2012 - %3, June

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 22, 2012

Fri Jun. 22, 2012 10:22 AM EDT

 

US Army Sgt. 1st Class Edward Willis, left, and Sgt. 1st Class Derek Walters, both with the 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, keep watch from the back of a CH-47F Chinook helicopter as it prepares to take off on June 3 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo by the US Army.

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Big Waffle Goes All in for American Crossroads

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 10:16 AM EDT
Waffle House.

Karl Rove's super-PAC, American Crossroads, raised $4,540,700 in May, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed on Wednesday. For an outfit that has pledged to spend at least $300 million attempting to defeat President Obama and take back the Senate, this may not sound like very much. But keep in mind that 1) big-money donors like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess have already signaled their intent to donate to 501(c)4s (like Crossroads' sister outfit, Crossroads GPS), which don't have to file monthly disclosure reports or disclose their donors and 2) the biggest gifts to outside groups usually come in the last month before the election.

So who's giving to Crossroads? For the most part, it's individuals. Any company looking to hide its money would go through Crossroads GPS, which doesn't disclose its donors (at least not yet). But one name did catch my eye—the Rutherford River Group, which gave Crossroads $250,000. Rutherford River Group lists an address at 2352 Pine Street in San Francisco—this building. There's no record of the Rutherford River Group on Google, but it's the same address used by Diane "Dede" Wilsey, a major philanthropist who's given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican causes (and a few Democrats; it's California) and maxed out to the Romney campaign. She also owns a vineyard called Rutherford River Ranch Vineyards, and the address provided to the FEC is the same address used by her foundation and the vineyard, so, voila. I'm not sure why she used a company that has virtually no footprint to donate to Crossroads but I've reached out for an explanation. Wilsey isn't the only affluent Bay Area resident giving to Crossroads; Charles B. Johnson, the principal owner of the San Francisco Giants, gave $200,000.

Also of note:

Joe Craft, CEO of Alliance Resources Partners, a Kentucky coal company, personally gave $1.25 million, and donated $425,000 through his company. Why is that significant? Craft is also Mitt Romney's Kentucky finance co-chair. This is legal, so long as Craft's check came with no strings attached. But it goes to show just how much of an overlap there is between outside groups and the campaigns themselves. (It was Craft, you'll recall, whose $7 million naming gift for a University of Kentucky dorm caused writer and activist Wendell Berry to pull his papers from his alma mater.)

Crow Holdings, the company helmed by Swift Boater Harlan Crow, gave $1 million. Oh, and Waffle House, the 24-hour southern breakfast chain that's so ubiquitous FEMA uses it to assess hurricane damage, gave Crossroads $100,000 from its corporate coffers. This is surprising because one doesn't normally associate Big Waffle with big scary super-PACs, but also not that surprising: CEO Jim Rogers Jr. is a longtime supporter of Republican causes, and the company's political action committee has given exclusively to Republicans (in considerably more modest quantities). His ties to Romney date back to 2006, when he joined the finance team of Romney's political action committee, Commonwealth PAC.

Steve Carell: Serial Young Lady Sexer?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 7:00 AM EDT
Ahh, yeeeeeaaahh.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Focus Features
101 minutes

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a lovely little film—one that's painfully funny, and drenched in rich metaphor. The premise is admirably gimmicky: With an Armageddon-size asteroid barrelling towards earth, human civilization is coming to an end in a few weeks. As expected, people the world over start panicking like wild animals. They loot, riot, and of course surrender themselves to nihilistic hedonism (feeding martinis to their toddler kids, injecting heroin at will, drunken orgies daily—basically, partying like they all just got back to Berlin after the Great War).

Dodge (played by Steve Carell), on the other hand, gets sedated and very, very mopey. So does Penny (Keira Knightley), Dodge's neighbor. In the midst of all the oh-shit-the-world's-coming-to-an-end commotion, the two strangers forge an unlikely bond, flee the city in Penny's Prius, and go on an adventure looking for Dodge's old flame. Thus kicks off their surprising road trip, set against the darkly humorous backdrop of imminent apocalypse.

