specific leak. The Energy Secretary was asked yesterday how in the world he knew about gamma rays. He replied:

"Because I'm a physicist. And I dabble in many areas of physics. I did experiments when I was a graduate student on weak interactions, which are the forces of nuclear decay. And so I kept in my brain certain nuclear sources and what their energies were and I knew what the ranges were for how penetrating gamma rays could be. Very high-energy gamma rays can penetrate several inches of steel."

This is the latest installment in the "This Isn't The Bush Administration" chronicles.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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May 14, 2010

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

* More Shahzad fallout: "The Pakistani government has arrested a suspect with connections to a Pakistani militant group who said he acted as an accomplice to the man accused of trying to bomb Times Square, U.S. officials said."

* On a related note, NBC News' Pete Williams was asked this morning why so much progress has been made so quickly. He explained, "It's all because he's talking so much. Prosecutors ask him every day, do you want a lawyer? Do you want to go to court? He says no and keeps talking."

* More jitters: "After a nearly $1 trillion rescue package meant to end Europe's debt crisis once and for all, financial markets took a second look Friday and began to worry about how the plan would actually work and the implications of the drastic austerity measures for the fragile European economies."

* How are things going in Afghanistan? Not well.

* Marc Ambinder reports on the Defense Intelligence Agency classified interrogation facility inside Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

* New Hampshire lawmakers were offered a chance to criminalize the new Affordable Care Act. They chose not to, but I wish the margin had been a little wider.

* EPA doesn't need to go to Congress to regulate pollution: "The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a final rule on Thursday for regulating major emitters of greenhouse gases, like coal-fired power plants, under the Clean Air Act. Starting in July 2011, new sources of at least 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year and any existing plants that increase emissions by 75,000 tons will have to seek permits, the agency said."

* The FBI is looking for a white man suspected of firebombing a Jacksonville mosque this week. The shrapnel from the pipebomb was found up to a hundred yards away, but no one was injured.

* Adam Serwer takes a closer look at Elena Kagan's record on executive power, and argues that many of the recent arguments don't withstand scrutiny.

* I'd love to see the end of the carried-interest loophole, but it's a tough reform to pass.

* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) loses his cool with a reporter. Conservatives can hardly contain their glee.

* The Associated Press wonders if too many Americans are going to college. It's not exactly a great question.

* Michael Gerson's piece on the politics of immigration policy makes a lot of sense. (No, that's not sarcasm.)

* Chait tackles misleading conservative arguments over the Affordable Care Act's price tag.

* Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) doesn't want a mosque to be built near Ground Zero in NYC because "it is very offensive and it's wrong." He could just drop the pretense and wear an "I'm A Bigot" button his lapel, but that might be too obvious.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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OBAMA 'WILL NOT TOLERATE MORE FINGER-POINTING'.... This week's congressional hearings on the BP oil spill disaster were unpleasant to watch. The problem was not just the painful subject matter, but also the circular quality of the responsible companies desperate to avoid accountability.

BP, for example, blamed Transocean for the equipment failures. Transocean blamed Halliburton for manufacturing breakdowns. Halliburton blamed BP for faulty design. BP blamed Transocean....

President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden this afternoon, and in addition to updating the public on the status of the response, he sounded pretty annoyed about the buck-passing.

"Let me also say, by the way, a word here about BP and the other companies involved in this mess," the president said. "I know BP has committed to pay for the response effort, and we will hold them to their obligation. I have to say, though, I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter. You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't.

"I understand that there are legal and financial issues involved, and a full investigation will tell us exactly what happened. But it is pretty clear that the system failed, and it failed badly. And for that, there is enough responsibility to go around. And all parties should be willing to accept it.

That includes, by the way, the federal government. For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore. To borrow an old phrase, we will trust but we will verify.... I will not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility."

Update: CBS News White House Correspondent Chip Reid told viewers, "The president seemed genuinely angry today, on a beautiful spring afternoon in the Rose Garden. Having watched him on a daily basis for about a year and a half, I'm confident he wasn't faking it."

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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PAT BUCHANAN DOES HIS BEST PAT BUCHANAN IMITATION.... Pat Buchanan's record on diversity and ethnicity should, under sane circumstances, force him from polite company.

And yet, syndicated columns like this one, published today, don't seem to interfere with Buchanan's lucrative career as a high-profile American media personality.

