2012 - %3, September

Corn on "Hardball": Obama's "I Am the President" Moment

Fri Sep. 7, 2012 12:52 AM EDT

David Corn and Howard Fineman joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss President Obama's big finale at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Also read Kevin Drum's less enthused reaction to the speech.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Did Obama Phone It In?

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 10:55 PM EDT

Barack Obama's speech tonight was....OK. But that was about all. It meandered, it skittered, and most of the time it seemed oddly themeless. It had some good lines, but too often they were left hanging. Take this jab at Republicans, for example:

They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:

“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”

“Deficit too high? Try another.”

“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”

That's a good riff. But it came early in the speech, and after a couple of pro forma sentences about tax cuts for millionaires (he's against them) Obama was off on an entirely unrelated riff about common effort, shared responsibility, and bold, persistent experimentation. Then he was off to the car industry. Then energy. Then a throwaway line about global warming. And all of these riffs were just that: short collections of platitudes with no real meat behind them and no promise of what a second term might bring. Here's the best he could do on deficit reduction:

Now, I’m still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission [Simpson-Bowles]. No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise. I want to get this done, and we can get it done. But when Governor Romney and his friends in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficits by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy, well, what’d Bill Clinton call it? You do the arithmetic, you do the math.

I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I’m President, I never will. I refuse to ask middle class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut. I refuse to ask students to pay more for college; or kick children out of Head Start programs, to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor, and elderly, or disabled, all so those with the most can pay less.

That's a workmanlike statement. It checks the right boxes. Like the rest of the speech, it got the job done. But I didn't feel any real passion in the delivery. It felt more like an actor soldiering through his lines.

Overall, it was a decent wrapup. It was a decent defense of his first term. It was a decent appeal for votes. But there was nothing memorable, nothing forward looking, and nothing that drew a contrast with Romney in sharp, gut-level strokes. Obama was, to be charitable, no more than the third best of the Democratic convention's prime time speakers in 2012.

Tampa vs. Charlotte: What We Care About

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 8:52 PM EDT

Dylan Matthews writes about the big difference between Tampa and Charlotte:

We’re two nights into the Democratic National Convention, and the themes could not be more distinct from those championed at the RNC last week. Whereas the RNC heavily emphasized the role of personal initiative in economic success, the DNC’s speakers have focused on the many barriers that keep success away from even determined, hard-working Americans.

I was thinking about this exact thing last night, and what I was thinking is that it's a shame. It's a shame that Republicans think they have to extol personal initiative to the exclusion of all else, and it's a shame that Democrats feel the same way about the value of collective action and real opportunity for all.

I understand why this happens. Republicans feel that personal initiative is under such withering attack from liberals that they need to fight back with no quarter given and no ground conceded. Democrats feel the same way.

There are lots of topics that display the same dynamic. Hell, maybe most of them. But it seems more corrosive than usual in this case, because it does real damage when we disparage either of these things. Personal initiative and personal responsibility really are vitally important, and we should take every opportunity to encourage and praise them. I've known plenty of people who have started and run businesses of their own, and they work their asses off and take plenty of personal risks along the way. It's not an easy road.

Likewise, lots of people, through no real fault of their own, really don't have much of a chance in life. Those of us who do should always be keenly aware of just how lucky we are and just how much we've benefited not just from friends and family, but from things like clean water, decent healthcare, roads and bridges, public schools and universities, food that's free of contamination, government-sponsored basic research, public order, and, eventually, retirement security.

Reverence for personal initiative without a sense of what you've gotten from others produces too much petty arrogance and unfeeling entitlement. Concern for equal opportunity and community support without a healthy respect for personal initiative produces too much lassitude and bitterness.

This is a case where we truly don't want either side to win — and not out of some misplaced sense of mindless centrism. We really do have to value both, not just pay lip service to them.

Barack Obama is one of the best at bridging these two worlds. It's too bad there aren't more like him.

