Democrats are riding high off their political victories this week on Medicare. On Wednesday, the Senate defeated Paul Ryan's 2012 budget, which passed the House earlier this month. The Dems held the purely political vote in an attempt to pin the Ryan plan even more firmly on the GOP, and in that regard, they succeeded. Despite their increasingly mealy-mouthed defense of the Ryan plan, all but five Senate Republicans stood by the budget despite the political risks of supporting its deeply unpopular plan to phase out Medicare.

The Senate vote now gives the Democrats full leeway to use the Ryan plan to attack Republicans in 2012, given the party's surprising unity behind the House budget. But that doesn't necessarily bode well for the future of Medicare itself. Yes, the Dems have succeeded in beginning to turn the political tide against the GOP by attacking their plan for Medicare, but they've done so by playing offense, not defense: Dems have raised fears about the Ryan proposal but haven't made a full-throated defense of their own Medicare reform plan—namely the major provisions for bringing down health-care costs through the Affordable Care Act. And, without strong defenders, some of those key changes have been under increasing threat of being weakened or dismantled.

This week, leading birther Jerome Corsi, the author of the new book, Where's the Birth Certificate? The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible To Be President, claimed Donald Trump told him that President Barack Obama's recently released long-form birth certificate is a forgery. In a story published by WorldNetDaily, Corsi said that Trump told him that he'd gotten his own computer expert to take a look at the document and that this expert concluded it was computer-generated. WND's article made it seem that Trump was getting back into the birther business.

But Trump says Corsi's not telling the truth.

In a statement to Mother Jones, Trump said:

I am proud of the fact that I was able to get President Obama to release his birth certificate. President Clinton couldn’t do it, Senator McCain couldn’t do it—no one else could do it! Frankly, many people were surprised that it took so long for this to happen. Is his birth certificate legitimate? I hope it is for the good of the country, but that’s for experts to determine—not me. I have not read the book written by Jerry Corsi nor did we discuss whether or not the birth certificate was computer generated or in any way fabricated. I merely asked him how his book was doing and wished him good luck.

During an on-air conversation with conspiracy theorist/talk show host Alex Jones—which was posted within the WND story on Trump's supposed comments—Corsi discussed at length his conversation with Trump. Not once did Corsi mention that Trump had said he doubted the authenticity of the document. In fact, Corsi noted that he had pressed Trump to publicly question the document and to demand a forensic investigation of the original record (as opposed to the electronic version released by the White House). "Trump didn't seem interested in any of that," Corsi told Jones. Corsi noted that Trump was also not enthusiastic about Corsi's latest birther-related pursuits: encouraging the filing of criminal charges claiming the birth certificate was forged, and chasing down supposed leads showing birth records related to Obama in Kenya were destroyed. Corsi repeatedly complained about Trump dropping the birther ball. Corsi also said that he had told Trump that it "sure looks like you dropped out" of the birther crusade because he received "a big payment" from NBC, referring to the renewal of Celebrity Apprentice. Jones and Corsi discussed the possibility that Trump is now in league with the Obama White House—plotting against birthers and Republicans.

That Corsi's claims about this particular phone call seem a little shaky is not surprising. He also wrote, among other things, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, a book about Kerry's war record in Vietnam that was roundly criticized for factual inaccuracies. At various times, Corsi has claimed that 9/11 was an inside job; that President George W. Bush intended to create a "North American Union" with a single currency for Canada, the United States, and Mexico; and that Democratic politicians are helping the Iranian mullahs, who are trying to obtain nuclear weapons. 

The WND story also seemed a bit at odds with Trump's public comments in response to Obama's release of his long-form birth certificate. In April, as he did today, Trump took credit for forcing Obama's hand after making the document a centerpiece of his short-lived presidential campaign. "I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully getting rid of this issue," he said.

Trump, who had briefly been the most prominent figure to take up the birther cause, stopped talking about the issue after Obama released his birth certificate (and, of course, after Obama made Trump and his birther fixation the butt of several jokes at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner). Corsi, though, has an explanation for that. According to WND, Trump told Corsi that just because he wasn't talking about the birth certificate after the April release didn't mean that he was satisfied with the document. The story says Trump told Corsi: "I always said I wanted to know if it was real."

WND has used the Trump-Corsi conversation to draw attention to its own extensive "case" about why the birth certificate must be a forgery, citing various experts on such issues as "kerning" (the squishing together of letters that can only be done with a word processor, not a typewriter). WND has posted an annotated version of the document, highlighting all the alleged fakery. Appending Trump's name on the story, of course, is simply a way of trying to keep the issue alive, and to sell some books. WND reportedly printed 200,000 copies of Where's the Birth Certificate?