[O]f the last seven justices nominated by Democrats JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, one was black, Marshall; one was Puerto Rican, Sonia Sotomayor. The other five were Jews: Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

If Kagan is confirmed, Jews, who represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, will have 33 percent of the Supreme Court seats.

Is this the Democrats' idea of diversity?

But while leaders in the black community may be upset, the folks who look more like the real targets of liberal bias are white Protestants and Catholics, who still constitute well over half of the U.S. population. [...]

[N]ot in nearly half a century has a Democratic president nominated a white Protestant or white Catholic man or woman.... If Kagan is confirmed, the Court will consist of three Jews and six Catholics (who represent not quite a fourth of the country), but not a single Protestant, though Protestants remain half the nation and our founding faith.

Regular readers may recall that, not quite a year ago, Buchanan encouraged the Republican Party to engage in more race baiting and insisted that the key to GOP success in the future is doing more to appeal to whites. He added that the GOP should tell whites that "their sons and daughters are pushed aside to make room for the Sonia Sotomayors."

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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CARE TO GO FOR A SWIM, HALEY?.... Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), for all of his faults, has taken the BP oil spill disaster as seriously as he should. "This oil literally threatens our way of life," Jindal said this week. "Here in Louisiana, we're going to do everything we can do. We're going to do what it takes to protect our way of life."

The AP reports today that his neighbor, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a former energy lobbyist, is taking a different tack.

[Barbour] told The Associated Press the oil spill could be disastrous for Mississippi's coastal economy. Then he added: "But it's just as possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact."

Oil has not started washing up on shore in any large quantities, and Barbour likened much of the spill to the gasoline sheen commonly found around ski boats.

"We don't wash our face in it, but it doesn't stop us from jumping off the boat to ski," Barbour said.

He added that the oil spill is "not Armageddon."

Unless Haley Barbour is seriously prepared to go for a swim, William-Weld-style, he should probably scrap this line of argument.

To be fair, it's not as if Barbour is blowing off the disaster. He's taken the right steps on disaster response. For that matter, Barbour's rhetoric downplaying the problem may be deliberately insincere -- he's worried about losing tourist revenue, making him more willing to fudge the severity of the crisis.

But given the scope of this disaster, and its devastating consequences, Barbour sounds pretty ridiculous comparing one of the worst oil spills in history to the gas sheen found around ski boats, as if this were no big deal. That Barbour was a corporate lobbyist for energy companies only makes this look worse.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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SMITH VS. HOLDER.... Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, and endured some pretty tiresome lines of inquiry. If Republican rhetoric over the last 24 hours is any indication, one exchange in particular stood out.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas argued that recent attempts at terrorism were launched by those who espouse "radical Islam," and wanted to know if Holder agreed. The AG seemed reluctant to assign blame for terrorism on one faith tradition, and tried patiently to explain that it's best not to lump all of these incidents together, using religion as a common thread.

After a while, Holder conceded that "radical version of Islam" could have been a motivating factor for Shahzad and others.

This seems to have generated quite a bit of excitement on the right. Liz Cheney's attack group is pushing the video, as is Fox News and assorted websites. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the buffoonish ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said Holder "doesn't deserve" to keep his job as a result of his answer to Smith.

It's probably too late to try Grown-Up Talk with Smith, King, and their allies, but it's also probably worth noting how foolish their criticism is. They're desperate to view terrorist threats through a purely religious lens, in all likelihood because many of them are anti-Muslim. But after John Patrick Bedell opened fire at the Pentagon, Joe Stack flew an airplane into a building, James von Brunn opened fire at the Holocaust memorial museum, and the Hutaree Militia terrorist plot was uncovered -- all incidents from the last year and none relating to Islam -- the crusade to connect all terrorism to Muslims seems lazy and wrong.

But in particular, the interest in the Smith/Holder exchange is a reminder that for much of the right, rhetoric is more important than substance. The Obama administration has captured terrorists, prevented attacks, and struck at terrorists around the world, but that doesn't matter nearly as much as how they choose to describe the threat.

For the simple-minded, those who incorporate the word "Islam" are to be trusted; those who don't are not.

Steve M. concluded, "This is how right-wingers think you fight terrorism: by saying certain words that make right-wingers feel good as often as possible."

