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Bipartisanship

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 3:49 PM EST
Mike Tomasky defends Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans:

The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.

But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.

But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.

True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.

This is a good point, but frankly, I'd go further.  I'd say those meetings were almost entirely about optics.  The fact is that Republican critics are right: Obama really didn't do much beyond symbolism to reach out to the GOP during the crafting of the stimulus package.

I know, I know: $300 billion in tax cuts, lots of yakking, family planning cuts, etc. etc.  But seriously.  Was any of that really the result of negotiating with Republicans?  The tax cuts were mostly in there for two reasons: (a) they were campaign promises, and (b) the Obama team couldn't come up with $800 billion in spending that would feed into the economy fast enough.  Tax cuts weren't there because Obama asked Republicans what they wanted in the bill, they were there because he didn't have much choice.

Beyond that, what did Republicans get?  Nothing much.  A few symbolic cuts in culture war outlays that are almost certain to be restored in the regular budget anyway.  Some meetings where Obama listened carefully, said some soothing words, and didn't change a thing.  And that's about it.  In the end the final package included some modest changes demanded by three centrist Republicans, but that was only because they held the whip hand and were able to force them on him.  Bipartisanship had nothing to do with it.

And you know what? I think this is fine.  The crackpot wing of the GOP was never going to come around anyway (they're going to need several more years in the wilderness before they start to regain their sanity), and in the meantime Obama gets to bask in warm national glow of having tried his best.  Eventually this will pay off as a few vulnerable Republicans figure out that endless obstructionism isn't doing them any good in the polls — and look over there, there's a midterm election coming up!  Then, suddenly, genuine bipartisanship will be back in style.  And Obama will end up the winner.

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Miserable News for Sen. Burris

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 3:26 PM EST

I think time is short for Roland. Especially considering these newest revelations:

The names of lobbying clients that Sen. Roland W. Burris declared to a state legislative panel do not match those on records he filed over the last decade with Illinois and Chicago agencies, a CQ analysis of the records has found.

The discovery comes as Burris, an Illinois Democrat, is fending off calls for his resignation for failing to fully explain his dealings with impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed him to succeed President Obama. The Senate Ethics Committee also is looking into discrepancies in his statements to the Illinois House Impeachment Committee.

...records with the secretary of state show Burris representing the Council of Independent Tobacco Manufacturers of America from 2003 to 2005 and the Illinois Association of Mortgage Brokers in 2007. But those clients don’t appear in his filing with the Impeachment Committee.

Dick Durbin, Burris' fellow senator from Illinois, who happens to be the number two Democrat in the Senate and a close friend of the president's, said that Burris' bumbling answers to the questions about his relationship with Rod Blagojevich raised "serious questions." With new scandals about his lobbying background piled on top of those problems, I'd be stunned if he remains.

As U.S. Tightens Environmental Rules, Cash-Strapped States Loosen Them

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:41 PM EST
The stimulus package is an environmental boon, the EPA will probably regulate carbon, and Sen. Harry Reid wants to take a green pen to the Energy Bill. It looks like the best week in years for environmentalists--until, that is, you step out of the Beltway. To help close massive budget deficits, states across the country are weakening environmental rules.

Exhibit A is California, where today legislators closed a $41 billion budget gap in part by nixing air pollution rules that would have cost the housing industry millions. The measure delays requirements for builders to retrofit diesel construction equipment, slashing by 17 percent the emissions savings that the state had hoped to achieve by 2014. The move will probably prevent Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and other highly polluted regions from meeting federal air quality deadlines. It will also reduce the "green jobs" the state had hoped to create by retrofitting old equipment. The Sierra Club's California director told the LA Times: "With the magnitude of the forces at play here, the environmental issues have taken a back seat to taxes."

