Is Hillary Clinton playing Barack Obama? Does she have a secret political plan? Are the Clintons up to anything? We discussed this all on Tuesday night on Hardball:

I never expected Barack Obama to be anything other than pragmatic and center left.  Still, I confess to feeling a little in the dumps lately over just how much he seems willing to bend and compromise on some key issues.  But then I read things like this:

In an abrupt shift, Senate Democratic leaders said on Tuesday that they would not provide the $80 million that President Obama requested to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

....The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, seemed to ramp up the concerns of Congressional Democrats, insisting during a news conference that lawmakers would never allow the terror suspects to be released into the United States....Pressed to explain if that meant they could not be transferred to American prisons, Mr. Reid said: "We don't want is them to be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

To repeat: I read things like this.  And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against.  His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine.  The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway.  Because they're scared.  And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

But that's the reality that Obama has to deal with.  Under the circumstances, I guess he's not doing so badly after all.

Credit Card Update

I see that Chris Dodd's credit card reform bill passed the Senate 90-5 today.  This is even better than I expected, and goes to show the agenda-setting power of being in the majority.  In the past, Republicans could have simply prevented a bill like this from coming to the floor, thus sparing themselves the political difficulty of voting against it.  Now they can't do that.  They have to vote whether they like it or not.  And since credit card reform really is a hot button issue, their sense of self-preservation got the better of them and they gave the bill a massive majority.

Which is fine, but I suspect it also means that Dodd could have played hardball a little more strenuously than he did and negotiated a better bill.  Who knows?  If Dems figure this out, maybe it will be the first legislation in history to actually be improved in conference.

Oh — and all the boo hooing from the credit card industry?  If you believe even a single word of it, you need to run not walk to your local emergency room and have them do an MRI on your brain.  There's a chunk missing.

MoJo editor Clara Jeffery and conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders went head to head yesterday on KQED's ForumCould Pelosi have prevented detainee torture? Are small cars safer than big ones? Does the Gallup poll finding that more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice signify a real change?

Listen to these leading journalists do battle over these questions and more, here:

Even at a time when most old people have taken a hit to their retirement income, far more older women than older men are living on the edge of survival. A case before the Supreme Court would have helped a few women to slightly narrow the substantial gap between women and men’s retirement earnings. But the Court, in a  7-2 vote on Monday, decided to let the disparity stand.

Until 1978, it was legal for employers to discriminate on the  basis of preganancy. So women who took pregnancy leaves were in some cases given less credit toward their pensions than people who took leaves for other medical conditions. In the case before the Supreme Court, a group of women who formerly worked for AT&T were suing to have  maternity leaves taken before passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) calculated fully into retirement benefits. While a lower court ruled in their favor, the majority on the Supreme Court decided that the law was not meant to be applied retroactively.

But since the pensions in question are being calculated now, long after passage of the PDA, dissenting Justices Ginsberg and Breyer argued that the discrimination is, effectively, taking place now as well. Ginsberg wrote in her dissent that “attitudes about pregnancy and childbirth …have sustained pervasive, often law-sanctioned, restrictions on a woman’s place among paid workers and active citizens.” The women workers, she said:

I haven't yet seen the new Pixar film Up, which was the opening-night feature at the Cannes Film Festival and opens here this weekend. But since I write about the politics of aging, it seems worth mentioning, because it’s apparently one of a painfully small number of movies that is geezer-centric. According to a piece in Sunday’s New York Times:

Having tackled toys, monsters, fish, cars, superheroes, rats and robots, the creative team at the studio decided this time, for its first film in 3-D, to center a story around a grumpy septuagenarian balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen.

“We started off with this list of things we’d always wanted to play with, and an older, grumpy guy was definitely on that list,” said the film’s director, Pete Docter. Inspired by the cartoons of George Booth in The New Yorker, Mr. Docter and his co-director and co-screenwriter, Bob Peterson, wanted to create a curmudgeon with audience appeal.

“A curmudgeon with audience appeal”–that sounds pretty good. But wait, there’s more:

Early in the film, the widowed Carl has isolated himself from the world. Facing a court edict that would put him in a nursing home, he resists by strapping balloons to his house and floating to Paradise Falls in South America, a place he has dreamed of since he was a boy yearning to be an explorer. On the way he meets offbeat characters (including a pudgy 8-year-old named Russell and a dopey dog named Dug) who shake him out of his stiff, cantankerous shell.

Okay, they kind of lost me there. Why is it that all cranky old geezers have to go through a heartwarming transformation in which they mend their codgerly ways and become loving grandfatherly types? I don’t know if this is what happens to Carl, but the description makes me suspicious. I don’t see why Carl should have to undergo an attitude-adjustment. It sounds like he has good reason to be pissed off, what with people trying to stick him in a nursing home. Maybe his home got foreclosed on, too, because he lost all his retirement savings in the stock market. And I’ll bet Medicare Part D wouldn’t pay for his happy pills.

In any case, while Up has done well so far with critics and audiences, not everyone, apparently, is pleased with the idea of a geezer-centered animated film. According to the New York Times, ”To the extreme irritation of the Walt Disney Company [which owns Pixar], two important business camps — Wall Street and toy retailers — are notably down on ‘Up.’”

