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Sen. Ron Wyden Makes Health Care Reform Funny

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 1:12 PM EDT

The truly funny and risky political ad is a rare beast. This one, from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, is about as close as they come. Wyden is trying to promote the "portability" of his universal health care plan (they're not just for presidential candidates!), which in human-speak means the ability to keep your health care coverage when you switch jobs, go back to school, or start your own business. Check it out:

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Iraq War a "Major Debacle," Says Pentagon Institute

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 12:56 PM EDT

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Just last week, following the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on Capitol Hill, President Bush held a White House press conference at which he remained as optimistic as ever about U.S. prospects in Iraq. From the official White House transcript:

The immediate goal of the surge was to bring down the sectarian violence that threatened to overwhelm the government in Baghdad, restore basic security to Iraqi communities, and drive the terrorists out of their safe havens. As General Petraeus told Congress, American and Iraqi forces have made significant progress in all these areas. While there is more to be done, sectarian violence is down dramatically. Civilian deaths and military deaths are also down. Many neighborhoods once controlled by al Qaeda have been liberated. And cooperation from Iraqis is stronger than ever—more tips from residents, more Iraqis joining their security forces, and a growing movement against al Qaeda called the "Sons of Iraq."
Improvements in security have helped clear the way for political and economic developments described by Ambassador Crocker. These gains receive less media coverage, but they are vital to Iraq's future. At the local level, businesses are re-opening and provincial councils are meeting. At the national level, there's much work ahead, but the Iraqi government has passed a budget and three major "benchmark" laws. The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. And many economic indicators in Iraq—from oil production to inflation—are now pointed in the right direction.

This is the sort of presidential spin to which we've grown accustomed. And, yes, Iraq's security situation has improved of late, notwithstanding the recent battles in Baghdad and Basra and a renewed series of Al Qaeda bombings. But as rosy a picture as President Bush would like to paint, a growing number of strategic thinkers in the Pentagon are reaching far different conclusions. Among them is Joseph J. Collins, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations, currently a professor of national security strategy at the National War College. Collins is the author of a study (.pdf) released yesterday by the National Institute for Strategic Studies (and first reported by McClatchy), which, in direct contradiction of the President's recent remarks, calls the Iraq War as a "major debacle" and describes its outcome as "in doubt."

More after the jump...

Rising Food Costs Roiling Developing Nations Worldwide

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 12:38 PM EDT

If you haven't already, please read this NYT article about how spiking food prices is leading to hunger and civil unrest across the globe. Here's a snippet.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."
That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.
In Cairo, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out as never before. In reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by voters who cited food and fuel price increases as their main concerns.

And here are a couple takes on what is fueling the problem.

Second Mistrial for Alleged Terrorist Group

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 10:50 AM EDT

Jurors from the first trial of the Miami-area men accused of plotting to blow up the Sears tower probably weren't surprised to hear that the evidence has now produced a second hung jury. A juror from the first trial, librarian Delorise Thompkins, said, "When you see the evidence, there's not a lot there—no plans, no papers, no pictures, no nothing connecting them to Osama bin Laden."

As we've written before, the defendants had no explosives and no concrete plans. What they did have was a well-paid government informant posing who coaxed them into doing surveillance on federal buildings...and gave them the equipment to do it. The men were then arrested for providing "material support" to a terrorist group, even though they had never made contact with a real terrorist and the idea of blowing up buildings originated from the informant himself.

The tenuous connection between the men and al Qaeda led to one of the defendants being acquitted in the first trial.

Music: LA Weekly Reveals Who Should Headline Coachella

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 6:54 PM EDT

mojo-photo-yelle.jpgWow, somebody's been brushing up their Excel skills: the LA Weekly has done some serious data entry work on the 128 acts playing next weekend's Coachella festival, and they've come up with some pretty interesting charts 'n' graphs describing today's musical trends. And I do love charts 'n' graphs.

Sure, the pie chart showing most bands are white and the bar graph proving most lead singers are male aren't exactly surprises, and the fact that "most recent Pitchfork review" averages out to between 6.1 and 7.4 is probably due to the fact that every Pitchfork review is between 6.1 and 7.4. But ranking artists by their most-viewed YouTube clip isn't such a far-fetched way to gauge popularity in this day and age, and the results are eyebrow-raising. Turns out, if internet video ruled the world, French techno would be, er, king: Justice and Yelle (pictured above) were #1 and #2, with over 7 million views for their most popular videos. Zut alors! They were followed by Kate Nash, Serj Tankian and Mark Ronson, none of whom are, in fact, headlining. Actual headliner Jack Johnson doesn't show up on this list until #9, with about a third of Justice's click-throughs. While I can understand Justice's internet popularity, I'm most intrigued by Yelle's sudden notoriety: the video getting all the love is the Tecktonik-style Tepr mix of "ACDG" that I posted as part of my France wrap-up back in December. You go, Yelle. After the jump, let's watch that video again, pourquoi pas?

McCain Strategist Vouched For "Convicted Felon, Disbarred Lawyer, And Failed Brothel Owner"

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 3:53 PM EDT

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John McCain, a longtime crusader against the corrupting influence of lobbyists in American politics, certainly has not shunned their help when it comes to his run for the presidency. The deeper into the campaign season we get, the more we seem to be learning about his not insignificant connections to the very influence peddlers he's so often railed against. Today, we get another piece of the puzzle, thanks to Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, who reports that Charlie Black, one of McCain's chief political strategists and himself a longtime Washington lobbyist, is the author of a pair of letters to federal officials in defense of Wayne Drizin, "a convicted felon, disbarred lawyer, and failed brothel owner with long business connections to the controversial Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi."

