2011 - %3, July

Obama's Narrow Tightrope

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

Jon Chait on Obama's negotiating predicament:

President Obama has a credibility problem. He has compromised so often that Republicans simply don't believe that he'll sustain his opposition to anything.…Obama clearly faces a perception problem. Republicans may complain that he's walked away from deals, but they really think he's a pushover who will cede more and more ground the harder and longer they push. That's a dangerous position to be in on the verge of a high stakes game of chicken. It encourages the Republicans to push the envelope farther and farther—even to walk away from a deal they regard as a win in search of an even better win.

Unfortunately, Obama is between a rock and a hard place. His basic strategy is simple: to position himself as the endlessly reasonable guy willing to go the extra mile but constantly stymied by a crackpot, hard-line group of nihilists in the Republican Party. For various reasons, some genuine and some opportunistic, he thinks this is the way to play things.

Now, you may or may not like this strategy, but it's the one he's chosen. Unfortunately, it's an extremely fragile strategy. Republicans are already furiously trying to pretend that it's Obama who's being the obstructionist, and they're making headway even though there's virtually no substance to this at all. But if Obama gives them even the least opening by genuinely refusing an arguably fair deal, they'll have all the ammunition they need. Obama will lose his Mr. Reasonable cred overnight, and with it whatever public opinion advantage it gave him. Conversely, though, as Chait points out, if he sticks to his Mr. Reasonable guns at all costs, he looks like a pushover. He's chosen a very, very narrow tightrope to negotiate.

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Blame Congress, Not Obama?

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 11:10 AM EDT

Is President Obama a huge sellout to the progressive cause, as many on the left believe? Matt Yglesias imagines a world in which that's true, but the Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate were precisely as horrible as Obama. Such a legislature would have passed a bigger stimulus, a better healthcare bill, a card check bill, a cap-and-trade bill, and an immigration bill:

That’s a lot! And it’s what would have happened even if Barack Obama was exactly as rotten and unprogressive as the actually existing Barack Obama. All it would take to get to that world would be to make the people occupying the legislative pivot points as rotten and horrible as President Obama, a bar that left-wing critics of Obama keep assuring me is a low bar. So how come we can’t do it? It’s important for people not to let their frustrations with things Obama has done, is doing, or will do confuse them about the historical record. The overwhelming story of American politics in 2009 and 2010 was of Congress refusing to enact progressive measures that, had they passed Congress, would have been signed into law. If progressives failed during the leadup to the 111th Congress, the failure that really mattered was the failure to elect a more progressive Congress, not the failure to elect a more progressive president.

Actually, as Matt briefly alludes to earlier in his post, all of this would have become law easily if only the Senate didn't require 60 votes to pass a bill. The fact is that the left did manage to elect a Congress in which the median member was willing to pass all this legislation. They just didn't elect a Congress in which the 60th senator was willing to do it. That's a much, much, much higher bar.

On the bright side, though, if the Senate were a majoritarian body then George Bush might very well have been able to privatize Social Security in 2005. Not to mention lots of other stuff that he and Karl Rove probably didn't even bother trying for. On net, this bias toward the status quo hurts liberals more than conservatives, but it's not completely black and white.

As it happens, I think it's possible to get a little too caught up in political scienc-ey research suggesting that the president is all but powerless. It may be worth pointing out the president's limitations from time to time, since people fixate on his powers so much, but he's hardly a potted plant. Sure, Obama probably couldn't have gotten a lot more done if he'd been more aggressive, but I continue to think he could have gotten a little more done. To go much further, unfortunately, would require not just a more liberal Congress, but a stronger institutional base for the entire progressive movement. We're not really anywhere close to that at the moment.

Michele Bachmann's Hair

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 10:42 AM EDT

The latest on Michele Bachmann:

After launching her bid for the White House, Bachmann has broken with her usual frugality and shelled out some serious cash on a stylist in what could be seen as her own John-Edwards'-$400-haircut moment.

According to Bachmann's latest campaign finance filings, her campaign spent nearly $4,700 on hair and makeup in the weeks after she entered the presidential race on June 13. Records show her campaign made three payments of $1,715, $250, and $2,704 to a Maryland-based stylist named Tamara Robertson....blah blah blah....

I really, really wish we could knock off this stuff. Presidential candidates have to look good, and female candidates especially have to look good. It's unfair, but it's the way things are. To then turn around and gripe about their styling bills is shamelessly petty. MoJo is better than this.

Corn on "Hardball": Will a Debt Deal Finally Get Cut?

Tue Jul. 26, 2011 10:39 AM EDT

David Corn and The Huffington Post's Senior Political Editor Howard Fineman joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball Monday night to discuss the ongoing debt ceiling impasse, Republican intransigence, and the two rival debt proposals.

Corn says, "the Democrats...have drawn a line in the sand. The problem is it's inside the Republican tent. It's basically up to the bedroom!"

Watch the video below:

The Long-Term Unemployment Trap

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 10:03 AM EDT

The New York Times reports that employers don't want to hire people who have been out of work for a long time:

A recent review of job vacancy postings on popular sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder and Craigslist revealed hundreds that said employers would consider (or at least “strongly prefer”) only people currently employed or just recently laid off....Given that the average duration of unemployment today is nine months — a record high — limiting a search to the “recently employed,” much less the currently employed, disqualifies millions.