Credit Card Hell

Ezra is obviously just pimping content from his new corporate overlords here, but today's Washington Post chat about the credit card industry really does make for interesting reading.  One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that people are almost universally paranoid about their credit scores.  And why not?  We live in a modern economy in which credit is essential, but your access to credit is determined by a process that's deliberately opaque, practically impossible to dispute, controlled almost entirely by credit issuers who make money when they lure you into practices that wreck your credit score, and wide open to fraud because the credit industry doesn't really care about it.

My solution?  For starters, credit scoring companies should be required by law to be far more transparent about their practices.  Beyond that, though, we need to give them an incentive to start caring about fraud: if the credit industry wrecks your credit score by allowing fraud, it's the credit industry that should pay the price, not you.  More here.


 

The New York Times unveiled LENS last Friday, their brand-new photoblog. Taking advantage of the wealth of often awesome photography at their disposal, LENS showcases a range of work—from the traffic-driving staple "Photo of the Day" feature, to Stephen Crowley taking viewers inside a media/photo spray with President Obama, to Fred Conrad's large format photography.

Just a few days out of the gate and they're serving up an impressive batch of photos, presented in a smart, easy-to-navigate format. The images may not be as giant as on the Boston Globe's Big Picture photoblog, but the Times does a knockout job of pushing the range of work presented on a newspaper's photoblog. Or any photoblog for that matter.

And speaking of the Times photoblog, Mother Jones contributing photographer Danny Wilcox-Frazier gets the full treatment today. Sixteen images from his Driftless work, an intimate look at life in rural Iowa, are showcased on LENS. The work may look familiar. It first ran here in Mother Jones, in the March/April 2008 issue and won the 2007 Honickman/Duke First Book Prize in Photography.

Danny also just finished working with MediaStorm on a six-part, multimedia version of Driftless. The focus on the farm is nice, but Danny really excels at getting in with the locals. The spots on the Town Bar and the Jumping Rock really get under the skin of life in rural Iowa.

 

 

President Obama really is a nice guy. When he announced Tuesday that federal and state governments and environmental groups had come to a "historic agreement" with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy to 35.5 MPG by 2016, he granted the automakers a huge PR favor: The industry has been fighting these rules for years; they only capitulated now because they had a gun to their heads.

"The new administration was in a position to say [to the auto companies] 'you have to accept this,'" Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign told me. "They realized that and they caved. This is auto mechanics, not rocket science, and they can do that."

Even as the news leaked that Obama would announce tougher fuel efficiency standards, the auto industry was still embroiled in lawsuits, most notably with the State of California, over states' efforts to cut greenhouse gasses. But these days, Detroit doesn't have the same political sway in Washington that it used to, even compared to just a few years ago, when the Bush administration denied California's attempt to implement its strict MPG rules.

Obama's new rules effectively end that litigation, and are a "huge stick in the eye to polluters, who "did everything they could to stop this from happening," says Greenpeace's Kert Davies. The auto industry had argued that individual states like California do not have the power to govern fuel economy, but Obama mooted that argument by directing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to write regulations, which they will have the power to enforce.

Becker told me the rules themselves don't go far enough, but are "a good first step" and leave an opportunity for improvement in 2017, when they are set to expire. (Becker also says he expects officials in California to take the lead on drafting post-2016 standards and release their plan within a year.) By then, the White House says we will have saved 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of "taking 177 million cars off the road."

Davies says hasn't yet run any calculations accounting for the new 35.5 MPG standard, but he told me he thinks "we're still behind the curve" in comparison to other nations when it comes to curbing tailpipe emissions: "Even China has better fuel economy targets than we do."

The Burbs

Dana Goldstein suggests that we should fund more magnet schools in urban cores as a way of attracting suburban kids into the city and opening up slots for city kids in the suburbs.  Matt Yglesias says this would probably have limited effectiveness, but still:

One way or the other, I can’t think of any good reason for a governor who’s genuinely interested in improving opportunities for poor kids not to be trying something along these lines.

Well, I can think of a good reason: because suburban parents in this governor's state would go absolutely batshit insane over the idea.  It would probably spell the end of his political career.

One of the great third rails of education policy debates is acknowledging the fact that suburban parents will flatly never go along with anything like this — at least not on a scale that makes any difference.  For the most part they don't want to ship their kids to urban schools, even if they are magnets, and they really really don't want urban schools shipping a bunch of stoners and gangbangers to their nice suburban schools.  And make no mistake: that is how they think of it, and all the research in the world showing that urban-suburban transfers don't affect educational outcomes won't budge them an inch.

I don't know what to do about this.  But to some extent education is a zero-sum game.  If we invest more money in inner-city schools, it means less for the suburbs.  If we try to attract the best teachers to urban schools, it means that suburbs get weaker teachers.  If we do it anyway, suburban parents will start sending their kids to private schools.  And the point at which public support for No Child Left Behind evaporates is the point at which suburban schools start "failing" in large numbers.  That isn't something suburban parents will tolerate, and they'll simply vote out of office anyone who tries to make them.

Even on a purely voluntary basis, I suspect that fostering "regional partnerships between urban and suburban districts" will never have more than a tiny impact.  Suburban parents just can't be talked into it, and when it comes to educational policy suburban parents rule.  Programs like the Harlem Children's Zone or the KIPP schools may have mixed track records, but at least they're both promising and feasible on a large scale.  My guess is that they're both better prospects for long-term change than trying to merge city and suburb.  I'm happy to be talked out of this, though.