"To Rome With Love": Assembly-Line Woody Allen

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

To Rome With Love
Sony Pictures Classics
112 minutes

Woody Allen's new movie, quite frankly, sucks. As is true with too much of Allen's 21st century output, it trudges along as a mash-up of the director's less inspired flights of fancy. If you cobbled together various pieces of used scratch paper from the floor of Woody Allen's office, taped the scraps together with little-to-zero discipline, and tacked on an extra dose of tired surrealism, you'd get something along the lines of To Rome With Love—a sorry little movie that is at its very best playfully self-indulgent, and at its worst hellishly self-indulgent.

I could recap the synopsis for you now, but I'm instead outsourcing most of that work to this guy at LA Weekly. Suffice it to say that the movie takes place in (you guessed it) Rome. Through a ragbag of strained vignettes, the film weaves together disparate tales of infidelity, opera, fame, infidelity, love, more infidelity, disillusionment, and infidelity. The ensemble cast is top-notch, with a disarming blend of sex, smarts, and suave befitting a movie of far greater worth. But because of the overflow of competing plotlines, none of the star players (particularly Ellen Page as a seductive pseduo-intellectual who specializes in the "perversion of the dialectic") get the screen time they're due.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

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

the money shot

 

 

 

quote of the week

"Your defense of Crossroads' legal position last night on Fox News was both mystifying and revealing."
—Robert Bauer, the Obama campaign's chief legal counsel, in his second snarky letter to Karl Rove this week. He's demanding that Rove disclose the donors to his dark-money nonprofit Crossroads GPS, which claims to be a "social welfare" group. (Read about the first letter here.)
 

attack ad of the week

Earlier this month, President Obama told reporters at a White House press conference that "the private sector is doing fine." By that, he meant that the private sector has fared better as of late than the flailing public sector. But the comment makes for a great attack-ad sound bite and could become a headache for Obama. The Romney campaign was the first to pounce on the gaffe with an ad last week. Earlier this week, the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future came out with with its own ad; it was followed by this ad by the Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity:

 

Fake attack ad of the week

Courtesy of the Mother Jones DC news team, a cautionary look at what could happen if dark money invaded the land of Westeros. Watch the Crossbows GPS spot below. (Warning: the videos contain mild spoilers from season two of Game of Thrones.)

   

STAT of the week

$94.8 million: The amount of money spent by dark-money "social welfare" groups like Crossroads GPS in the 2010 election, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity. That's 45 percent more than super-PACs spent during the same cycle.
 

more mojo dark-money coverage

Follow the Dark Money: The down and dirty history of secret spending, PACs gone wild, and the epic four-decade fight over the only kind of political capital that matters.
3 Companies, 1 PO Box, and a $1 Million Super-PAC Gift: If Houston computer magnate Robert T. Brockman wants to cover his tracks, he's not trying hard enough.
How to Sweep Dark Money Out of Politics: Undoing Citizens United, the DIY guide.
Citizens United vs. Sideboob: The court is more worried about a little skin on TV than unlimited corporate money in elections.
Connecticut's Governor—A Democrat!—Sides With Dark Money: Gov. Dannel Malloy vetoed the disclosure bill over policy and constitutional worries, but reformers say he's way off mark.
 

more must-reads

• Thanks to outside spending groups, Barack Obama "may be the first incumbent president to be out-raised by his opponent." AP
• Mitt Romney plans to mingle with deep-pocketed donors at "Republicanpalooza" this weekend. New York Times
• Will Karl Rove's donor disclosure dodges lead to Crossroad GPS' downfall? Huffington Post
• The US Chamber of Commerce works with Republicans to block a donor disclosure bill. iWatch News
• Stephen Colbert's super-PAC barely raised any money last month, but it's inspired copycats like My Cat Xavier for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Politico

Why Diet Soda Should Be Taxed, Too

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A whole wall of Diet Coke.

Sugar-free diet soda has gotten a free pass in the recent debates on soda regulation, covered in Monday's Econundrum. Proponents of soda bans or taxes have attacked Big Gulps and other giant drinks sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but DIET COKE devotees may want to hold off on gloating. A new study found that diet soda drinkers had altered brain responses to saccharin (Sweet'N Low) compared to nondrinkers.

