As election season heats up, I asked my Mother Jones colleagues to suggest their picks for the best recent long-form reportage on one of our favorite topics—the stories behind the money in American politics. For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here, and be sure to follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest.
Just how much political influence can one wealthy individual wield? A whole lot, according to Mayer's profile of conservative North Carolina philanthropist and self-proclaimed defender of democracy Art Pope.
I met with Pope recently in a suburban office building that serves as the Raleigh headquarters of Variety Wholesalers. In a spare conference room overlooking a parking lot, he told me that he is indeed misunderstood. "If the left wing wants a whipping boy, a bogeyman, they throw out my name," he said. "Some things I hear about Art Pope—you know, I don't like this guy Art Pope that they're talking about. I don’t know him. If what they say were true, I wouldn’t like a lot of things about me. But they're just not true."
Before the 2008 election, Gwynne got the reclusive Texan who was America's (then) top political donor to open up a bit.
In spite of such a massive political presence, Perry is as mysterious as some of the groups he funds. He never talks to the press, rarely appears in public, and remains an inscrutable figure even to people to whom he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars. He might have maintained this relatively low profile indefinitely, except that in 2004 he was the largest funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the controversial 527 that many people credit with derailing John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Almost overnight, Perry became a poster boy for the notion that a cabal of wealthy donors, shady consultants, and unaccountable 527’s was taking over American politics.
In this epic tale, Kroll details the four-decade battle over campaign finance starting with Watergate money laundering and culminating in the current super-PAC free-for-all.
"We're back to the Nixon era," says Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, "the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics." This is the story of how we got here.
The dawn of the super-PAC era caught a lot of people by surprise. Mencimer profiles James Bopp, the legal mastermind who made it possible.
Clad in a brown sweater and sitting awkwardly with a cane at his side, Bopp looked far more mortal than you might expect for "the man behind our secret elections," as Common Cause recently dubbed him (PDF). When I asked him about the allegation that he uses his small, nonprofit clients as cover for a big-business agenda, a frustrated look crossed his face. He'd happily represent corporate clients, he said, "if they'd hire me." The problem, he said, was that those clients want their lawyers in DC, not Indiana.
Toobin documents how one of the defining decisions of the Roberts Supreme Court arose from a case of seemingly "modest importance."
In a different way, though, Citizens United is a distinctive product of the Roberts Court. The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents. When the Court announced its final ruling on Citizens United, on January 21, 2010, the vote was five to four and the majority opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy. Above all, though, the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.
With his signature prose, the author of Pity the Billionaireinvestigates the deep-pocketed players paying for the 2012 election.
It dawned on the world that we had reached a new level of campaign savagery during the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. For a brief moment, you will recall, Newt Gingrich, who had foresworn negative advertising and was behaving in an uncharacteristically congenial manner, took the lead in public-opinion polls. Almost immediately, Mitt Romney—which is to say, Mitt Romney's studiously non-aligned corporate doppelgänger, the Restore Our Future Super PAC—blitzed his slow-moving opponent with a storm of derisive TV commercials. The spots ran day and night, and utterly destroyed Gingrich’s standing in the polls.
Among people who follow campaign spending closely, this seems to have been a sort of Hiroshima moment: the vast power of a new weapon was finally unveiled. Candidates like Romney could appear to be models of civic virtue, without an unkind or even combative thought in their heads, while their wealthy patrons came together to heap ridicule on their rivals, in unprecedented quantities of advertising and degrees of viciousness. All of the hand-shaking and diner-visiting and carefully drawn position papers were swept into irrelevance.
David Corn sat down with Politico's Joe Williams and X-L Alliance's Liliana Gil on MSNBC's "Martin Bashir" to hash out Mitt Romney's speech to Latino leaders today. Is there anything Mitt can say—or any amount he can spend—that can limit the President's advantage on immigration?
Later, they discussed the legalities of a GOP retreat to the uber-elite ski country of Deer Valley, Utah—a trip that will feature Mitt Romney, GOP leaders, and Super PAC all-stars. Apparently skiing and shmoozing do not qualify as "coordination."
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.
Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post dings the Obama campaign today for claiming that Bain Capital "shipped jobs to China and Mexico" while Mitt Romney was CEO:
Upon hearing this ad was under consideration for a tough rating, the Obama campaign supplied reams of additional SEC documents regarding Romney’s ownership in Bain after he left for the Olympics, most of which we had examined previously when we first looked at this question. The campaign also supplied SEC documents showing that two of these companies, Modus and SMTC, as well as one called Stream International (a predecessor of Modus), earned money in part by helping other companies subcontract work overseas. Some of this business predated Romney’s departure from Bain, but thus far it seems a slim case for this particular ad.
A Washington Post examination of securities filings shows the extent of Bain’s investment in firms that specialized in helping other companies move or expand operations overseas.
....Bain’s foray into outsourcing began in 1993 when the private equity firm took a stake in Corporate Software Inc., or CSI....Two years after Bain invested in the firm, CSI merged with another enterprise to form a new company called Stream International Inc. Stream immediately became active in the growing field of overseas calls centers....By 1997, Stream was running three tech-support call centers in Europe and was part of a call center joint venture in Japan, an SEC filing shows.
....The corporate merger that created Stream also gave birth to another, related business known as Modus Media Inc., which specialized in helping companies outsource their manufacturing....According to a news release issued by Modus Media in 1997, its expansion of outsourcing services took place in close consultation with Bain.
....Another Bain investment was electronics manufacturer SMTC Corp....The company said that communications and networking companies “are dramatically increasing the amount of manufacturing they are outsourcing and we believe our technological capabilities and global manufacturing platform are well suited to capitalize on this opportunity.”
So who's right, the Washington Post or the Washington Post? I excerpt, you decide.
Does George Zimmerman's account of what happened on the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin add up? That question, and whether or not he acted legally in self-defense, will be adjudicated in a Florida court. Aside from Zimmerman landing back in jail for allegedly lying during his bond hearing, the story on the Martin killing has been relatively quiet in recent weeks. But now, on the court's orders, Zimmerman's legal team has been forced to release additional documentary evidence, including a written statement from Zimmerman and a police video (above) in which he reenacts the deadly altercation for investigators the day after it went down.
It isn't hard to see why Zimmerman's attorneys were reluctant to make the material public. It raises more questions and reveals apparent discrepancies in his story.
In a four-page written statement to police on February 26, the night of the shooting(see the document below), Zimmerman says Martin "circled his vehicle" and then disappeared into the darkness as Zimmerman spoke to a police dispatcher on his cell phone. When the dispatcher asked him for his location, Zimmerman wrote in the statement, "I could not remember the name of the street so I got out of my car to look for a street sign."
His stated reason for exiting his vehicle may not be implausible, but it's certainly odd: After all, Zimmerman had lived in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a small gated community, for years. And he was a leader of its Neighborhood Watch program; prior to the night he killed Martin, he'd called the police no less than 46 times since 2004 to report alleged incidents in the neigborhood. This is a guy who now doesn't recognize which street he's on in his neighborhood?
Also eyebrow-raising is Zimmerman's recollection of the violence that took place after he exited his vehicle. In the written statement, Zimmerman describes reaching for his cell phone to dial 911 as Martin accosts him, comes at him, and punches him in the face. "I fell backwards onto my back," Zimmerman wrote. "The suspect got on top of me."
But in his reenactment at the scene, filmed the day after the shooting by police investigators, Zimmerman describes moving forward after Martin punches him in the face, not falling onto his back. "I think I stumbled," he tells investigators, gesturing forward with his right hand from the spot where he says Martin punched him. "I fell down, he pushed me down, somehow he got on top of me."
An investigator then asks, "On the grass or on the cement?"
Zimmerman points and walks forward about six paces, the camera following him, as he responds: "It was more over towards here. I think I was trying to push him away from me, and then he got on top of me somewhere around here, and that's when I started screaming for help."
Zimmerman has a right to his day in court. It's important to keep that in mind. But as more information from the investigation emerges, it doesn't seem to be doing much for his case in the court of public opinion.
The existence of the Commerce Department, a.k.a. the Department of Corporate Welfare, suggests that Washington has little institutional confidence in free markets and believes that markets must be guided by the sorts of geniuses who end up working in the Commerce Department.
