2013 - %3, April

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 26, 2013

Fri Apr. 26, 2013 10:13 AM EDT

Flames light up the sky as a Marine launches a PL-87 Stinger Missile at a flying drone over Onslow Beach on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., April 16, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cory D. Polom.

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Corn on MSNBC: Luntz's Gripe With Rush Limbaugh

Thu Apr. 25, 2013 8:25 PM EDT

A tape of GOP consultant Frank Luntz knocking Rush Limbaugh, released today by Mother Jones, indicates just how tired the party might be of its polarized membership. Listen to DC bureau chief David Corn discuss the video and its ramifications with talk show host Joe Madison and MSNBC's Al Sharpton on Politics Nation:

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

Keep it Short

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 6:01 PM EDT

They say brevity is the soul of wit. Austin Frakt says it's also the soul of persuasion. To prove it, he points us to Tim Harford, who summarizes an experiment in which various versions of a letter were sent to people who might qualify for a refund on a product they bought:

[Four] tweaks had substantial effects: first, cutting a paragraph of waffle that had helped to bury the message about the refund; second, pointing out that a five-minute phone call would suffice to make a claim; third, sending a follow-up letter. And twice as large as any of these effects was adding a couple of bullet points in bold at the top with the key message: you may deserve a refund; if so, call us.

Of course, we already knew this, right? It's why journal abstracts exist. It's why blogs exist. It's why haiku exists. Come on! We're busy people around here.

On the other hand, it doesn't explain the appeal of those endless, rambling, conspiracy theory laden letters that people like Glenn Beck and Ron Paul send out. What's the deal with those, anyway?

I Am Tired of People Calling Me On the Phone

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 4:42 PM EDT

I've been getting a ton of telemarketing calls lately. They're all over the map: some are from people I've done business with before, some are cold calls, some are illegal robocalls, some are from opinion pollsters, etc.  But one way or another, I get at least half a dozen every day, and sometimes as many as twice that number.

I'm curious: is this just me? Or are lots of people noticing a big uptick in this stuff?

Chris Christie Is Right About Parents and Violent Video Games—But His Policy Is Wrong

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 4:07 PM EDT
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" would be restricted under Christie's proposed law.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fashioned himself as a GOP maverick of late, upsetting people in his own party almost as often as political opponents. From praising President Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy last year, to seeking a ban on the .50 caliber Barrett rifle more recently, he keeps managing to ruffle Republicans' feathers.

His push to restrict violent video games, however, part of his plan to deal with gun violence, is likely to please the right. Christie wants to require parental consent in New Jersey in order for minors to purchase "Mature" rated video games. The idea aligns with the NRA's own suggestions for curbing school shootings and has broad appeal. It's not actually a ban, but rather another layer of regulation. 

"This is just common sense," the governor said of his plan, "and means that parents and legal guardians are actively engaged and aware of the kinds of games their kids are buying and renting." Christie's reasoning is actually pretty sound—even if his legal thinking isn't. (More on that in a minute.)

When I've written about violence in video games in the past, I've argued that the most important thing a parent can do is be actively engaged in what their kids are playing. (That goes for any kind of media consumption.) Play games with your kids, and make sure the content they're zapping into their impressionable young minds is something you approve of. I don't think most kids will be transformed into violent monsters by video games—and to date, there is no solid research indicating that's a serious possibility—but that doesn't mean each game out there is appropriate for every kid.

The problem with Christie's plan is that it runs afoul of the right to free speech; attempts to ban violent video games or restrict their sale have already been overturned by the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the video game industry has actually done a vastly improved job at self-regulating over the last decade. Even though M-rated games aren't backed by laws limiting their sale to minors, that doesn't mean it's easy for children to buy these games. A recent report from the Federal Trade Commission found that only 13 percent of minors were able to purchase M-rated titles in 2012, dramatically down over the last 12 years. The FTC sent undercover "mystery shoppers" between the ages of 13 and 16 into retail shops to gather this data. By comparison, the FTC found that minors were able to purchase CDs with explicit content nearly half of the time, and buy R-rated movie tickets nearly a quarter of the time.

FTC

In other words, the video game industry and the retailers who sell video games are leading the pack, effectively keeping minors from buying M-rated titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. Most of the kids with these games get them from their parents, legal guardians, or other people over the age of 18.

The real trick is ensuring that parents are actually, well, parenting—overseeing or playing the games with their kids in the confines of their own homes, or in the homes of their friends. This is beyond the scope of government regulation.

Christie may have great intentions, but his legislation will almost certainly not hold up in court, and even if it did it's unlikely that we'd see a significant change in video game sales to minors. And it requires another leap from there to assume that stricter regulations on video games would have any impact on real world violence, including school shootings. It would be better for Christie and other leaders to continue pushing for better gun control laws—even though that may allow their opponents to score political points against them.

