2012 - %3, April

Can Clean Energy be a Wedge Issue in 2012?

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:15 PM EDT

Rolling Stone's latest interview with President Obama was pretty dull, and in any case I nearly became ill just from reading the cloying, self-congratulatory introduction by (of course) Jann Wenner. I made it up to "Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks...." and had to get up and take a break.

But David Roberts reminds me that although Obama made no news, he did make a worthwhile point about the Republican electorate:

Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they'd like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way.

....But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream — and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

....I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

This isn't the biggest insight in the world, or anything, but it's something I try to keep firmly in mind. Mostly I fail, but it's still worth keeping in mind: lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News, but lots of them aren't. They're just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals, of course, and David suggests that one area ripe for wedge making is clean energy:

Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

Read the whole thing to get the details of David's argument. My guess is that this is unlikely to become a major campaign issue on its own, but you never know. If the right event comes along, it could push this into the spotlight and force Romney to take some unpopular hardline positions. Ideally, I suppose we'd discover a huge shale deposit in Yosemite National Park and then demand that Romney disown all the folks on the right who would immediately pop up to insist that the Obama administration is anti-growth for opposing a drilling rig on top of Half Dome. That might do it.

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Transparency Victory: Feds Will Require Broadcasters To Post Political Ad Info Online

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:03 PM EDT
An anti-Obama ad paid for by dark-money group Crossroads GPS.

Want to peruse Mitt Romney's donor list? See who's on a super-PAC's payroll? Find out which campaign spends the most on Chinese take-out? All that information and more is a click (or four) away on the internet.

However, political advertising information—who's buying ads, where they're buying them, and how much they're spending—remains in the pre-computer age. That information is only available on paper forms stuffed inside filing cabinets at the offices of the broadcasters themselves. These files are public information, yet they are nowhere to be found online. Reporters or citizens looking for ad buy information have to call up individual broadcasters or visit TV stations in person.

No more. The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ruled that TV stations must post online their publicly available political ad information, including who's buying, what they're paying, and how much airtime they purchased. TV ads remain the most potent (and pricey) weapon in a campaign's arsenal, and making ad data readily available online is a game-changer for reporters covering the campaign.

There's a catch. The FCC's requirement impacts only the nation's 50 biggest TV markets, exempting the remaining 160. As the Sunlight Foundation recently noted, TV markets in battleground states such as Iowa, Virginia, and Missouri won't be touched by the FCC's decision. Meanwhile, broadcasters in Los Angeles and New York, both cities where President Obama is expected to win easily, will be subject to the new online requirement.

Still, supporters of the online move hailed the decision as a step out of the shadows for political advertising and win for transparency. "This is a huge victory for the public interest and a critical breakthrough for transparency in an election year," wrote Candace Clement of Free Press, a media reform group that lobbied for moving ad info online. "At a time when wealthy special interests are trying to buy elections, we now have a means to figure out how much they’re spending on these ads, and where."

The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry's main trade group which lobbied against the proposal, said in a statement that it "respectfully disagrees" with the FCC's ruling. "By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily."

We Should Be Tough On Crime, Unless It's Crime We Approve Of

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 12:17 PM EDT

It's pretty hard to keep up with the faux outrage these days. Just this morning I read that Darrell Issa is getting ready to hold Eric Holder in contempt over the right's favorite endless whipping boy of the past year, Fast & Furious, but I guess this is already old news. Yawn. Apparently the latest ginned-up outrage comes from a video in which an EPA official recaps a pep talk he gave to his team two years ago:

It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

Ouch. Maybe not the best analogy to use. But let's hear the rest:

And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don't want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it's time to clean up.

Ah. So he wants his team to go after people who break the law and hit them hard. Set an example. That sounds very....conservative. James Q. Wilson would approve, no? Unless, of course, it's environmental laws we're talking about. In that case, I guess it's better just to ignore them.

Yet More Mind-Boggling Compensation News From Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 11:30 AM EDT

Here's some heartwarming news from the LA Times today:

Less than a year before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. plunged the global economy into a terrifying free fall, the Wall Street firm awarded nearly $700 million to 50 of its highest-paid employees, according to internal documents reviewed by The Times.

.... The rich pay packages for so many people raised eyebrows even among compensation experts and provided fresh evidence of the money-driven Wall Street culture that was blamed for triggering the financial crisis. "Many people are going to be stunned at how well some people were being paid," said Brian Foley, an executive compensation expert in White Plains, N.Y. "This wasn't a matter of five or six people being paid a lot."

