Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
As the postelection celebration (for the GOP) and cleanup (for the White House and the Democrats) continues, some political observers of a D bent are trying to push a silver-lining idea: Now that the Republicans fully control Congress, they will have to act more responsibly and demonstrate that they can govern and not just say no to everything.
Isn't it pretty to think so.
There is little evidence to support this lovely notion. The fundamental political dynamic of the Republican Party has not shifted; it's advance has been fueled by its Obama-hating tea party wing. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado will be two new GOP stars in the Senate, and they both hail from the far-right region of their party. Their model senator will likely be Ted Cruz of Texas, who on election night refused to endorse the newly reelected Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as Senate majority leader, signaling his intention to lead what might be called the Monkey Wrench Caucus. And in the House, the tea party club—which blocked House Speaker John Boehner's deal-making with the White House and pushed for government shutdowns and a debt ceiling crisis—will likely have a few more members when the new Congress convenes in January. The lesson the House tea partiers will probably draw: Obstruction pays off, big-time.
Sure, Republican lawmakers will be eager to pass bills, but their efforts won't be aimed at forging compromises with the president. Their legislation will likely target Obamacare and slash spending for social programs. They can be expected to fiercely block presidential appointments, especially judges. They might try to enact restrictions on abortion, and they will certainly seek to gut environmental regulations and climate change policies. Oh yes, and they will push tax cuts for the well-to-do. Such an agenda will be predicated on more confrontation and obstruction.
The idea that Republicans, emboldened by this election, will now negotiate more reasonably with the president seems like wishful thinking. At least one senior administration official assumes it is. When I asked him whether he was buying this happy talk, he laughed and grimaced simultaneously. "The problem hasn't been that Boehner doesn't want to govern," he said. "He can't, because of the crazies in his own party." With these election results, the official pointed out, there will be even more "crazies" for Boehner and McConnell to contend with.
"And just wait until Cruz is chairman of some subcommittee," he added with a sigh. A long sigh.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for." That's what Barack Obama proclaimed the night of Super Tuesday in 2008, borrowing the line from a 1980 June Jordan poem (without citing the poet). His aspirational emphasis on we was a foundation of the campaign that brought him to the White House. But it's the president's inability to find a way, while steering the nation through a series of crises, to turn that we into a reality that has brought him and his party to the darkness of Election Day 2014, when Republicans bolstered their tea-party-driven majority in the House and handily seized control of the Senate. Soon they will crown Mitch McConnell, who easily dispatched his Democratic challenger, as Senate majority leader. And imperiled GOP governors across the country—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan—vanquished their Democratic foes. Dems flamed out across the land—even as voters in red states approved initiatives to boost the minimum wage.
As president—as opposed to as candidate—Obama has not been able to engage fully the voting public. He has faced numerous obstacles—GOP obstructionism in Washington, global circumstances that yield one tough-to-resolve dilemma after another, and the rise of a profound unease and uncertainty (about now and about the future) among Americans. And Obama, like most two-term presidents, has had to confront the six-year itch that usually leads to a loss of House and Senate seats for the chief executive's party. Still, it is partly Obama's failure as the nation's storyteller-in-chief to keep the citizenry—especially his voters—involved in the ongoing political narrative that afforded the GOP, a party on the wrong side of the country's changing demographic tide and often at odds with public opinion (on the minimum wage, on gun safety, on key components of Obamacare), the chance to expand its political power.
Obama announcing Perez's nomination as labor secretary in 2013.
Whether or not the Democrats lose their Senate majority on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will need to show some fight after the midterm elections. If the Republicans triumph, Obama must do something to rally his discouraged supporters and show he won't spend his final two years as a truly lame-duck president. If the Dems manage to hold the Senate, the president, who has been pinned down by ISIS, Ebola, and other crises, will still be looking for a way to take back the political narrative and flex his political and policy muscle. Either way, he has a good option: nominate Tom Perez as attorney general.
The chatter in Washington is that Obama will announce his pick to replace the outgoing Eric Holder soon after Election Day, and Perez is on the White House's short list. Based on his resumé, Perez, who is now secretary of labor, is a reasonable choice. He's also one of the administration's most stalwart progressives.
