2012 - %3, January

Republicans Don't Like Their Candidates Much Anymore

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 1:19 PM EST

Steve Benen, posting from his new home at Rachel Maddow's online presence, suggests that at this point in the primary process Republican voters ought to be getting happier with their candidates:

And yet, as the Pew Research Center found, rank-and-file Republicans are finding themselves less satisfied with their presidential choices, not more. As the Pew report, released yesterday, explained, "In fact, more Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters say the GOP field is only fair or poor (52%) than did so in early January (44%)."

In other words, this field of candidates isn't just unappealing to the party's own voters; it's increasingly unappealing.

But how unusual is this, really? Maybe someone with a vast collection of past polling data can weigh in on this, but I'm not sure that we're seeing anything all that out of the ordinary. Campaigns usually get nastier as they get closer to their endgames, and that nastiness often translates into increased voter dissatisfaction. This year's Republican primary only entered its nuclear phase after New Hampshire, and it's not too surprising that this has driven up everyone's negatives.

Now, this is the point at which I'd normally remind everyone that it's only January (hard to believe, I know, after the debate marathon of the past five months) and there's plenty of time for everyone to cool down before summer. And I think that's exactly what's going to happen. Still, there's that little niggling voice in my head saying "Newt, Newt, Newt....." Will Newt Gingrich, even after he's obviously lost, continue his scorched-earth campaign against Romney? Will Sheldon Adelson fund this doomed effort? I'd guess no. But it's a soft, unconvincing no. He just might, after all.

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Obama Says Drones Are on a "Very Tight Leash"

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 1:10 PM EST

During his Google+ hangout on Monday, President Barack Obama took a question from "Evan in Brooklyn" on the efficacy of US drone operations. The president promptly went to bat for his administration's ramped-up drone war.

Obama began by clarifying that the CIA and military are "not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside of Iraq" and drawing a distinction between surveillance drones and, say, Predator drones. Addressing the issue of collateral damage in countries like Pakistan, the president praised the precision of drone strikes, saying that such operations are kept on "a very tight leash." Obama also said that he wanted to "make sure that people understand...drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties" and that targets are carefully picked from "a list of active terrorists." (He dismissed the notion that he was conducting "a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.")

This Google+ hangout marked the first time the president has spoken publicly about drone attacks on Pakistani soil. The CIA's (sort of) secret program in the Middle East and South Asia is something that the president and other US officials generally refrain from acknowledging publicly unless there's a high-priority kill or they're threatening to take out the Jonas Brothers

It's a bit hard to pin down the president's definition of a "huge number of civilian casualties." Estimates on the civilian body count from drone operations vary wildly: Taking just the targeted Pakistani tribal areas, some estimates give a 10 to 1 ratio of civilians killed for every one militant. Other estimates claim that civilians account for roughly 20 percent of the deaths. (The CIA has made the widely panned claim of zero civilian casualties.)

Tea Party Roundup: Birthers, Slaves and Super PACs

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 12:25 PM EST

The tea party movement has been keeping a pretty low profile lately, but that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Tea partiers are still fighting political battles at the local level and gearing up for the presidential election. Here's a brief roundup of recent tea party news you may have missed:

Rewriting US history to white-out slavery: Tennessee tea party activists have asked the state legislature to introduce a bill that would force the state to rewrite school textbooks to excise references to the Founding Fathers that might tarnish the image tea partiers would like to have of them. They don't want school kids to know the founders' uglier side, things like, for example, some of the founders owned slaves, had sex with them, and fathered children with them. In a press conference in mid-January, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the activists handed out materials that said:

Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.

Keeping the birther movement alive: Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips may be bankrupt and thousands of dollars in debt to conservative billionaire and Las Vegas hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson, but that hasn't stopped him from going to Florida this week on a Tea Party Express "get out the vote" tour before the GOP primary. Along with his speaking events on the campaign trail, Phillips is doing his part to defeat Obama by supporting a lawsuit filed in Georgia by birther queen Orly Taitz challenging Obama's qualifications to be on the ballot there. Conceding that similar suits in other states have been dismissed, Phillips remains hopeful that they are the key to defeating Obama in November. "These are must win states for Obama. If he were excluded from one or more of these states, it would become almost impossible for Obama to win reelection," writes Phillips. 

