2009 - %3, February

Obama Admin. Turns Down Opportunity to Begin Improving Death Penalty

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 4:36 PM EST

Here's Barack Obama in 1999:

"I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. We need to put more resources into the Public Defender's office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you've got the right person before you consider the death penalty."

And here he is in 2004:

"I support capital punishment for heinous crimes. I cannot, however, support the current system which is rife with error and lacks sufficient safeguards against wrongful convictions."

He said similar things in same during the campaign. And yet, when invited by an anti-death penalty group to begin changing the way capital punishment cases are tried in this country, Obama's Justice Department decided instead to fight for the status quo.

The solicitor general's office has turned down a request by the Innocence Project to disavow a Bush Administration stance on prisoners' access to DNA evidence in postconviction proceedings. As a result, on March 2, Neal Katyal will make his debut as deputy solicitor general by arguing before the Supreme Court in support of the state of Alaska's view that prisoners have no constitutional right to obtain DNA evidence that might help them prove their innocence -- even if the prisoners pay for the DNA testing themselves.

I share Brian's disappointment on this. What an inexplicable and confusing shame. (Final note: For an enlightening story on lethal injection's bizarre history, click here.)

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Cap and Trade

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 4:17 PM EST
Hey, guess what?  I've got a piece on cap-and-trade in the latest issue of Mother Jones.  You should go read it.  It's designed to explain cap-and-trade for people who kinda sorta know what it is but are still a little vague on the details.  The basic structure is "Ten Things You Should Know About Cap-and-Trade," and here's #10:

10. It's not a panacea. "Cap and trade is just a tool," says the NRDC's [Dale] Bryk. It might be the backbone of any effective long-term carbon reduction policy, but it's not the only tool we need. Or even necessarily the best. If you want to improve vehicle mileage, for example, raising federal fuel-efficiency standards is "much cheaper for consumers than raising the price of gas," she says. Michael O'Hare, a public-policy professor at UC-Berkeley, emphasizes the need for the government to take a more active role than just setting carbon prices. Sure, higher energy prices might motivate people to change their behavior. "But," he points out, "even if I want to take the tram, I can't do it if there's no tram."

In other words, command and control will remain absolutely necessary. As will taxes. Even with a well-designed cap-and-trade plan in place, we'll need tougher efficiency standards, higher fuel taxes, more sensible land-use policies, green research programs, and plenty more. But in the same way that cutting calories is the core of any weight loss no matter which fad diet you follow, raising the price of carbon is the core of any climate plan. With luck, this could be the year we finally figure that out.

Bottom line: cap-and-trade is just one piece of an overall energy/environment policy.  But it's a good piece!  And it helps make all the other pieces work better.  Read the whole thing for more.

On an inside-baseball note, I wrote this article back in October, but thanks to the miracle of print magazine lead times it's only now hitting the stands.  My hope was that this would be good timing, because Barack Obama would be introducing his cap-and-trade plan in March and everyone would be eager to learn what it all meant.  In the event, the stimulus bill and budget have pushed everything else off the stage for the moment, but with any luck cap-and-trade will still make its debut sometime soon. So be prepared!  Read all about it now!

(But stay away from the comments.  Yeesh.  Some wingnut organization has apparently already gotten wind of the piece and sent its slathering hordes over to let us all know that GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX!  You have been warned.)

Chart of the Day - 2.23.2009

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 2:52 PM EST
The changes here are mostly pretty small, but Gallup reports that Barack Obama's approval rating has increased over the past month among Democrats and Independents, but dropped among Republicans.  The drop is especially big among conservative Republicans — which is hardly a surprise.  If I spent all day listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News, I'd probably think Obama was a herald of the end times too.

Burris' Missed Campaign Lessons

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 2:34 PM EST
It's often observed that campaigns are fundamentally flawed ways of selecting our elected officials because the skills needed to campaign well are not the same skills needed to govern well. There is some overlap, of course, but George W. Bush's two terms and at least half the members of the House of Representatives are evidence enough that this adage mostly true.