Before taking charge of the Department of Labor in July 2013, Perez was the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The office had been eviscerated under George W. Bush, and Perez revitalized it by mounting voting rights cases and legal challenges to discrimination against gays and lesbians. During his tenure, the division opened a record-breaking number of investigations into police abuse and forged wide-ranging agreements to clean up various police forces accused of misconduct, no small matter given recent national debates and controversy sparked by the Ferguson episode and the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Using its authority to compel institutional changes in local law enforcement agencies that have engaged in systemic violations of Americans' constitutional rights, Perez's office has helped to overhaul the police department of Puerto Rico and New Orleans police force. (New Orleans police officers shot several civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) It has scrutinized the Miami and Seattle police departments and exposed the civil rights abuses of Arizona's notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Perez has long demonstrated a commitment to civil rights and a robust role for government. As a federal prosecutor during George H.W. Bush's administration, he won notable convictions of several neo-Nazis who had committed a string of murders designed to spark a race war. He later worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy before being elected to the Montgomery County council in Maryland and joining the board of an immigration rights group.
Since the financial meltdown, the Justice Department has faced criticism that it did not prosecute the Wall Streeters most responsible for triggering the catastrophic recession that hit in 2008. That wasn't Perez's call. But as chief of the civil rights division, he did target big banks by bringing enforcement actions against financial institutions for racial discrimination and for foreclosing on active-duty military service-members in violation of federal law. He created a fair lending unit within the division that went on to win a $335 million settlement against Bank of America and a $175 million settlement against Wells Fargo. These were the two largest fair-housing settlements in Justice Department history.
After being promoted to run the Labor Department, Perez also fired up that bureaucracy. As Politico recently noted,
It was one of the federal government's sleepier outposts for most of the dozen years that preceded Perez's arrival just over one year ago. But Labor has been newly energized under Perez. "Enforcement activity is up," Alfred Robinson Jr., who was an acting wage and hour administrator for the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration, noted earlier this month in a blog post. The department has also raised its public profile on issues like minimum wage and paid medical leave and lavished favorable attention on companies that give employees what Perez calls "voice."
So the guy has the legal, policy, and management chops to be attorney general. And if Obama nominated him, the president would send a resounding message that he remained committed to a progressive agenda.
Now for the politics: Perez is the son of exiled Dominican immigrants. Hispanic members of Congress, immigration reform advocates, and labor organizations have called on Obama to tap him for the nation's chief law enforcement job. On Friday, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 39 leading Latino outfits, sent the president a letter requesting he name Perez. Does the president want to disappoint key constituencies at a time when he could use all the friends he can get? Other names reported to be on the AG short list—Solicitor General Don Verrilli and US attorneys Loretta Lynch and Preet Bharara—will likely not elicit much grassroots enthusiasm.
On the other side, would Republicans, who are already on the outs with Latino voters over their opposition to immigration reform, fight this high-profile nomination and risk further alienating a growing voting bloc? Perhaps.
Perez has been a favorite target of the right for years. While he did win confirmation relatively easily when he was nominated to be assistant attorney general, with a 72-22 vote in the Senate, some GOPers had tried to stop him, citing Perez's support of immigration reform and (discredited) allegations concerning a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party.
But when Obama tapped Perez to be labor secretary, Republicans, as the White House expected, put up more resistance. Some in the party didn't fancy Perez's success revitalizing the civil rights division. And critics on the right claimed he had cut a corrupt deal to prevent a Minnesota housing discrimination case from reaching the Supreme Court. The case was odd and complicated: landlords had used a federal fair-housing law to oppose an effort by the city of St. Paul to enforce basic housing standards. The property owners had argued that a crackdown on horrible conditions at low-income housing sites discriminated against minority tenants.
Civil rights advocates feared that if this weird case landed before the highest court, Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow conservatives would use the occasion as an opportunity to gut the fair housing law. But city officials offered Perez a deal: they would drop their Supreme Court appeal, but only if the Justice Department declined to support a separate case filed against St. Paul by a whistleblower who alleged that the city had failed to use $180 million in federal funds meant to go to programs for lower-income residents. Perez consulted with the appropriate ethics and professional responsibility officials within the Justice Department—and the department official with authority over the whistleblower's case—and he received green lights from all before accepting the offer. (The city of St. Paul was required to agree to meet the spending obligations in question in the future.) The maneuver helped preserve an important civil rights law—which many conservatives have long wanted to weaken—and a bunch of Republicans were hopping mad and accused Perez of bribery.
Not surprisingly, Senate Republicans tried for months to stymie Perez's nomination as labor secretary. Eventually, he was put to a vote as part of a larger deal involving other appointments that had been delayed by GOP lawmakers. In July 2013, Perez was confirmed on a party-line vote of 54-46.
