2012 - %3, October

PHOTO: Georgia GOP Goes Full Bircher

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 11:48 AM EDT

The choice is up to you, comrade!

Camden County, Georgia, don't need none of that smart-growth communism. That's the apparent message behind this billboard, flagged by Mother Jones reader and Camden County resident John S. Myers. "Nov. 6 You Decide America's Fate," the billboard's copy blares, with a US flag-and-Statue-of-Liberty collage pasted on its right wing... and a hammer and sickle emblazoned on the left. "VOTE REPUBLICAN," it concludes, with a smaller message below: "Paid for by the Camden County Republican Party."

Anyone who's shuttled back and forth on the byways linking North Florida to Georgia and South Carolina has probably seen dozens of billboards like this, but rarely do they come directly from the GOP. It could be another sign of the party's rightward march into Bircher and birther territory. Just last week, a Virginia county Republican party came under fire for distributing Photoshopped images depicting President Obama "as a witch doctor, caveman and thug."

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Obama Apparently Has Pact With Devil in Swing States

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:55 AM EDT

The latest results from the Washington Post/ABC News poll are pretty interesting. Not because they tell us anything especially new — Obama is doing well in swing states — but because the magnitude of his lead is so astonishing. I did a bit of quick back-of-the-envelope arithmetic and concluded that Obama and Romney are probably dead tied in all the non-swing states put together. But Obama leads 52-41% in swing states. That's a difference of 11 points between swing states and non-swing states.

Are Obama's ads really that much better than Romney's? Is his early start in the ground game paying off this big? Or what? This sure seems like a surprisingly massive difference.

The madcap pollsters at the Post also continued this year's big new fad of asking a whole bunch of bizarro questions about the candidates: Who would you rather have as ship's captain during a storm, who would you rather invite home to dinner, who would you go on an overnight camping trip with, who would you rather have babysit your kids, whose music playlist would you rather listen to, who would you rather see as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars? Poor Mitt did badly on all of them except for the babysitting question.

However, in yet another indication of liberal bias in polling this year, they didn't ask who you'd rather have do your taxes, or who you'd rather have as a 401(k) investment advisor, or who you'd rather hire to manage your hedge fund. I bet Romney would have done pretty well in those categories.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 1, 2012

Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:18 AM EDT

U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, "Gimlets" 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25 Infantry Division engage targets during a live fire training exercise Sept. 19, 2012, at Pohakuloa Training Area, on Hawaii. U.S. Army photo.

The Drone Unknowns

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:15 AM EDT

We don't know how many civilians are killed in drone strikes, but we do know the US government is almost certainly wrong about it. 

That's one conclusion you could draw from a report on the impact of the use of drones in targeted killing by the the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict*, released Sunday, a year to the day that radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. While the US government has maintained that few if any non-militants are killed in drone strikes, reports about how targeting decisions are made, the realities of airborne warfare, and the basic fallibility of humankind call the Obama administration's claims of precision into question. There's also the problem that some behaviors which might seem to indicate "guilt" out of context, like carrying a gun, are common in the areas being targeted. "A civilian carrying a gun, which is a cultural norm in parts of Pakistan, does not know if such behavior will get him killed by a drone," the report notes. While "personality" strikes are aimed at specific individuals, the government also conducts "signature strikes" which hit anonymous individuals on the basis of a "pattern of behavior."

Because the government has yet to even officially acknowledge the existence of the CIA's targeted killing program or its military counterpart in the Joint Special Operations Command however, it's hard to evaluate the Obama administration's claims about avoiding civilian harm. The report notes that the dearth of first-hand information from the areas most frequently targeted by drone strikes means that determining who is a "militant" and who is not, particularly after the fact, is very difficult. That's why third-party estimates, which cast serious doubt on the government's assessments, vary so widely, and why the Obama administration itself may not even know how many civilians are being killed. Here's a chart from the report:

 

The report points out that the impact of drone attacks on civilians cannot be measured by deaths alone. "[O]ne civilian death or injury is enough to dramatically alter families' lives. In Pakistan, families are often large, and their well being is intricately connected among many members. The death of one member can create long-lasting instability, particularly if a breadwinner is killed." Even if no civilians are killed, the report states that property damage related to strikes can drastically alter the lives of those impacted. "A house is often a family’s greatest financial asset. In northern Pakistan, homes are often shared by multiple families, compounding the suffering and hardship caused when a house is destroyed." That's to say nothing of the psychological effects of living in a place where you never know if fire will rain down from the skies. The study quotes Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who says that "I have heard Pakistanis speak about children in the tribal areas who become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone."