....The records illustrate that enormous pay wasn't limited to top executives but was dished out to a wide range of traders and others who sometimes took home even bigger paychecks than the CEOs who ran their companies.

It's nothing to get upset about, though. Just a few bad apples. The exception that proves the rule. The black sheep of the family. Surely you don't believe that all of Wall Street was doing this, do you?

Jon Tester Cuts the Second-Most Montana Ad of All Time

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:53 AM EDT

The Montana Senate race could very well determine whether Republicans will control Congress next January. In one corner is the incumbent, Democrat Jon Tester, a Netroots hero six years ago; in the other is GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, winner of five statewide elections, friend of mining interests, foe of firefighters. The stakes couldn't be higher—so naturally, Tester's latest campaign ad is focusing on...steaks, which he brings with him in his carry-on luggage any time he leaves the state:

This is a natural sequel to his first 2006 campaign spot, which was dedicated entirely to his buzz cut:

But two can play that game. Here's a Rehberg campaign ad from 2000, in which he carries a baby goat up a hill:

On a more substantive note, Karl Rove's super-PAC, American Crossroads, is out with a massive statewide ad blitz targeting Tester.

Economy is Doing OK, But Not Great

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:53 AM EDT

I suppose I should do a pro forma post about today's GDP announcement, so here it is: GDP increased 2.2% last quarter. The general consensus is that this is "meh." It's not great, especially for an economy supposedly coming out of a recession, but it's not horrible either, and it might get revised upward next month anyway. Bottom line: if it's a blip, it's no big deal. If it's the first sign of a slowing economy, it's pretty bad news. But we'll have to wait and see. More details here.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 27, 2012

Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:18 AM EDT

US Army National Guard Spc. Timothy Shout, a native of Austin, Texas, scans the nearby ridgeline along with other members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar Security Force element, following an engagement with enemy forces. Shout is deployed from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry (Airborne) out of Austin, Texas. The unit took small-arms fire from a nearby mountain top during a routine patrol, and was able to suppress the enemy with the assistance of local Afghan National Security Forces. Photo by the US Army.

Government-Run Healthcare is More Efficient Than Private Healthcare

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Can the government provide healthcare more efficiently than the private market? There's no simple answer to that, but a couple of recent data points suggest the answer is yes.

First there's Medicare. It's true that long-term Medicare costs remain our most critical budget problem, thanks to aging baby boomers and ever-expanding treatments for chronic illnesses and end-of-life care. But per-capita Medicare spending has been on a long downward trend, and that trend has been so steady and predictable that a recent study suggested that spending growth per beneficiary over the next decade would be close to zero. Earlier this week we got some confirmation of this when the annual Social Security Trustees report was released. Most of the media attention focused on Social Security, whose financial position deteriorated compared to last year thanks to a slowing economy and an aging population. But using the same economic forecasts, the trustees nonetheless projected no deterioration in Medicare's financial picture. Why? "Once you dig into the numbers," says the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff, "the most plausible explanation is a pretty encouraging one: Our health-care system is getting better at delivering the same medicine more efficiently."

And there's more. On Wednesday, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll reported on a new study of Medicaid spending by states. Despite years of horror stories about Medicaid bankrupting state budgets, the study found that most of the increase over the past decade has simply been due to inflation and population growth, not the rising cost of medical care. Adjusted for inflation and population, it turns out that Medicaid spending rose by less than 4% between 2002 and 2011. (That's the dotted line in the chart on the right.) Why has Medicaid done so well? The study quotes Vernon Smith, former Medicaid director for Michigan:

When you look at the rate of growth for all the major payers — Medicaid, Medicare, employer-sponsored insurance, National Health Expenditures — what you see is that no other payer has constrained the rate of growth in spending as well as Medicaid has. [] The reason is that no payer has been as motivated to undertake cost containment as state governments.

This is a key insight, and it doesn't apply only to state governments. One of the problems with the employer-centered healthcare model that we adopted accidentally during and after World War II is that it does a pretty good job of hiding costs. Sure, our premiums and copays rise every year, but most of us have very little idea how much our medical insurance really costs. We pay a small portion, and the rest is, from our point of view, effectively free. By contrast, in European countries, which have done a much better job of controlling costs than the U.S., spending comes largely out of tax dollars, which means that legislatures and taxpayers have to face up to the cost of healthcare every year when they pass a budget. The fact that the process is played out in the rough and tumble of the political spotlight gives everyone a strong incentive to hold down spending. After all, rising costs mean rising taxes.

