2011 - %3, December

Your Daily Newt: The Soviet Union Will Last Forever!

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 4:27 AM PST
Newt Gingrich gazes into the future—but what does he see?

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich touts himself as a "conservative futurist"—and although most futurists recoil at the suggestion that they're in the business of predicting the future, Gingrich wasn't quite so careful. His 1984 book Window of Opportunity is packed with predictions of what America might look like in the year 2000 (hint: a lot of it would be on the moon). For someone whose political rhetoric is so steeped in sweeping statements about transformative political developments, though, Gingrich was way off on one of the most transformative political developments of his day:

We must expect the Soviet system to survive in its present brutish form for a very long time. There will be Soviet labor camps and Soviet torture chambers well into our great grandchildren's lives: great centers of political and economic power have enormous staying power; Czarist Russia lasted through 3 1/2 years of the most agonizing kind of war; the Nazi state did not collapse even when battlefield defeats reduced its control to only a tiny sliver of Germany.

We must therefore assume the Soviet Union will survive as a dangerous totalitarian state.

The Soviet Union collapsed seven years later.

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The Top 10 MoJo Longreads From 2011

Thu Dec. 22, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Conventional wisdom is that people don't read long magazine stories online, but Mother Jones readers regularly prove otherwise. Every time we run a compelling, multipage article on our website, we find that many of you read all the way to the end…and comment, tweet, Facebook, and Tumble enthusiastically about details deep into the story. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the holidays (including you lucky ones with new iPad 2s)? Below, a selection of our (and our readers') best-loved MoJo longreads from 2011. (Click here to see last year's list)

The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret
First, Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.
By Ted Genoways

Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class
Plus: How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?
By Kevin Drum
 

Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell
Dispatches from the tent cities, where rape gangs and disaster profiteers roam.
By Mac McClelland

The Informants
The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?
By Trevor Aaronson

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
By Chris Mooney

The Cruelest Show on Earth
Bullhooks. Whippings. Electric shocks. Three-day train rides without breaks. Our yearlong investigation rips the big top off how Ringling Bros. treats its elephants.
By Deborah Nelson

Climategate: What Really Happened?
How climate science became the target of "the best-funded, best-organized smear campaign by the wealthiest industry that the Earth has ever known."
By Kate Sheppard

Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes
Girls locked up inside fundamentalist religious compounds. Kandahar? No, Missouri.
By Kathryn Joyce

My Summer at an Indian Call Center
Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from.
By Andrew Marantz

Ohio's War on the Middle Class
Wherein I go home, watch public servants get axed, visit the warehouse of unbearable sorrow, hang with jobless thirtysomethings living in abandoned homes, and consider whether my generation is screwed.
By Mac McClelland

Bonus longread from the archive:

Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right
A must read for 2011: Mother Jones' epic 1984 profile of Newt Gingrich.
By David Osborne

 

Immigration Hardliners Are Eyeing a New Tactic

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 4:00 AM PST

It's been a frenetic year in the battle over state laws on immigration enforcement. The Supreme Court recently announced that it will review Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB 1070, and the Department of Justice has lawsuits pending against Alabama, South Carolina, and Utah, regarding harsh laws of their own. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that state lawmakers introduced more than 1,600 bills and resolutions relating to immigration and immigrants in 2011, up from about 1,400 in 2010.

Even with immigration hardliners hopeful that the Supreme Court will overturn an injunction blocking key provisions of the Arizona law, there are indications that in the coming year they may shift tactics to press for an immigration crackdown. In a USA Today article on Tuesday, reporter Alan Gomez wrote that conservative state legislators have begun turning away from the all-encompassing laws that followed the signing of SB 1070 last April. Instead, according to the bill's architect, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, they hope to bring a specific part of Alabama's HB 56 to their own states:

Kobach said Alabama was the first state to invalidate all contracts entered into with illegal immigrants. A strict reading of the law could mean that any contract, including mortgages, apartment leases and basic work agreements, can be ruled null and void.

"That is one that has a much greater effect than some people might expect at first glance," Kobach said. "Suppose an illegal alien is doing some roofing business and wants to rent some equipment. Some short-term or long-term rental suddenly becomes more difficult to do."

As Gomez pointed out, a federal judge already decided that Alabama cannot use the provision to keep illegal immigrants from renewing mobile-home permits. Apparently, that won't stop other state-level pols, like Pennsylvania's Daryl Metcalfe, the Republican founder of the restrictionist State Legislators for Legal Immigration, from introducing similar measures in 2012:

[Metcalfe] said the recent success of Alabama banning contracts and business transactions by illegal immigrants has placed them on his "wish list" for the upcoming session.

"That's a very good way to expand the fight to shut down access to revenue that they get," he said.

