2010 - %3, November

Headline of the Year

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

A friend passes this along as headline of the year:

BP ups Gulf spill cost to $40 billion, still reports profit

No comment needed.

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Magical Thinking

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on the notion that Barack Obama blew it by not focusing more on jobs:

So when you say Obama should have focused more, what policies are you talking about? A bigger stimulus? As far as I can tell, almost no pundits are saying that. So what other concrete policies do they have in mind? I have never gotten an answer.

The notion seems to be that if Obama had spent the past 20 months going around with furrowed brow, saying, “I’m focused on the economy”, this would have (a) somehow created jobs (b) made people feel better about 9.6 percent unemployment.

Krugman, of course, has been vocal about the fact that Obama should have pushed for a bigger stimulus. Others have pointed at the foreclosure mess and suggested that a better-designed HAMP would have helped the economy. But Krugman is right: the actual people who keep claiming that Obama needed to focus more on jobs haven't generally gotten on either of these bandwagons. They just seem to think there's some kind of magic that would have either improved things or, at least, cheered everyone up even though they didn't have actual jobs. But what?

Election 2010: What to Watch For at 6 p.m.

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 4:26 PM EDT

Election Day H-Hour is a little over an hour away. The first poll closings are in Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. Here's what to watch for:

IN-9: This is the race to watch in the 6 p.m. hour. If Dem Baron Hill holds on against Republican Todd Young, his party could be in for a less painful night than expected.

KY-6: Blue Dog Ben Chandler is in a similar boat to Hill. If this one is close or goes to Republican Andy Barr, look for Republicans to win 60 seats or more.

IN-2: Joe Donnelly, a key member of the Bart Stupak's bloc of anti-abortion Dems, faces a stiff challenge in this northern Indiana district. If he loses, the Stupak bloc could end up nearly extinct in the next Congress.

IN-8: Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth's old district should be a very easy pickup for Republicans. If it's even close, Dems are doing way better than the polls predicted.

KY-3: This district, represented by Dem John Yarmuth, shouldn't even be on the radar for the GOP. If Republican Todd Lally wins here, Dems could be headed for an unprecedented rout.

Senate: GOPers Dan Coats in Indiana and Rand Paul in Kentucky should win easily. Expect these races to be called early.

What the Tea Partiers Want

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 3:29 PM EDT

Eugene Robinson is skeptical that tea partiers are really concerned about the stuff they say they're concerned about:

Underlying all the Tea Party's issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn't, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?

This is just a mindless talking point. And not even a very good one. Liberals and conservatives have always had a different view about what's oppressive and what's not. And the conservative view has always been that strong police power isn't oppressive. They believe that keeping firm order is a core part of government's job — a necessary precondition for true liberty — and so they've always been in favor of things like widespread surveillance, weak Fourth Amendment rights, active and intrusive antiterrorist policies, and giving police a pass when they get a wee bit rougher with suspects than the law might technically allow. Obviously we liberals have a different point of view, but to pretend that it's hard to square conservative support of Bush-era policies they've always supported with conservative opposition to Obama-era policies they've always opposed is pretty disingenuous.

As for Robinson's broader point — "I can't help believing that the Tea Party's rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control — that he's different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race" — it's fine as long as there's a pretty strong emphasis on "partly." I don't think there's much question that racial animus has played a role in the tea party movement, but if Obama weren't black it would just be something else. It's not as if we haven't seen this show before, after all.

Cyclists Face Lack of Legal Protection in Crashes

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 3:11 PM EDT

Today is election day, but one candidate that won't be on the ballot is Maryland candidate for Senate Natasha Pettigrew. Thirty-year-old Pettigrew, who represented the Green Party, was struck and killed by an SUV while biking on September 20. The driver of the Cadillac Escalade who hit Pettigrew said she thought she had hit a deer or a dog so she didn't stop and continued driving for four miles until reaching her home. Upon parking the SUV, she saw Pettigrew's bicycle lodged beneath it and called police. Pettigrew's mother, Kenniss Henry, is running in her place but looks like Maryland is re-electing Democrat Barbara Mikulski. 