Until the cost of medical care bites, Americans won't put a lot of pressure on the healthcare industry to rein in its prices and administer care more efficiently. Taxpayer-supported national healthcare could help us get there. The relative efficiency of Medicare and Medicaid are bellwethers we should pay attention to.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

Americans turned off by super-PACs: A new survey from the Brennan Center for Justice finds that 65 percent of respondents say they trust the government less since they feel super-PACs have more power than the people. And 26 percent, particularly "communities of color, those with lower incomes, and individuals with less formal education," say they're less likely to vote this year because of it.

Megadonors step up to the plate: iWatch News reports that seven wealthy men and three cash-heavy organizations have contributed a third of all super-PAC money (and just 46 donors are responsible for $110 million). iWatch has immortalized the top donors with their own interactive trading cards. This rookie Sheldon Adelson looks like a keeper.

Wall Street bullish on super-PACs: Meanwhile, the Center for Responsive Politics finds that the securities and investment industry continues to blow other industries away in the big money game. Casinos are number three, thanks to Adelson.

Coming to a race near you: As Mother Jones' Andy Kroll reports, a growing number of super-PACs are funneling cash into state and local races in efforts to oust congressional incumbents and influence smaller campaigns. The trend promises to create new problems wth campaign finance disclosure, which is inconsistent and often lacking at the state level.

Using dark money to hide dark money: Andy Kroll also reports that Crossroads GPS, the dark money outfit cofounded by Karl Rove, doled out $2.75 million to the Center for Individual Freedom, which fights dark-money disclosure laws. A Washington Post analysis finds that Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose its donors, has spent $12.6 million on anti-Obama ads so far. Meanwhile, Crossroads GPS's super-PAC affiliate American Crossroads has released a new ad, a racially tinged attack that casts the president as being too "cool."

Latest stats from the money war: As supporters of Obama and Mitt Romney max out their legally allowed donations to the candidates, they're turning to super-PACs to keep the money flowing. So far, Obama and the Democrats have raised more campaign money, but pro-Romney and conservative super-PACs have a cash advantage.

4 Things to Know About CISPA

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

On Thursday, the House passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (HR 3523) by a 248-168 vote. The bill, commonly known by its acronym, CISPA, aims to make it easier for government agencies and private industry to share information about cyber threats. But all that information-sharing worries privacy advocates and civil libertarians, who say the bill lacks safeguards against abuse. Supporters like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who introduced the bill last November, insist that it is a necessary step in cracking down on illegal hacking and foreign spying, and would not be used to target things like file-sharing sites and free speech on the internet.

Now that the bill has passed the House, the focus shifts to the Senate, which is crafting an alternate version of the bill that could be voted on as early as May. Here are four things to know about CISPA.

1. Those for, those against. The usual suspects on both sides—rights organizations, consumer groups, big business, telecommunications—came out to endorse or condemn the bill. Here are some big names that have issued ringing endorsements of CISPA:

…and some key players that have denounced the bill:

2. The vague language. As with charges leveled at other recent controversial pieces of legislation, much of the debate over CISPA is about what the language in the bill actually means. CISPA would allow and encourage companies and government agencies to share internet users' information with each other without court orders or subpoenas so long as the company or agency can cite a "cybersecurity purpose." Proponents say that this will allow companies facing online attacks to report intrusions to the government and get help promptly without having to worry about unnecessary red tape. Critics, however, say there is a substantial potential for abuse in the vagueness of the phrase "cybersecurity purpose." "Right now, companies can only look at your communications in very specific, very narrow situations," Trevor Timm, a blogger and activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Daily Beast on Monday. "The government, if they want to read them, needs some sort of warrant and probable cause. This allows companies to read your communication as long as they can claim a cybersecurity purpose."

It's widely known that many major companies—including Facebook and Time Warner, for instance—already share plenty of user information with federal authorities in the interest of monitoring for national security threats or cyber crime. The concern here is that the bill would allow authorities to disregard the standard practice of subpoenas and court orders in such scenarios. "Essentially, this bill would preempt…other laws related to privacy," Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Mother Jones.