It's clear that this conservative news outlet that has made a franchise out of questioning the president's citizenship is nowhere near ready to let it go. In fact, Corsi claims that he knew the White House would be releasing a forged birth certificate weeks before Obama made public the long-form document—and that he didn't publicize that information because he wanted the White House to fall into his trap. And Corsi has tried to keep Trump involved. Michael Cohen, Trump's spokesman, says that Corsi has repeatedly called Trump's office "to provide Mr. Trump with information on the birth certificate issue, even after Mr. Trump publicly stated that the president had publicly released his birth certificate and that it's time to move on to more important issues."

The WND article was headlined, "You're forged! Trump declares Obama's birth certificate fake." This fact-free ploy might cause Corsi to hear Trump's famous catchphrase—that is, if Corsi can ever get the billionaire developer on the phone again.

UPDATE: Here's WorldNetDaily's response to Mother Jones.

The GOP State of Play

I can't believe I'm writing a post about a Gallup poll on the GOP primary race in May 2011. I made a firm rule years ago not to engage in nonsense like this. But rules are meant to be broken, and today is a slow news day, so here it is.

Is there anything interesting here? Not really. Sarah Palin is in second place at 15%, but that's a lot worse than it seems. She's basically in Ron Paul territory: tons of name recognition and the benefit of a small band of dedicated fanatics. Everyone knows there's a sizeable group of Palinistas out there who would vote for her even if she ran the entire race dressed up in a Mickey Mouse costume, and now Gallup has confirmed this. Big deal.

Newt Gingrich? He's in big trouble. He's been around forever, he has fantastic name recognition, he's on TV constantly, and he still can't pull more than 9%? He's doomed.

Herman Cain?  There's always a blowhard who knows nothing and just loudly spouts lots of "common sense" during the early debates in order to attract attention. This year that's Cain. His bubble will burst soon enough.

As for the rest, Michele Bachmann is just a Sarah Palin wannabe, Huntsman is running for 2016, and Johnson and Santorum are vanity candidates. Basically, it still looks to me like a race between Romney and Pawlenty, with lots of spoilers to make things interesting. I just don't see a path open for any of the others to win.

OMG. Sarah Palin is running for president. Well, it's not official. And unconfirmed. And, perhaps, maybe she isn't. But The New York Times has a front-pager today with a headline proclaiming "Signs Grow That Palin May Run." The signs? She's bolstering her skimpy staff, beefing up her schedule of public appearances, and possibly moving to Arizona. (That's bad news if John McCain wants to be her running-mate.) Politico reports "speculation" of a Palin 2012 race is on the rise. And there's a new pro-Palin film being released in key primary states. Recently, she told her pal Greta Van Susteren that—you betcha—she has "the fire in the belly" for a White House bid.

It may well be that the former half-term governor/unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate is indeed heading toward a dive into presidential waters. But there's another possible explanation: as 2012 approaches, a presidential tease requires more, uh, leg.

A Wisconsin circuit judge has nullified Republican Governor Scott Walker's controversial anti-union bill, which would've eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, saying Republicans violated the state's open meetings law in the passage of the bill.

In a 33-page ruling (PDF), Judge Maryann Sumi said the GOP's violation of the law was "clear and convincing." Sumi acknowledged that Republicans were frustrated by the weeks-long stalemate over the bill, a standoff that occurred when state Senate Democrats fle to neighboring Illinois to prevent a quorum and block a vote on the bill. But that frustration, she writes, "does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings Law in an attempt to move the Budget Repair Bill to final action." She added that her decision took into account "the potential damage to public trust and confidence in government" if lawmakers don't adhere to the state's transparency laws.

The decision marks the latest event in the months-long battle over union rights in Wisconsin, pitting Walker and Republicans in the legislature against organized labor and Democrats. Walker originally signed his anti-union bill in March, amid protests by citizens and Democratic lawmakers alike. Almost immediately, the bill sparked legal challenges, including the one Judge Sumi ruled on today, which was brought by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

However, Wisconsin Republicans have said they would re-introduce the collective bargaining ban in another bill if necessary. Surely, GOPers will challenge Sumi's ruling, and will also start looking for alternate routes to make their reforms into law.

In a statement, Mike Tate, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said: "Today, Wisconsin was given further proof, from a judge appointed by [former GOP governor] Tommy Thompson, that Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers treated the rule of law with contempt in their illegal and divisive overreach. The decision should be looked at as an opportunity to work together to find commonsense solutions to grow our economy and get our fiscal house in order—not to tear our state apart, as Walker and his lockstep Legislature have chosen to do."

I'm always a little unsure whether McKinsey reports are just nicely formatted collections of bollocks or genuine sources of useful information. I guess it probably depends on the report. In any case, Tyler Cowen points us today to a new McKinsey report that says the internet accounts for 3.4% of GDP in a group of countries that it recently studied (nine rich countries plus the BRICs). Sweden is highest at 6.3% because — well, who knows? They really, really like Angry Birds in Sweden? They lead the globe in hosting pirate sites? I'm not sure. The United States is about average for rich countries at 3.8%.