The death of a promising young person is tragic, but at least charges for the driver are pending. (An eyewitness says she saw the SUV stop after striking Pettigrew, then take off with sparks and smoke trailing behind due to the bicycle stuck beneath the vehicle.) Often, charges aren't filed in cases where bicyclists are killed by cars because it's an accident. One could argue that's what manslaughter charges are for, but of course traffic laws (and their execution) vary from state to state and city to city. Pettigrew's mother has advocated stricter laws in Maryland, where if a driver hits a pedestrian or cyclist, they must be impaired, grossly negligent, or show intent to cause harm in order to be charged with a crime. Cases in other states show similar outcomes: in Florida this July, a Navy vet and executive was struck and killed by an SUV driven by a nurse, but no charges were filed because police considered it an accident. The same was true in a 2009 case involving the death of a Virginia bicyclist by an SUV. In 2008, there were 716 cyclists killed in crashes with motorized vehicles, making up 2% of all traffic fatalities.

A few weeks after Pettigrew's death, a Maryland law was enacted that requires a 3 foot buffer zone between cars and bikes on roads, and require vehicles yield right-of-way to bicycles. But the fine for motorists who cause a crash that involves a bike is just $1000. "A loss of life is a loss of life," Henry told the Maryland Gazette. "We seriously need to look at how we balance these scales."

Fannie, Freddie Seize Stern Documents

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:43 PM EDT

As part of their decision to cut all ties with the Law Offices of David J. Stern, the controversial foreclosure law firm and subject of a MoJo investigation in August, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have seized documents from the Stern firm in southeastern Florida, the Wall Street Journal reports today. "We have begun taking possessions of all files on Freddie Mac mortgages simply to protect our interest in those loans as well as those of the borrowers," a Freddie spokeswoman told the Journal, citing "concerns about some of the practices at the Stern firm."

As I've reported, the Stern firm has been at the center of the latest foreclosure debacle, facing scrutiny from not just Fannie and Freddie but also the Florida attorney general and Congress for its practices. Several major Wall Street clients, who previously sent the firm tens of thousands of foreclosure cases, have since severed ties with the firm, a multimillion-dollar, assembly line-like operation often dubbed a "foreclosure mill."

That Stern's firm faces such scrutiny isn't surprising, given the growing accusations of sloppy legal work and even alleged fraud by ex-employees, foreclosure defense attorneys, and judges. As I wrote in August,

Backdated documents, according to a chorus of foreclosure experts, are typical of the sort of shenanigans practiced by a breed of law firms known as "foreclosure mills." While far less scrutinized than subprime lenders or Wall Street banks, these firms undermine efforts by government and the mortgage industry to put struggling homeowners back on track at a time of record foreclosures. (There were 2.8 million foreclosures in 2009, and 3.8 million are projected for this year.) The mills think "they can just change things and make it up to get to the end result they want, because there's no one holding them accountable," says Prentiss Cox, a foreclosure expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. "We've got these people with incentives to go ahead with foreclosures and flood the real estate market."

Stern's is hardly the only outfit to attract criticism, but his story is a useful window into the multibillion-dollar "default services" industry, which includes both law firms like Stern's and contract companies that handle paper-pushing tasks for other big foreclosure lawyers. Over the past decade and a half, Stern (no relation to the NBA commissioner) has built up one of the industry's most powerful operations—a global machine with offices in Florida, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—squeezing profits from every step in the foreclosure process. Among his loyal clients, who've sent him hundreds of thousands of cases, are some of the nation's biggest (and, thanks to American taxpayers, most handsomely bailed out) banks—including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup. "A lot of these mills are doing the same kinds of things," says Linda Fisher, a professor and mortgage-fraud expert at Seton Hall University's law school. But, she added, "I've heard some pretty bad stories about Stern from people in Florida."

At the same time, Stern's NASDAQ-traded company, DJSP Enterprises, a non-legal foreclosure processing company, has seen its value plummet. Today, DJSP's stock is trading at around 87 cents, down from $6 in June. The company has also been shedding employees at a rapid clip, having laid off hundreds of employees in the past few weeks.