A. Agitate for better personnel at the Commerce Department.
B. Abolish the Commerce Department.
I’m voting for B.
This is our lucky day! It turns out that back in January President Obama asked Congress for the authority to do just that, so all we have to do is put together a bipartisan consensus of National Review pundits and Mother Jones pundits and we should be all set.
Of course, there are some details to work out here, just like there always are when people suggest getting rid of cabinet departments. The Commerce Department, for example, includes the Census Bureau. Can't get rid of that. BEA produces some pretty useful statistics. NOAA does good work on that whole hurricane prediction thing. NIST is handy to have around so we know what time it is and how long an inch is supposed to be. Patents and trademarks really need to be kept going. And someone has to negotiate trade agreements.
Anyway, it turns out Obama wants to keep all that stuff and just put it into a new agency with a different name, which means that even his optimistic estimate is that deep-sixing Commerce would only save $3 billion per year. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not exactly earth-shaking stuff. Williamson might want the ax to swing a little harder, but I'm not sure how much harder it can really swing.
In any case, this is a good example of the problem with people — usually people running for president — using the elimination of cabinet departments as conservative applause lines. It sounds good, but it's like taking potshots at the visible parts of icebergs. What you really want to do is look below the waterline and ask which agencies all those presidential wannabes are planning to get rid of. After all, just shuffling them around into other departments doesn't save much money.
During the Republican Primary, Mitt Romney had a very clear position on immigration: All unauthorized immigrants need to leave.
Heading into the general election, Romney's position on immigration now sounds more like a relationship status on Facebook: It's complicated.
In his speech before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Thursday, Romney dodged most of the direct questions about what he'd do on immigration policy while attempting to strike a moderate tone at odds with his primary rhetoric about making undocumented immigrants lives so miserable that they "self-deport." Having spent months appealing to the anti-immigrant base of the GOP to out-conservative Rick Perry and New Gingrich on the issue, Romney has now shifted to a strategy of strategic obfuscation. In a speech touted by his campaign as a "long-term strategy" on immigration reform, Romney completely avoided the two big questions: How will Romney deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the US, and what will he do about the DREAM Act-eligible immigrants Obama spared from deportation last week? Romney offered nothing resembling a straight answer to either of these questions.
For example, Mitt Romney's web page states that "Illegal immigrants who apply for legal status should not be given any advantage over those who are following the law and waiting their turn. Mitt absolutely opposes any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to 'cut in line.'" In his speech however, Romney said "As president, I will reallocate green cards to those seeking to keep their families under one roof. We will exempt from caps the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents. And we will eliminate other forms of bureaucratic red tape that keep families from being together."
Like much of Romney's speech, this is just vague enough to give the impression that Romney has moderated on immigration policy without making an actual commitment to any policy changes. But does his statement about green cards mean that he'd allow the undocumented relatives of legal permanent residents to stay, which would be a dramatic shift from his prior position? It's unclear.
During the primary, Romney promised to veto the DREAM Act, yet he chose not to reiterate that commitment today. Instead, he said, "Some people have asked if I will let stand the president's executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president's temporary measure." Calling that an "answer" doesn't make it an answer. Romney's statement completely avoids the question it supposedly addresses. Is Romney committing to some kind of comprehensive immigration reform? What is this "long-term solution"? Will it allow some undocumented immigrants to stay? He doesn't say.
There are some elements of the speech immigration reform activists should like—Romney spoke about making legal immigration easier so as to discourage illegal immigration. That's likely the only permanent solution.
Overall, Romney's speech was a parade of sidesteps and distortions. Romney said Obama "failed to address immigration reform" despite having "huge majorities" that made him "free to pursue any policy he pleased." In fact the Democrats filibuster-proof majority lasted about 14 weeks, and Obama's attempts to address immigration reform meet with unanimous opposition and obstruction from Senate Republicans. Republicans blocked immigration reform and are now blaming Obama for not addressing it.
Will Romney's immigration speech neutralize Obama's advantage with Latinos concerned about immigration? Anyone's guess, but it probably shouldn't. Romney continues to dodge the most basic, direct questions about his positions on immigration, while asking Latino voters to pay no attention to the candidate he was during the primary.