Diet soda may be bad precisely because it has no sugar and fewer calories. When you eat something sweet, researchers have argued, your body comes to expect a caloric boost. Low or no calorie artificial sweeteners could screw up this link in the brain.

Researchers at the University of California-San Diego and San Diego State University recruited 24 participants, half of whom drank diet soda regularly, and imaged their brains responding to a squirt of water flavored with saccharin or sugar water. Artificial sweeteners taste sweet, but they don't quite taste like real sugar. Researchers using fMRI, an imaging technique that tracks blood flow in the brain, see a different response to sugar than to sweet substitutes like sucralose (Splenda) and, in this study, saccharin.

In diet soda drinkers, however, the right orbitofrontal cortex of their brains could no longer distinguish between real sugar and fake sugar. In addition, there was decreased activation in an area called the caudate head. The more often the participants reported drinking diet soda, the less activity in this brain area, and the study authors had previously linked decreased activation in the caudate head to obesity.

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"Brave" Will Leave You Bored

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Look at those long red locks.

Brave
Walt Disney Pictures
93 minutes

Beautiful yet unfulfilling, Brave will leave you wanting to grow long red hair and visit Scotland, but not much else. Pixar's first feature with a female lead lacks the depth and originality we've come to expect from the animation studio (I'm thinking of you, Up). Instead, the story falls in line with those of the other Disney princesses—a bland cautionary tale filled with just enough action and suspense to keep you awake. La Luna, the excellent short that's shown before the feature film, is much more entertaining than the main event.

Brave's opening scenes hold promise—especially when our heroine, a Scottish princess named Merida, rides her horse through the countryside, firing off arrows and nailing targets set up around the forest. But the next 40 minutes are slapstick humor mixed with pathetic attempts at character and narrative development. When Merida turns to magic in an attempt to change her fate and avoid marriage, her plan backfires. Unfortunately, the filmmakers focus on a ridiculous chase scene rather than the consequences of their main character's brush with magic. Later, as Merida searches for a way to undo the spell, what could be a moment of emotional development turns into a silly fishing contest. Pixar turned us all to mush at the end of Toy Story 3 (admit it, you cried), but Brave's 'emotional' scenes aren't nearly as satisfying.

When the slapstick is stripped away, you're left with a lead whose most notable traits are her (albeit beautifully animated) hair and her archery skills, and a mother-daughter relationship that lacks any real depth despite being the focus of the film. There are animals, magic, fun accents and bare behinds (in 3D no less) to keep the PG audience entertained. But for anyone over the age of 12, all the film offers is lovely scenery and a few giggles.

Brave, a Disney Pixar release, is rated PG for some action and rude humor. It gets a wide release Friday, June 22. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones.

What Really Happens If the Supreme Court Strikes Down the Mandate?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

As everybody waits with bated breath for the Supreme Court to release its ruling on Obamacare (maybe Monday!), the fashionable parlor game among the chattering classes is to figure out what the impact of different kinds of rulings would be. So let's play! But most of the alternatives are uninteresting. If the court upholds the law, then everything goes forward as planned. If they strike down the entire law, then everything stops. The only interesting question is: What if they strike down the individual mandate but uphold the rest of the law?

We can game this out, but first you have to understand just who would be most upset by a ruling like this. The answer is: insurance companies. You see, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires insurance companies to accept anyone who applies for coverage and to charge everyone (with some specific exceptions) roughly the same rate. This works fine if insurance companies get a random selection of customers. They can easily figure out the average cost of care for this random group and then charge everyone that average, plus a little extra so they make some money. Nice and neat.

But without a mandate, they're unlikely to get a random selection of customers. Instead, healthy folks will probably stay out of the market and buy coverage only when they come down with some kind of serious illness. This is a disaster for insurers. They aren't getting regular premium payments from these customers, but they still have to pay for their million-dollar proton beam therapy when they get prostate cancer. Too much of this kind of behavior and they'll be out of business. That's why this dynamic is called a "death spiral."

