2011 - %3, May

The bin Laden Announcement

| Fri May 6, 2011 12:48 PM EDT

If President Obama had delayed the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, it might have given the CIA more time to trawl through the data seized in the raid and track down other al-Qaeda leaders. So why announce it right away?

Following the operation, officials across U.S. government agencies told their Pakistani counterparts what had happened. As they did, the U.S. government was considering not immediately announcing that they had killed bin Laden, a U.S. official tells Time. But the Pakistanis, uncomfortable with having the information leak out slowly, “encouraged the United States to go public right away,” according to the U.S. official.

That's sort of interesting. Most likely, though, it wasn't so much that the Pakistanis "encouraged" us to announce the raid quickly as it was that they made it clear that the chances of keeping the raid secret were close to zero. Not only was there that downed helicopter in the middle of Abbottabad, but bin Laden's wife and daughter were in Pakistani custody, and word of that would almost certainly leak through ISI or other military sources almost instantly. At least, that's my best guess.

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Old Hidden Fees, Meet New Hidden Fees

| Fri May 6, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

David Lazarus writes about Bank of America's latest attempt to improve its bottom line via hidden fees:

In the past, BofA would charge 90 days worth of interest for early withdrawals from a CD good for 12 months or less. In other words, a $10,000, 12-month CD with an annual yield of 0.3% would entail an early withdrawal penalty of about $7 if you took out the entire amount.

Now BofA is charging a flat $25 plus 1% of the amount withdrawn for CDs with terms under 12 months and 3% for longer terms.

That means the early withdrawal penalty for that same $10,000, 12-month CD now runs $125 — a nearly 1,700% increase. The penalty for a five-year, $10,000 CD is $325 — a roughly 1,600% increase.

This is yet another example of a fee that (a) most people don't really know much about, (b) most people don't think they'll ever incur, and (c) generally gets paid by people in some kind of distress. In the modern banking industry, that makes it a perfect target for a huge increase. They will do anything — anything — to avoid charging simple, flat, open fees. That would require actual competition with other banks, after all.

Unfortunately, I don't really know what the answer to this is. I have a visceral aversion to doing business like this, but I also understand why they do it: any bank that charged simple, flat, annual fees would lose all of its good customers, who would migrate to banks that make most of their money from penalty fees that they'll never have to pay. Bad customers, conversely, would eventually migrate to the bank with flat fees as they came to realize that it was a better deal for them. So the nice bank would have lots of bad customers and the evil bank would have all the good customers.

If every bank charged simple, open fees, there would be an equilibrium of sorts. But how do you get there? And should we even try? I'd like to, but I can't pretend it's very likely to happen, or even that it's in the top 20 problems facing the poor. So here we stay.

Republicans and Medicare

| Fri May 6, 2011 11:18 AM EDT

Proposing to gut Medicare has been politically disastrous for Republicans, and it was pretty obvious that it was going to be a disaster even before they voted on it. So why did they do it? Jonathan Bernstein and Jon Chait offer a few possible reasons:

  1. Fear of primary challenges.
  2. Didn't realize it would be unpopular.
  3. Incompetence.
  4. Creates leverage for budget negotiations.
  5. Helps their deficit narrative.
  6. Makes it easier to pass if they win the presidency in 2012.

Well, sure, I guess it could be any of those things. But Jon Chait almost certainly nails the real reason at the end of his post: "I think Republicans more likely just got caught drinking their own Kool-Aid about how the public agrees with their vision."

Yep. It's the nature of political parties to overreach now and again, but usually they learn from their overreaching. Democrats, for example, have wanted to pass universal healthcare for decades, but they've learned from their losses and introduced steadily more moderate plans each time around. Eventually they finally passed one. But Republicans never seem to get it. They win a big victory (or even a not-so-big victory) and then see sugar plums dancing in front of their eyes when they read the poll numbers. America is a conservative country! Now let's cement their support by being real conservatives!

But America, as always, is ideologically (moderately) conservative and operationally (moderately) liberal. This hasn't changed much since the Nixon era, but Republicans just can't seem to wrap their heads around it. So Ronald Reagan implodes over Social Security in 1982, Newt Gingrich implodes over Medicare in 1995, George Bush implodes over Social Security in 2005, and the tea party Republicans implode over Medicare in 2011. Americans, in the least surprising news ever, still don't trust Republicans to screw around with Medicare or Social Security. Even Republicans don't trust Republicans to do it. Probably it's because Republicans have hated both programs from the beginning and keep trying to wreck them every time they get their trigger fingers anywhere close to the levers of power.

