2010 - %3, January

CT-Sen: Dodd Out, Blumenthal In

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 10:34 AM EST

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the embattled five-term incumbent, will announce his retirement later today:

The decision came hours after another Democratic senator, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, also announced that he would not seek re-election this November. The developments underscored the fragility of the Democrats’ 60-vote Senate majority, which is just enough to block Republican filibusters. Democratic incumbents also face serious challenges in Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania among other states.

The Dorgan seat will almost certainly be a Republican pickup. But Democrats probably have a better chance of holding Dodd's seat now that he's out. That's because Richard Blumenthal, the state Attorney General and by far the most popular elected official in Connecticut, is jumping into the race. Only 13 percent of Connecticut voters disapprove of Blumenthal, and his approval rating is a stratospheric 78 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Those put Dodd's numbers to shame. Dodd's exit and Blumenthal's entrance were almost certainly arranged behind the scenes, of course—Dodd probably wouldn't have given up his re-election fight unless he could be sure dropping out would actually improve his party's odds of holding his seat.

Chris Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.) Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.)I was actually working on a piece for the magazine arguing that Dodd was a bit of a canary in the coal mine for Democrats, since as chair of the Senate banking committee he's seen as more responsible for the country's economic woes than other Dems. That's moot now. But if the first polls of the race with Blumenthal show even a hint of hope for the Republican challengers, that might be even worse news for Democrats. Linda McMahon (of wrestling fame), former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, and former Ron Paul adviser Peter Schiff were battling to face Dodd in the general. If the most popular politician in a super-blue state like Connecticut is in any sort of trouble against those three, well, national Dems are probably cooked. (Update: Good news for Dems—Blumenthal leads all three Republicans by 30 points. This is probably a safe seat now.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

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Richard Pombo Rides Again!

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 7:08 AM EST

Richard Pombo is back on the political scene. The squat, nepotistic, buffalo-killing, whale-hating, freeway-speculating, junket-taking, national-park-peddling, Abramoff-courting California rancher who became the nation's worst-ever chairman of the House Resources Committee is running for Congress, three short years after voters booted him from office. Bad sequels aren't just the stuff of Westerns.

For years, Pombo topped environmentalists' Most Wanted list. In 2006 the League of Conservation Voters named him chairman of its "Dirty Dozen." Rolling Stone called him "Enemy of the Earth." His long-running efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling ultimately came to naught, but he pushed through Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative and effectively derailed a government investigation of Pacific Lumber owner Charles Hurwitz, then the nation's leading logger of old growth redwoods. In 2006, Defenders of Wildlife chipped in more than $2 million to help Democratic novice Jerry McNerney unseat him.

The political winds had been changing in Pombo's Central Valley congressional district as it became a bedroom community for the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet his environmental record probably hurt him less than his ties with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In an election year fixated on corruption, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named him one of the 13 most corrupt members of Congress.

Since then, Pombo has stayed true to form. In 2007, he took the reins of the Partnership for America, an organization funded by utilities, oil, coal, mining, logging, and agricultural groups that sought to gut the Endangered Species Act (it now appears defunct). Around the same time, he became a senior partner at Pac/West Communications, a PR firm that had held a fundraiser for him and created Astroturf groups to trumpet support for his plans to strip environmental laws. The Pac/West website tries to put a greener face on Pombo, featuring a Q&A in which he gushes that Africa's "natural beauty and abundance of wildlife is awesome."

Rather than challenging McNerney to a rematch, Pombo intends to replace retiring GOP congressman George Radanovich in a district deeper in the Valley. He'll face fewer environmentalists there but more friction from business interests and his own party. Radanovich and the California Chamber of Commerce have already endorsed State Sen. Jeff Denham for the job. And Denham's success fending off a 2008 recall effort pushed by leading California Democrats earned him points with the party faithful. Still, Pombo counts deep political connections in Washington. It may be a close race, and it will be interesting to see if and when environmental groups wade into the fray.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 6, 2010

Wed Jan. 6, 2010 6:33 AM EST

A paratrooper with 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade), deployed in Iraq since August 2009, uses an online video-chat program to talk with his wife and children back at Fort Bragg, N.C., during the Christmas holidays, 2009. Operation Homelink, a nonprofit organization that works with corporate donors to link families and their deployed soldiers with computers, partnered with Dell Computers to donate 75 computers to families of 1/82 AAB paratroopers prior to its deployment. (army.mil.)