California's move follows on the heels of other states. In Oklahoma:
State agencies that protect public water supplies, manage the state's flood plains and protect Oklahomans from the dangers of hazardous waste would bear some of the biggest cuts under Gov. Brad Henry's proposed state budget for the upcoming year.
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors the state's air and water quality as well as solid, hazardous and low-level radioactive waste, lost almost $2 million in appropriations from its current $9.7 million budget, a reduction of 20 percent.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board, responsible for setting water quality standards, enforcing dam safety regulations and managing Oklahoma's flood plains, lost more than $1.1 million from its $4.6 million budget, a 25 percent reduction.
And that's not all: Pennsylvania's proposed budget reduces funding for three state environmental agencies by 1.5 to 9 percent. The state of  Washington's panel that tracks pesticide exposure was axed. And the budget for New York State's Environmental Protection Fund, which buys open space, parks, and clean water projects, is being slashed from $300 million to $205 million.

As things get worse, Republican state legislators are likely to push for even deeper cuts. After all, enviro regs cost businesses money and slow down "shovel ready" projects. In Florida yesterday the St. Petersburg Times reported:

Florida legislative leaders want to make it easier to get permits to destroy wetlands, tap the water supply and wipe out endangered species habitat, all in the interest of building houses, stores and offices.

They say streamlining the permitting process will get the economy moving again.
All of this should be a sobering counterpoint to optimism about the stimulus bill and the new green tone in Washington. Without more direct aid to cash-strapped states, it will be hard to fix things faster than the provinces burn through the green.

Kurdistan

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:28 PM EST
The recent provincial elections in Iraq excluded the four provinces of Kurdistan but did include the mixed border province of Nineveh, which was won by Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party. McClatchy's Leila Fadel reports:

Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq [] the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.

....Because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ran on a strong central government platform and America's restraining influence will wane as U.S. troops draw down during the next three years, there may be nothing to stop a Kurdish-Arab war.

"They will actually try to draw a new green line," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "Kurds have been strong since 2003, and now they're not as strong and they've somewhat overreached. The question is: Are they going to concede some things or are they going to fight over this?"

"Violence could happen for sure," Hiltermann said. "Eventually, the strongest is going to win. The question is, who is the strongest? The Kurds have pushed the bridge too far, and they don't have the power to realize it."

The good news, I suppose, is that a Kurdish-Arab war has been right around the corner for years, but it never happens.  So maybe it won't this time either.  But this is still the soft underbelly of Iraqi federalism and worth keeping an eye on.

Bush Takes Broadway

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:27 PM EST
He's only been out of office a month, but already the public is clamoring to see George W. Bush—Will Ferrell as Bush, that is.

In the Broadway show You're Welcome America. One Final Night with George W. Bush, Ferrell reprises his popular SNL impression of Dubya. And while few have made pilgrimages to see the real 43 at his Texas digs, Ferrell's lampooning has already drummed up $5 million in advance sales.

Critics are calling the show—which opened early this month and will run through mid-March—fun, if predictable. Notes The Guardian: "It does not induce surprise or provoke new debate...(but) it does offer a perfectly competent performance; rather more than you could say of its subject."

Is it too much to hope that Tina Fey/Sarah Palin will be next?

Oscar Time

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:58 PM EST
It occurred to me last week that I don't care about the Academy Awards this year.  Not a big deal, of course — lots of people don't care about them — but this is sort of unusual for me.  I'm not a huge film junkie or anything, but I probably see 30 or 40 movies a year and I always love watching the Oscars.  It's the only awards show I like.

But this year?  Eh.  If I miss it I won't care much.  It's the movies themselves, I guess.  The odds-on favorite for Best Picture is Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that was entertaining enough to watch but that wore badly on me the more I thought about it.  The game show schtick began to fray about halfway through, and the rest of the plot contrivances were worthy of a mediocre cable drama series.  If this had been an American movie made in Hollywood, it wouldn't have gotten a second look from anybody.