What makes this even weirder is that in just the past decade Republicans have helped their political cause by standing up for Medicare: first in 2003 when they passed the prescription drug plan and then in 2010 when they won a big House majority by beating up Democrats for cutting Medicare. But despite all this, they still don't get it. They're still convinced that someday Americans are going to blink their eyes and suddenly agree that Social Security and Medicare are liberal boondoggles that need to be privatized and slashed. It's just an astonishing unwillingness to accept reality.

GOP on Huntsman: Maybe?

| Fri May 6, 2011 11:07 AM EDT

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who recently resigned his post as Barack Obama's ambassador to China, appears poised to pursue the Republican presidential nomination. Huntsman, who just got back to the states last week, officially registered his political action committee—H PAC—with the FEC on Tuesday. That move will allow him to travel the country in support of fellow Republicans and raise money that he can use in a presidential run. Huntsman's major problem is, of course, that he voluntarily and graciously accepted an appointment to serve in a Democratic administration. That might not play well with Republican primary voters. But if you think Huntsman's chances of clawing to the top of the GOP ticket next year are totally DOA, The Hill wants you to think again:

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said Huntsman would "absolutely" make for an acceptable Republican nominee.

"I consider it a compliment for anybody to be selected to be ambassador to China," Wilson said. "So I think that enhances his credentials — he was sent to represent the people of the United States."

If a hardliner like Joe "You Lie" Wilson is giving Huntsman a serious look, that's a sign the former Utah governor could find more friendly faces on Capitol Hill over the next few weeks. Wilson is attending this weekend's graduation ceremonies at the University of South Carolina, where Huntsman will deliver the commencement address. He'll also meet with two of the GOP's rising stars, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Gov. Nikki Haley (R), on his swing through South Carolina.

Keep an eye on the Palmetto state this weekend. In the wake of last night's lukewarm GOP B-team debate in Greenville—where this little nugget could end up being the biggest news—now could be an ideal time for Huntsman to announce his arrival. The reality is that he has near-zero name recognition nationally, and his South Carolina visit offers him a big opportunity to drum up support in a key GOP battleground. Plaudits from rising party stars like Haley and Scott could give him the early shot in the arm he'll need to stand a chance against heavy hitters like Mitt Romney.

Good News, Bad News

| Fri May 6, 2011 10:27 AM EDT

Yesterday we had a slew of bad economic reports, including a huge rise in the number in new unemployment claims. Today we have good news: the number of new jobs is up strongly. Conclusion: who knows? Basically, we're undergoing a fragile, unsteady recovery, and I'm not sure you can say an awful lot more than that with any confidence. Steve Benen's chart showing the long-term trend is below.

Pawlenty: "I'm Sorry" I Once Cared About Climate

| Fri May 6, 2011 10:25 AM EDT
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has struggled to distance himself from his old, reality based views on climate change.

Thursday night's Republican debate was worth watching if only to see Tim Pawlenty try to talk his way around his previous support for efforts to cut planet-warming emissions. As governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty not only acknowledged that climate change is a problem, but also endorsed a cap-and-trade plan to deal with it. That makes him something of a pariah among other Republicans these days.

In a very "This is Your Life" moment, the Fox debate hosts replayed a 2007 ad that Pawlenty recorded for the Environmental Defense Fund in which he argues for cap and trade as a solution for climate change. When asked to discuss the ad, Pawlenty abashedly replied, "Do we have to?"

After trying to explain that he didn't actually support cap and trade policy as governor—he just supported the "study" of it—Pawlenty decided to try apologizing:

"I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I'm sorry," Mr. Pawlenty told the Fox television audience, presumably filled with potential Republican primary voters. "You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake."

Pawlenty has apologized for this before. In March, he told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham that his support for cap-and-trade was a mistake and pointed to other Republican 2012 hopefuls who made similar "mistakes."

Pawlenty's flip-flop on climate is probably the most damning among the viable contenders for 2012. He formed the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group as governor to study the impacts of global warming and make policy recommendations. (He later ignored those recommendations.) He was also at the forefront of the effort to get the Midwest Governors Association to sign onto the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord. He was even best buddies with a famed Arctic explorer and climate activist.

Pawlenty has been trying to talk his way out of all this ever since he signaled he is running for the Republican nomination. Last night probably didn't do much to end the questions. Pawlenty will be dealing with this for some time to come.

