2010 - %3, August

Dems Will Lose House—Unless They Don't

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 10:39 AM EDT

Today's top headline at Politico: "Democrats privately fear House prospects worsening." An excerpt:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover — or that anything resembling the White House’s promise of a “recovery summer” is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe — such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 — are in real trouble.

In two close races, endangered Democrats are even running ads touting how they oppose their leadership.

Sounds damn grim for the Ds. But--wait!--here's the headline from the National Journal's "Hotline": "Why Democrats Will Keep the House." An excerpt:

House Republicans are measuring the drapes in preparation for big gains in the lower chamber, convinced that Minority Leader John Boehner is going to become the next Speaker of the House. On a macro level, that wouldn't be a bad guess -- Democrats are saddled with bad polls and unpopular leaders, and the national mood wants a change from the status quo.

But the Democratic apocalypse isn't guaranteed just yet. In fact, senior Democratic strategists say they're not only likely to keep the House, but they believe the GOP won't come close to gaining the 39 seats they need to take over.

That's not to say Republicans have no chance of taking back the House. Indeed, for every argument Democrats make about their strengths, Republicans have a counterargument. But Democrats have a compelling case.

The piece goes on to detail "four reasons Democrats shouldn't be counted out of the majority, and republicans shouldn't start counting their chickens, quite yet."

What does this show you? That sometimes it's hard in Washington to concoct conventional wisdom.

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Dems to Lose 7 Senate Seats?

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 10:23 AM EDT

That's the latest prediction from wunderkind pollster Nate Silver, who just made the move over to his new perch at The New York Times' website. A loss of six or seven Senate seats would leave the Democrats with a slim majority of 52 or 53 seats, nowhere near the filibuster-breaking supermajority of 60. And you can all but rule out the passage of any new, comprehensive legislation—i.e., health insurance reform, financial regulatory reform—if Silver's projection becomes reality this fall. After all, Democrats, with a near-supermajority, could barely scrape together two or three GOP votes on major legislation this spring and summer; there's no chance they'll find seven or eight votes if Silver's right.

It could be even worse for Dems. There's a 20 percent chance, Silver found, that the Dems will lose 10 or more seats, possibly putting them back in the minority. 

When it comes to watching the ongoing Senate elections, Silver writes that it's not the headline-grabbing campaigns—Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle in Nevada, Barbara Boxer vs. Carly Fiorina in California—worth watching. Instead, he suggests keeping a close eye on some of the less-covered races:

Of late, the source of the Democrats’ problems has not necessarily been in high-profile Senate races where the Republicans have nominated inexperienced but headline-grabbing candidates, like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky (although the model regards both Ms. Angle and Mr. Paul as slight favorites). Instead, it has been in traditional swing states like Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The last time the Democratic nominee in Ohio, Lee Fisher, held the lead in any state poll, for example, was in June. Representative Joe Sestak, the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania, has not led any poll there since May, and Robin Carnahan of Missouri has not held a lead since January. The Democratic nominee in New Hampshire, Representative Paul W. Hodes, has not led in any of 17 public polls in New Hampshire against his likely Republican opponent, Kelly Ayotte.

The Democratic candidate lags by single digits in each of these states, and victories there remain entirely possible (perhaps especially so in New Hampshire, where the Republicans have yet to hold their primary). But, at a time when they need to be drawing closer to their opponents as the clock ticks toward Nov. 2, these Democrats instead find themselves falling somewhat further behind. We are now close enough to Election Day that a deficit of as few as 5 percentage points may be difficult to overcome, especially in races where relatively few undecided voters remain.

The odds of the Democrats adding a Senate seat, even regaining their 60-vote majority, according to Silver? Three percent. As we head toward the Labor Day holiday, after which general-election campaigning hits high gear and voters really start to tune in, the Democrats need a pitch-perfect strategy, some good economic news, and a lot of luck if they're going to avoid the kind of result Silver's predicting.

What Does the Alaska Senate Race Mean for Climate?