Jobs for Military Vets to Rebuild Fisheries

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 6:10 PM EDT

Coho salmon juveniles John McMillan | NOAA via FlickrCoho salmon juveniles: John McMillan | NOAA via Flickr

NOAA announced yesterday a plan to provide jobs and training for military vets to restore habitat and monitor fisheries in northern California. The program will be jointly run with the California Conservation Corps and and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Veterans will start the year-long job by taking courses in how to collect data. In October they'll begin monitoring river restoration sites designed to increase spawning and rearing habitat for populations of endangered coho salmon in Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino counties. The restored streams should help Chinook and steelhead trout as well. Vets will also get training and experience in firefighting.

"This is a win-win for everyone," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries. "Military veterans have tremendous skills to offer, and by helping to restore fish habitats they will be supporting the important role of commercial and recreational fishing in the economy. Restoration jobs pay dividends twice, first because they put people to work immediately, and then because restoration benefits our fisheries, tourism, and coastal communities for years to come."

Sounds like a fun outdoor job. The program combines President Obama's Veterans Job Corps Initiative and America's Great Outdoors.

Interested veterans can call Tina Ratcliff at the California Conservation Corps at 916-341-3123, or email tina.ratcliff@ccc.ca.gov. Training begins Monday 17 September. 

A Comparative Analysis of Bands Rocking the Democratic and Republican National Conventions

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 4:15 PM EDT

Presidential nominating conventions have a way of turning party leaders into part-time concert promoters.

"We've booked outstanding performers and world-famous acts," RNC chairman Reince Priebus boasted last week, referring to the Republican convention's musical line-up. "Everything from pop and rock to country and gospel."

Organizers of the 2012 Democratic National Convention were determined not to be outdone. "This roster of performances only adds to the excitement building in Charlotte for the historic week ahead of us," Democratic convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa said. "[B]e ready for quite a show."

Here's your side-by-side comparison of the bands playing in Charlotte this week, and the ones that took the stage in Tampa last week.

1) A Tale of two taylors

The Republicans got...

Taylor Hicks: On the last night of the Republican National Convention, Hicks sang Michael McDonald's 1976 hit "Takin' It to the Streets." The American Idol season 5 champion is famous for competently covering Stevie Wonder, being damned by TMZ's faint praise, and for his baffling, harmonica-laced cameo on Stephen Colbert's cover of Rebecca Black's signature song:

When asked about his performance by the Huffington Post, Hicks got bashful about his politics: "I don't really talk about my party or political affiliations. I'm an entertainer; that's what I was invited to do." (His most political lyric is probably in "The Distance," which goes, "[s]eems we've taken different sides, all caught up in politics and pride." That is about as middle-of-the-road as it gets.)

And the Democrats got...

James Taylor: Taylor, who grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (roughly a 3-hour car ride from the site of the Democratic convention), arrived in Charlotte to entertain convention-goers on the final day. Taylor also wrote that song that has something to do with North Carolina. Along with marrying Carly Simon and guest-starring on The Simpsons space exploration episode, the singer-songwriter is known for being pretty hilarious in Judd Apatow's Funny People:

James Taylor is a die-hard liberal; he played on the anti-Bush "Vote for Change" tour in 2004, along with Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Pearl Jam. His pet causes include the environment, cancer research, and not destroying rainforests.

2) The Partisan Solo Artists

The Republicans got...

Kid Rock: Standing in for the indefinitely postponed Reagan hologram, Robert James Ritchie performed a 75-minute set outside the GOP convention site last Thursday. During the gig, he ad-libbed the following rap lyrics: "They say Obama is lyin' / That's why I'm voting for Romney and Ryan." (Ironically enough, during the whole performance Rock was wearing a "Made in Detroit" t-shirt that wasn't actually made in Detroit.)

Kid Rock is also famous for purportedly putting his marriage on the rocks by blowing up at his now ex-wife, Canadian actress/activist Pamela Anderson, over her cameo in Borat.