Metcalfe's wish list, it turns out, is quite different from that of the six Alabama religious leaders who called on Gov. Robert Bentley to repeal HB 56 "in the spirit of the Christmas season." Bentley declined to support the repeal effort, responding that "there is nothing unkind, unjust, or unwarranted about asking everyone in Alabama to obey the law."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 22, 2011

Thu Dec. 22, 2011 3:57 AM PST

A civilian instructor coaches two paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team on how to use a Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless rifle during a certification class December 6, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The multi-role weapon can be used against armor, fortifications and personnel. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

The Worst (and Best) War-on-Xmas News of 2011

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 3:30 AM PST

It's been a frustrating, gruelingly partisan, and very weird year in America. Pizza slinger extraordinaire Herman Cain actually rose to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential crop. The Obama administration felt compelled to assure us that war with alien life forms is not imminent. People freaked out over bestiality in the military. And let's not forget that Rocky is now being turned into a damn musical.

Surely, this holiday season is set to offer some semblance of calm and harmony, right? A few moments free from the year's deluge of political cheap shots and cultural mayhem?

Not on your life.

Here's a round-up of the 2011 Christmas season's strangest (and most painfully delightful) news stories, including the Michigan-Wisconsin mitten war and Santa Claus' machine-gun-fest for kids.

1. Conservatives Wage War on Obama's War on Christmas Trees

The narrative went something like this: Economic times are tough. Americans deserve a break during the holidays. Americans also deserve affordable prices on their Christmas trees. But the Obama administration is trying to slap on a new tax—on Christmas trees! Huh. Obama must really hate Christians, then. And Jesus. And America, too. Typical Kenyan Muslim. Aghghghahagh!!!

Cue Heritage Foundation blogger—and former legal counsel to Dick Cheney—David Addington, who posted in early November:

Just because the Obama Administration has the legal power to impose its Christmas Tree Tax doesn't mean it should do so.

The economy is barely growing and nine percent of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?"

Romney On Bin Laden: All Over The Map

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 12:15 AM PST

Mitt Romney's years-long quest to paint President Barack Obama as a sniveling appeaser who wants to make out with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran smack into a wall last spring when Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. So Romney's taken to saying that "I think other presidents and other candidates like myself would do exactly the same thing." 

It may be hard to remember now that Obama feels comfortable enough to joke about ordering Bin Laden's death, but the circumstances of such a raid—an unauthorized incursion into Pakistani territory—was at one point an issue during the 2008 campaign. As a candidate, Obama declared that: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." For this statement, he was attacked as insane and irresponsible by most of his Democratic and Republican political rivals, who suggested the remarks made him unfit to be president. 

Among those attacking Obama was Romney, then on his first run at the Republican nomination. Now Democrats are emailing around a Romney 2007 statement: "I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours... I don't think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort."

I've been combing through the transcripts of the 2008 debates the past few days, and I noticed this remark as well. Romney was asked about his criticism of Obama's remarks during a debate in August of 2007 by ABC's George Stephanopoulos. In response, Romney rattled off a few really stale conservative talking points, but clarified that his objection was to Obama announcing his intentions, not to the idea of killing Bin Laden if the opportunity presented itself.

ROMNEY: Yes, I think Barack Obama is confused as to who are our friends and who are our enemies. In his first year, he wants to meet with Castro and Chavez and Assad, Ahmadinejad. Those are our enemies. Those are the world’s worst tyrants. And then he says he wants to unilaterally go in and potentially bomb a nation which is our friend. We’ve trying to strengthen Musharraf. We’re trying to strengthen the foundations of democracy and freedom in that country so that they will be able to reject the extremists. We’re working with them -- we’re working with them...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if your CIA director called them and said, "We had Osama bin Laden in our sights, Musharraf says no," what do you do? (CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, "We're going to go into your country unilaterally." Of course, America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interests of America. But we don’t go out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen of Germany, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.”

Romney isn't exactly on solid ground demanding subtlety, since like other Republican hopefuls he's recently taken to announcing his intentions to pursue covert action to topple the Iranian government. The progression of his views on the subject are really classic Romney: First he's against it in principle, then he clarifies that he's only against announcing that he'd do it while basically announcing he'd do it, and now he's saying it's a decision any president would have made. From abortion to health care to immigration to Iraq, Romney's shifting positions on Bin Laden track with his tendency to adopt whatever position is most politically convenient at the time. 

As to whether "any president" would have made the same decision, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has served in intelligence and defense capacities under eight presidents, told 60 Minutes that "this is one of the most courageous calls, decisions that I think I've ever seen a president make. For all of the concerns that I've just been talking about. The uncertainty of the intelligence. The consequences of it going bad. The risk to the lives of the Americans involved. It was a very gutsy call." (That quote is now part of the DNC's web ad on the subject). If nothing else, this whole thing a reminder of how little the right-wing caricature of Obama has changed since 2007, and how far it is from the president Obama actually became.