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 9:52 AM EDT

I've been plenty hard on Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her problematic stance on climate change. She wants credit for acknowledging that climate change is a problem, but at the same time has proved the most effective and aggressive senator when it comes to undermining actual action on the issue.

After Tuesday's unexpected upset by tea party candidate Joe Miller, Murkowski might be on her way out (though there's talk of a third-party run). You have to wonder what this means for the climate (and, thus, the fate of poor melting Alaska). While Murkowski acknowledged that the changing climate imperiled her state, Miller's not so sure there's a warming issue at all. While plenty of Republicans acknowledge that the planet is getting hotter but insist it's not because of human activity, Miller thinks the problem "may not even exist." He actually thinks that "the trend in more recent years has been towards cooler temperatures" (which is, of course, just not true).

Here's the full explanation from his issues page:

Alaskans face some of the highest energy costs in the nation, despite being near tremendous natural resources. We need to power our homes and businesses at a reasonable cost. For this and other reasons, I strongly oppose the unconstitutional Cap and Trade legislation. The science supporting manmade climate change is inconclusive. Nothing typifies that more than the metamorphosis in terminology being used. A few years ago, the dire warnings coming from Al Gore and others all spoke of "Global Warming." The term "Greenhouse Gas" itself conjures up images of the unnatural heat found in a manmade environment. However, since the trend in more recent years has been towards cooler temperatures, those (like Senator Murkowski and others) pushing for cap and trade and other carbon emission reducing legislation have had to change their terminology to “Climate Change.” Should we take drastic measures to combat something that may not even exist, burdening our already struggling economy with billions in new taxes and regulations? Even President Obama said the cost of cap and trade legislation to businesses and individuals will be steep. We need good science, and a long-term climate trajectory before we jump in and make decisions that will profoundly affect the lives of ordinary Alaskans. California has already passed a Cap and Trade law, which has made it even more expensive to do business there and has increased unemployment.

One of the reasons Murkowski has been such an effective player in the climate debate is because she's able to play both sides. She appears to care about the issue, but has done more to undermine action than anyone else in the Senate. Unlike, say, a James Inhofe, the senator from Oklahoma, who is basically ignored by most decision-makers, she's regularly invited to White House meetings on the subject and Senate negotiating sessions. I'm guessing Miller's approach would not be nearly as savvy. So while his actual beliefs about climate are far more absurd, he might actually pose less of a threat in practice. But maybe that's overly optimistic.

About That Gas ...

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

We reported last month that the natural gas that escaped from BP's well is the colorless, odorless villain in the Gulf, one that hasn't gotten the attention that all that crude has received. Now several conservation groups are asking the attorney general to include natural gas as it determines exactly how much BP has to pay up for polluting the Gulf.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council sent a letter to Eric Holder Wednesday asking him to include gas in the total tally of hydrocarbons released into the Gulf. Even if BP is still being cagey about the amount of crude dumped from its well, the government has estimated that upwards of 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled. Roughly forty percent of what was spewing out of that well was actually natural gas, mostly methane, and if you included the oil and gas in the total, it would be more like 6 million barrels. The groups raised concerns that the gas could be harmful to fish and other marine life.

The Oil Spill Pollution Act, passed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez, amended the Clean Water Act to levy a fine of $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled. The groups argue that the gas should also be included in the assessment of fines in the BP disaster. That starts to add up; if investigators determine that it was BP's negligence that caused the spill, the company could owe as much as $25.8 billion in Clean Water Act fines alone.

"While it will take time to fully understand the effects of the Gulf disaster, we're deeply concerned about hydrocarbon gas discharge because so much of it will dissolve into the water before reaching the surface," said Dr. Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

Sticking a Happy Face on Katrina

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

The most upsetting statement that I'd seen in the news since I'd come back to the Gulf Coast was made by a reporter who (like many others) glibly declared that three months into the Deepwater Horizon debacle, "the real difficulty" BP and the Coast Guard were experiencing was "finding any oil to clean up." That was until last weekend, when a Washington Post article announced that, five years after Hurricane Katrina, a visitor to New Orleans "had to go looking for traces of its destruction."