Here's footage of a Romney rally in Michigan (where Rock endorsed the Republican candidate), with the heartland rocker singing Romney's official campaign jingle "Born Free":

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The Eurozone Is Still Doomed, Isn't It?

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 4:13 PM EDT

The stock market, a bit to my surprise, has reacted euphorically to today's official announcement that the European Central Bank will begin unlimited purchases of government bonds from economically depressed countries in the eurozone (though this policy applies only to countries that behave themselves and abide by Germany's austerity dictates — see yesterday's post for more on this). This is, of course, not the first time the euro has been rescued. We've been treated to a long procession of similar announcements before, and I frankly thought that investors had grown a little more jaded toward them by now. But apparently not. They still want to believe.

I've written enough about the eurozone's problems in the past that I'm not really in the mood for another long post on the subject of Europe's currency woes. Instead I'll do a short one and see if anyone tells me I'm wrong. Start with the following axiom:

You can't maintain persistent capital flow imbalances in a fixed exchange rate area.

This is Europe's fundamental problem. For years, capital has flowed out of the core (Germany etc.) and into the periphery (Greece, Spain, etc.), and this can't keep up forever. Basically, one of three things has to happen eventually:

  1. The fixed exchange rate area breaks up. In other words, Europe abandons the euro, the periphery countries readopt their old national currencies, and then promptly devalue them.
  2. The capital flow imbalances have to stop and turn around. This would require that Germany start running a trade deficit and the periphery countries start running trade surpluses.
  3. The capital flow imbalances have to be institutionalized permanently. This can happen either via permanent fiscal transfers from core to periphery (similar to the way the United States maintains permanent fiscal transfers from rich states to poorer states) or via central bank bailouts.

Let's take these one by one. European leaders swear on their mothers' graves that #1 won't happen. They say the euro is "irreversible." There's no sign at all that #2 will happen either. Germany has shown no willingness to abandon its cherished trade surplus, no willingness to tolerate higher inflation, and no willingness to pursue any other course that falls under the general rubric of "internal devaluation." And option #3 is off the table too. Europe's rich countries have demonstrated no desire to permanently subsidize their poorer neighbors, and their voters would revolt if they tried — something that's pretty understandable given the vast sums that would probably be required. Likewise, on the central bank front, today's ECB action is a temporary measure. No one thinks they can (or should) keep it up forever.

So we're in the same place we've always been. Either the eurozone breaks up or else capital flows between the core and the periphery have to be reversed. The former is supposedly off the table and the latter is politically impossible. So what gives first?

My guess is: the eurozone. That seems to be what Wall Street increasingly believes, too. Unless I'm missing something, of course. Am I?

Human Rights Group: Waterboarding More Widespread Than Acknowledged

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 3:58 PM EDT

Human Rights Watch has released a report suggesting that waterboarding, a form of torture that President George W. Bush's administration insisted was only practiced on three detainees, was more widespread than previously known.

The report mostly focuses on the counterterrorism relationship between Moammar Qaddafi's Libya and the Bush administration, in particular the US's practice of handing over suspected terrorists to Libyan authorities to be tortured. Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 14 former detainees, most of them ex-members of the militant Islamist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which resisted Qaddafi and had been designated a terrorist organization by the US government in 2004. A few ex-LIFG participants joined al Qaeda, but by 2009 several of the group's former members were publicly distancing themselves from Osama bin Laden's terror syndicate.

If true, the allegations made by the former detainees would mean that the Bush administration tortured more prisoners in American custody than previously acknowledged:

One former detainee, Mohammed Shoroeiya, provided detailed and credible testimony that he was waterboarded on repeated occasions during US interrogations in Afghanistan. While never using the phrase "waterboarding," he said that after his captors put a hood over his head and strapped him onto a wooden board, "then they start with the water pouring... They start to pour water to the point where you feel like you are suffocating." He added that, "they wouldn't stop until they got some kind of answer from me." He said a doctor was present during the waterboarding and that this happened numerous times, so many times he could not count. A second detainee in Afghanistan described being subjected to a water suffocation practice similar to waterboarding, and said that he was threatened with use of the board. A doctor was present during his suffocation-inducing abuse as well.