Speaking of gun control and "political suicide," I'll leave you with this hilarious yet deeply troubling segment from The Daily Show's John Oliver:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Gun Control & Political Suicide
www.thedailyshow.com
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Florida Tea Party's Unemployment Tests Get Flunked by the Feds

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 3:50 PM EDT

Tea partiers revere the Constitution, which they often study like the Bible, in small groups. But somehow all that devotion to the Founders' original thinking doesn't seem to have much of an impact on their ability to follow its requirements once tea partiers take power in elected office. Take the case of Florida's GOP governor Rick Scott, who has turned Florida into the nation's premiere laboratory for tea party governance. He's been trying for years now to force poor single mothers to take drug tests before getting welfare benefits, a requirement that's since been shot down in federal court twice as likely unconstitutional. And the US Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state for unconstitutionally warehousing disabled children in geriatric nursing homes

Then there's the state's unemployment benefits system, which was "modernized" by the legislature under Scott's leadership in 2011 to become one of the nation's stingiest. A new law required unemployed people to file all claims for benefits online, even though previously at least 40 percent of UI claims were done over the phone. The new online filing system required people to take a "skills review" test that included 45 math and reading questions. Failing to take the test would result in losing eligibility for benefits.

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GOP Takes Another Shot at Derailing Obama's Progressive Labor Nominee

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 2:25 PM EDT

Republicans have been trying for weeks to block President Barack Obama's nomination of Thomas Perez, the chief of the civil rights division at the Justice Department, to run the Labor Department. They haven't succeeded yet. But they're still at it.

Politico's Josh Gerstein reports that Democrats have delayed a vote on Perez nomination that was originally scheduled for Thursday. The Dems moved to postpone the vote after Republicans said they would use an unrelated Senate subcommittee hearing on workplace safety to feature a witness likely to be critical of Perez. Republicans wanted to call Frederick Newell, a St. Paul man whose $180 million lawsuit against the city over its failure to properly dispense federal grants meant for low-income residents was undercut by an agreement Perez helped arrange. The workplace safety hearing has now been postponed as well, with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) accusing Republicans of trying to exploit the hearing to attack Perez and possibly derail his nomination.

As Mother Jones reported in March, in exchange for the Justice Department not joining Newell's lawsuit, St. Paul agreed last year to withdraw a fair housing case before the Supreme Court. Liberals had feared that the conservative justices on the high court would have used the St. Paul case to significantly narrow the ability of the federal government to hold financial institutions accountable for discrimination against minorities.

Republicans were frustrated by the missed opportunity to weaken the Fair Housing Act, a key civil rights law. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) worked hard to convince GOP legislators on the Senate labor committee that Perez acted inappropriately when he helped broker that deal with St. Paul. The House oversight committee, which Issa chairs, released a report last week that accused Perez of shady behavior but failed to detail any specific legal or ethical violations. (Perez consulted with internal ethics monitors at Justice to ensure that the deal was appropriate). Republicans brought up the report during Perez' confirmation hearing last week but there were no fireworks.

Newell is angry about the St. Paul deal for a very particular reason of his own. This St. Paul small business owner spent years putting together evidence that the city of St. Paul wasn't meeting its federal grant obligations. The city entered into an agreement in 2010 with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure it would meet those obligations in the future, and HUD told Mother Jones in March that St. Paul has complied so far.

Though the underlying issue that Newell sued over seems to have been resolved, he didn't get anything out of the deal. Had the lawsuit proceeded and he won, he would have pocketed between 15 and 30 percent of the sum the judge decided St. Paul owed. But it's not clear Newell would have won his case if the Justice Department had joined. The US attorneys in Minnesota thought he had a good case, yet the experts in the civil division believed he did not. When the Justice Department declined to join Newell's lawsuit, it meant that the case would most likely be dismissed, and it was.

So the problem was taken care of, but Newell lost his chance to collect a lot of money. Given all the hard work he put in, it's understandable he's ticked off at Perez. But the fact that Newell didn't get his money doesn't mean Perez did anything improper.

George Bush Was No Dummy, But How About if We Leave it at That?

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 1:30 PM EDT

Thanks to the opening of his presidential library, this is officially "Be Nice to George Bush Week," and we've had quite a few entries in an ongoing competition among conservatives to persuade us that Bush was really a whole lot better than we used to think he was. One of the most widely linked is an essay by Keith Hennessey titled "George W. Bush is smarter than you."

And that may well be. I always thought Bush was a reasonably smart guy, and anyway, above a certain level it doesn't matter much. Other character traits become a lot more important. Still, Hennessey is trying to convince us that Bush is really, really smart, and I'm afraid I remain unconvinced. Here are three examples he provides to demonstrate Bush's high IQ:

[He] was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up.