And the rest?  I enjoyed Benjamin Button, but it's an inch deep.  Frost/Nixon was OK but never really did much for me.  The Reader left me entirely cold.  By process of elimination, I guess that means my favorite is Milk, which had a great performance from Sean Penn but was otherwise pretty flat.

And the Best Actress category?  What a travesty.  Melissa Leo gave the best performance of the year, but Nate Silver says she has a 0% chance of winning, and who am I to argue with Nate Silver?  The two top picks, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, gave performances that I thought were grotesquely bad, and I can hardly stand the thought of seeing one of them take home the statue.

On the other hand, I'm OK with Heath Ledger winning for his Joker portrayal, and both Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn are good picks for Best Actor.  So it's not all bad.  More broadly, though, I can't remember the last time there wasn't even a single movie whose chances I cared much about.  How about you?

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Down in the Hood

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:24 PM EST
The new chairman of the GOP really knows how connect with the youth of America:

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an “off the hook” public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

This is ridiculous.  I'm a 50-year-old white guy from Orange County, but even I've seen the nationally televised ad that makes clear just how antique that phrase is.  What's next?  A GOP initiative to attract all the hep cats from North Beach?

Carbon Dioxide Followup

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:48 PM EST
My post last night about the EPA regulating carbon dioxide emissions was a quickie, just intended to pass along the news and note some of the political implications.  But David Roberts says I may be downplaying how important these new EPA regs could be:

This element of Obama's impending energy policy hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. If he does it right, it could be the secret weapon that kills new coal plants for good — with far greater certainty than a middling cap-and-trade program. Obama has always said, to those who were listening closely, that he plans to prevent the construction of a new fleet of dirty coal plants, if not by carbon pricing then by other means. EPA regs are the other means. Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, EPA regs could hasten the demise of existing coal plants.

Read the whole thing for a more detailed understanding of what EPA may end up doing.  And for the wonks among you, David also has a more detailed explanation than I did of the difficulties with using the machinery of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

New coal plants are already expensive and hard to build.  If EPA institutes even modest new CO2 regs they'll become so prohibitively expensive that we'll never build another one on U.S. soil.  Politically, this will cause (a) howls of protest from the midwest, which relies heavily on coal-fired electricity, and (b) enormous pressure to set up an alternative regulatory regime.  But any plausible alternative, even if it's weaker than the EPA regs, is likely to raise the price of building a coal-fired power plant beyond what anyone is willing to pay for it.  There's a pretty good chance that this is, finally, the beginning of the end for coal.

Edsall Slams Greenspan

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:41 PM EST

Going after Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, these days is like shooting dead fish in a drained-out bathtub. But Thomas Edsall spanks the onetime Oracle something awful in HuffPo. The piece opens:

On June 10, 1999, at the height of his power, Alan Greenspan told members of Harvard's graduating class how, in the future, they should assess their lives: "The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake."

As Edsall goes on to detail, there's now plenty of bloody mess in Greenspan's wake. He notes that Greenspan had a hand in most of the major regulatory actions (or, put more accurately, non-actions) that led to the current collapse of capitalism as we (and he) know it. These days, the former acolyte of Ayn Rand is advocating the "temporary" nationalization" of "lemon banks" to "facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring." From free-market laissez-faire to corporate socialism, what a long, strange trip it's been. Too bad he took the rest of us on it.

Pack Journalism

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Ezra sez:

I love Mike Allen's Playbook. Unabashedly. I wouldn't even deny that it's "the 4chan of political reporting." But it's the best guide to the morning news, and Allen mixes "drive the day" trivia — and there is a lot of that — with a good eye for the substance in stories.

Eh.  Count me out.  We all complain about pack journalism and the glorification of process over policy, but then we all start out our days with.....Playbook.  And The Note.  And The Page.  And Memeorandum.  And then we all spend the rest of the day writing about the exact same bunch of process trivia because Mike Allen woke up before us and that's what he told us to write about.

There's nothing to be done about this.  It's human nature.  But I don't have to like it, and I don't.