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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2010 CAMPAIGN THEME: GOP CAN'T DRIVE.... For all of President Obama's above-the-fray rhetoric -- congressional Dems have been complaining quite a bit lately that he just doesn't hammer Republicans enough -- he will occasionally put on the Campaigner in Chief hat.

Take last night, for example, when the president spoke at a DCCC fundraiser in New York City. He noted that policymakers are feeling tired after a long session, "particularly because it would have been nice to get a little help from the other side of the aisle, just once in a while. You would have thought at a time of historic crisis that Republican leaders would have been more willing to help us find a way out of this mess -- particularly since they created the mess."

Obama added that cleaning up that mess is no small chore. "We're not Democrats or Republicans first -- we're Americans first... [W]e got our mops and our brooms out, we're cleaning stuff out, and they're sitting there saying, 'Hold the broom better.' 'That's not how you mop.' Don't tell me how to mop. Pick up a mop! Do some work on behalf of the American people to solve some of these problems.

"But that wasn't their strategy... This is public record. They've said in interviews: 'We made a political decision. We stood nothing to gain from cooperating. We knew things were going to be bad. And we figured, if we didn't do anything and if it didn't work out so well, maybe the other side would take the blame.'

"They've done their best to gum up the works; to make things look broken; to say no to every single thing. That was the attitude they had when it came to pulling our economy out of a crisis. That was the attitude they had when it came to making sure that families and businesses finally got the security of health care in this country. That's been the attitude on any number of challenges that we faced. Their basic attitude has been: 'If the Democrats lose, we win.'

"So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. No! You can't drive! We don't want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! We just got the car out!"

Jon Chat noted: "I think we can see his main political theme for 2010 and 2012 taking shape here: Republicans screwed the country up, Obama got to work fixing it, Republicans took an ultra-partisan stance on every issue, and if you give them power they'll screw things up again. It's quite simple, and has the added virtue of being true."

It's the kind of message the president may want to use more often, and in venues other than just party fundraisers.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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

* As Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary heats up, two new polls shows Rep. Joe Sestak inching past Sen. Arlen Specter. A new Research 2000 poll shows the challenger up by two, 45% to 43%, while a Suffolk poll shows Sestak by nine, 49% to 40%.

* In Arkansas' Democratic Senate primary, Research 2000 shows incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln leading Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, 46% to 37%. If Lincoln doesn't top 50% next week, the two will meet again in a runoff election.

* On a related note, a group called Americans for Jobs Security continues to go after Halter with racially-charged messages.

* In Kentucky, the latest Research 2000 poll shows Rand Paul leading Trey Grayson in the Republican Senate primary by 10 points, while Daniel Mongiardo's lead in the Democratic Senate primary over Jack Conway is down to three points.

* Linda McMahon, the faltering Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut, is trying to revive her campaign by calling for more offshore drilling. Seems like a bad idea.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist lost his Senate campaign staff when he left the Republican Party, but he now has a new campaign manager: his sister, who isn't a campaign professional, but is a public school teacher.

* Scandal-plagued Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is trailing his Republican primary challenger, Brian Sandoval, by 18 points in a new Mason-Dixon poll.

* In Wisconsin, Democratic leaders have rallied behind state Sen. Julie Lassa as the strongest candidate to run for the seat Rep. Dave Obey (D) is giving up.

* And in Utah, Sen. Bob Bennett (R) has said he won't run as an independent in the wake of being rejected by his own party, but if he changes his mind, he'd have to go to court to challenge the state early deadline, which annoys independent candidates across the country. (thanks to NTodd for the heads-up)

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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WALKING AN AWKWARD TIGHTROPE ON BAILOUTS.... Josh Marshall noted the other day, "Everybody hates the bailouts -- liberals, conservatives and everyone in between. So can anyone admit that they were amazingly successful and cost only a fraction of what people first thought?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course, but for Republicans, it's awfully difficult to answer.

For all the conservative anti-bailout rhetoric, it's proven easy for many to have a short memory. Two years ago, it was the Bush/Cheney administration that requested the bailout, which was then endorsed by the House Republican leaders (Boehner, Cantor, and Blunt), the Senate Republican leaders (McConnell and Kyl), the Republican presidential ticket (McCain and Palin), and assorted, high-profile conservative voices (Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck).

