2010 - %3, October

David J. Stern, Captain Foreclosure?

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 4:20 PM EDT

Courtesy of Legalprise.

Courtesy of Legalprise

Mother Jones readers have lately read a lot about David J. Stern, the powerful Florida lawyer who over decades built one of the most powerful foreclosure law firms in the nation—and a lavish lifestyle for himself. (Think waterfront mansion, beachfront condo, Ferraris and Porsches, and an Italian jet-powered yacht.) However, as I reported in a long investigative story in August, there's plenty of evidence suggesting that, as the housing market imploded and foreclosures mounted, Stern and his firm repeatedly cut corners and even allegedly broke the law all in the name of ramming through foreclosures and profiting as much as possible. Now, as the foreclosure crisis rears its ugly head again, Stern has faced criticism in the press and in private; this month, he lost several major clients that once fed him foreclosure cases, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Citigroup.

What remains a question mark is Stern himself. He almost never gives interviews (he and associates declined multiple requests of mine), and there's scant public information out there about him. That said, a photo obtained on Friday by Mother Jones offers a small but illuminating peek at Stern's personality.

At the start of this year, Stern spun off the non-legal pieces of his foreclosure empire into a separate, publicly traded company called DJSP Enterprises. He was so bullish on DJSP and the prospects of the foreclosure business that he handed out t-shirts depicting him as Superman (or Captain DJSP, or Foreclosure Man, or whatever) to top-tier investors in the new company. Yep—the guy on the t-shirt stopping two New York City buses with his bare hands is Stern. I'm not going to read too much into what the t-shirt means, other than to say it takes real chutzpah to dish out shirts suggesting your new foreclosure company somehow makes you a superhero. Stern's public company, DJSP, hasn't turned out to be so super. In January, the stock debuted on the NASDAQ at $9.25; today, it's trading at a buck.

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Friday Dog Blogging - 29 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 2:06 PM EDT

Surprise! The cats get this week off as I showcase Rupert and Digby, who belong to my sister-in-law and her partner. Digby (on the left) is, I'm informed, a "Heinz-57 with a terrier personality." Rupert, on the right, is a poodle mix.

Enjoy this while you can, dog lovers. Inkblot and Domino will be back next week, demanding that Republicans pass the Two Cans of Food Every Night Act of 2011 just as soon as they take office. They're billing it as a deficit reduction measure because — well, why not? Isn't everything a deficit reduction measure these days?

The Risk of Default

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 1:40 PM EDT

Pretty much everyone agrees that Republicans won't do anything serious to reduce the deficit if they win control of the House next week. After all, they plainly don't care about deficits except as a useful partisan cudgel. Bruce Bartlett agrees, but has an even more exotic fear:

As I have previously warned, I am very fearful that it will be impossible to raise the debt limit, which would bring about a default and real, honest-to-God bankruptcy — something many Tea Party-types have openly called for in an insane belief that this will somehow or other impose fiscal discipline on out-of-control government spending without forcing them to vote either for spending cuts or tax increases.

....Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.

At this point, I'm not sure I'd put anything past them. One thing might stop this doomsday scenario, though. The Republican base — big business and the rich, not the tea party — have made it crystal clear that they'll fight to their last breath to keep from taking any responsibility for the mess they made over the past decade. However, that same base probably genuinely fears the possibility of a default. They're greedy and narcissistic, not insane. So they'll probably rein things in just short of that. A demonstration of who's boss is one thing, but actually putting the assets of the rich at risk is quite another.

Chart of the Day: Democratic Losses in 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

So how should Democrats expect to do this year? Douglas Hibbs has one of the most famous equations for forecasting midterm elections, and it has four terms for predicting the partisan division in the House:

The in-party is expected to win a baseline constant of 62 seats, plus a number of seats equal to about 62% of the number won at the previous on-year election (the incumbency effect), minus around 1.4 seats for every percentage point of the sitting president'’s vote margin in the previous on-year election (the balance effect), plus almost 10 seats for every percentage point of growth in per capita real disposable personal income over the congressional term.

In other words, taking an educated guess that income growth in Q3 will be -3% and therefore income growth for the entire congressional term will clock in at 0.1%:

62 + .62*256 -1.4*7.4 + 0.1*9.7 = 211.33 Democratic seats

I have helpfully put this into chart format below, extending Hibbs's chart for 1950-2006 to include next week's election. Why does this matter? As Jon Chait says, it should anchor our expectations and provide a healthy dose of skepticism toward the various narratives that pundits will trot out after the election to explain things:

The point is not that structural factors determine everything, and that policies or communication or other tactical decisions have no impact. The point is to center the discussion around a realistic baseline.....It's worth keeping in mind beforehand a clear sense of what sort of result we would expect if the president's policies and political strategy made no difference at all. That's about a 45 seat loss....If you want to have the "what did Obama do wrong" argument, you first need to establish what "wrong" would look like.