Should Obama appoint Perez, it's a good bet that Senate Republicans would see red and kick off a holy brawl. (In a taste of things to come, a Wall Street Journal columnist raised the St. Paul case again just this week.) But win or lose, a fight could help Obama. It would signify that the president is serious about advancing voting rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and fair lending—and it could well yield the extra benefit of reinforcing the negative attitudes Latinos have toward the Republican Party.
Presidents are defined in part by their battles—especially the ones they choose to wage. Perez presents Obama a chance to take a stand that could bolster his party's political prospects and boost his policy agenda, at a time when he surely has to do both.
Whitney Ball is one of the most important money people in the conservative movement. Though she receives little public notice, she controls DonorsTrust, a fund that over the years has distributed more than $400 million to underwrite a host of right-wing operations, including the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. A self-described libertarian, Ball set up this fund in 1999 as something of a cash box for wealthy conservatives who wanted to be sure that the money left behind when they died would not be used by liberal-minded heirs to finance their own favorite political causes. So before they expire, these millionaires and billionaires direct their assets to Ball's fund in the comfort of knowing that her group will responsibly manage their wealth in accordance with their ideological wishes. The priority for DonorsTrust, Ball said in a 2005 interview, is to "safeguard donor intent." But a few years ago, Ball became involved in an unseemly estate controversy, when her father, a lawyer in West Virginia, unethically handled the wills of three elderly people and Whitney Ball and her brother personally benefited from his misconduct, with nearly half a million dollars deposited in their bank accounts.
According to a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which conducted a disciplinary proceeding regarding the matter, in the mid-1990s attorney John Ball prepared wills for two octogenarian sisters, Vivian Michael and Gladys Davis, who were long-standing clients of his. The will he arranged for Michael bequeathed a car she owned to Ball, and the wills of both sisters left all their personal property to Ball's wife.
"To permit Mr. Ball to retain any of the proceeds of his unethical conduct would send a chilling message to the public," the court said.
In April 1998, four months after Michael died, Ball took Davis to a bank where she changed the beneficiary of an annuity she owned. That person had been her sister Vivian, but "while at the bank," according to the court ruling, "Ms. Davis designated Mr. Ball's two adult children, Whitney L. Ball and John P. Ball, Jr., as the new beneficiaries of the annuity." Ball, the court said, knew that Davis was going to make this change and had provided her with the addresses and Social Security numbers of his children. When Davis died three years later, the annuity was valued at $487,783.13. The money was distributed in equal amounts to Whitney and John Jr.
Ball, who was the executor of the wills for these two sisters, also arranged to receive a fee of 7.5 percent of the total value of the estates—though, the ruling noted, "the generally accepted maximum charge for administering an estate" was 5 percent. He pocketed nearly $1.6 million in fees for handling both estates. The wills he had drafted left money to the West Virginia University Foundation and stated that as executor Ball would help oversee the donations of these funds and be allowed to charge the foundation a fee. He netted $337,000 for this, after negotiating with the foundation an annual fee of 1 percent of the $18,400,000 the sisters left to the school. The court ruling notes that Ball also set up a will for another state resident who wanted to leave the bulk of his assets to the West Virginia University Foundation, with Ball awarding himself a 7.5 percent fee. (The court did not determine if Ball actually collected that fee.)
In 2006, after the county bar association had examined Ball's handling of these wills, the state Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the "evidence in this case clearly established that Mr. Ball drafted three wills in which he gave himself excessive fees as an executor, drafted two wills that improperly conveyed property to himself and his wife, and assisted in changing a client's annuity to benefit" his children.
This past summer, Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky and a potential 2016 presidential wannabe, was the GOP's It Girl. The New York Times Magazine splashed his mug on the cover and asked, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" It noted that Paul possessed a "supple mind" and was a "preternaturally confident speaker." Washington Post political prognosticator Chris Cillizza pronounced Paul the "most interesting voice in the GOP right now," andPolitico gave him the No. 1 spot on its list of the 50 "most important people changing American politics through the power of ideas." When Paul, an ophthalmologist, trekked to Guatemala as part of a group of doctors providing free care to indigent patients, he was accompanied by a documentary crew, two political ad makers, and reporters from the Post and NBC News. And last week, Time magazine ran a cover story on Paul, anointing him, "The Most Interesting Man in Politics."
As this government-bashing tea partier moves toward a White House bid, journalists scrutinize his every wiggle and whisper. But one core component of his political personality has largely escaped exploration: The senator is close to being a full-blown conspiracy theorist.