But that was in 2008. Now, the financial industry "bailout" is universally reviled, and the same Republican Party that shaped and endorsed the TARP bill would like American voters to forget all about the party's role.

Brian Beutler notes today that the GOP finds itself in a political jam. Republicans backed the bailout, and need to defend their efforts to the electorate. But to do that, they'll need to say the bailout worked, and that's a message the electorate clearly doesn't want to hear.

Perhaps the most fascinating political conundrum of the 2010 election is one faced by GOP senators, almost all of whom voted for TARP and supported some of the other bailouts in the thick of the financial crisis. The good news is that, for all their shortcomings, the bailouts did the trick, preventing a deeper economic crisis. The bad news is those bailouts are now considered political poison by the tea partying conservative base.

That puts Republicans in a strange position: unable to say the legislation failed, but at pains to distance themselves from their vote nonetheless.

Brian asked several GOP senators about their vote, and the only one willing to boast about being right was Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) -- and he's retiring.

It's worth noting that Dems aren't exactly feeling politically secure about this, either. The entire Republican establishment backed TARP, but so too did the Democratic leadership, including Barack Obama. Dems are in a slightly better position -- Obama is collecting the money Bush spent, and Dems haven't spend two years trying to exploit public anger over the bailout for political gain -- but as Chris Hayes reminded me this morning, it's not like Democratic candidates will be anxious to take a pro-bailout message to voters in November, either.

It leads to a bizarre campaign dynamic -- candidates terrified of defending a tough call, made two years ago, that was almost certainly correct in hindsight. Democratic candidates will be bashing Republican incumbents for voting for TARP, while Republican candidates bash Dem incumbents for the same thing, and no one on either side willing to say, "But I was right!"

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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GOP'S BIG FAT GREEK TALKING POINT.... Last week, just hours after the best monthly jobs report in more than four years, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tried his best to downplay the good news. "I look at the horrible images coming out of Greece and I am struck by the reality of what can happen when a country goes on a shopping spree without paying its bills," he said.

It was an odd quote -- it was Cantor and his Republican Party that added $5 trillion to the debt during the Bush era, refusing to pay for wars and new government programs -- but it raised the specter of a new talking point. The GOP, it seems, just loves the Greek debt crisis.

After all, the story seems relatively easy to exploit. Greece over-spent and went into a deep debt, which has led to a crisis that threatens the global recovery. As Republicans see it, the United States has a huge debt, too, and if we want to avoid becoming Greece, we'll have to start slashing spending and reducing the enormous deficits that Republicans created in the first place.

That the GOP wants to slash spending anyway is probably just a coincidence, right?

Either way, the result is the same -- conservatives who got the Great Recession spectacularly wrong now have a new toy to play with, and a new rationale to justify ridiculous cuts to domestic spending.

Thankfully, Paul Krugman tackles this argument today, and explains why the right, once again, is wrong.

For one thing, the similarities between the U.S. position and Greece's are severely limited.

Both nations have lately been running large budget deficits, roughly comparable as a percentage of G.D.P. Markets, however, treat them very differently: The interest rate on Greek government bonds is more than twice the rate on U.S. bonds, because investors see a high risk that Greece will eventually default on its debt, while seeing virtually no risk that America will do the same. Why?

One answer is that we have a much lower level of debt -- the amount we already owe, as opposed to new borrowing -- relative to G.D.P.

For another, we're on the path to recovery and Greece isn't.

The U.S. economy has been growing since last summer, thanks to fiscal stimulus and expansionary policies by the Federal Reserve. I wish that growth were faster; still, it's finally producing job gains -- and it's also showing up in revenues. Right now we're on track to match Congressional Budget Office projections of a substantial rise in tax receipts. [...]

Greece, on the other hand, is caught in a trap.... Greece faces years of grinding deflation and low or zero economic growth. So the only way to reduce deficits is through savage budget cuts, and investors are skeptical about whether those cuts will actually happen.

Ultimately, the point to remember is that Republicans' hype is misguided.

[H]ere's the reality: America's fiscal outlook over the next few years isn't bad. We do have a serious long-run budget problem, which will have to be resolved with a combination of health care reform and other measures, probably including a moderate rise in taxes. But we should ignore those who pretend to be concerned with fiscal responsibility, but whose real goal is to dismantle the welfare state -- and are trying to use crises elsewhere to frighten us into giving them what they want.