Chait thinks that the Hibbs prediction of 45 seats is too low, but I'm willing to go ahead and accept it. Basically, it provides a reasonable baseline. If Democrats lose 50 seats, it's fair to say they did something tactically wrong. But that "something wrong" only cost them five seats. Aside from that, they blew it by not being more aggressive about stimulating the economy. Unfortunately, that mistake was mostly made during Obama's first year in office. By the time 2010 rolled around, there wasn't much left they could do about that.

Texas Republicans' Looming Immigration Civil War

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

Some of you may remember Texas state senator/shock-jock Dan Patrick as the man who once proposed curtailing abortion by encouraging women to sell their babies giving $500 tax credits to women who choose adoption instead. Yesterday, Patrick announced the formation of the state senate's Tea Party Caucus, a sort of Lone Star State answer to the group Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann formed in July.

It's more or less what you'd expect: Caucus members are required to sign the "Pledge With Texans" (pdf), a Contract with America-style agreement that blends the impossible, the absurd, and the absurd once more: Balance the budget...while cutting taxes; selectively assert Texas' 10th Amendment rights; fight voter fraud by making it harder to vote. All well and good—up until the last plank: "I pledge to advance, support, and vote for legislation that lawfully protects Texas and Texans from the fiscal and social costs of illegal immigration."

That's really what this is about. Conservatives are going to win a lot of seats in a lot of different places this year by making promises—like repealing the Affordable Care Act and slashing the deficit—that they simply won't be able to make good on, either because it'd be extraordinarily unpopular, or because it's just bad for business. Immigration, as Texas Monthly's Nate Blakeslee explains quite well (subscription), is the fight Texas Republicans really don't want. Or rather, it's the fight the party's ultra-influential donors, like homebuilder and Swift Boater Bob Perry, really, really don't want. But Patrick and his frustrated allies are crashing toward a confrontation with his party's establishment. From Blakeslee:

[Top lobbyist] Bill Miller said the party's big moneymen were watching closely, however quiet they may seem. "If they see this thing getting any traction," he said, "they'll pick up the phone and they'll make it unmistakable where they're coming from on this issue, which is, Are you guys out of your mind?"

A Prayer for Tom Perriello

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:18 PM EDT

It's never easy for Tom Perriello (whose travails were chronicled recently by David Corn). The embattled Virginia Democrat voted for President Barack Obama's stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, and health care reform—the three-lipped kiss of death for many Dems in this year's midterms. Strategists of all political stripes have long-since written him off, and recent polling puts Perriello down by 9 points against his Republican challenger, state Senator Robert Hurt. But despite the Battle of Bull run scenario awaiting House Democrats on Tuesday, the pugnacious and populist Perriello, who has criticized the Obama administration for being to Summersish (as in Larry Summers), refuses to go down without swinging hard. Perhaps recognizing that Perriello has gone to bat for him on key votes, Obama is heading to Charlottesville on Friday to help him close the gap with Hurt.

As reported by the AP, Democrats and Republicans alike have been keeping close tabs on the race:

To the GOP, seeking to make the election a referendum on Obama's policies as they push to seize control of the House, Perriello is Exhibit A. They argue that Democrats like him have arrogantly ignored the will of voters and pushed a big-government agenda — earning themselves a drubbing at the polls.

But for Obama and Democrats, Perriello is the poster boy for supporting policies that have gotten a bad rap — proof that it's possible to cast politically tricky votes, defend them unapologetically, stand next to an increasingly unpopular president, and survive.

Unpopular indeed, with an approval rating of 46%. What possible difference could Obama make for Perriello? Again, the AP:

It's something of a gamble for the president, who could end up sharing the blame if Perriello loses. If Perriello wins, though, Obama's help could position him to counter the finger-pointing that's sure to follow next week's elections. If a steadfast ally of the president's marquee policies can survive a tough race in a conservative district, it would undercut the notion that the contests are purely a referendum on Obama.

Maybe the White House views this as a winnable race. Or maybe it sees this face-off as a chance to assure progressive Virginians that delivered the state to Obama in 2008 that they haven’t been forsaken or forgotten. Either way, it's a dramatic move at the end of a rather difficult campaign—for Obama and Perriello.