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Happy Winter Solstice!

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 10:30 PM PST

And now, finally, the days will start getting longer again. Hopefully this is a metaphor for our politics too. 

Redistricting in California

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 7:58 PM PST

Last year California voters approved an initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan "citizen commission." Today, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of ProPublica have a story suggesting that Democrats gamed the system by making sure that the commission heard lots and lots of pro-Democratic testimony. "Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests," the story says.

Now, I don't doubt for a second that this is true, and in any case, ProPublica seems to have gotten its hands on plenty of evidence to show how this worked. But here's what I don't get: Am I supposed to be surprised at this? Of course Democrats tried to get lots of Democrat-friendly testimony in front of the commission. What would you expect them to do? Surely Republicans aren't so lame that they didn't do the same thing?

(Actually, California Republicans are pretty lame. Still, I kinda doubt they're that lame.)

But that's not the only thing odd about this story. There's also this:

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

This doesn't sound quite right either. For starters, that six or seven seat pickup sounds mighty optimistic. I'll bet the real number is something like half that. But that's not all. You see, in 2001 Democrats decided to skip the usual partisan gerrymander and instead make a nice, cozy arrangement with their GOP rivals: gerrymandering with the primary goal of protecting incumbents of both parties. It made all the incumbents happy, but it also made the state's districts a bit more friendly to Republicans than they should have been. By 2010, even a fair-minded, nonpartisan redistricting was bound to produce more Democratic districts than we currently have. (Contra Johnson, California has become considerably more Democrat-friendly over the past decade.) It's true that Democrats mostly opposed last year's initiative, but I distinctly remember some of the smarter analysts suggesting that they should calm down because a commission-drawn map was likely to give Dems an easy two or three additional seats.

If Dems do pick up six or seven seats, that would mean the commission really did do them a favor. But if they pick up two or three or four, it's most likely just the result of reversion to the mean after 2001. I'm curious to see what the California wonks over at Calitics think about all this, but they haven't written about it yet. If they do, I'll update and correct as necessary.

Mitt Romney, the World's Worst Panderer

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 5:35 PM PST

Four years ago, Mitt Romney said that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Today he said that if we had known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction — something we knew four years ago just as well as we know it today — then "obviously" we wouldn't have invaded. Now, this happens to be incorrect as a matter of historical fact, since it was always clear that WMD was merely a fig leaf for an administration that was going to invade Iraq no matter what. But Jon Chait is charmed anyway:

The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to "double Guantanamo." (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.

Poor Mitt. It's to his credit, really, that he's such a godawful bad panderer, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a skill he desperately needs if he ever wants to become president. Unfortunately for him, practice doesn't seem to be doing him any good. He's been pandering relentlessly for more than four years now, and he's still as bad at it as he was in 2007. It's kind of sad, really.

EPA Delivers Holiday Gift: New Mercury Rules

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 3:17 PM PST
What, you don't want me?

A little bit of good news for the holidays: the EPA is taking some coal out of our stocking. On Wednesday, the agency announced the new national standards on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, an event that has enviros and public health groups cheering.

The rules, according to the EPA, will yield $9 in public health benefits for every $1 that the industry has to spend on technology to cut pollution. Officially called the utility maximum achievable control technology (or utility MACT), the pollution limits will also prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 childhood asthma attacks each year, according to the agency. Overjoyed statements from groups like Greenpeace, the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, Green for All, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Sierra Club, and Environment America have flooded reporters' inboxes. The Evangelical Environmental Network, which had campaigned for the rules on the argument that "mercury pollution is a pro-life issue," was also quite pleased.

The Center for Progressive Reform had a good post on the new rules, and David Roberts at Grist explains why they're are such a BFD.

The emissions limits have been in the works since a set of amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990—which, if you're keeping track, is a kind of a long time to wait. The EPA is touting these as the first standards on these pollutants, but that's not entirely true. The Bush administration did put out mercury rules, but they were crappy and got thrown out in court for failing to protect public health.

Of course, even though it's had plenty of time to get ready for them, the energy industry doesn't like the rule because it means they might have to shut down some coal plants that can't meet the standards. The rules will probably put somewhere between 32 and 58 power plants out of business, according to the AP's analysis. This is not, however, going to cause massive blackouts as doom-saying foes of the rule have claimed. And by the EPA's estimates, 60 percent of coal- and oil-fired power plants already have pollution controls; it's just the oldest and dirtiest that would be affected. Which is, of course, another reason why enviros are so happy.