The GOP argument is predicated on simplistic, child-like thinking: the U.S. has a large debt; Greece has a large debt; therefore the U.S. may end up like Greece unless we let Republicans do what they want to the budget. There's no reason for sensible people to take this seriously.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MURKOWSKI CARRIES WATER FOR THOSE WHO PUMP OIL.... With the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf getting worse every day, it was tempting to think the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act" stood a chance at passage. The measure, pushed by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), would increase the $75 million liability cap for oil spills to $10 billion.

Given what we've seen in recent weeks, what politician would want to side with the industry on a bill like this one? Reflecting the ongoing shamelessness of the Senate Republican caucus, one of its members was only too pleased to step up.

Alaska's senior senator blocked legislation Thursday that would have dramatically increased liability caps on oil companies, in the wake of one of the industry's biggest disasters.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) objected to a voice vote request by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on the bill... Murkowski said the legislation is "not where we need to be right now" and would unfairly advantage large oil companies by pricing the small companies out of the market. Murkowski did signal that she would be open to "look at the liability cap and consider raising it." Just not at this moment.

Menendez wasn't buying it: "The risk is what has to be calculated here. If you drill, you need to be able to pay for the damages." As for the notion that large oil companies would have an advantage, Menendez explain that we're not talking about a "mom and pop in the grocery store around the corner" that wants to drill offshore.

He added: "It's straightforward, it's common sense. Either you want to fully protect the small businesses, individuals and communities devastated by a man-made disaster -- this is not a natural disaster; this is a man-made disaster -- or you want to protect multibillion-dollar oil companies from being held fully accountable. Apparently there are some in the Senate who prefer to protect the oil companies."

As a rule, when there's a disaster like this one, and the public has no appetite for defending the industry, politicians are afraid to carry companies' water. But as is usually the case, Republicans are crossing their fingers and hoping that the public doesn't notice how far they're willing to go to help their oil industry buddies.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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INHOFE'S VILE RHETORIC KNOWS NO BOUNDS.... Most reasonable people, especially those in positions of authority, would steer clear of someone like the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer. Even within the religious right movement, Fischer is known for stomach-churning extremism.

But that didn't stop Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) from chatting with Fischer on his radio show, and arguing that Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination must be defeated because she might someday rule that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is unconstitutional.

And for Inhofe, that would be unacceptable. DADT is necessary, the clownish senator said, because U.S. servicemembers might no longer do their duty if some of their fellow soldiers are gay.

"For those of us -- and I'm one of them -- who have gone through the military, gone through basic training, and you stop and think -- it just doesn't make any sense. Second of all, it's just not working. You have women, men, then you have a third group to deal with, and they're not equipped to do that.

"And you know -- you hear the stories all the time. A military guy -- I happen to be Army, and Army and Marines always feel that when we're out there, we're not doing it for the flag or the country; we're doing it for the guy in the next foxhole. And that would dramatically change that."

There are multiple important angles to this, but let's focus on two of them. First, that Inhofe considers gay people part of a "third" gender is disgusting, even by his low standards.

Second, Inhofe probably isn't sharp enough to realize it, but his comments represent a pretty stunning insult towards Americans in uniform. Look at his argument again -- U.S. servicemen and women, he says, hate gay people so much, they may disobey orders and let their unit down if they think a gay soldier is in the next foxhole.

I can't think of the last time a high-profile American politician called the troops' integrity into question like this.

For what it's worth, the drive to repeal DADT, Inhofe's vile rhetoric notwithstanding, has been endorsed this year by President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney. There's also ample evidence that those who wear the uniform aren't as hateful as Jim Inhofe thinks they are.

Just this week, Bruce McQuain, a veteran and conservative blogger, wrote, "I've thought about [the DADT policy] long and hard. I've actually changed my mind from years ago. I guess that's because I've known of and served with soldiers I knew were gay. And every one of them were good soldiers who served honorably and did an excellent job.... Sexual orientation should never be a bar to serving your country honorably in the profession of arms."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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SIZE MATTERS.... BP has said it doesn't really know how much oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, but the exact number isn't especially relevant. A company spokesperson said "the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response."

But there's more to it than that.

BP initially said the disaster was producing about 1,000 barrels a day. Soon after, a government agency put the number closer to 5,000 barrels a day. As more information has become available, estimates have soared. Techniques and experts are available to assist with the measurement, but BP doesn't want to use them.