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Complaint: Elderly Black Voters Intimidated at Home

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

A voting rights lawyer has filed a complaint with the Department of Justice that elderly black voters are being harassed and intimidated at their homes in eastern Texas. Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, submitted a complaint on Thursday to the DOJ claiming that at least seven elderly black voters "were being harassed by two unidentified white women" who visited their homes in Bowie County to question them about their mail-in ballot applications. The women are described as middle-aged, local Republican activists who had accessed publicly available information about which voters had requested mail-in ballots.

The complaint claims that the women showed up unannounced this week at the home of 78-year-old Willard Wherry, of Dekalb, who had voted by mail. The pair proceeded to grill Wherry about who had helped him to fill out his mail-in ballot, repeatedly questioning whether anyone had showed up at his home to assist him. "We are just trying to be sure no one is trying to coax someone to vote," one of the woman said, according to Hebert's complaint.

Our Stagnant Pie

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 11:37 AM EDT

Doug Mataconis takes a look at today's awful GDP figures and concludes that we're headed for a long stretch of low growth and high unemployment. He's not happy about what this means for our political future:

There’s a reason that politics in the 1950s gave us men like Eisenhower and Stevenson, and there’s a reason that politics in 2010s are giving us Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Alan Grayson, and the 24/7/365 cable “news” culture, and I would submit that much of it is related to the fact that people are beginning to believe that they are going to have to fight over pieces of a pie that isn’t going to grow nearly fast enough to sustain the standard of living we’ve become used to.

On my good days I think this is simply the normal pessimism that takes over during a recession. (And yes, we're still in a recession in all but the most technical definition of the term.) On the other hand, household deleveraging still has a long ways to go, house prices probably still have a ways to drop, income stagnation is going to remain a fact of life as long as unemployment is high, and our political system is dominated by people who plainly have no intention of doing anything about any of this. So on my bad days I agree with Doug. There's no reason things have to be this way, but we sure seem to have lost the will to change them much.

Lisa Murkowski's Write-in War

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

In a last-ditch attempt to derail Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign, upwards of 100 Alaskans have registered as write-in candidates for Tuesday's midterm election. The effort, called "Operation Alaska Chaos," originated on conservative blogs and websites like Breitbart Media's Big Government, Ace of Spades, and Just One Minute. (For the full story on how that happened, read this post by Dan Riehl.) Eventually, a conservative radio host in Anchorage, Dan Fagan, got wind of what was going on and began encouraging listeners to get their name on the ballot as a way to stir confusion and peel votes away from Murkowski. Despite widespread skepticism of Murkowski's decision to run as a write-in candidate after her primary loss to tea partier Joe Miller, recent polling indicates that she's leading the three-way race. Meanwhile, Miller's popularity has plummeted in the wake of revelations about lies he told about a past ethics violation.

"Operation Alaska Chaos" was born out of the Alaska Supreme Court's decision to allow election officials to distribute lists of write-in candidates at polling stations. The high court's ruling was a boost to Murkowski, who's crafted her campaign around slogans such as "Fill in the bubble! Write in the name!" But, the thinking goes, if a hundred more names appear on that write-in roster, with some possibly spelled similar to Murkowski's, the Alaska senator could lose votes due to confusion or errors by voters.

Although the Miller campaign has said it has nothing to do "Operation Alaska Chaos," Fagan, the radio host, is a self-proclaimed Miller supporter. And according to a recent survey, Miller needs all the support he can get. A Hays Research poll, commissioned by an Alaskan union chapter that supports Democratic candidate Scott McAdams, found that those who felt "somewhat negative" or "very negative" about Miller had spiked to a whopping 68 percent. That same poll showed Miller in third place in the race, with 23 percent of the vote, with Murkowski out front with 34 percent and McAdams with 29 percent.

The Passive Voice Strikes Again

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 10:49 AM EDT

Here is David Brooks this morning:

Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

....Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones. Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

Italics mine. Reading this, you'd think it was just some freak of chance that Obama has come to be identified as someone who "lacks deep roots in American culture." You'd also think it might actually be true, since Brooks simply states it as fact. But perhaps we should bring some of that famous conservative concern for agency and responsibility to bear here. Why do so many people seem to believe that Obama lacks deep roots in American culture? Where does this story come from? Did Obama himself, who would risk being a near parody of old-fashioned bourgeois virtues if he were any more orderly, self-disciplined, punctual, and responsible, do anything to deserve it?

The answers here are pretty obvious. But you won't hear a peep about any of them from David Brooks this morning.