In 2010, before winning his Senate seat, Paul sat for an interview with Luke Rudkowski, a libertarian YouTube personality who specializes in quizzing political leaders about the plot to establish a "one-world socialist government."* Rudkowski asked what Paul knew of the Bilderberg Group, a collection of government and business leaders whose annual conference is a favorite target of conspiracy-mongers. Paul replied, "Only what I've learned from Alex Jones." That's right: Alex Jones, the radio host who claims that Bilderberg is a key part of a global plot to create a "scientific dictatorship" that will exterminate the "useless eaters," a.k.a. 80 percent of the human population.
Paul described the group to Rudkowski in unequivocally Jonesian terms, as "very wealthy people, who I think manipulate and use government to their own personal advantage. They want to make it out like world government will be good for humanity. But guess what? World government is good for their pocketbook." The previous year, Paul had appeared on Jones' radio show, noting that he had watched his host's videos and expressing support for the effort to "expose people who are promoting this globalist agenda." (In turn, Jones urged his listeners to send money to Paul's Senate campaign.)
It wasn't until after reaching the Senate in 2011 that Paul clammed up about the Bilderbergers. In 2012, Rudkowski confronted Paul on a Washington street, challenging his endorsement of Mitt Romney, who'd attended Bilderberg sessions. The senator walked on as an aide tried to shoo Rudkowski away. When, earlier this year, the conservative Washington Free Beacon asked a top Paul aide if the senator had ever bought into the Bilderberg conspiracy theory, he jokingly dodged the question, saying Paul believes "Build a Burger would be a great name for a fast-food chain."
Jones' show has also been a hub of the so-called truther movement, which claims that the 9/11 attacks were mounted or permitted by the US government. During Paul's 2010 Senate campaign, it was revealed that his campaign spokesman was a truther (as well as a death-metal musician with racist and satanic tendencies). When a Kentucky newspaper asked if Paul agreed with this view, his campaign replied that it was a "complicated situation" with "truth on both sides."
Paul had his own conspiracy theory about 9/11. In speeches in 2008 and 2009, he warned about the influence of military contractors and zeroed in on Halliburton, the corporation that Dick Cheney headed before becoming vice president. Cheney, he noted, opposed the advance of American troops into Baghdad when he was defense secretary during the first Gulf War. Yet as veep he changed his mind because, Paul explained, the war would benefit Halliburton with a "billion-dollar no-bid contract."
Critics have long questioned the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq. But Paul's claim that a leader of his own party sacrificed American lives not for a misguided view of national security, but for naked greed—practically a charge of treason—was remarkable. After Mother Jones reported on his statements earlier this year, the senator backpedaled. When he was asked by ABC News if he really believed Cheney had been motivated by financial ties to Halliburton, Paul replied, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives."
Paul also has embraced one of the conspiracy theories promoted by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul: that leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico are seeking to merge their countries into a socialist megastate that would issue the "Amero" currency to replace US and Canadian dollars and the Mexican peso. (Anti-feminist campaigner Phyllis Schlafly and Jerome Corsi, who led the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, are among the key proponents of this idea.)
At an appearance for his father's 2008 presidential campaign in Bozeman, Montana, Rand Paul was asked what steps his dad would take to thwart the scheme to impose a North American superstate. The first thing to do, he said, was "publicizing that it's going on" and pushing Congress to "stop it." He insisted the Amero push was "a real thing" but cautioned, "If you talk about it like it's a conspiracy, they'll paint you as a nut. It's not a conspiracy, they're out in the open about it. I guarantee it's one of their long-term goals—to have one sort of borderless mass continent." He did not specify who "they" were.
Asked about these comments after entering the Senate in 2011, Paul hedged: "It's not a matter of what I believe. It's just a matter of whether or not there are viewpoints who believe that joining together as a North American Union" would be a good thing. But, the interviewer shot back, who's actually calling for that? "A lot of writers," Paul answered. "You can do an internet search."
Before he was a senator, Paul freely swam in dark conspiratorial waters. After being elected, he shut up. So did he not believe all that stuff? Or did they get to him? Perhaps Rand Paul fears that many voters cannot handle the truth—his truths—and that the only way he can reach the White House is via, yes, a conspiracy of silence.
* Editor's note: After this story was published, Luke Rudkowski contacted Mother Jones via Twitter to insist that even though he is described on several websites (such as this one) as a journalist who grills politicians about their plans to implement "one-world socialist government,"he has not used that particular phrase. "I said one world order before way back years ago but not socialist," he says. He also says he is not a libertarian.