It's true that New Orleans has come a long way since 2005. The population is up to 336,000, more than 100,000 shy of pre-Katrina numbers but still 50,000 more people than were here in 2007. Brad Pitt has indeed constructed some fabulous new houses in the 9th Ward; huge strides have been made in not just rebuilding, but reforming, the public education system; and 67 percent of residents say they've recovered from the storm. Though that leaves a lot of people who haven't, it's 8 percent more than two years ago.

But a couple of months ago, I brought one of my friends from San Francisco here to visit me—a gal who ingests a lot of news—and she could not believe the extent of the destruction she saw. It's awfully irresponsible to say all that stuff about recovery without also mentioning that you can't even count the blocks that are still half-full of empty, broke-down houses, or that Pitt's 50 new houses dot an area that lost 4,000—an area people sometimes compare to Hiroshima because its torn-up roads, total lack of streetlights, and abundance of overgrown lots contribute to a vast and penetrating emptiness.

It's also irresponsible to not mention that the triumphs in primary and secondary education coexist with an absolute tragedy in New Orleans' colleges. The University of New Orleans is preparing for a 35 percent budget cut. In the spring, its students threw a funeral for higher education; its faculty couldn't make copies for lack of supplies. Delgado Community College—another school attended by large numbers of minority and poor students—has had to turn applicants for the fall term away because several buildings, including the library, are still hurricane-damaged. This breakdown isn't just preventing the city from retaining its college-bound youth, it's costing precious dollars: A recent survey of potential investors showed that the No. 1 reason they decided to not establish businesses in the area is the lack of a qualified workforce.

Those omissions are just as inexcusable as announcing that most of BP's oil is gone without admitting that the estimate is wild, or that the "gone" part ignores miles of oil out of sight underwater, or that even if those optimistic numbers are accurate, the remaining spill is still many times larger than the Exxon Valdez dump. Or printing that Gulf seafood is safe, without adding the caveat that the FDA's assessment is based on eating fewer shrimp a week than you'd find in one shrimp cocktail— and without mentioning at all that no one's testing the seafood for highly toxic dispersants.

Telling only the happy half of the story isn't just a disservice to some abstract principle like truth or fairness; it's a very real disservice to the people on the ground. When FEMA and the Red Cross failed to help me after I evacuated during Katrina, sympathetic doctors and well-meaning strangers and weepy mall-store managers gave me contact lenses, money, and pants because they knew how screwed I was from watching the intense and moving news coverage. It's not clear who's going to help the oil-spill victims—who, for the record, never got help from FEMA or the Red Cross—when the party responsible for taking care of them stops paying or doesn't pay at all. Will they get more assistance in their long recovery than New Orleans does now, five years later?

I know. I don't really want to have to talk about how traumatized an unemployed fisherman's wife is, either. I want to celebrate that New Orleans is still—God bless it, maddest props to it—the historically significant and culturally rich city where you turn on your computer and one of the available wireless networks is called "plessy," because your next-door neighbor is a descendant of Homer Plessy, as in Plessy v. Ferguson. But it is also the type of city where, several weeks ago, the Plessys ran out of their house to holler to the five squad cars' worth of cops that had dropped to their knees and drawn their weapons in the middle of the street that the man they were pursuing went THAT way.

Seventy percent of New Orleanians say that America has forgotten about their struggle to recover from Katrina. This Sunday, President Obama's coming to pay attention to it for a day. Last time he spoke at Xavier here, a year after the storm, he said that "lessons can be just as easily unlearned as they are learned." Or, if the post-disaster, everything-is-fine-now headlines now coming out of the Gulf are any indication, they can also never be learned at all.

Is a Lego Koran Next?

Thu Aug. 26, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

While tea partiers, Muslims, and the feds fret over the "Ground Zero Mosque," one artist has built a religious monument of an entirely different sort.

The world may have been created in six days, but it's taken Brendan Powell Smith more than eight years and $15,000 to create The Brick Testament, a painstaking reconstruction of 4,500 biblical scenes made entirely from Legos.