Need To Read: January 6, 2010

Wed Jan. 6, 2010 6:20 AM EST

Today's must reads:

  • Obama: Undiebomber Could Have Been Stopped (NYT)
  • DC Circuit: Pretty much anyone can be detained without charge (SCOTUSBlog)
  • Home Sales Down; Everyone Panics (NYT)
  • 21 Experts Seek Meeting with WaPost Chair Don Graham Over Possible Ethics Problems With "Fiscal Post" Collaboration (OurFuture.org)
  • Ford Sales Up (WaPo)
  • Iceland Leader Vetoes Plan to Pay Equivalent of $13 Trillion To Foreigners Who Had Saved Money in Iceland's Failed Banks (NYT)
  • Glenn Greenwald slams Politico for not challenging Cheney's statements on Obama administration's terror policies (Salon)
  • The Case Against Allowing C-SPAN Cameras Into Health Reform Negotiations (Wonk Room)
  • Andy Kroll on the curse that seems to have settled on the "Cape Wind" project (MoJo)
  • Did TSA post honeypot tweet to catch security directive leaker, using blogger's account? (BoingBoing)

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A Post About Yemen

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:33 AM EST

I've kept silent about Yemen so far because I don't want to even begin to pretend that I know anything about the place. But, like everyone else, I've been reading about it, and I have to say that this paragraph from Richard Fontaine and Andrew Exum is probably the most enlightening one I've seen so far:

Yemen's economy depends heavily on oil production, and its government receives the vast majority of its revenue from oil taxes. Yet analysts predict that the country's petroleum output, which has declined over the last seven years, will fall to zero by 2017. The government has done little to plan for its post-oil future. Yemen's population, already the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and with an unemployment rate of 35%, is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45% of Yemen's population is under the age of 15. These trends will exacerbate large and growing environmental problems, including the exhaustion of Yemen's groundwater resources. Given that a full 90% of the country's water is used for agriculture, this trend portends disaster.

So Yemen's population has tripled since 1975 and will double again by 2035. Meanwhile, state revenue will decline to zero by 2017 and the capital city of Sanaa will run out of water by 2015 — partly because 40% of Sanaa's water is pumped illegally in the outskirts to irrigate the qat crop.

Bizarrely, even after writing this, Fontaine and Exum follow up with this:

Given the threat posed not just by terrorism but by the potential for nationwide instability, the United States should move toward a broader relationship with Yemen, still focusing strongly on counter-terrorism but also on economic development and improved governance....Over the weekend, Obama pledged to double aid to Yemen, but this money must be spent strategically. Several areas are ripe for foreign help, including training and equipping counter-terrorism forces, bolstering border security and building the capacity of the coast guard, expanding counterinsurgency advice to the Yemeni government and expanding programs focused on basic governance and anti-corruption.

Even though they say that economic development is important, nearly their entire list is dedicated to military aid of one kind or another.1 But it's hard to see what good that will do to help a country with a soaring population, no revenue, and a rapidly dwindling water supply. Frankly, it's a little hard to see how anything is likely to have much impact on a country with problems that severe. And until those problems are addressed, it's also hard to see how even the best designed and executed counterterrorism program can have more than a very limited effect. More here from Marc Lynch, who basically seems to agree: "So what should the U.S. do? Pretty much what it's been doing in the Obama administration, which has in fact been thinking seriously about Yemen all year and which has quietly been working there in some constructive and some unconstructive ways. It's never as satisfying as a morally pure call to battle. [...] But the administration shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking it must "do something" to fend off political harping from the right and end up over-committing... or taking steps which ultimately make the situation worse."

1There's more detail in the policy brief that their op-ed is drawn from, but it's still focused almost exclusively on military and counterterrorism programs.

Twisted Science of 2009

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 11:32 PM EST

Those of us who love science particularly love its occasional embrace of weirdness. Conservation Maven has been kind enough to herd some of the oddest cats of last year into one pithy column commemorating perplexing moments in conservation science.