Bush administration officials and torture apologists had defended the use of waterboarding in part by arguing that its use was limited and that those who were subject to it—Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abd-Rahim Al-Nashiri—were among the most hardcore al Qaeda-affiliated detainees in US custody. (The claims about Zubaydah's connections to al Qaeda, in particular, turned out to be exaggerated.) Shoroeiya and the other detainee who described treatment similar to waterboarding, Khalid al-Sharif, were captured in Pakistan in 2003. The HRW report states that al-Sharif is now head of the Libyan National Guard. 

When approached by the New York Times about the interviews, the CIA had a very curious response:

Asked about the reported fourth case of waterboarding, a C.I.A. spokeswoman, Jennifer Youngblood, said, "The agency has been on the record that there are three substantiated cases in which detainees were subjected to the waterboarding technique under the program."

As Lawfare's Benjamin Wittes notes, Youngblood's construction leaves "open the possibility that there may have been unsubstantiated additional cases of waterboarding outside of the agency's formal high-value detainee interrogation and detention program." Anyone involved in such cases, however, may have little to worry about: In keeping with the president's stated policy of "looking forward" when it comes to torture, the Obama administration declined last week to prosecute individuals involved in the deaths of two detainees in US custody. Though the president banned the use of techniques like waterboarding his first few days in office, the fact that no one has been held accountable for their use means that a future president—like say Mitt Romney—could allow the United States to torture again.

Mitt Romney's Amazing Negative Convention Bounce

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 2:34 PM EDT

I thought I'd check in with Sam Wang today to see what he thought about Romney's convention bounce, and the news for Republicans isn't good. Not only does he think they got no bounce, he thinks they probably got a negative bounce. In terms of electoral votes, he figures they lost a bit, then gained a bit, and ended up about 10 EV short of where they started:

Fow what it's worth, I'd attribute this partly to a weak convention — Hurricane Isaac, mediocre speeches, Paul Ryan getting a little too carried away with his deceptive claims, Clint Eastwood stealing the limelight from Romney — but mostly to the fact that we simply have a very divided electorate these days, and conventions aren't likely to change too many minds. Add to that the fact that ad campaigns on both sides started running at gale force levels back in May, and the two candidates were pretty well defined long before Romney took the stage in Tampa. My guess is that Democrats will do a little better simply because they have better speakers and are running a tighter convention, but I doubt they're going to see much of a bounce either. We'll know by next week.

Lebanon's Cedar Trees Threatened by Climate Change

| Thu Sep. 6, 2012 2:23 PM EDT

A Lebanese cedar.

This story first appeared on the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

King Solomon used them in the construction of the temple that would bear his name, the Phoenicians used them to build their merchant ships, and the ancient Egyptians used their resin in the mummification process. But now Lebanon's cedar trees (Cedrus libani), described in the Scriptures as "the glory of Lebanon" and by the 19th-century French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine as "the most famous natural monuments in the world", face a new threat in the form of climate change.

Emblazoned on the national flag, currency, and the country's national airline, the cedar is the one great unifying emblem of this small Mediterranean nation. Centuries of deforestation have already seen the tree's 500,000 hectares decimated to its current 2,000 hectares, and it has been added to the IUCN's red list of threatened species, albeit at the lowest level of threat.

The cedars, some up to 3,000 years old and almost all of which are now protected, need a minimum amount of snow and rain for natural regeneration. But global warming has meant that Lebanon's cedars are being subjected to shorter winters and less snow, and the Lebanese government estimates that snow cover could be cut by 40 percent by 2040.