....We treat Presidential speeches as if they are written by speechwriters, then handed to the President for delivery. If I could show you one experience from my time working for President Bush, it would be an editing session in the Oval with him and his speechwriters. You think that me cold-calling you is nerve-wracking? Try defending a sentence you inserted into a draft speech, with President Bush pouncing on the slightest weakness in your argument or your word choice.

....On one particularly thorny policy issue on which his advisors had strong and deep disagreements, over the course of two weeks we (his senior advisors) held a series of three 90-minute meetings with the President. Shortly after the third meeting we asked for his OK to do a fourth. He said, “How about rather than doing another meeting on this, I instead tell you now what each person will say.” He then ran through half a dozen of his advisors by name and precisely detailed each one’s arguments and pointed out their flaws. (Needless to say there was no fourth meeting.)

This is really unpersuasive. The first example suggests not smarts, but impatience. Bush always thought of himself as a conviction politician, so it's natural that he'd frequently want to skip the policy details and instead focus exclusively on what he considered the "core" question.

The second example doesn't even come close to demonstrating smarts. It demonstrates, once again, impatience. Bush is the kind of guy who wants to say what he wants to say, and he doesn't want a speechwriter trying to twist his words or add some nuance he's not interested in.

The third example—surprise!—also demonstrates impatience (justifiably, it sounds like). In this case, Bush has been in three meetings over the course of two weeks, and his advisors are wrangling over the same issues again and again and again without making any progress. So he's tired of it. He repeats their arguments back to them, says he doesn't need to hear them yet again, and heads off to make a decision.

None of this suggests that Bush is a dumb guy. But it doesn't demonstrate a ton of analytical depth either. It suggests that (a) he has a good memory, (b) he's perfectly able to understand policy arguments when he wants to, but (c) most of the time he had little patience for this stuff and instead simply wanted to do what his political instincts told him to do. He's smart enough, but his intellectual curiosity was limited, and his willingness to allow his instincts to be overridden by policy concerns was minimal.

Maybe you think that's good, maybe you think it's bad. But it is what it is. There's really no need to pretend that Bush was some kind of unappreciated intellectual superman.

The Real Problem With Obamacare

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 11:59 AM EDT

Last night I read a Politico article about Congress trying to exempt itself from Obamacare. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Obamacare doesn't even apply to big employers, so what's to exempt?

Well, it turns out that Congress wrote a special provision into the law that ended its own participation in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and instead requires anyone working on Capitol Hill to buy health insurance through an Obamacare exchange. So that explains that. But it still wasn't clear what the problem was. As the law stands, they have to choose a health plan through the exchange. So what?

This morning, Ezra Klein explains. The whole thing started back in 2009 when Republicans decided to embarrass Democrats by proposing an amendment that forced members of Congress to use Obamacare. Democrats then surprised them by agreeing to it. The problem, it turns out, is that because the amendment was originally intended to be only for show, it was poorly drafted. Big employers aren't even allowed to use the Obamacare exchanges until 2017, so there are no rules for how to handle their premium contributions:

That's where the problem comes in....It's not clear that the federal government has the authority to pay for congressional staffers on the exchanges, the way it pays for them now in the federal benefits program. That could lead to a lot of staffers quitting Congress because they can't afford to shoulder 100 percent of their premiums.

....You'll notice a lot of hedged language here: "Ifs" and "coulds". The reason is that the Office of Personnel Management — which is the agency that actually manages the federal government's benefits — hasn't ruled on their interpretation of the law. So no one is even sure if this will be an issue. As the Politico article notes, some offices, like that of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), interpret the language of the law such that there's no problem at all. Others are worried it could be an issue, and are trying to prepare ways around it. The staffs I talked to stressed this worrying was preliminary, and felt the Politico article was jumping the gun. "This whole Politico story is based on a ruling that hasn't even come down yet," one griped.

So there you have it. But why am I spending time this morning providing you with an explanation for a problem you probably didn't even know existed? Because it allows me to make a point, of course.

But which point? Jon Chait, for example, pairs this up with another story and suggests that Politico is a little too dedicated to covering politics as theater and should try a wee bit harder to understand the actual policy it writes about. Fair enough!

But the point I want to make isn't about Politico, it's about Obamacare itself, and my biggest fear for its future. My biggest fear is not about the various implementation problems that Obamacare is going through right now. Conservatives are making plenty of hay over these obstacles right now, but the truth is that any big law will go through growing pains. When you dig into them, it turns out that most of the problems conservatives are crowing about are either (a) bogus or (b) not really very serious. A single small union complaining about the law, for example, is just not that big a deal, no matter how much Rush Limbaugh tries to pretend otherwise. Ditto for Max Baucus's concerns about marketing; conflicts with university health plans; a supposed increase in workers being forced into part-time work, and so forth.