For decades, FDA saw its duty to reckon with antibiotic abuse on factory livestock farms like many of us see the dentist: as something to be put off as long as possible. Meanwhile, evidence piled up like manure in a chicken factory that giving animals small, daily antibiotic doses gives rise to antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people.
But the public may be running out of patience with the FDA's toothless-watchdog approach to regulating the meat industry. A just-released nationwide poll conducted for Consumers Union found that the majority of people are none-too-thrilled with tjhe role of antibiotics in ag. Results:
Chart: Consumers Union
As someone who writes about this topic a bit, I'm quite heartened by these findings. People are finally starting to care about what the meat industry gets up to in order to profitably churn out cheap burgers, pork chops, and drumsticks.
Consumers also expressed enthusiasm for alternatives to meat raised in a deluge of antibiotics. From the complete report:
More than 60% of respondents stated that they would be willing to pay at least five cents a pound more for meat raised without antibiotics. Over a third (37%) would pay a dollar or more extra per pound.
Yet 24 percent of respondents said their supermarkets offered no access to antibiotic-free meat products—and of those, 82 percent said they would buy them if they could.
Consumer Union also sent "secret shoppers" into at least five stores operated by each of the nation's 13 largest grocery chains, to get a snapshot of what consumers have access to. They found the widest variety of antibiotic-free meat products at five chains: Whole Foods (where all meat offerings come from animals raised without antibiotics), Giant, Hannaford, Shaw's, and Stop & Shop.
At other chains, however, Consumer Union's shoppers found no antibiotic-free products. They are as follows.
Sam’s Club, owned by Wal-Mart (6 stores surveyed); Food Lion, owned by Delhaize (3 stores surveyed); Save-a-Lot, owned by Supervalu (3 stores surveyed); and Food 4 Less, owned by Kroger (1 store surveyed).
What all of this tells me is that consumers want alternatives to the pharmaceutical-meat complex and the market isn't doing enough to deliver them. It's time for the FDA to step up and act.
Surprise! Mitt Romney, who was immigration's most strident foe during the primaries, has suddenly discovered that "we can find common ground here, and we must." Also unsurprisingly, he's still declining to take a firm stand on President Obama's mini-DREAM order:
“Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action,” he said. “The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure.”
In a narrowly tailored but near-unanimous decision on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission's regulations regarding "indecency" are unconstitutionally vague. Most of the Justices didn't question whether the FCC had the authority to regulate television content for indecency—instead, they argued the FCC had failed to give the networks "fair notice" that certain content could be considered indecent.
The content in question seems somewhat quaint in the age of the Internet—ABC aired "seven seconds of nude buttocks" accompanied by a few more seconds of sideboob on NYPD Blue in 2003, while Fox aired "isolated utterances of obscene words" by "the singer Cher" and "a person named Nicole Richie" during the Billboard Music Awards in 2002.
Of the eight Justices who ruled on the issue (Sonia Sotomayor recused herself because she was a judge on the Second Circuit when it took the case), only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a brief concurrence, questioned whether the FCC's authority was too broad. Ginsburg wrote that the 1978 case upholding the FCC's authority to regulate "indecency" over the airwaves was "untenable" and "bears reconsideration." (The 1978 case involved a hilarious radio monologue from the late comedian George Carlin.)
The court's narrow ruling reflects a very different attitude towards the First Amendment than the one on display in the court's decision in Citizens' United, which opened the spigot for unlimited, unregulated corporate money in elections. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his Citizens United opinion, "it is our law and tradition that more speech, not less, is the governing rule." That rule appears to apply only to unlimited corporate cash, not sideboob. Which do you think is more threatening to the democratic process?
The survey’s indicators for general activity, new orders, shipments, and average work hours were all negative this month, suggesting overall declines in business....Nearly 40 percent of the firms reported declines in activity this month, exceeding the 22 percent that reported increases in activity. Indexes for new orders and shipments also showed notable declines, falling 18 and 20 points, respectively.
Presumably Ben Bernanke and the other Fed governors knew this yesterday, when they met and decided not to do much about the economy. Perhaps they were swayed by the fact that the future outlook remained "positive." Perhaps they don't think there's anything more they can do. I don't know.