However, we value the internet pretty highly here. As this chart shows, the internet generates consumer surplus in the U.S. of about 19 euros per month per person, or a little over $300 per year. But that's just the average. If you're reading this blog, you probably value it quite a bit higher:

In general, this surplus is generated from the exceptional value users place on Internet services such as e-mail, social networks, search facilities, and online reservation services, among many others. This value far outweighs the costs, both actual costs such as access and subscription fees and annoyances such as spam, excessive advertising, and the need to disclose personal data for some services. In the United States, for example, research conducted with the Interactive Advertising Board 13 found that consumers placed a value of almost €61 billion on the services they got from the Internet, while they would pay about €15 billion to get rid of the annoyances, suggesting a net consumer surplus of about €46 billion.

So there you have it: Value of internet – cost of internet – annoyances of internet = €46 billion. But I wonder if they also accounted for the stupendous amount of time we all spend trying to fix the internet when it breaks? More comments from Tyler here.

On the friendly turf of the libertarian Cato Institute, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty reiterated his plan today to tackle America's debt problem by freezing federal pay, slashing wasteful subsidies, and shrinking the federal government. Bemoaning that the government borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends, Pawlenty said, "You can't run your families like that, you can't run your businesses like that, and we certainly can't run the government like that. There can't be any more sacred cows."

Well, perhaps just one: the bloated US defense budget, which according to the National Priorities Project's Chris Hellman has reached as much as $1.2 trillion a year. Of that, tens of billions of dollars are lost to graft, waste, and useless programs, according to numerous government and media reports. "I'm not one who is going to stand before you and tell you we should cut the defense budget," Pawlenty told the Cato audience.

Republicans refusing to touch the defense budget, despite their tough talk on slashing spending, is a time-honored tradition. But it flies in the face of reality. After all, each of the various deficit commissions—the president's, Esquire magazine's, you name it—recommend substantive cuts to the DoD's budget. So much for "no sacred cows."

Soldiers of the 17th Fires Brigade fire from high mobility artillery rocket systems during a fire coordination exercise designed to train senior leaders on proper procedures for requesting and directing fire support at Yakima Training Center in Washington. Photo by Spc. Ashley M. Outler, 28th Public Affairs Detachment

Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party umbrella groups in the country, has proven once again that there's no issue too piddly for it to go to court over, at least when it comes to protecting its "brand." The group has waged legal battles against tea party Internet radio hosts, activists selling tea party T-shirts, and even a lone rural conservative who had the nerve to put the words "tea party" and "patriots" on his website. It's recently been battling in a Georgia court over a sparsely populated Gooogle group.

The case got it start in 2009 in a dispute with former board member and current Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer. TPP kicked Kremer off its board after she defied orders and went on a bus tour with Tea Party Express, TPP's rival. Then, TPP went to court and won a restraining order barring Kremer from using the Tea Party Patriots name, trademark, domain name, and especially its most valuable asset—its email list. She counter-sued for slander and also opposed TPP's trademark application, on the grounds that she put the term into circulation months before TPP was incorporated.

The case has dragged on now for nearly two years. In early May, TPP was back in court claiming Kremer had violated the original restraining order. A Georgia judge agreed and found her in contempt of court for failing to turn over control of a Tea Party Patriots Google group, as well as apparently for suggesting in public that she was one of TPP's original founders without noting that she's no longer affiliated with the group. A May 18 order (PDF) requires Kremer to relinquish control of the Google group to TPP posthaste and to correct the record about her affiliation. (See Kremer do just that with Stephen Colbert here.)

The fact that TPP is spending its members' donated money fighting over control of a listserv doesn't reflect well on the group. After all, the Google group activity has dwindled to a handful of kooky contributors who spend their time arguing about whether Obama's birth certificate is really real and which Marxist Communist policies Obama is pushing at the moment. It's hardly property worth fighting for. Ultimately, TPP's litigiousness seems more designed to bankrupt Kremer than to wrest control over its crumbling grassroots empire.

New Mileage Labels!

Me, in 2008, offering a bright idea for getting people to pay more attention to auto mileage:

Require stickers to list the estimated cost of fuel consumption over a five year period. The estimate doesn't have to be perfect, just close enough to make it clear to consumers how much more one car costs than another over its life. Upside: it's free. Downsides: none that I can think of.

From the Los Angeles Times today:

Federal regulators unveiled new fuel economy labels that could make it easier for new-car buyers to compare fuel-efficient vehicles and gas-guzzlers. In addition to the miles per gallon, the labels will show [...] the expected cost of fuel over the next five years compared with the average new vehicle.

Clearly the federal government stole this idea from me and now refuses to give me credit. Bastards.

Oh wait. They actually did this back in 2006. But that label redesign only showed the expected cost of fuel over one year. Clearly the idea to extend this to five years was mine. I think they should name the new sticker after me.