In keeping with the twisted spirit of the work, here's my remix of six of their top nine stories from the 2nd half of the year:

  1. The twisted duck penis: Male ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises. Females ducks have vaginas spiraling in the opposite direction. Proof that God doesn't exist? Or evidence that wily hens can physically control which males will actually fertilize their eggs?
  2. Robots evolve: According to some, God did not invent evolution. But Swiss scientists have. In the course of investigating the evolution of animal communication, researchers studied an arena of foraging robots. (First: weird context, right? Second: I did not know that the collective noun for robots was an arena of robots.) The robots emitted blue light and used floor sensors to locate food and avoid poison. Natural selection (tracked via artificial genomes) favored the robots who could suppress their blue light emissions to conceal information from competitors about food location. Wow. Proof that robots evolve into Republicans?
  3. Wrestling bighorns: Canadian scientists are tougher than others. Some decided to go mano-a-horno with bighorn sheep to determine individual personality types and see how that affected reproductive success. Do dominant sheep live longer? Researcher David Coltman described the dominantest sheep of them all: "We were filled with dread when one ram we nicknamed 'Psycho' turned up in a trap. Year in and year out Psycho's reaction was the same. He tried to kill us." Proof of sheep intelligence?
  4. AstroNewts: Austrian scientists describe a bizarre defense mechanism in the Spanish ribbed newt. Faced with predators, these little amphibs twist their body up to 65 degrees, popping their pointy ribs through their skin like retractable piercings, or built-in body armor. Turns out the Spanish ribbed newt has been studied in space on at least six missions. Proof of kinky astronauts?
  5. Fruit bats lick and suck more than mangoes: Short-nosed fruit bats indulge in oral sex. Both genders. Both ways. Whew. And I thought Eve invented that apple stuff.
  6. Bears dig minivans: Black bears know where to dig for the kind of junk food that keeps kids giddily sedated. Or else they know that minivan humans are seriously messy eaters. Either way, bears break into minivans more than any other vehicle in Yosemite National Park. So say wildlife biologists. But twist it a little further and... why not proof that minivan drivers can't read? Or that rugged conformists are deaf (to rangers)? Or they're hibernating at the wheel? Dumber than bears? Proof of a God Bear?
     

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Calling Their Bluff

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 9:35 PM EST

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), formerly a wunderkind college Republican attack dog, but now sort of a journeyman big league Republican attack dog, thinks that a regular old deficit commission is a bad idea. What's needed is a deficit commission that takes tax hikes completely off the table and recommends spending cuts only. Grover Norquist calls this a "grown-up idea," but Pat Garofalo isn't impressed:

How, exactly, does taking taxes off the table from the outset represent a “grown-up” way to make “hard choices”? The whole premise behind a commission is that it will be empowered to make politically unpalatable suggestions (like raise taxes) that Congress wouldn’t normally touch....Getting deficits under control on the spending side alone is economically impossible. Exempting interest on the debt, Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending (which Republicans never agree to cut), “the rest of the budget needs to be cut by 51 percent to have a balanced budget in 2014.” So the numbers just don’t add up. Of course, from the outline of McHenry’s plan, it’s pretty clear that gutting those entitlement programs is his ultimate goal, as they are the only things that he cites as needing reform.

I say: bring 'em on, baby. We should let McHenry have his commission, make sure it's well stocked with Republicans, force them to put down on paper just exactly what spending programs they want to gut, and then put it to an up-or-down vote in Congress. We liberals are always demanding that Republican "fiscal conservatives" should tell us just what spending they want to get rid of, and now here's McHenry volunteering to commit political hara-kiri by setting it all down in a nice, official report and then forcing Republicans to put their votes where their mouths are. That would be great.

For Democrats, that is. Sadly, my guess is that the actual grownups in the GOP will put the kibosh on this idea pronto. But I can still dream.

Ping Pong Update

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 6:40 PM EST

I learned something new today. Apparently conference committees are largely a thing of the past. Jeff Davis explains:

Section 511 of Public Law 110-81 (the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007) amended Senate Rule 28 (conference reports) to put in a strengthened point of order against conference reports that exceed the scope of the difference between the House and Senate bills....As amended by the ethics law, Rule 28 now works similar to the "Byrd Rule" on reconciliation bills — any provisions ruled out-of-scope by the Parliamentarian are stricken from the conference report unless at least 60 Senators vote to waive the provision....The changes to rule 28 make it much more difficult for Democratic leaders to add "sweeteners" to a conference report to buy votes, since 41 Senators could knock out any individual sweetener out of the conference report without defeating the entire conference report.

