The conspiracy theory wing of the Tea Party scored a substantial victory last night, with Bill Randall prevailing in a runoff for the Republican candidacy in North Carolina's 13th Congressional district. In case you missed it, Randall has suggested that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf wasn't precipitated by non-existent safety inspections, a culture of self-regulation, a federal regulator in bed with the industry, etc., etc. Instead, Randall believes, the BP and federal government may have colluded to cause the Horizon rig to explode, crumble into the water, and begin spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day. Last month, Randall had this to say about the spill:

Personally, and this is purely speculative on my part and not based on any fact, but personally I feel there is a possibility that there was some sort of collusion. I don't know how or why, but in that situation, if you have someone from a company violating a safety process and the government signing off on it, excuse me, maybe they wanted it to leak.

Now, Randall isn't the only public figure to claim to smell something funny about the spill. Former FEMA chief, Michael "Heckuva job, Brownie" Brown claimed Obama wanted the Deepwater spill to occur so he could shut down offshore oil drilling, and bloviator-in-chief Rush Limbaugh voiced his approval. But unlike his paranoid cohorts, Randall isn't a washed-up bureaucrat or a talking head—he's now the GOP's top candidate for a US representative.

Randall's defeat of moderate GOPer Bernie Reeves comes as somewhat of a surprise, but his chances this November against Democratic incumbent Brad Miller aren't that great. That is, unless he can convince North Carolinians that one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in US history was an inside job.

Whether or not Obama decides to sack General McChrystal today, the president is unlikely to use the opportunity to change the overall course of his Afghanistan strategy. None of the sniping and lockerroom insults captured in the Rolling Stone piece questioned the tactics or resources that Obama has dedicated to the war. And the counterinsurgency approach that Obama has embraced in the country has basically been what McChrystal has wanted all along. And the administration is unlikely to reconsider its basic plan—an increase of 30,000 new troops until July 2011, when Afghan security forces are supposed to start taking over.

But maybe now really is the time to be asking the tough questions about how Obama’s war is going—and what both civilian and military commanders could be doing better. It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing over the last few months, as Spencer Ackerman explains:

The past two months in Afghanistan have been brutal. Since returning from a Washington summit with Obama, President Hamid Karzai acrimoniously parted ways with two of his top security officials, men trusted by the U.S. who believe Karzai’s attempts at outreach to the Taliban to bring the war to a close represent capitulation. A United Nations report released this weekend documented a rise in violence in southern Afghanistan ahead of a crucial attempt at pushing the Taliban out of Kandahar, the south’s most populous city.

McChrystal had to slow down his push to provide what he calls a “rising tide” of security for Kandahar in order to secure buy-in from residents, as Karzai pledged his support for the operation at a mostly supportive local shura only last Sunday.What remains unclear from any Kandahar planning is the effect even a successful operation will have on the overall strength of al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan — and al-Qaeda itself, across the border in Pakistan.

Thomas Friedman also has a blistering column today, accusing Obama of failing to answer basic questions about the surge:

If our strategy is to use U.S. forces to clear the Taliban and help the Afghans put in place a decent government so they can hold what is cleared, how can that be done when President Hamid Karzai, our principal ally, openly stole the election and we looked the other way? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration told us not to worry: Karzai would have won anyway; he’s the best we’ve got; she knew how to deal with him and he would come around. Well, I hope that happens. But my gut tells me that when you don’t call things by their real name, you get in trouble. Karzai stole the election, and we said: No problem, we’re going to build good governance on the back of the Kabul mafia.

The McChrystal flap has already ignited more news coverage and punditry about the US strategy in Afghanistan than we’ve seen in many, many months. (“This morning everyone in Washington everyone is a war correspondent,” tweeted Slate’s John Dickerson as the Rolling Stone article was first making the rounds.) I suspect that the attention will be fleeting, given the increasing brevity of the news cycle (remember Elena Kagan?) and lawmakers' own interest in keeping the focus on the economy and domestic issues in a tough election year. But the war effort could certainly benefit from the heightened scrutiny and demand for accountability that we've seen in the last 24 hours. Wishful thinking, perhaps?