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GOP Still Trying to Fundraise Off the Ryan Plan

| Fri May 6, 2011 10:25 AM EDT

House Republicans are backing off their plan to privatize Medicare, finally acknowledging that the Paul Ryan blueprint had no chance of passing Congress. But the Republican Party is still trying to fundraise off of the Ryan plan—with nary a mention of Medicare. 

In a fundraising email sent Friday morning, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus urged supporters to sign a petition to "Support the Ryan budget" and contribute to the RNC. The petition, however, doesn't mention the most controversial part of the Ryan plan—its drastic overhaul of Medicare: 

I am proud to stand with Republicans in Congress who showed true leadership by passing The Ryan Budget that offers commonsense, conservative solutions to slash spending and ensures our government lives within its means like every American family. Keep up the good fight and keep working hard to cut spending, reduce the debt and shrink the size of government! 

Priebus' email goes on to praise Ryan and the House GOP for having "courageously and boldly" passed a "serious 2012 budget," apparently still confident that the public will perceive a drastic, overreaching plan as an applause-worthy move. To be sure, the public is significantly more likely to praise Republican deficit reduction proposals when they aren't given any specifics. But when people are told what the Ryan plan actually entails, public support craters—which probably explains why the RNC is relying on vague generalities to drum up support. Unfortunately for the GOP, Democrats have already made a massive push to tell voters exactly what the Ryan plan entails—and to keep pinning the blame on the GOP all the way until election day in 2012.

Great Moments in Florida Politics, Baggy Pants Edition

| Fri May 6, 2011 9:29 AM EDT

For decades, Americans wondered what was the cause of Florida's pattern of strange behavior—its catastrophic elections, crazy elected officials, and the existence of Tampa. Well, now we have our answer: Baggy pants and bestiality. But don't worry, Florida, because your elected officials are totally on it:

Floridians are going to have to start pulling up their pants and stop having sex with animals soon.

It's up to Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on two bills passed in the Florida Senate and House Wednesday which target droopy drawers and bestiality.

The bestiality bill (SB 344) bans sexual activity between humans and animals and has been championed for years by Sen. Nan Rich, from Sunrise.

It was his pet cause. (Sorry.) Anyway, I'm not sure either of those bills are actually going to do much to fix Florida's fiascos. A more serious problem might be that, "for years," an elected official has been spending his energy trying to pass a bill to ban sexual activity between humans and animals.

Uh Oh, Mitt: More Key Campaigners Ditch Romney

| Fri May 6, 2011 8:46 AM EDT

The bad news just keeps coming for GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney. As I first reported on Wednesday, Romney's 2008 campaign chief in New Hampshire, Bruce Keough, has rejected the Romney campaign's entreaties to return for the 2012 race. Now, two more Romney alums from 2008—his California political director and state finance co-chairman—have jumped ship.

The Orange County Register reports that Mike Schroeder, a former chair of the California Republican Party, has said he's not reprising his role as Romney's California political director this time around. Schroeder blasted Romney's 2008 campaign as "one of the most brain-dead campaigns I've seen. I was planning 15 months in advance, but their planning window for events was five days. That meant they didn't focus on California until five days before the primary." Schroeder also told the OC Register that Romney's support for universal health-care in Massachusetts will be a major liability in challenging the president on his own health-care reform effort.

The other southern California GOPer to bail on Romney is Scott Baugh, the OC's GOP chairman. (Baugh's group, you might remember, made headlines when a member of the OC GOP sent around an email depicting Obama as a chimpanzee, a move Baugh condemned.) Baugh said he wasn't supporting any particular candidate, but instead was "busy building the party and preparing to support whomever the nominee might be." He added, "I don't have a candidate and that's true of a lot of us. This is the latest I've ever gone without picking a candidate."

The defections don't seem to be hurting Romney too much with voters—at least for now. A pair of New Hampshire polls surveying GOPers in the Granite State put Romney far ahead of the GOP field, with double-digit leads in both polls. Romney also won the backing of former New Hampshire House speaker Doug Scammon and his wife, who'd both supported Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 6, 2011

Fri May 6, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

As a dismounted patrol of U.S. soldiers from A Battery, 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team walks through the village of Chil Gazy; Staff Sgt. Jordan Cruz provides security. Afghans in the village voiced their opinions to International Security Assistance Forces troops during their visit in an effort to improve the security situation in the village and throughout the area. Photo via US Army.