....As a result, since the rule changes took in effect, Democratic leaders have basically stopped sending large controversial bills to conference committees, preferring to ping-pong them instead to avoid problems in the Senate with the newly strengthened rule 28....In 2009, after the Hundred Days in which Stimulus and S-CHIP were sent through conference, only appropriations bills and the bipartisan defense authorization bill(s) were sent to conference. Everything else was ping-ponged, most notably the Defense appropriations bill right before Christmas, which had been selected by the leadership to carry many other unrelated provisions and which therefore was not sent to conference committee due to rule 28 concerns.

Do they still make Schoolhouse Rock? If so, I guess it needs some updating.

Too Big To Fail

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 6:06 PM EST

I just finished reading Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail, and I know that I really shouldn't complain about it. As a first draft of history kind of thing, it's spectacularly good, with almost mind boggling amounts of detail about what went down during mid-September of 2008. Within the tick-tock genre, it's a real public service. The problem is that it's also a Woodwardesque effort that leaves you guessing who his sources are and what axes they have to grind. Sometimes, though, his sources are pretty obvious, and the narrative suddenly stops dead for a pandering little soliloquy like this one. Its star is Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack at the height of the crisis:

He needed some air, he told [his wife], and decided to go on a walk. As he roamed up Madison Avenue, he realized that his entire adult life, his entire professional career was on the line. He had been in battles before — his losing fight with the firm's former CEO, Philip J. Purcell, had been a notable one — but never anything like what he faced now. But this was not just about his personal survival; it was about the fifty thousand people around the globe who worked for him, and for whom he he felt a keen sense of responsibility. Images of Lehman employees streaming out of their building the previous Sunday still haunted him. He needed to buck up. Somehow, he was going to save Morgan Stanley.

And then he slid down the batpole to the batcave and got to work! Give me a break.

That aside, what else have I learned from the book? Apparently everyone on Wall Street really does watch CNBC 24/7. Tim Geithner doesn't come out of this affair looking very good. I guess he didn't cooperate with Sorkin. Jamie Dimon, on the other hand, does emerge as a good guy. I guess he did cooperate. And the biggest, clearest lesson of all: no one really had any idea what was going on last September. The whole thing was just massive confusion from beginning to end. By the time I was finished with the book, I couldn't tell whether I felt more or less sorry for all these guys.

POSTSCRIPT: Plus this: the downside of insta-books is lousy copy editing. Somebody should be fired over the number of egregious typos in this book.

Avatar

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 5:39 PM EST

I saw Avatar yesterday. Oddly, I think my reaction was almost exactly the opposite of everyone else's. Originally I didn't plan to see it, since the ads and trailers just didn't make it look very interesting, but then I heard a tidal wave of commentary that went like this: Yes, the story is lame, but the tech is so awesome you just have to go. It's like being one of the first to see The Jazz Singer.

So I went to see it in glorious 3D. And yes, the story was lame. But really, it wasn't that lame. It was cartoonish, and the characters were strictly 2D, but it wasn't so dumb that I felt like walking out of the theater at any point. All by itself that makes it better than about a third of the movies I see each year.

So the story was OK, and even the message was just the usual hamhanded Hollywood stuff. But the tech? I was underwhelmed. I've seen 3D before, and the 3D in Avatar was strictly run of the mill. The CGI was OK, but nothing special. There were some cool aspects to Pandora, but they were few and far between. Am I really supposed to be impressed by a floating rock colony? As for the aliens themselves, I'll take it on faith that their portrayal was a technological miracle. But the end result was.....some vaguely human looking blue people that moved almost — but not quite! — as naturally as if they were real. I dunno. I just wasn't that awestruck.

Anyway, I know I'm late to the party on this. But I guess I was surprised that the story was a little more engaging than I thought it would be and that the tech was less spectacular than I thought it would be. Anyone else have a similar reaction?

UPDATE: For more Avatar fun, here's Patrick Goldstein on why grumpy conservatives hate it.