The positions advertised with preferences for the already-employed run the gamut. Some are for small businesses, and others for giants, including the commercial University of Phoenix (which, like some other companies, removed the ads after an inquiry by The New York Times) or the fast-food chain Pollo Tropical. They cover jobs at all skill levels, including hotel concierges, restaurant managers, teachers, I.T. specialists, business analysts, sales directors, account executives, orthopedics device salesmen, auditors and air-conditioning technicians.

For what it's worth, this has always been true. Having a long gap in your resume has always been a problem, and having a long current gap has always been a really big problem unless there's a mighty convincing explanation for it. The difference today isn't that employers have changed, it's that they're so swamped with job applications that they figure they might as well just admit their biases up front.

The other difference, of course, is that there are more long-term unemployed than there used to be — far more than in any previous recession. In the past, someone out of work for a year might very well have been someone pretty unmotivated to find a job, and therefore not especially desirable. Today it's far more likely that they're still extremely motivated but there are just no jobs to be had. So ironically, the very recession that's caused a long-term spell of joblessness to be less meaningful in fact has caused it to be more meaningful in practice. It's a way in which cyclical unemployment can turn into structural unemployment, and it's yet another reason we should be using every possible trick in both our fiscal and monetary bags to fight cyclical unemployment and get it under control. Luckily, Congress is focused like a laser beam on getting the economy moving and bringing down the unemployment rate, so this shouldn't be a problem for too much longer.

Oh wait.

WorldNetDaily: Oslo Attacks Were a Left-Wing Conspiracy

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 9:22 AM EDT
Watch out for the black helicopters.

I had thought Glenn Beck's comparison of the massacred Norwegian children to the "Hitler Youth" was the most horrific response to last Friday's terrorist attack in Oslo. But now, via Right Wing Watch, I see that WorldNetDaily and radio host Michael Savage have upped the ante. They've decided that it's just too far-fetched to think that Anders Breivik, the blue-eyed, blond-haired white guy who admitted to the crimes, could have possibly committed such a barbaric act. So they've decided it's probably a cover-up by the left-wing Norwegian government:

"The official story makes no sense," Savage told WND. "This looks like a classic conspiracy."

"This has all the appearances of a cover-up," Savage told WND. "They created their Reichstag fire. They found their Timothy McVeigh. They created their Jack Ruby. How could one man have blown up the downtown and then raced to the island to kill the teens?

"This is likely a fabrication of the Labour Party, who needs to hold onto power to enforce their multi-culturalist, Muslim-favoring, anti-nationalist views," he continued, "especially in light of the earlier 'credit' for this atrocity claimed by the radical Muslim group whose leader they were threatening to deport.

"The official story defies logic in the following sense as well," he continued, "if this lone right-winger hated Muslims, as the New York Times is reporting, then why did he slaughter his own people and not Muslims?"

So there you have it. I suppose it's about as plausible as Rush Limbaugh's assertion last summer that the BP oil spill was part of a plot by environmentalists to make the oil companies look bad.

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Newt On the Couch

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 9:19 AM EDT

In the latest reinvention of reality from the campaign of Newt Gingrich, the flailing presidential contender today argued that the commercial he cut with Nancy Pelosi a few years back about working together on climate change was "misconstrued." He was just doing it to fight the vast left wing conspiracy!

He was asked about the ad for Al Gore's "We Can Solve It" campaign in an appearance on WGIR radio in New Hampshire on Tuesday. His response (via The Hill):

I was trying to make a point that we shouldn't be afraid to debate the left, even on the environment, but obviously it was misconstrued, and it's probably one of those things I wouldn't do again.

Riiight. Of course, Gingrich went on to make abolishing the EPA a central issue of his campaign, so there have long been doubts about his sincerity in that particular ad campaign. When the ad was broadcast back in 2008, even some Republicans thought talking about climate change would was cool. Now the right is whole-heartedly devoted to bashing any and all environmental idea/effort.

The change of tune hasn't, however, stopped Gingrich from investing in clean energy technology. As Politico reports today, Gingrich has a sizable investment in renewable energy technologies like solar power and biofuels.

Federal Trade Commission vs. Sleazy Car Dealers

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 6:29 AM EDT

Back in 2009, I wrote a story about how sleazy car dealers prey on young service members. I spent some time in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Navy has one of its largest installations in the country. Not by coincidence, the naval bases were ringed by commercial districts chock full of used car dealerships. These dealers were a scourge on the young enlistees, sometimes even dispatching salesmen to greet them at the airport before they could even get to their first assignments. I found several young men who had literally been kidnapped off the base by car salesmen, who refused to return them to the base unless they bought a crappy, overpriced used car with outrageous loan terms. Military lawyers were struggling to deal with the flood of enlistees whose military careers were being threatened by the bad deals, which often left them heavily in debt long after their cars had died (which often happened just after they were driven off the lot).