The report recommends that the Obama administration empanel an "interagency task force" to "evaluate covert drone operations" with regard to civilian harm, oversight, and accountability. The ongoing popularity of drones as a method of fighting terrorism without putting American lives at risk, however, gives the administration little political incentive to publicly reevaluate its drone policy, despite the fact that its being shrouded in secrecy denies Americans the ability to make informed value judgements about whether it does more harm than good—or even how much harm or good they actually do. 

*An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the producers of the report as the Center for Civilians in Conflict at Columbia University.

"Homeland": Lots of Tick-Tick, Not Much Boom

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:01 AM EDT

It’s hard to tell how clever Showtime's Homeland—whose second season started last Sunday—actually is. One early scene in the season premiere showcases the range of acceptable views for cable news pundits on bombing Iran: A leftist describes the logic of Israel bombing Iran to stop Iran from bombing Israel as "maddening"; a "centrist" opines that military action is sometimes necessary; a right-winger notes that "the Arab religion doesn't value human life the way we do." A fourth voice points out that Iranians are not Arabs.

The scene does not take place on cable news, however. It is an argument between children at a prestigious Quaker private school where prominent government officials send their children (a clear stand-in for Sidwell Friends). Is this setup mere exposition, or a biting satire of a glib media conversation about war that never rises above the level of an argument between children?

Mattress Buying Is Very Annoying

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 9:31 AM EDT

I agree with Rohin Dhar that the mattress industry is rotten. However, not because of this:

The top four companies (Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Tempur-Pedic) make up 59% of the industry revenue. The top fifteen mattress companies make up a whopping 81% of the market. Low levels of competition lead to consumers paying obscenely high prices for mattresses.

Is this unusual? It doesn't sound all that unusual to me. Four companies that control about half the market and a dozen that control 80% of the market? I don't know what's average for national industries like this (or even how you'd calculate "average"), but isn't this pretty average sounding?

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

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Bloggingheads: Corn and Wright Discuss the 47 Percent Story

Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:54 AM EDT

On Friday's Bloggingheads, David Corn and The Wright Show's Robert Wright discussed what in God's name Mitt Romney was thinking when he made his now-infamous 47 percent comments. Corn also explained how he got the scoop. Was it his biggest moment as a journalist? "There's nothing I've done that has reached this many people this fast."

P.S. Wright also compares Corn to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

New Poll: Mitt's Got a Serious Swing State Problem

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 7:56 AM EDT

Veteran politicos and journalists who've done a few tours on the campaign trail like to say that, in a tight race, you shouldn't put much faith in national presidential polls. It's the state-level polls, especially those in the handful of fiercely fought battleground states, that really matter.

By that measure, President Obama has opened up a sizable lead over Mitt Romney with five weeks until Election Day. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama leads Romney 52 percent to 41 percent among likely voters in swing states, which include Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Nationwide, 49 percent of likely voters say they'd vote for Obama in November, while 47 percent said the same for Romney.

Obama's swing state advantage in this latest poll doesn't appear to be a fluke. Last week, Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News polls showed Obama ahead by 10 points in Ohio and nine in Florida. RealClearPolitics' polling averages in the top nine swing states show Obama ahead in all of them, albeit by single-digit margins.

These latest swing state polls suggest that Romney's path to 270 electoral college votes is slimmer than ever. Romney needs to win the bulk of the top nine swing states—Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Nevada—to have a shot at prevailing on November 6.

Obama's lead could be a result of his campaign's advertising and ground-game advantage in those key states. According to a recent Wesleyan Media Project analysis, Obama's campaign and his Democratic allies out-advertised Romney and various GOP groups by more than 2-to-1 between late August and early September, running 40,000 broadcast and cable ads compared to Romney and the GOP's 18,000. That disparity is evident in battleground states. Between April and early September, Democrats ran more ads in Las Vegas, Cleveland, Denver, Orlando, Reno, Norfolk, Tampa, and Richmond—all major media markets in swing states—according to Wesleyan.

And the Obama team is outpacing the Romney campaign in the ground game as well. In Ohio, for instance, the Obama campaign has 96 field offices and the Romney campaign has 36.