No, my biggest concern is what happens after 2014. No big law is ever perfect. But what normally happens is that it gets tweaked over time. Sometimes this is done via agency rules, other times via minor amendments in Congress. It's routine. But Obamacare has become such a political bomb that it's not clear that Congress will be willing to fix the minor problems that crop up over time. There's simply too big a contingent of Republicans who are eager to see Obamacare fail and are actively delighted whenever a problem crops up. This has the potential to be a problem that no other big law has ever had to face.

We'll see how this works out. Maybe after 2014 things will cool down a bit and normal horse trading will start up again. But I'm not so sure anymore. After all, I figured that might happen after the November election, and when John Boehner acknowledged that "Obamacare is the law of the land," it seemed like a good sign even with all the hedging he put around it.

But nothing has changed. Republicans are still fervently determined to destroy Obamacare any way they can, and this means that tweaks and fixes are unlikely. Instead, they're going to dig in their heels and gleefully watch as people suffer because of minor implementation glitches that could be easily avoided. In the end, I suspect this strategy won't work. But you never know. It might.

Liberal Super-PAC's First 2014 Target: Michele Bachmann

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 11:44 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

CREDO Super-PAC, the group that spent nearly $3 million to oust five conservative congressmen in 2012, has announced its first target of the 2014 midterms: Tea party firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). The super-PAC says it will spend at least $500,000 to boot Bachmann out of office.

CREDO Super-PAC, an offshoot of the progressive phone company CREDO Mobile*, knows Bachmann all too well. In 2012, the super-PAC named Bachmann one of the "Tea Party Ten" lawmakers that it set out to defeat. But Bachmann's opponent, Democrat Jim Graves, and the outside groups hoping to oust her fell just short: She won by a few thousand votes. When I interviewed Becky Bond, the politically geeky president of CREDO Super-PAC, after the elections, she told me her biggest regret was the Bachmann race. "If we could do it again, we would've taken her on earlier and she would've lost," Bond said.

That explains why CREDO Super-PAC is launching its anti-Bachmann campaign 18 months before the 2014 elections. In its announcement, CREDO says it will use the same data-driven, grassroots-centric strategy to oust Bachmann as it did in 2012. As I've written before, CREDO is something of an outlier on the super-PAC landscape: While most super-PACs poured millions of dollars into TV, radio, and Internet ads, in many cases to little effect, CREDO opened field offices in ten congressional districts, hired organizers, signed up volunteers, and used political data to inform their work.

Here's what CREDO said in its Bachmann announcement:

"What kind of a signal does it send that not only is Rep. Michele Bachmann in Congress, but she's on the House Intelligence Committee?" asked Becky Bond, president of CREDO Super-PAC. "Bachmann's bigotry and bizarre political views don't represent Minnesota values. Bachmann has launched an anti-Muslim witch hunt, actually believes that gay marriage is the biggest problem facing the nation, and has even claimed that Obamacare kills people.

"Bachmann won by a mere 4,000 votes in 2012, and is beatable in 2014. If our volunteers in Minnesota's 6th district can turn out enough voters, the Tea Party Caucus in Congress will be down yet one more bigoted conspiracy theorist."

Aside from being a climate denier and promoting hate and bigotry, Rep. Bachmann has been making headlines lately for being embroiled in multiple campaign scandals. Rep. Bachmann is currently under investigation by the Federal Election Commission, the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee for allegedly authorizing improper campaign payments, among a host of other potentially illegal activities.

Instead of spending millions on expensive TV advertising, CREDO Super-PAC will employ a proven campaign model that helped defeat some of the most extreme Tea Party Republicans in 2012, including former Reps. Chip Cravaack and Allen West. CREDO Super PAC will open an office in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district, hire on the ground organizers, and begin mobilizing volunteers to get out the vote against Bachmann. CREDO Super PAC will use cutting-edge research to target a specific universe of voters in MN-06 to help make the difference on Election Day.

Jim Graves, Bachmann's 2012 opponent, says he will run against her again in 2014.

Right now, Bachmann is in a tight spot. A former aide, Peter Waldron, alleged that Bachmann's presidential campaign made secret payments to an Iowa state senator in violation of Iowa ethics rules. And Bachmann's former chief of staff, Andy Parrish, said in an affidavit that Bachmann "knew and approved of" those payments to the state senator, Kent Sorenson. Sorenson has denied the allegations, calling them "totally baseless, without evidence, and a waste of Iowans' time and money." An attorney for Bachmann says the congresswoman "followed all applicable laws and ethical rules and instructed those working for her to do the same."

*Disclosure: Mother Jones is among the dozens of nonprofits which have received funding from CREDO Mobile through its customer-selected action program.