Despite pleas from military brass, Congress refused to take action. Car dealers, it turns out, are one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, in large part because they are such hometown players. Car dealers sponsor the local Little League teams, run the Rotary Clubs, and have tremendous sway particularly in smaller House districts. And, of course, they donate a lot of money to lawmakers. They're so influential that they managed to get themselves exempted from oversight by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leaving them free to continue financing car sales with abusive and overpriced loans.

Two years later, the Federal Trade Commission has finally decided to step in to take a look at the industry and its lending practices. Next week, it will hold the second of a series of roundtable discussions to hear from consumers. This one, held in San Antonio, Texas, will focus on members of the military. Whether or not the roundtables will lead to any real action remains to be seen. But there's no reason to be too optimistic. The last time the FTC attempted to even pass a tepid disclosure rule dealing with used car sales was back in 1981, when it demanded that they post signs on cars indicating all of the known flaws in the vehicle. In a highly unusual move, Congress, literally in the dark of night, vetoed the rule. (Back then, the law allowed Congress to veto rules issued by regulatory agencies, though the power was rarely invoked.)

The veto was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court and found unconstitutional, so the rule was reinstated. But by then, the makeup of the FTC had changed. Before the rule could take effect, the FTC decided to reconsider it. In 1985, the FTC eventually reissued the rule but without the critical requirement to disclose all known defects. That's the last time the FTC went after used car dealers. Nearly 30 years later, the political situation hasn't changed much. If anything, it's gotten worse. So while the FTC's roundtables are certainly commendable, consumers, particularly in the military, probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for meaningful reform.

Rep. Allen West's (Very, Very) Stealth Jihad

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

On Monday afternoon, as markets fretted over the possibility of the United States government running out of money to pay its creditors, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) held a briefing on a crisis that could bring the nation to its knees. "This is about the protection of each and every American citizen who ever resides within our borders," West told the audience in the basement of Rayburn House Office Building.

West wasn't there to talk about Congress' apparent inability to raise the debt ceiling, though. He was there to introduce Peter Leitner of Citizens for National Security, an organization based in Boca Raton, Florida, that is dedicated to raising awareness of the threat of Islamic extremism in American communities. The group, which previously tried to ferret out perceived Islamic bias in Florida public-school textbooks, had been invited by West to present the findings of its latest report: "Homegrown Jihad in the USA: Muslim Brotherhood's Deliberate, Premediated Plan Now Reaching Maturity." CFNS claims to have a list of 6,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are living in America and determined to "penetrate the United States and eventually erode its institutions, policies, and sense of self through the creation of a multifaceted Fifth Column movement within our borders."

That's a serious charge, and in a 45-minute presentation, Leitner backed it up with a series of charts that linked various Muslim organizations, from Hezbollah to the Muslim Students Association, in one giant, overarching conspiracy bent on "destroying the United States as it currently stands."

Two days after it was discovered that Anders Breivik, the Oslo gunman, was an admirer of America's leading anti-Islam activists—including CFNS advisory committee member Daniel Pipes—the American anti-Sharia movement showed no sign of mellowing. Leitner dismissed Breivik ("a bizarre Norwegian farmer") as a nutcase, but, like a number of prominent conservative commentators, allowed that he might nonetheless have been on to something. "He may be correct that there's a certain kind of a threat that we face, depending on his view," Leitner said in response to a challenge from a Muslim audience member, "but he fits the lines of a classic lunatic."

Michele Bachmann's $4,700 Hair and Makeup Bill

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
US Congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.

Considering Rep. Michele Bachmann's crusade against government spending and her demand that America live within its means, you wouldn't figure her for a conspicuous spender. But after launching her bid for the White House, Bachmann has broken with her usual frugality and shelled out some serious cash on a stylist in what could be seen as her own John-Edwards'-$400-haircut moment.

According to Bachmann's latest campaign finance filings, her campaign spent nearly $4,700 on hair and makeup in the weeks after she entered the presidential race on June 13. Records show her campaign made three payments of $1,715, $250, and $2,704 to a Maryland-based stylist named Tamara Robertson. Robertson's LinkedIn profile says she works as a makeup artist at Fox News in the DC area. She's also listed in the "Make-up" section of the credits for the Citizens United-produced film A City Upon a Hill, hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich—a pair who've raised eyebrows with their own spending.

Bachmann's hefty hair and makeup tab in recent weeks far surpasses what she's spent in the past. A review of her campaign records shows less than $1,000 in similar spending last year, which includes her 2010 congressional reelection bid. (A Bachmann campaign spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Even when Bachmann's campaign has paid for these kinds of services in the past, the costs have been far more modest. In February, the Minneapolis City Pages quoted a celebrity stylist named Natalie Hale saying that Bachmann paid her $225 for three different makeup sessions during the 2010 campaign. Hale added, however, that Bachmann tried to avoid paying for such services when possible. "I know for a fact if Michele has to pay for makeup she will usually instead do it herself," Hale said.

Not so anymore, it seems. Perhaps the spotlight and nonstop scrutiny of the presidential campaign have convinced Bachmann of the need for pricey stylists. But will Bachmann's $4,700 bill hurt her in the eyes of the fiscal conservative who've taken to heart her message on spare spending?