But there are a couple things a politician and his staff learn over the course of a campaign that come in handy once in office: message control, disaster response, even basic PR. These aren't skills that help a politician govern well, but they are skills that help him stay out of trouble and keep him from embarassing his party. As Jason Zengerle notes in TNR, Roland Burris illustrates this perfectly. If Burris had gone through an election for the seat he currently occupies, he and his staff would be far better equipped to handle the almost daily mini-crises that seem to emerge around him. And President Obama wouldn't have to compete with his Senate successor for airtime.

Of course, if Burris had gone through an election for the seat, all of his funny business in Blago-land likely would have come out and he wouldn't have been elected in the first place. Not that that's such a bad thing, either.

Gobbledegook From the Treasury

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 2:23 PM EST
Felix Salmon ran the latest missive from the Treasury through a readability calculator and says that it scored only 15 out of 100.  Funny.  Except that I ran the passage through the same calculator he used and it actually produced a score of 0.  Ka-ching!  As near as I can tell, that means it's unintelligible even if you have a PhD in finance.

Anyway, the Treasury's statement is all about further capital injections into banks, and Felix takes his best shot at deciphering it:

I'm not sure I understand this myself, but the government here seems to be coming up with ever-more-obscure forms of capital which it can inject into the banks. We're relatively familiar with preferred shares, common equity, and warrants to buy common equity; now we must add to that list this new animal: mandatory convertible preferred shares, which had a brief moment in the sun back when banks were raising private capital rather than having to go to the government for bailouts.

....What's weird is that the government starts off talking about capital being "in the form of mandatory convertible preferred shares", which implies that those shares are capital, before then going on to say they will "be converted into common equity shares only as needed over time to keep banks in a well-capitalized position" — which implies that they're not really capital unless and until they convert.

Clear as mud, right?  And even the financial press doesn't seem to agree on what message is being sent by all this gobbledegook.  The Wall Street Journal said the Treasury's statement was designed to "quell fears about the viability of major U.S. banks," while the New York Times called it an "unexpectedly assertive" statement that "amounted to a roadmap under which the federal government could, if it wants to, demand a major and possibly a controlling stake in systemically important banks like Citigroup and Bank of America."

So which is it?  My take is this: the Obama brain trust understands that they're almost certainly going to have to nationalize one or two big banks sometime in the next few months.  So they need to prepare the ground for that.  At the same time, fear of nationalization is bad for everyone, so they're also doing their best to publicly claim that it's the farthest thing from their minds and they remain fully dedicated to the idea of keeping the banking system in private hands.  That's a pretty tough tightrope to walk in plain English, so they really have no choice except to resort to Greenspanian gobbledegook.  We should probably expect more of this in the future.

Nate Silver's Computer Only Works On Politics

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 2:12 PM EST

It's actually kind of nice to know that the guy is fallible. After correctly predicting just about every aspect of the 2008 elections, if statistical superhero Nate Silver had gotten the Oscars right too, he might have been burned as a witch by an angry, frightened populace. But as Kevin mentioned last night, Silver got two of his six predictions wrong: Penelope Cruz beat Taraji P. Henson for Best Supporting Actress, while Sean Penn prevailed over Mickey Rourke. Silver has posted a lengthy bit of navel-gazing over at 538.com, and while he attributes his supercomputer's error on the Supporting Actress call to the "unusual circumstance" surrounding the shift of Kate Winslett's Reader role to the lead category, his explanation of the Penn win is a little less, well, technical:

In the Best Actor category, we might also have learned a thing or two last night. Namely, it probably doesn't help to be a huge jackass (like Mickey Rourke) to all of your peers when those peers are responsible for deciding whether you receive a major, life-altering award.