So what happens if the mandate is overturned? Here's one possible scenario, along with my guesses about the likelihood of each step:

  1. Congress deadlocks on any kind of solution (p=100%).
  2. In 2014 the law goes into effect as scheduled (p=100%).
  3. The death spiral starts as the healthiest segment of the uninsured decides to stay uninsured (p=99%).
  4. However, thanks to the expansion of Medicaid and the subsidies for private insurance, the death spiral happens very slowly. The number of people who buy insurance at the last minute is relatively small (p=90%).
  5. Insurance companies raise premiums across the board to make up for this (p=100%).
  6. Because this happens slowly, the premium increases are small enough and justifiable enough that the Department of Health and Human Services mostly approves them (p=80%).
  7. For all practical purposes, insurance companies replace emergency rooms as the funder of last resort for the uninsured (p=70%).
  8. The death spiral turns out to have an end point. Premiums go up for a while until a new equilibrium is found, and then they stabilize. (Though of course health care costs in general will probably continue to go up. But this is separate from premium increases caused by the death spiral.)

This is a very rosy scenario. The usual objection is that No. 4 is wrong and, in fact, the death spiral happens more quickly—say, within four or five years. In this case, insurance companies will genuinely be in dire straits and will begin to put so much pressure on Congress that even conservatives realize they have to do something. By the time this happens, ACA will be so entrenched that repealing it just isn't in the cards, which means that either Congress passes a constitutionally approved version of the mandate (for example, by making it a tax credit) or else nationalizes health care even further.

Overall, this is the most optimistic possible set of outcomes. In both cases, ACA is basically safe, either because the law's other provisions dampen the effect of the death spiral or because Congress is forced to take action in order to save the insurance industry.

Do I believe this? Actually, yes. Despite the fact that I think overturning the mandate would be a constitutional disaster, I'm not convinced it would inevitably be a health care disaster. It would unquestionably create a fair amount of unnecessary uncertainty, but in the end, things would probably work out okay as long as Democrats have the spine to continue defending the basic law. Time will tell about that.

UPDATE: In #7, I changed "provider of last resort" to "funder of last resort." Obviously insurance companies don't actually provide health services, they just pay for them.

Your Weekend Longreads List on Dark Money

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

401kcalculator.org/Flickr

longreadsAs election season heats up, I asked my Mother Jones colleagues to suggest their picks for the best recent long-form reportage on one of our favorite topics—the stories behind the money in American politics. For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here, and be sure to follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest.



State for Sale | Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | October 2011

Just how much political influence can one wealthy individual wield? A whole lot, according to Mayer's profile of conservative North Carolina philanthropist and self-proclaimed defender of democracy Art Pope.

I met with Pope recently in a suburban office building that serves as the Raleigh headquarters of Variety Wholesalers. In a spare conference room overlooking a parking lot, he told me that he is indeed misunderstood. "If the left wing wants a whipping boy, a bogeyman, they throw out my name," he said. "Some things I hear about Art Pope—you know, I don't like this guy Art Pope that they're talking about. I don’t know him. If what they say were true, I wouldn’t like a lot of things about me. But they're just not true."

Recommended by editorial coordinator Hannah Levintova.


Bob Perry Needs a Hug | S. C. Gwynne | Texas Monthly | April 2007

Before the 2008 election, Gwynne got the reclusive Texan who was America's (then) top political donor to open up a bit.

In spite of such a massive political presence, Perry is as mysterious as some of the groups he funds. He never talks to the press, rarely appears in public, and remains an inscrutable figure even to people to whom he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars. He might have maintained this relatively low profile indefinitely, except that in 2004 he was the largest funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the controversial 527 that many people credit with derailing John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Almost overnight, Perry became a poster boy for the notion that a cabal of wealthy donors, shady consultants, and unaccountable 527’s was taking over American politics.

Recommended by reporter Tim Murphy.


Follow the Dark Money | Andy Kroll | Mother Jones | July 2012

In this epic tale, Kroll details the four-decade battle over campaign finance starting with Watergate money laundering and culminating in the current super-PAC free-for-all.