Still Raising Big Money: For all the talk of the tea party movement being "grassroots," they are certainly taking on some of the trappings of the establishment, namely by starting super-PACs. Two big tea party groups, Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, have both started super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions to use in independent expenditure campaigns during this year's election. FreedomWorks is hoping to raise $5 million to push its free-market agenda through "street-level politicking."

Of course, whether these two organizations really qualify as the tea party movement is an open question. Tea Party Express was started by GOP political consultants in California who were already been attacking Obama in 2008 with outside expenditures, and FreedomWorks is a spin-off of the oil-rich Koch brothers' Citizens for a Sound Economy, a corporate front group that helped the tobacco and other big industry fight regulation and taxes. They're not purely grassroots organizations.

Coming Apart, Coming Together

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 12:06 PM EST

David Brooks glosses Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart:

His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today.

More important, the income gaps did not lead to big behavior gaps. Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.

Since then, America has polarized. The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

....Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

I haven't read Murray's book, and probably won't. But I'm not unwilling to take his thesis seriously. The part that keeps pushing back at me, though, is the idea that this is something new. I don't doubt that Murray can show that there's a much larger group of very well-off people today than there was in 1963: these are the folks buying the McMansions and the $100,000 cars. That's not news. And the behavioral changes in the bottom third are real too.

But is it really true that back in 1963 the "upper tribe" and the "lower tribe" were more similar than they are today? It might seem that way in retrospect, but it sure didn't at the time. It didn't seem that way to Gunnar Myrdal or Michael Harrington, anyway. Overall, I can pretty easily buy the "Apart" piece of the title, but I'm a lot less sure about the "Coming" piece. For every example of a way in which top and bottom have diverged over the past 50 years, I suspect that you could also find an example of ways in which they've converged. It's just that Murray wasn't looking for any of those.

But as I said, I haven't read the book. Perhaps someone over at Crooked Timber, or someplace like that, would like to read it and do us all the public service of commenting on it? Thanks.

Your Daily Newt: Saddam Hussein's Hacker Army

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Saddam Hussein, computer hacker (artist's rendering)

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich was speaking candidly when he told a New York Times reporter in 1995, "I don't do foreign policy." But that didn't stop his mind from occasionally wandering over to the national security realm. In Gingrich's 1995 college course—funded mostly by donors to his political action committee—he used the work of his futurist mentors, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, as a starting point for discussing America's precarious place in the world. Specifically, Gingrich warned of a horror scenario in which Saddam Hussein trained a hacker army to cause civil unrest by issuing 500,000 American Express cards and then charging absurd fees:

There are implications of the emerging Third Wave information age for the world system and for national security. That's part of why I mentioned Toffler, Alvin and Heidi's book, War and Anti-War, because you've got to think about, you know, what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had hired 10 hackers at the beginning of 'Desert Shield' and had decided to electronically try to break down American system? Not killing people, not setting off bombs, but, for example, issuing 500,000 new American Express cards. Or simply charging absurd fees. Breaking down telephone systems. Sending signals to turn off Georgia power company's electric plant. I mean, how much damage could you do on the information side?

Which raises the question: If Saddam Hussein had tried to destroy the American economy by charging absurd fees on credit cards...would we have even noticed?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 31, 2012

Tue Jan. 31, 2012 6:57 AM EST

US Army Capt. Devin Ciminero, a Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team security force company commander with 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 182nd Infantry Regiment, Rhode Island National Guard, scans his sector while providing security during a site assessment of the Dowry Rud Check Dam in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on January 21, 2012. DoD photo by Senior Airman Sean Martin, US Air Force. (Released)

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Super PACs Now Dominate GOP Primary Campaign Spending

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 9:28 PM EST

The Wesleyan Media Project has a new study out today that compares ad spending in the 2008 Republican primary vs. the 2012 primary. Overall spending is down, primarily because Mitt Romney spent a ton of money in Iowa in 2007 but very little in 2011. The big takeaway, however, is the rise of outside interest group spending. In 2008, nearly all spending came from ad buys by the campaigns themselves. In 2012, more than half the spending has come from outside groups, mostly super PACs formed in the wake of Citizens United:

The campaigns all claim they hate this trend, but I'd take that with a grain of salt. Sure, campaigns lose some control when outside groups are spending so much money, but they also gain deniability. Outside groups have more freedom to air genuinely vicious ads — something we're likely to get a big snootful of in the general election — and I'd be surprised if most campaign poobahs didn't secretly think that's a pretty good tradeoff for the loss of message control.

