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Burris' Missed Campaign Lessons

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:34 PM EST
It's often observed that campaigns are fundamentally flawed ways of selecting our elected officials because the skills needed to campaign well are not the same skills needed to govern well. There is some overlap, of course, but George W. Bush's two terms and at least half the members of the House of Representatives are evidence enough that this adage mostly true.

But there are a couple things a politician and his staff learn over the course of a campaign that come in handy once in office: message control, disaster response, even basic PR. These aren't skills that help a politician govern well, but they are skills that help him stay out of trouble and keep him from embarassing his party. As Jason Zengerle notes in TNR, Roland Burris illustrates this perfectly. If Burris had gone through an election for the seat he currently occupies, he and his staff would be far better equipped to handle the almost daily mini-crises that seem to emerge around him. And President Obama wouldn't have to compete with his Senate successor for airtime.

Of course, if Burris had gone through an election for the seat, all of his funny business in Blago-land likely would have come out and he wouldn't have been elected in the first place. Not that that's such a bad thing, either.

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Gobbledegook From the Treasury

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:23 PM EST
Felix Salmon ran the latest missive from the Treasury through a readability calculator and says that it scored only 15 out of 100.  Funny.  Except that I ran the passage through the same calculator he used and it actually produced a score of 0.  Ka-ching!  As near as I can tell, that means it's unintelligible even if you have a PhD in finance.

Anyway, the Treasury's statement is all about further capital injections into banks, and Felix takes his best shot at deciphering it:

I'm not sure I understand this myself, but the government here seems to be coming up with ever-more-obscure forms of capital which it can inject into the banks. We're relatively familiar with preferred shares, common equity, and warrants to buy common equity; now we must add to that list this new animal: mandatory convertible preferred shares, which had a brief moment in the sun back when banks were raising private capital rather than having to go to the government for bailouts.

....What's weird is that the government starts off talking about capital being "in the form of mandatory convertible preferred shares", which implies that those shares are capital, before then going on to say they will "be converted into common equity shares only as needed over time to keep banks in a well-capitalized position" — which implies that they're not really capital unless and until they convert.

Clear as mud, right?  And even the financial press doesn't seem to agree on what message is being sent by all this gobbledegook.  The Wall Street Journal said the Treasury's statement was designed to "quell fears about the viability of major U.S. banks," while the New York Times called it an "unexpectedly assertive" statement that "amounted to a roadmap under which the federal government could, if it wants to, demand a major and possibly a controlling stake in systemically important banks like Citigroup and Bank of America."

So which is it?  My take is this: the Obama brain trust understands that they're almost certainly going to have to nationalize one or two big banks sometime in the next few months.  So they need to prepare the ground for that.  At the same time, fear of nationalization is bad for everyone, so they're also doing their best to publicly claim that it's the farthest thing from their minds and they remain fully dedicated to the idea of keeping the banking system in private hands.  That's a pretty tough tightrope to walk in plain English, so they really have no choice except to resort to Greenspanian gobbledegook.  We should probably expect more of this in the future.

Nate Silver's Computer Only Works On Politics

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:12 PM EST

It's actually kind of nice to know that the guy is fallible. After correctly predicting just about every aspect of the 2008 elections, if statistical superhero Nate Silver had gotten the Oscars right too, he might have been burned as a witch by an angry, frightened populace. But as Kevin mentioned last night, Silver got two of his six predictions wrong: Penelope Cruz beat Taraji P. Henson for Best Supporting Actress, while Sean Penn prevailed over Mickey Rourke. Silver has posted a lengthy bit of navel-gazing over at 538.com, and while he attributes his supercomputer's error on the Supporting Actress call to the "unusual circumstance" surrounding the shift of Kate Winslett's Reader role to the lead category, his explanation of the Penn win is a little less, well, technical:

In the Best Actor category, we might also have learned a thing or two last night. Namely, it probably doesn't help to be a huge jackass (like Mickey Rourke) to all of your peers when those peers are responsible for deciding whether you receive a major, life-altering award.

Darn those jackasses: they're always screwing up the computer models! Well, we forgive you, Nate, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb if I say that if you had to get something wrong, we're glad it was the Oscars and not the election.

The Sin City Express

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Is Senator Straight Talk still telling lies about all the rail money in the stimulus bill being earmarked for a train between LA and Las Vegas?  Yes he is.  Of course, you may recall that he was also happy to lie endlessly about Sarah Palin rejecting an earmark for the Bridge to Nowhere during last year's campaign, so I guess this is no big surprise.  Dogs don't change their spots.

Faking a Filibuster

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:12 PM EST
Over the past couple of years it's become a liberal rallying cry that if Republicans want to filibuster every bill, then Harry Reid ought to make them carry out a real filibuster, Jimmy Stewart style.  Make 'em talk.  Make 'em read from the phone book.  Put it all on CSPAN and let the American public see what GOP obstructionism is really all about.

But Ryan Grim, in an interesting piece over at the Huffington Post today, concludes that it's not going to happen.  Apparently Reid's office has studied the history of the filibuster and says that although at least one Republican senator can be forced to stay on the Senate floor to prevent a vote, he can't be forced to talk.  Bob Dove, who worked as a Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001, agrees:

As both Reid's memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

The presiding officer would then be required to call the roll. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over. At no point would the obstructing Republican be required to defend his position, read from the phone book or any of the other things people associate with the Hollywood version of a filibuster.