Below is his version of Genesis 38:9-10, in which Onan sleeps with his brother's wife, tries not to impregnate her, and learns the hard way that Yahweh exacts a significant penalty for early withdrawal:

Photos by Brendan Powell Smith

(For more birth control methods and trivia over the years, check out our "Masters of the Uterus" timeline here.)

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 26, 2010

Thu Aug. 26, 2010 2:59 AM EDT

 

US Army Spc. Russell Altman, with Provincial Reconstruction Team Kapisa, enjoys the view from the gunners hatch of his Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle while traveling through the Surobi district of Afghanistan. Photo via the US Army by Tech. Sgt. Joe Laws.

Down the Rabbit Hole

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 1:58 AM EDT

In the New York Times today, Timothy Egan doesn't just write about the "willful ignorance" of much of the conservative electorate, he takes the obvious next step and names the purveyors of this ignorance:

In the much-discussed Pew poll reporting the spike in ignorance, those who believe Obama to be Muslim say they got their information from the media. But no reputable news agency — that is, fact-based, one that corrects its errors quickly — has spread such inaccuracies.

So where is this “media?” Two sources, and they are — no surprise here — the usual suspects. The first, of course, is Rush Limbaugh, who claims the largest radio audience in the land among the microphone demagogues, and his word is Biblical among Republicans.

....[Second], there is Fox News, whose parent company has given $1 million to Republican causes this year but still masquerades as a legitimate source of news. Their chat and opinion programs spread innuendo daily. The founder of Politifact, another nonpartisan referee to the daily rumble, said two of the site’s five most popular items on its Truth-o-meter are corrections of Glenn Beck.

I don't really have anything original to say about this. At some point, the much maligned mainstream media is simply going to have to stop reacting to every outrage ginned up by the likes of Limbaugh and Fox as if it's a straight news story. They don't react that way to Keith Olbermann or Michael Moore, after all. But I'm not sure how to make that happen. There's really no excuse for repeatedly getting sucked down the same rabbit hole over and over and over — Megyn Kelly on the New Black Panthers, Breitbart on Shirley Sherrod, Limbaugh on Obama the Muslim, Hannity on the Park51 mosque — but they do anyway. They just can't seem to help themselves. What's the answer? As long as they play the game, is it any wonder that so many Americans are misinformed?

Clicking Your Way To Success

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 11:34 PM EDT

Brad DeLong provides the following instruction to new students in his Econ 1 class:

Given the benefits to your grade you will definitely want to acquire an i>clicker. Everyone is expected to have one and bring it to every lecture (including the first one). You can find new or used clickers online (at, say, Amazon.com) or locally at the ASUC Bookstore or Ned's. They can be used for other courses for the duration of your time at Cal, and they can also be sold back at the conclusion of the semester. Once you purchase a clicker, register it at http://www.iclicker.com/registration/ with your name and 8-digit student ID.

Huh? You need to have a clicker to take classes at Cal? Do students make clicking noises if they don't understand what the lecturer is saying? Click instead of raising their hand to ask a question? Tap out morse code? Or what?

None of the above. According to iclicker.com, i>clicker is an audience response system that "allows students to instantly provide feedback and answer questions posed by their instructors." It works like this:

  • Each student uses a "clicker," a portable, handheld device that allows students to vote by "clicking" on the appropriate button for his/her choice.
  • Instructors present a question and enable polling. Each student responds by “clicking” the appropriate button for his or her choice.
  • The instructor can then display voting results in a graph, to the audience. The results are also available for later analysis, grading, and exporting to any gradebook software or course management system.

Amazing. I'd never heard of this before today, which makes me feel really old. What's next? Classes taught by robots? Flying cars? Electricity too cheap to meter? The mind reels.

Corn on "Hardball": Palin the Big Winner in Alaska Primary

Wed Aug. 25, 2010 7:44 PM EDT

David Corn and Pat Buchanan joined Hardball's Chris Matthews to discuss Sarah Palin's role in helping tea party candidate Joe Miller to an all but certain victory over Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska Republican primary.

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