Update: All the major news networks are reporting that McChrystal has been relieved of his command and will be replaced by General David Petraeus, who is currently heading up US Central Command.

A White House huddle with senators on energy and climate policy was canceled this morning, as the president is now slated to meet with rogue General Stanley McChrystal. This leaves the Senate no closer to a decision on energy and climate policy than it was last week following a Democratic caucus meeting on the subject. It's still not clear what the energy package will look like and whether it will include a cap on carbon dioxide.

Now, one of the Senate's most liberal members is getting fed up with the pussy-footing on energy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pressed Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the subject yesterday, arguing that the legislation on the table so far is "by no means strong enough."

In a letter to Reid, Sanders argued that any legislation responding to the Gulf oil disaster should do more to move the US away from fossil fuels. It "makes no sense at all" to use energy and climate legislation to promote coal and nuclear power, he wrote. His letter calls for an $8 billion to $13 billion a year investment in renewables, a ban on new offshore drilling, and a national renewable energy standard that would require 25 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2025.

"If we are serious about combating global warming, moving to energy independence and creating millions of jobs in the future, we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels," Sanders wrote. "At the very least, any serious energy bill must include funding for energy efficiency and sustainable energy that is on a par with the amounts provided for nuclear and coal."

The Senate is still expected to take up a package after the July 4th recess. At this point, what the Senate's energy package looks like depends a lot on what the White House has to say about it, and that's a major unknown. "I think it's pretty clear we have to do something; the question is, what do we do?" Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday. "And a lot of that depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."

Hello, Everyone.

I'll be filling in for Kevin while he's away for a couple of days. Normally, you can find me over on Mother Jones's main news blog, writing about politics, immigration, and the occasional juicy conspiracy theory. Before coming to MoJo, I was at The New Republic, where I spent much time covering health care reform (which may creep onto the blog this week as well). Sadly, I have no cats. But I'm looking forward to the back-and-forth with everyone here.

File this story in the so-outrageous-it-can-only-be-true folder. An veteran aide to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whom Vitter has tapped to handle women's issues, turns out to have pled guilty in 2008 to charges relating to a knife attack on an ex-girlfriend. Brent Furer, ABC News reports, was accused of threatening to kill the woman, putting his hand over her mouth, and cutting her hand and neck. Nonetheless, ABC says, Furer, who also has an open warrant in his name in Louisiana for a driving while intoxicated charge, still collects his $54,000, taxpayer-funded salary through the Senate.

For "Diaper Dave" Vitter, who was exposed in 2007 as a client of the DC Madam, the revelations about his women's issues aide again highlights the gulf between the senator's statements and his actions. Vitter's office told ABC that Furer was put on leave from the office while a court handled the 2008 case, and that "further significant disciplinary action" had been taken as well. Still, Furer did eventually return to work in the Louisiana senator's office.

Today in oil disaster news:

After a federal judge threw out the Obama administration's 6-month moratorium on new offshore drilling and exploration yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he will issue a new one.

The much-maligned Minerals Management Service got a new boss, Michael Bromwich, and a new, more wordy name: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Apparently they're going to call it the "Bureau of Ocean Energy" or BOE, for short.

The oil disaster is upending plans for beach weddings along the Gulf Coast, as brides and grooms decide to relocate to places where they won't have to leap tar balls as they say "I do." It's inconvenient for couples, but a major problem for the wedding planners, DJs, caterers, photographers, and hotel owners in the region.

Republicans have been busy bashing President Obama's spill response, but as The Hill reports, very few have actually visited the region most affected by the oil disaster.

BP says it will donate the money from the sales of oil siphoned off the Gulf gusher to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, with an initial donation of $5 million. How charitable!