Getting reliable information seems like a good idea.

Scientists said that the size of the spill was directly related to the amount of damage it would do in the ocean and onshore, and that calculating it accurately was important for that reason. [...]

Environmental groups contend ... that the flow rate is a vital question. Since this accident has shattered the illusion that deep-sea oil drilling is immune to spills, they said, this one is likely to become the touchstone in planning a future response.

"If we are systematically underestimating the rate that's being spilled, and we design a response capability based on that underestimate, then the next time we have an event of this magnitude, we are doomed to fail again," said John Amos, the president of SkyTruth. "So it's really important to get this number right."

Meanwhile, there are some fears that it will simply be impossible to shut down the gusher of oil, and that the spill will get worse until it's tapped dry. BP's chief executive has estimated "that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil." That's about 2 billion gallons -- making this disaster easily the worst ever.

Adding insult to injury, the Minerals Management Service, the agency within the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling, continues to be an embarrassment. In the Bush/Cheney era, MMS became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history, embracing an anything-goes atmosphere that led to literally Caligula-like corruption and debauchery -- including federal officials trading cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts.

Today we learn that MMS "gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species -- and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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May 13, 2010

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

* Shahzad's in custody, but the case continues: "Federal authorities raided a half-dozen locations in Long Island, New Jersey and the Boston area early Thursday morning and took three people into custody as part of the investigation into the failed Times Square car bombing, which Obama administration officials have said was aided and directed by the Pakistani Taliban."

* If at first BP doesn't succeed: "Setting aside their 'top hat' strategy for now, BP officials said Thursday they would instead try threading a small tube into a jagged pipe gushing crude from the Gulf seafloor."

* Predictable GOP opposition: "Senate Democrats seeking to punish BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were turned back Thursday when they sought quick passage of legislation that significantly raises oil companies' liability cap on economic damages from offshore disasters." It was Sen. Lisa Murkowki (R-Alaska) doing the oil industry's bidding.

* In related news, Transocean desperately hopes to limit its liability for the disaster.

* Bangkok: "The Thai authorities' latest attempt to bring an end to eight weeks of anti-government rallies turned bloody on Thursday night with one of the protest leaders shot and severely wounded in unclear circumstances and number of clashes between demonstrators and security forces."

* Better, but not good enough: "The number of Americans filing claims for jobless benefits dropped for a fourth straight week, a sign that employers are retaining more workers as the economy expands."

* Wall Street scrutiny broadens: "The New York attorney general has started an investigation of eight banks to determine whether they provided misleading information to rating agencies in order to inflate the grades of certain mortgage securities, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation."

* In related news, some key amendments were added to the Wall Street reform package today.

* Brad Johnson goes over the details of the new American Power Act, and compares it to recently considered related measures.

* The White House sends the new START to the Senate for consideration.

* After excessive delays, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Goodwin Liu judicial nomination on a party-line vote, 12 to 7.

* John Cole puts together a compelling list of what we've learned this week about "What It Takes To Be a Justice."

* Taking a fresh look at student loan debt.

* Some of the nation's leading milbloggers, including a few very conservative sites, support DADT repeal.

* Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) takes the wind from far-right sails, agrees that Elena Kagan supports the military.

* I'm not the only one who embraces the notion of "conversation enders."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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COMPETES ACT SCUTTLED BY PORN PROVISION.... Just another day on Capitol Hill, where mature lawmakers, given enormous responsibilities, shape federal policy for 310 million people.

House Democrats had to scrap their only substantive bill of the week Thursday after Republicans won a procedural vote that substantively altered the legislation with an anti-porn clause.

Democrats had labeled their COMPETES Act -- a bill to increase investments in science, research and training programs -- as their latest jobs bill. It was the only non-suspension bill Democrats brought up all week.

But the Republican motion to recommit the bill -- a parliamentary tactic that gives the minority one final chance to amend legislation -- contained language prohibiting federal funds from going "to salaries to those officially disciplined for violations regarding the viewing, downloading, or exchanging of pornography, including child pornography, on a federal computer or while performing official government duties."

Fearing campaign attack ads, 121 Dems voted for the Republican motion, fearing they might be labeled pro-porn. Democratic leaders ultimately pulled their bill from consideration and vowed to tried again next week.