....Since [Strom Thurmond in 1957], says Dove, the only time the majority tried to jam a bill through the Senate without having 60 votes ahead of time ended in failure.

Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was majority leader in 1988, when Democrats controlled 54 seats and wanted to push through campaign finance reform. But Republican minority leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming was easily able to block it by sitting on the Senate floor and occasionally noting the absence of a quorum, thwarting a vote...."It was almost a farce," says Dove. "The bottom line is the bill never passed."

Back to square one, then: get rid of the filibuster entirely.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Chatting with Michael Pollan

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 11:31 AM EST
In our current issue, we interview Michael Pollan, the man of the moment in liberal food policy.  One way to get people to eat better, he says, is to team up with allies whose economic interests happen to line up with healthier eating:

MJ: Does WIC [the Women, Infants, and Children program] still specify that you buy dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops — fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

Hooray for California!  But the reality is, this is how things get done.  Read the rest of the interview for more interesting food stuff.

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Jindal vs. Crist: A Battle for the Ideological Heart of the GOP

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 9:56 AM EST

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) is a hardline conservative who opposes the stimulus, going so far as to turn down a small portion of Louisiana's stimulus funds. Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) is a moderate who supports the stimulus, going so far as to campaign on its behalf with President Obama. (Crist is good on the environment, too.)

Both Jindal and Crist are preparing themselves for 2012 and 2016. Sunday, they appeared on the morning talk shows and the contrast between them couldn't have been clearer. Here's a summary from MSNBC:

In dueling interviews, we saw one governor -- Bobby Jindal -- rooted mostly in a conservative ideology that plays very well in the South and with the base, but not in some other parts of the country and not with many swing voters. "I think we just have a fundamental disagreement here. I don't think the best way to do that is for the government to tax and borrow more money," Jindal said. "I think the best thing they could've done, for example, was to cut taxes on things like capital gains, the lower tax brackets, to get the private sector spending again." And we saw another governor -- Charlie Crist -- rooted in what he claims is pragmatism in a key presidential battleground state. "I'm a Florida Republican. And in the Florida way, we work together in a bipartisan fashion to do what's right for the people. That's really what it's all about," he said. This has become perhaps the key question for the Republican Party: In which direction does it want to go? The GOP in the short term will divide on this question: Is the government more of a problem or more of a problem-solver?

Republican primary voters value ideology over pragmatism. General election swing voters value pragmatism over ideology. So which governor is better positioned for a run for the White House? The success (or failure) of the stimulus will almost certainly decide.

Bobby Jindal Outfoxes Everyone

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 8:56 AM EST

Well, don't I feel stupid. Last week I said that Governor Bobby Jindal's claim that he was considering turning down stimulus cash because of his fiscally conservative principles was just so much political grandstanding. To lay the groundwork for a future national campaign, I argued, Jindal was using the press generated by his objections to position himself as the most conservative member of the GOP's presidential wannabe crowd. But when push came to shove, he'd obviously take the money. Right?

Wrong. Bobby Jindal is smarter than me. He figured out a way to take the vast majority of the funding set out for Louisiana (about 98 percent, according to TPM) while still earning headlines like "Jindal rejects $98 million in stimulus spending."

What's more, the funding that Jindal is turning down is slated for unemployment benefits, a favorite punching bag of the conservative Right. Jindal has already issued quotes about how the stimulus funding would force Louisiana to raise business taxes in order to hand cash out to lazy slobs who can't be bothered to get a job. (That's not actually true; Jindal could sunset the increased unemployment benefits when the federal funding runs out.) If you read Stephanie Mencimer's excellent piece on welfare from the last issue of MoJo, you know that the entitlement systems in the South are badly perverted, and that an extra $98 million could do a lot of good in a state like Louisiana. But who cares, right? This way, future candidate Jindal gets to push all the right buttons.

Embargo of Cuba Nearing an End?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 8:06 AM EST
During the campaign, candidate Obama spoke of easing restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel back to their ancestral island and to send money to relatives living under Castro's thumb--small steps that nevertheless offered a welcome change to the confused and antiquated US policy toward Cuba's communist regime. But the realization that things have gone terribly wrong is not exclusive to Democrats. Today, Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will release a staff report critical of decades of misguided and often counterproductive US policy vis-a-vis Cuba. (Thanks go to Steve Clemons for posting an early draft.) The report is shocking in its indictment of past approaches and offers a real opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on righting one of US foreign policy's most self-defeating wrongs.


From the report:
Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid South Africa.
After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people," while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population.
The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from peamasher.

Common Sense on Hedge Funds

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:03 AM EST
Noam Scheiber points to some genuinely good news in today's New York Times piece about Barack Obama's upcoming budget outline.  From the Times:

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

This refers to the "carried interest" loophole, which allows hedge fund management fees to be counted as capital gains on the theory that — well, there was never really much of a theory for it at all.  If you invest your own money and make a return, that's a capital gain.  But if you get a piece of the return for managing someone else's investment, that's a management fee.  It's ordinary income, and there's really no plausible theory under which it should be counted as capital gains.

Except, of course, under the theory that hedge fund managers would prefer to pay low capital gains taxes on their income, and since hedge fund managers contribute lots of money to political campaigns they usually get whatever they want.  It really was just about that crude, and Democrats displayed colossal cowardice when they refused to eliminate this loophole two years ago.  It's good to see that Obama is going to try to embarrass them into finally doing the right thing and making rich people pay the same rate on their income as everyone else.