Speaking of collecting oil, BP now says it's now collecting more than 23,000 barrels of oil per day.

BP's shares hit a 13-year low yesterday.

The House is expected to vote today on a bill to grant the power of subpoena to the presidential oil spill commission.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is expected to keep his post as Ranking Member on the Energy and Commerce Committee despite his apology to BP last week, which rankled a number of his colleagues.

And in climate news:

A bipartisan group of senators is meeting with President Obama at the White House this morning at 9:30. On the invite list: Democrats: Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), John Kerry (Mass.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), and Joe Lieberman (Conn.). Republicans: George Voinovich (Ohio), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Susan Collins (Maine). UPDATE: This morning's meeting has been canceled due to the president's meeting with General Stanley McChrystal, and willl likely be rescheduled for next week.

A reporter for The Sunday Times in London who in February alledged that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published "bogus" data about the impact of climate change on rainforests has apologized to the scientist he maligned. A win for science, but not so much for rainforests: the scientist, Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds, was validated in his estimation that 40 percent of the Amazonian rainforest could die as temperatures rise.

Mumble in the Jungle

May/June 2010 Issue

Back before John Hodgman made hobo names ironic, hoboes were anonymous laborers who crisscrossed the country in search of work. And as historian Mark Wyman writes in his new book, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), they carried some heavy lingo with them:

Hobo: Origins unknown, but possibly derived from the English term "hoe boy" (for a farm servant) or a contraction of "Ho! Boy!" Also known as 'boes, bums, bindlestiffs, floaters, drift-ins, beeters, harvest gypsies, and almond knockers.

Freighting: Riding the rails. Preferable to "counting ties"—walking them.

Bulls: Guards hired to keep hoboes off freight trains.

Bo-teaser: A heavy pin attached to a long cord; dragged beneath moving boxcars by bulls trying to severely injure hoboes hiding there.

Jungle: The area near railroad tracks where hoboes slept, ate, and hid from bulls.

Snowdiggers: Hoboes who went south to Texas during the winter.

Buranketto boys Japanese migrant hoboes who took their name from their blankets.

Mission stiff: A hobo who got food from religious charities like the "Starvation Army."

Scissorbill: A hobo who wouldn't object to being treated badly.

Isn't it strange that, no matter how terrible the news from the Gulf, the media still can't help offering a lurking, BP-influenced narrative of hope? Here's a recent headline from my hometown paper, for instance: "Signs of Hope as BP Captures Record Oil Amounts."  The piece is based on a BP report that, last Thursday, its woefully inadequate, ill-fitting "top hat" had captured more than 25,000 barrels of the gushing oil—that is, five times more than it long claimed was spewing from its busted well (25 times more than it originally suggested). 

With semi-official estimates in the range of 35,000-60,000 barrels escaping a day (and those numbers regularly on the rise), this represents a strange version of hopeful news. Ominously enough, by the end of July, with a new, larger, "tighter" cap theoretically in place, BP is aiming to capture up to 80,000 barrels a day (that is, 20,000 barrels more than it has publicly acknowledged might possibly be spewing from the floor of the Gulf). In all such articles, the real narrative of hope, however, involves the relief wells, the first of which is now within "200 feet" of the busted well. Usually, the date for one of those wells to plug the leak is given as "early August" or "mid-August" and it's regularly said that the drilling of those wells is advancing "ahead of schedule."


US Army Sgt. John Russell from Amelia, Va., gives a small child medical care, on June 9, in Loger province, Afghanistan. Russell is assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Photo via the US Army.

I'll be out of town for the next few days, returning on Monday. Suzy Khimm will be guest blogging in my absence, and who knows — one or two others might pop in too. You never know. Catblogging, of course, will continue on schedule. And by the way: it would be great if you guys could get this whole McChrystal thing cleared up before I get back. And that oil spill thing too. OK?