"It's absurd," Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) said. "It's specious, and it's disgusting. And those are the nicest things I can say about it."

I often wonder what Congress would be like if Republicans were serious about lawmaking and public policy. Maybe someday we'll find out, but I don't imagine that day will come soon.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NBC/WSJ POLL.... Some interesting data to chew on in a new NBC/WSJ poll released today. Most notably, there's growing evidence that some of the voters who abandoned the Republican Party during their reign of error are returning home.

Republicans have solidified support among voters who had drifted from the party in recent elections, putting the GOP in position for a strong comeback in November's mid-term campaign, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The findings suggest that public opinion has hardened in advance of the 2010 elections, making it tougher for Democrats to translate their legislative successes, or a tentatively improving U.S. economy, into gains among voters.

Republicans have reassembled their coalition by reconnecting with independents, seniors, blue-collar voters, suburban women and small town and rural voters --- all of whom had moved away from the party in the 2006 elections, in which Republicans lost control of the House. Those voter groups now favor GOP control of Congress.

"This data is what it looks like when Republicans assemble what for them is a winning coalition," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

The news for Republicans was not, however, all good. Only 30% of Americans have a favorable view of the GOP, quite a bit lower than the Democratic Party, and most of those planning to vote for Republican candidates are motivated by anti-Democratic attitudes, not support for the GOP.

What's more, respondents were asked, "When it comes to the problems in the financial markets, do you think that [Republicans in Congress] are more concerned about the interests of average Americans or more concerned about the interests of large corporations?" A whopping 71% majority said the GOP are more concerned with big business.

Other tidbits from the poll:

* President Obama: The president's approval rating inched up a little, and is now at 50%. Obama's handling of the economy scored its best results since September.

* Generic Ballot: Dems and Republicans are tied at 44% each, roughly the same as its been for the last eight months.

* Enthusiasm Gap: Here's a result that should make Dems nervous: "The voters who said they were most interested in the November elections favor Republican control of Congress by a 20-point margin, with 56% backing the GOP and 36% backing Democrats -- the highest gap all year on that question."

* Wall Street Reform: A 55% majority wants to see more done to protect consumers against Wall Street excesses, while 38% worry that officials will go too far and limit investment opportunities.

* Health care reform: The Affordable Care Act is still not popular, but support has grown and is now at its highest levels since the fall. More importantly, a 55% majority said they're more likely to support congressional candidates who want to give the new law a chance to succeed, while 42% will back candidates who support a full repeal.

* Immigration: A 53% majority of the larger electorate believe immigration hurts the country more than it helps, and 64% support the new Arizona measure. (70% of Hispanic Americans oppose the Arizona law.)

* Oil drilling: A 60% majority supports more coastal drilling, and a slightly smaller majority believe the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks.

* Fear of terrorism: Respondents were asked, "In general, do you approve or disapprove of using racial or ethnic profiling in combating terrorism?" A 51% majority said they approve.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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MCCAIN'S BOGUS NEW TALKING POINT.... Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rolled out a new talking point to go after Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Fox News last night, which turned out to be slightly worse than the usual arguments.

Sean Hannity asked whether the senator is likely to vote to confirm her. McCain responded that he'll let the process unfold, but at this point, he's "outraged."

"You know the members of the ROTC at Harvard had to go to MIT to do their training. Now here's a school -- the Harvard Law School can produce all of our Supreme Court justices, but Harvard will not allow recruiters to help young men and women serve their country in uniform. [...]

"I am deeply offended that a school that models itself as the finest in the nation, at least they claim that, would not allow recruiters to come on their campus and ROTC to be conducted on their campus."

As is too often the case, McCain is confused. Harvard -- the university, not just the law school -- dropped its ROTC program 41 years ago. McCain may still feel "outraged" about that, but it seems a little petty to hold Kagan responsible for the school's policy. She was in fourth grade when it was adopted.

What's more, Matt Finkelstein noted that Harvard isn't exactly unique in its policy: "[M]any academic institutions have long held bans on ROTC, including Columbia University, where McCain recently sent his daughter (and his money)."

And for the record, when McCain suggests that Kagan "would not allow recruiters" on campus, he's not telling the truth.