Here's another interesting tidbit from the report: Although overall spending is down, the number of ads purchased is about the same. This means that the average cost of an ad has gone down from $700 in 2008 to $400 this year. I really have no idea why this is. Recession or not, I'm sure ad rates haven't fallen that much, which must mean that both campaigns and outside groups have changed their ad buying strategies. Maybe shorter ads. Maybe ads in cheaper time slots. Beats me. But the data is only for national cable and broadcast buys, not local cable buys, so it's not due to a sudden surge of super-targeted local ads.

Also, Romney is absolutely swamping Gingrich in Florida, buying 60 times as many ads as Gingrich. No, that's not a typo. 60 times. More data at the link.

Chart of the Day: Federal Government Pay vs. Private Sector Pay

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 8:42 PM EST

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) weighed in today on the fraught subject of whether federal employees are paid more than comparable workers in the private sector (full report here). Their analysis attempted to control for occupation, years of work experience, geographic location (region of the country and urban or rural location), size of employer, and various demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, immigration status, and citizenship). Their conclusion should come as no surprise: When you account for both wages and benefits, Uncle Sam is generous toward those with less than a college degree and stingy toward those with PhDs or professional degrees.

According to the CBO, the federal government employs a lot more workers with doctorates or professional degrees than private sector companies do (7 percent of the workforce vs. 3 percent of the workforce). Nonetheless, when you look at the overall number, they figure that the federal government's payroll is 16 percent higher than it would be if it paid its workers private sector scales.

Another interesting result: If you look at the range between the lowest and highest paid workers, it's about the same in the public and private sectors for both high school grads and college grads. But the private sector has a way higher range for those with doctorates. The federal government tops out at about $70/hour in wages for the top decile of workers while the private sector tops out at about $140. If you were to look at the top 1 percent instead of the top 10 percent, the difference would probably be even starker.

None of this should come as a big surprise. Federal jobs have always been plum positions for blue-collar workers, while for highly-educated professionals it's something you do if you either want a lot of job security or are really dedicated to public service. If you're a doctor or a lawyer, you can almost certainly do better in private practice than you can working for the government.

Would the quality of the federal bureaucracy improve if we paid less for low-level jobs and used the money we saved to compete better for top-level managers and other professionals? Maybe! But the CBO punts on this: "A key issue in compensation policy is the ability to recruit
and retain a highly qualified workforce. But assessing how changes in compensation would affect the government’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel it needs is beyond the scope of this analysis." Maybe next time.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to be clear, this study is for federal workers only, not all government workers. Other studies I've seen suggest that state and local governments show similar dynamics (high school grads paid more than private-sector workers, professionals paid less), but the difference isn't as large and the overall impact on payroll is close to zero.

PHOTOS: How Occupy Oakland Tried to Outmaneuver Police

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 6:33 PM EST

Another weekend, another Occupy protest. Living in downtown Oakland, it has started to feel routine. But the January 28th protest was promising to be an escalation—with protesters planning to take over a vacant building, not just a park or plaza—and when I started hearing reports of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades, I gathered my camera gear and headed down to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza.

Occupy protesters stand behind shields as they begin to march up Telegraph Avenue.

Right after a march started, just past 5 p.m., protesters at the front made an abrupt left at 16th street and started sprinting. A building they intended to occupy, the Traveler's Aid building, was just down the street. I hauled ass to get to the front, to get shots of them entering and taking over the building. A metal gate drawn across the front of the building thwarted the protesters. They pleaded with workers repairing windows, which had been broken earlier, to open the gate and let them take over the building. The workers wanted nothing to do with it. "Don't put us in the middle of this," one said. "We're just here doing our job."

An Occupy marcher uses an iPad to capture the scene of protesters marching through Oakland.