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Fannie/Freddie Give Stern the Boot

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:38 PM EDT

I feel like I should let Andy Kroll have first crack at this story, but all's fair in love and blogging. In any case, it looks like Fannie and Freddie have finally decided to give the boot to David J. Stern's infamous foreclosure mill down in Florida:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have terminated their relationships with a top Florida foreclosure law firm and began taking possession of loan files on Monday afternoon from the firm, which processes evictions on behalf of the mortgage-finance giants.

....Freddie Mac took the rare step of removing loan files after an internal review raised "concerns about some of the practices at the Stern firm," a Freddie spokeswoman said. "We have begun taking possessions of all files on Freddie Mac mortgages simply to protect our interest in those loans as well as those of the borrowers," the Freddie spokeswoman said. A Fannie spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

And not a moment too soon. For more on Stern's business practices, Andy's original story is here. I'm sure he'll have more later.

Conservatives and Their Memes

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Jon Chait notes that even David Brooks has bought into the idea that Democrats have screwed up the economy by introducing "uncertainty" into its every nook and cranny:

This may be the single most vapid Republican talking point of the last two years. And yet it's been endorsed by moderate conservatives like Brooks and even elite outposts of the conventional wisdom.

[Some sentences making the obvious point that Republicans are probably introducing more uncertainty into the regulatory environment than Democrats.]

You would expect the center-right to buy into the most convincing GOP talking points, and to scoff at the least convincing ones. But here the center-right is parroting talking points that are absurd on their very face. Why? I can't say. My guess is....

OK, that's enough. Click the link if you want to see Jon's guess. But since this is my blog, let's go straight to my guess: Frank Luntz.

Not literally, mind you. I have no idea whether Luntz came up with the uncertainty meme or whether he's been advising Republicans to push it. But just in general, I've long been impressed — genuinely impressed — with the conservative ability to come up with talking points that would never occur to me in a million years. Calling healthcare reform "socialist"? No problem. I expected that. But death panels? Where did that come from? Arguing that financial reform will hamper credit? Sure. But charging that a bill designed to end bailouts is a bailout? Damn! That's clever. Claiming that huge deficits are hurting the economy? Bog normal conservative rhetoric. But "uncertainty" is hurting the economy? Who came up with that?

Seriously: who comes up with this stuff? These are things that would never occur to me, and judging by the unimaginative nature of liberal opposition to conservative ideas, they're the kinds of things that never occur to liberals either. But they take hold anyway, and not just among the Fox News set. If Democrats were pushing some liberal version of the uncertainty meme, there would be whole piles of mushy liberals like me who'd write earnest blog posts about how this isn't really such a great argument and we should instead focus on X, Y, and Z. We'd just be too embarrassed to buy into obvious nonsense like this. But on the right, this stuff ends up filtering down to everyone. The uncertainty meme has, almost literally, no evidence at all to back it up, but that doesn't matter. It sounds good, so why not?

Election 2010's Sleaziest Ad?

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

Politics doesn't get much nastier than this. Amidst the flurry of eleventh-hour attack ads and final pleas, there's one ad (actually, at 25 minutes in length, you might call it more of a dis-infomercial) that claims the mantle of "Worst Smear of Election 2010." Called "Breaking Point," it's the handiwork of the National Republican Trust PAC, which is headed by far right-winger Scott Wheeler. It has run on TV network affiliates in a smattering of states, including Kentucky, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Florida, Alaska, and North Carolina.