I know we're in kitchen-sink mode when it comes to Republicans going after Kagan, but even for McCain, blaming Kagan for Harvard's ROTC policy is absurd.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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IT WAS BOUND TO HAPPEN.... A week ago, when the Elena Kagan nomination was still in the realm of well-placed rumor, Matt Yglesias made a reasonable prediction:

Kagan pick will be greeted with initial disappointment, conservative attacks will cause liberals to rally 'round her.

And sure enough, here's the estimable Marcy Wheeler this afternoon:

Predictably, the stupidity of the GOP attacks is endearing Kagan to me more and more.

Adam Serwer agrees.

I can relate to this, too. I didn't necessarily have a favorite among the reported short-list for the Supreme Court vacancy, though if President Obama called me up and asked my vote, I probably would have endorsed Diane Wood.

What's more, when the Elena Kagan announcement was made on Monday morning, I wouldn't say I was necessarily disappointed, but I was certainly open to skeptical and critical arguments about the nomination's merits.

But as the week has progressed, and I've heard conservatives and Republicans start to take their best shots, I find myself thinking this Kagan nomination might not be so bad after all.

I should emphasize that this is obviously not a substantive argument. Actually, it's the opposite of a substantive argument, and I'm not about to argue on the merits that Kagan is the best possible choice simply because her detractors on the right act like idiots.

But on a purely emotional level, Matt's prediction from last week seems pretty insightful.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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REGULATIONS I CAN BELIEVE IN.... When considering the kind of changes we've seen between this administration and the last, we tend to think about economic, national security, legal, and social policy. More generally, we might also think about the shift away from corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

But one of the most dramatic changes is one that often goes overlooked: "A new age of regulation is well under way in Washington."

In a burst of rule-making, federal agencies have toughened or proposed new standards to protect Americans from tainted eggs, safeguard construction workers from crane accidents, prevent injuries from baby walkers and even protect polar bears from extinction.

Over the last year, the Obama administration has pressed forward on hundreds of new mandates, while also stepping up enforcement of rules by increasing the ranks of inspectors and imposing higher fines for violations. [...]

[T]he new aggressiveness reflects the new cops on the beat, and the contrast with the Bush administration is an intentionally sharp one. While the Bush administration mostly favored voluntary compliance by industry, senior Obama administration officials argue that carefully crafted regulation can be a positive force.

"We start from the perspective that we all want a cleaner environment, longer lives, improved safety," said Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major regulations. "Smart regulation can make people's lives better off."

Industry leaders are complaining, a development that is neither surprising nor compelling. As the FDA gets stronger, after being gutted under the Bush administration, it's to be expected that industries are going to lament new burdens. But after a little too much "e. coli conservatism," I much prefer the new-and-improved way.

I do wish this area of public policy was more appreciated, though. It's the kind of detail few Americans consider before voting, but when a president takes office, he/she does more than just become the head of the White House and a political party; he/she also leads a large federal bureaucracy with vast regulatory power.

Over the last three decades, through Republican administrations, that regulatory power was deliberately stunted, favoring business interests over consumer interests. The bureaucracy has some discretion over which laws are enforced more vigorously, and the Bush administration, for example, chose a lax attitude when it came to consumer and worker protections. Obama, in contrast, is using the executive branch in a very different, more progressive fashion, emphasizing strong federal oversight, and evidence-based analysis, with the public's interests in mind.

John Judis had a good item on this earlier in the year.

[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for -- but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama's three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country's regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices.

Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn't simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama's revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office. [...]

Republican presidents didn't just undermine scientific administration by making poor appointments; they also slashed or held down the regulatory agencies' budgets, forcing them to cut personnel. This was a particular problem in the all-important area of enforcement: If regulatory agencies can't conduct inspections and enforce rules, it doesn't matter how tough those rules are.... Now Obama is reversing these trends.

Judis added that Obama's regulatory appointments "could not be more different" from those we've seen in recent years, and "the flow of expertise into the federal bureaucracy over the past year has been reminiscent of what took place at the start of the New Deal."

Good. I know we're dealing with obscure government officials in unseen government offices, but it's hard to overstate how much of a difference this makes in Americans' daily lives.

Of course, it's worth noting that in the Clinton administration's first two years, the president tried to revamp regulatory agencies, too. Republicans took over Congress in 1995, and blocked many of those efforts.

Here's hoping history doesn't repeat itself.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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