Here's more from the ABC News/Washington Post poll, on the candidates and the issues:

Obama continues to hold double-digit advantages when it comes to being the more friendly and likable of the two, and as the candidate more voters trust on social issues, women's issues and terrorism. He maintains a big lead when it comes to empathizing with people facing economic problems. And he has a 10-point edge when it comes to handling "an unexpected major crisis," the first time the question has been asked this year.

He and Romney are judged more evenly on some other key issues, including the deficit, health care and Medicare. Romney does not have significant leads in any of the areas tested in the poll, but he has a numerical edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit, 48 percent to 45 percent, among all voters.

On the economy—still the dominant issue in the campaign—voters render a split verdict, with the two tied at 47 percent.

The state of the economy and dissatisfaction over the country's direction continue to be steep obstacles to the president's reelection—but Obama benefits from recent improvements in voters' moods, even if it is mainly Democrats who are feeling better about things.

More voters still give Obama negative ratings for his handling of the economy, but the number of approvers has edged up to 47 percent, its highest level in nearly two years.

Photos: Highlights From Nashville's Americana Music Fest

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Ask five badge-holders of the 13th Americana Music Festival and Conference "What is Americana?" and you'll get at least six different answers.

The more than 100 acts at the annual mid-September Nashville event covered a wide spectrum. You've got your '60s-vintage Nashville veterans, singer-songwriters from the '70s, new traditional and alt-country heroes of the '80s and '90s, and innovative new artists who blend and carry this rich inheritance forward. The stock-in-trade for Americana artists is excellent songwriting, stellar instrumental ability, and big-hearted, genuine delivery.

John Hiatt performs at the Cannery Ballroom. The 13th Americana Music Festival and Conference, September 12-15, 2012, Nashville, TN.John Hiatt at the Cannery Ballroom, Nashville.

Frank Turner's Talent: Turning Strangers Into Friends

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Frank Turner rocks out Saturday night at New York City's Webster Hall.

Greg Walker was sweating bullets. As the longtime tour bus driver for Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, he'd survived his fair share of long nights and rock and roll hijinks. But he'd never been onstage. Tonight that would change: Turner had asked his trusted chaffeur to jump in on harmonica for the final number. "And that's the problem," Walker told me on Saturday night, as he nervously lit another cigarette outside New York City's Webster Hall. "I don't play harmonica."

He needn't have worried. Walker's debut was a smashing success; he huffed and puffed with great aplomb. Not that it mattered much. For Turner, the technical execution of the harmonica solo was far less important than the chance to lodge a stick of dynamite into the wall that separates artistes from their blue-collar crews and rockstar from audience member. You see, Turner doesn't care much for walls. Since the launch of his solo career in 2006, the 30-year-old British punk-rocker-turned-folk-rocker has built many of his songs around themes of radical inclusivity: He writes songs about the value of friendship, about uniting the unruly rabble, about pacifying class warfare, and about the importance of not simply being a spectator in life. If he's going to play music in front of hundreds of New Yorkers, why shouldn't the bus driver?

Bus driver Greg Walker debuts on the harmonica.  Tim McDonnell/Mother JonesBus driver Greg Walker on the harmonica. Tim McDonnell/Mother JonesThe full depth of Turner's songbook was on display Saturday, in the first of two NYC shows capping off a US tour in advance of his newest release, Last Minutes & Lost Evenings, a "hand-picked" CD+DVD compilation of his last six years' choicest tunes. If Turner is new to you, Last Minutes... (out this week) is a bangup place to start, consisting of the backbone of the Turner canon to date. The songs deal plainly with the triumphs and tribulations of urban life as a young adult: loneliness and the euphoria of reversing it, helping friends who go off the rails, confronting fears of aging and wasted time, and, of course, learning how to fight off a raging hangover and find the right bus on Sunday morning after you've crashed in some completely foreign part of town.

Tim McDonnell/Mother JonesTim McDonnell/Mother Jones

One of the best tracks on the record (and live) is "Long Live the Queen," a true story about a friend who is losing a battle with terminal illness and who convinces Turner to bust her out of the hospital for one final drunken hurrah in the streets of London. Behind me in the audience, a pale, emaciated woman with close-shaved pate sobbed and sang along. Indeed, the audience knew at least as many of the song lyrics as Turner did—and in some cases more.