Below are parts 1, 2, and 3 of the ad:

1)

2)

3)

 

As others like ThinkProgress have noted, the 25-minute film is a mash-up of anti-Obama conspiracy theories and outright distortions. The ad name-checks Hamas, the New Black Panthers, and Mao Tse-tung, and draws on video clips from conservative outlets such as Townhall.com, WorldNetDaily, and—of course—Fox News. As ThinkProgress noted:

In addition to the false attacks on Obama advisers Van Jones and John Holdren, the propaganda film also repeats smears against Obama staff Anita Dunn, Kevin Jennings, Carol Browner, and Cass Sunstein. It makes the flat-out false claims that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “caused the entire home mortgage industry crisis,” that health care reform would allow the “government to take over one-fifth of the U.S. economy,” and that there is a “growing number of scientific scandals” that are “further discrediting manmade global warming claims.” When not playing inflammatory clips of angry black people, the ad also comes to defense of the billionaire Koch brothers who fund the Americans for Prosperity, claiming “Obama has repeatedly attacked a group of private citizens simply because they wanted their voices heard."

The video explicitly encourages citizens to vote against the Democratic Party. “As if to validate the very need for a citizens revolt, the establishment responded by alienating, undermining, and attacking their own voters,” the paid program electioneers, also mentioning the “midterm elections” and people “going to vote on November 2nd” in the context of defeating Democrats.

The National Republican Trust PAC's last-ditch sleaze attack is hardly a new tactic. In the final days before the 2008 presidential election, the group cut an ad, backdropped by an image of 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta, claiming Obama wanted to "give illegals Social Security" and had a "plan" to give illegal immigrants driver's license. Factcheck.org called the ad "a pile of false claims" and "one of the sleaziest false ads of the campaign." 

Tea Partiers Allegedly Harass Black Student Voters in SC

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 1:53 PM EDT

Tea party activists in South Carolina are allegedly intimidating black college students and other black voters at the polls, according to the South Carolina Democratic Party. Early this morning, self-identified tea party activists showed up at a polling station near Benedict College in Columbia, "basically harassing students—telling people not to vote and generally making voters feel uncomfortable," says Keiana Page, press secretary for the state Democratic Party, who said that the party's legal team is currently investigating the reported incident at the historically black college.

A writer for JackandJillPolitics.com, a site run by black bloggers, also said that she had gotten a call this morning from a local resident that tea party activists were harassing students. "They are protesting student votes and making them vote with provisional ballots," Cheryl Contee reports. "Benedict is one of our proudest HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and these kids don’t deserve this as one of their first experiences voting in America." Page tells Mother Jones that Benedict College has been "a favorite harassment spot for Republicans in 2006 and 2004," claiming that Republicans have a history of challenging student voters who registered using their college address. It's unclear whether any student voters were kept from voting due to the alleged intimidation or how many were forced to fill out provisional ballots.

The South Carolina Democrats are also investigating a separate series of incidents in the North Hope Center precinct in Sumter, South Carolina, where tea party activists have also allegedly been harassing black voters. They have been "shouting at the hard working people who have taken time from work or school and are telling them not to vote. Apparently this is happening at more than one location in Sumter," writes Tubman.

Allen Olson, a coordinator for the Columbia Tea Party, says that tea party groups throughout the state had recruited poll watchers—and one group had focused efforts in the Sumter area. Olson notes, however, he had not heard about the alleged incidents of voter intimidation. "If they're intimidating anyone I don’t condone that—I think it's appalling," he says. "As long as they're legitimately registered and legitimately voting, I have absolutely no problem with it." Depending on what's confirmed, the allegations could make it harder for tea party activists to dispel the accusation that their members are racist

The South Carolina Dems have yet to find direct evidence of Republican involvement or identified any specific tea party groups, and the state GOP did not reply immediately to a request for comment. Calling the alleged intimidation "disgraceful," Page says that these incidents are an outgrowth of this year's high stakes elections in South Carolina, where Nikki Haley's tightening race for governor, among others, have been in the national spotlight. "The tea party recognizes importance of all voters—and especially minority voters. They know minority voters will hold a great stake. They are using every trick in the book."

*Update: Kim Hunter, a spokeswoman for Benedict College, said that she hadn't received reports from students about problems at the polls. Hunter explained that students who registered on campus but didn't have their voter registration cards had to travel to the main elections office. She noted there were two white Republican poll watchers at that polling station but hadn't heard of any wrongdoing, adding that she planned to follow up with the SC Democratic Party about the allegations.