The protesters continued down to the end of San Pablo Avenue, at 16th. It was here that I first noticed the easy likelihood of police blocking both ends of the street, and kettling everyone in between. Protesters filled the canyon of 16th between San Pablo and Telegraph.
Occupy protesters carry a tent as they march through downtown Oakland.Occupy protesters carry a tent as they march through downtown Oakland.
The protest moved up San Pablo, a wide, open street, then turned down 20th towards Henry Kaiser park, which Occupy Oakland had briefly taken back in November after being ousted from Frank Ogawa Plaza. It was another prime situation in which to be kettled—narrow streets, with large condos on all sides. And this time it happened: A line of police moved in from Telegraph, not letting anyone in the crowd out. Another line moved in from the opposite direction. I got cut off from the main protest, along with a few Occupy medics. We made our way around to Telegraph, on the other side of the kettle. A block away, in the kettle, a flash grenade went off. Two girls on bikes pleaded with police to be let out. Then, a large group of protesters broke down a recently re-erected chainlink fence enclosing a vacant lot next to the park. Protesters flooded the lot, breaking free of the kettle. The march resumed up Telegraph Avenue.
After being blocked on all sides by the Oakland Police, protester break through a fence to escape and resume their march.
Police respond to protesters breaking out of the blockade.Police respond to protesters breaking out of the blockade.

At this point, it didn't seem like the march had any real direction, moving up Telegraph to 27th Street. Some protesters started to turn left, others kept going straight. Some called for people at the front to slow down, to keep everyone together. Others wanted to move ahead, to keep the police from blocking intersections. Meanwhile, the police formed a strong line right behind the protesters.
Occupy marchers walk up Telegraph.Occupy marchers walk up Telegraph.
Next to the Kentucky Fried Chicken at 28th and Telegraph, it seemed like the police were going to surround the group. Protesters were pushed into the KFC parking lot, and police lines cut them off from both sides. Some people started down 28th. I casually walked down the sidewalk, directly into the police line.
Occupy Oakland approaches 28th and Telegraph.Occupy Oakland approaches 28th and Telegraph.
Two police approached me and my brother, who also didn't feel like getting arrested. I told them I was a member of the media and showed my press passes. The cop in front of me was boiling with adrenaline. He grabbed the passes and barked, "Are these current?" He scanned them for a date. After a second, he let go and let us pass the police line. This turned out to be lucky for us, since just a few minutes later, the police would effectively kettle everyone at the downtown Oakland YMCA, arresting everyone who didn't manage to get away by scaling a fence into a nearby parking lot. The mass arrest included at least six journalists—including MoJo's Gavin Aronsen, who wrote about his interaction with the Oakland Police and trip to county jail here.

Occupy protesters, before finally getting kettled by the Oakland PoliceOccupy protesters, before finally getting kettled by the Oakland Police
 

Allen West to Obama, Reid, and Pelosi: "Get the Hell Out of the United States" (Video)

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 5:14 PM EST

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), the firebrand tea party House freshman, told a crowd of Palm Beach Republicans on Saturday night that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz should leave the country. But West may be the one sent packing soon: His own fellow Republicans in Florida, possibly fed up with his fiery rhetoric, are close to redistricting him out of a job.

Holding forth at the GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner in Palm Beach's tony Kravis Center, the ex-lieutenant colonel who resigned his Army commission under less than honorable circumstances, gave the crowd a militarist stemwinder to remember. "This is a battlefield that we must stand upon," he said, referring to Florida's status as a contested electoral state:

And we need to let President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and my dear friend the chairman of the Democrat National Committee [Debbie Wasserman Schultz], we need to let them know Florida ain't on the table. Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else. You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America."

After a standing ovation, West added, "Yeah, I said 'hell'...I will not allow President Obama to take the United States of America and destroy it." Here's the video:

With his latest full frontal charge, West seems to have misidentified the enemy. In Tallahassee, the state's establishment Republicans are quietly working on a redistricting plan that would leave the tea party bomb-lobber without a constituency. When Floridians elected West to Congress in 2010, they also approved two ballot measures that ensured fair "compact" redrawing of political districts: Basically, the Republican-dominated Legislature would be able to redraw the political map, but they could no longer gerrymander districts that were 100 miles long and 1 mile wide. The state picked up two congressional seats in the latest census; in order to maximize benefit to the party, they'd have to sacrifice a few seats in Democratic strongholds—and that includes West's South Florida district.