"We're back to the Nixon era," says Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, "the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics." This is the story of how we got here.

Recommended by multiple MoJoers.

The Man Behind Citizens United is Just Getting Started | Stephanie Mencimer | Mother Jones | May/June 2011

The dawn of the super-PAC era caught a lot of people by surprise. Mencimer profiles James Bopp, the legal mastermind who made it possible.

Clad in a brown sweater and sitting awkwardly with a cane at his side, Bopp looked far more mortal than you might expect for "the man behind our secret elections," as Common Cause recently dubbed him (PDF). When I asked him about the allegation that he uses his small, nonprofit clients as cover for a big-business agenda, a frustrated look crossed his face. He'd happily represent corporate clients, he said, "if they'd hire me." The problem, he said, was that those clients want their lawyers in DC, not Indiana.

Recommended by senior editor Dave Gilson.


Money Unlimited | Jeffrey Toobin | The New Yorker | May 2012

Toobin documents how one of the defining decisions of the Roberts Supreme Court arose from a case of seemingly "modest importance."

In a different way, though, Citizens United is a distinctive product of the Roberts Court. The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents. When the Court announced its final ruling on Citizens United, on January 21, 2010, the vote was five to four and the majority opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy. Above all, though, the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.

Recommended by multiple MoJoers.

"It's a rich man's world: How billionaire backers pick America's candidates" | Thomas Frank | Harper's | April 2012

With his signature prose, the author of Pity the Billionaire investigates the deep-pocketed players paying for the 2012 election.

It dawned on the world that we had reached a new level of campaign savagery during the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. For a brief moment, you will recall, Newt Gingrich, who had foresworn negative advertising and was behaving in an uncharacteristically congenial manner, took the lead in public-opinion polls. Almost immediately, Mitt Romney—which is to say, Mitt Romney's studiously non-aligned corporate doppelgänger, the Restore Our Future Super PAC—blitzed his slow-moving opponent with a storm of derisive TV commercials. The spots ran day and night, and utterly destroyed Gingrich’s standing in the polls.

Among people who follow campaign spending closely, this seems to have been a sort of Hiroshima moment: the vast power of a new weapon was finally unveiled. Candidates like Romney could appear to be models of civic virtue, without an unkind or even combative thought in their heads, while their wealthy patrons came together to heap ridicule on their rivals, in unprecedented quantities of advertising and degrees of viciousness. All of the hand-shaking and diner-visiting and carefully drawn position papers were swept into irrelevance.

Recommended by reporter Andy Kroll.


And finally: They're not long and you can't read 'em, but while we're on the subject, have you seen our Game of Thrones attack ads?

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": Precursor to "Jimmy Carter: Space-Troll Grundle-Puncher"?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Yes.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
20th Century Fox
105 minutes

If you don't appreciate Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter then you don't appreciate what makes America great.

It's exuberant and obscenely fun, plugging away at one big, fat, giddy premise. The vamp-loaded 3D action sequences (orchestrated with a honed shamelessness by director Timur Bekmambetov) are sublime, mainly due to the fact that you get to see the Great Emancipator balletically wreck legions of blood-suckers through the art of ax-twirling and kung fu. The movie also has the greatest stampede scene since Simba got his life ruined in The Gorge; one that involves the vampire who murdered Lincoln's mom throwing full-grown horses at a young and vengeful Abe.

But aside from being a wild kick of escapist, blood-mottled fun (tepid critical reception be damned), the film opens up a world of possibilities: A movie franchise in which Hollywood would honor every single American president with a gore-soaked retelling:

1. George Washington: Acid-Pterosaur Poacher. He resigns his commission in 1783...while fighting off flying reptiles that spew acid at the behest of a bitter British elite. 

2. John Adams: Mummy Shanker. Launches an undeclared naval war against the French Republic. Unbeknowst to his cabinet, Adams stabs mummified demons in his spare hours.

3. Thomas Jefferson: Big-Pimpin' Zombie Drop-Kicker. Completely dominates Islamist bandits centuries before it was cool. (Spoiler: The bandits all turn out to be zombies.)