Darn those jackasses: they're always screwing up the computer models! Well, we forgive you, Nate, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb if I say that if you had to get something wrong, we're glad it was the Oscars and not the election.

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The Sin City Express

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:33 PM EST
Is Senator Straight Talk still telling lies about all the rail money in the stimulus bill being earmarked for a train between LA and Las Vegas?  Yes he is.  Of course, you may recall that he was also happy to lie endlessly about Sarah Palin rejecting an earmark for the Bridge to Nowhere during last year's campaign, so I guess this is no big surprise.  Dogs don't change their spots.

Faking a Filibuster

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:12 PM EST
Over the past couple of years it's become a liberal rallying cry that if Republicans want to filibuster every bill, then Harry Reid ought to make them carry out a real filibuster, Jimmy Stewart style.  Make 'em talk.  Make 'em read from the phone book.  Put it all on CSPAN and let the American public see what GOP obstructionism is really all about.

But Ryan Grim, in an interesting piece over at the Huffington Post today, concludes that it's not going to happen.  Apparently Reid's office has studied the history of the filibuster and says that although at least one Republican senator can be forced to stay on the Senate floor to prevent a vote, he can't be forced to talk.  Bob Dove, who worked as a Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001, agrees:

As both Reid's memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

The presiding officer would then be required to call the roll. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over. At no point would the obstructing Republican be required to defend his position, read from the phone book or any of the other things people associate with the Hollywood version of a filibuster.

....Since [Strom Thurmond in 1957], says Dove, the only time the majority tried to jam a bill through the Senate without having 60 votes ahead of time ended in failure.

Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was majority leader in 1988, when Democrats controlled 54 seats and wanted to push through campaign finance reform. But Republican minority leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming was easily able to block it by sitting on the Senate floor and occasionally noting the absence of a quorum, thwarting a vote...."It was almost a farce," says Dove. "The bottom line is the bill never passed."

Back to square one, then: get rid of the filibuster entirely.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Chatting with Michael Pollan

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:31 PM EST
In our current issue, we interview Michael Pollan, the man of the moment in liberal food policy.  One way to get people to eat better, he says, is to team up with allies whose economic interests happen to line up with healthier eating:

MJ: Does WIC [the Women, Infants, and Children program] still specify that you buy dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops — fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

Hooray for California!  But the reality is, this is how things get done.  Read the rest of the interview for more interesting food stuff.

Jindal vs. Crist: A Battle for the Ideological Heart of the GOP

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 10:56 AM EST

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) is a hardline conservative who opposes the stimulus, going so far as to turn down a small portion of Louisiana's stimulus funds. Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) is a moderate who supports the stimulus, going so far as to campaign on its behalf with President Obama. (Crist is good on the environment, too.)

Both Jindal and Crist are preparing themselves for 2012 and 2016. Sunday, they appeared on the morning talk shows and the contrast between them couldn't have been clearer. Here's a summary from MSNBC:

In dueling interviews, we saw one governor -- Bobby Jindal -- rooted mostly in a conservative ideology that plays very well in the South and with the base, but not in some other parts of the country and not with many swing voters. "I think we just have a fundamental disagreement here. I don't think the best way to do that is for the government to tax and borrow more money," Jindal said. "I think the best thing they could've done, for example, was to cut taxes on things like capital gains, the lower tax brackets, to get the private sector spending again." And we saw another governor -- Charlie Crist -- rooted in what he claims is pragmatism in a key presidential battleground state. "I'm a Florida Republican. And in the Florida way, we work together in a bipartisan fashion to do what's right for the people. That's really what it's all about," he said. This has become perhaps the key question for the Republican Party: In which direction does it want to go? The GOP in the short term will divide on this question: Is the government more of a problem or more of a problem-solver?

Republican primary voters value ideology over pragmatism. General election swing voters value pragmatism over ideology. So which governor is better positioned for a run for the White House? The success (or failure) of the stimulus will almost certainly decide.