According to Stein:

The letters, obtained by The Huffington Post, were sent to a U.S. district court judge and the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general's office. They are scrupulously detailed and, at times, personal notes, praising Drizin and alleging that a conspiracy of zealous federal investigators was to blame for his legal woes.

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Can Conservatives Trigger Obamaphobia by Tying Him to Rap?

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 2:55 PM EDT

mojo-photo-william2.jpg The generically-named conservative site HumanEvents.com (not to be confused with RobotEvents.com) has posted a pretty hilarious article which lists Barack Obama's supporters in the hip-hop world, and then quotes some profanity-featuring lines from their songs. They claim his "rapper" ties are even worse than the Jeremiah Wright scandal:

Although the media has finally exposed Barack Obama's ties to the unhinged pastor his support from rappers who propagate equally pernicious nonsense has gone almost entirely unnoticed. Rappers are gaga over Obama. The superstar Jay-Z, who raps about "b------," "hoes" and "n-----," even urged voters to support Obama in a robo-call for the March 4 Ohio primary and caucus. The equally foul-mouthed rapper Will.I.am, whose hit songs include "I love my B----," has hyped Obama in two widely-viewed videos posted on YouTube.

Okay, seriously, trying to portray Will.I.am as a dangerous, profanity-spewing thug is like calling Carrie Underwood a communist. There's also this most excellent line: "His complicity with rappers dates back to at least 2006." Well, that's basically when hip-hop started, right?

GAO: U.S. Lacks Coherent Strategy in Pakistan's Tribal Areas

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 2:12 PM EDT

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The GAO has released a new report (.pdf) that takes federal agencies to task for not coordinating their counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)—the mountainous, fiercely independent border region where Osama Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents have begun to rebuild their operational strength. The report, titled "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas," is the first in a series that the GAO plans to release in the coming months, documenting American missteps in the region and suggesting fixes that might jump start a more focused strategy.

An excerpt from today's release:

The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven in Pakistan's FATA. Since 2002, the United States relied principally on the Pakistan military to address U.S. national security goals. Of the approximately $5.8 billion the United States provided for efforts in the FATA and border region from 2002 through 2007, about 96 percent reimbursed Pakistan for military operations there. According to the Department of State, Pakistan deployed 120,000 military and paramilitary forces in the FATA and helped kill and capture hundreds of suspected al Qaeda operatives; these efforts cost the lives of approximately 1,400 members of Pakistan's security forces. However, GAO found broad agreement, as documented in the National Intelligence Estimate, State, and embassy documents, as well as Defense officials in Pakistan, that al Qaeda had regenerated its ability to attack the United States and has succeeded in establishing a safe haven in Pakistan's FATA.

Clinton Bashes Obama's Weathermen Connection, But What About Her Own?

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 12:25 PM EDT

"I wish you could conduct a campaign on policy and policy differentiation," Howard Wolfson, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign communications director, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning. He added that Clinton "would like nothing more."

This was moments after Wolfson and Phil Singer, another top Clinton aide, had hammered Barack Obama for having held a fundraiser during his first state senate campaign in Illinois at the home of William Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois and a former aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was a member of the radical Weather Underground Organization, which was responsible for several bombings in the early 1970s. Ayers was never arrested for his activities. But in 2001, he did say, "I don't regret setting bombs." The issue had come up during the previous night's debate. Responding to a question about Ayers, Obama had said, "the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense." Wolfson, this morning after, insisted that Obama had "to be more forthcoming about that issue" and state clearly whether it had been "appropriate" to attend a fundraiser at Ayers' home.

When it came time for questions for Wolfson, I asked an obvious one: Did Hillary Clinton believe that it had been appropriate in 2001 for President Bill Clinton to have pardoned two members of the Weather Underground as he left office? The two recipients of Clinton's munificence were Linda Evans, who was sentenced to five years in prison for her participation in a string of 1980s bombings, and Susan Rosenberg, who was charged with participating in a bank robbery that left one guard and two police officers dead. And, I continued, has Senator Clinton ever criticized this decision? Has she ever said anything publicly about it? Rosenberg, I noted, had been apprehended with 740 pounds of explosives in her possession.

Even The Pope Can't Shame Court on Death Penalty

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 11:41 AM EDT

pope.jpgThe pope came to town yesterday to speak to the nation's Catholic faithful, including some 9,000 people on the White House lawn in a crowd that included the president and 146 Catholic members of Congress. Conspicuously missing were the very prominent Catholic Supreme Court justices, who were too busy at the courthouse paving the way for states to kill a few more prison inmates, in a decision that won't be washed away by a lifetime of Hail Marys.

Today's Supreme Court not only has a conservative majority, but a Catholic one. Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy and Roberts are all relatively devout Catholics, yet while the pope was exhorting Americans to be nicer to people, every last one of them voted to continue lethal injection, regardless of how painful it might be or how much their church opposes it. These are the very same guys who we are chomping at the bit to overturn Roe v. Wade.

No word on whether the justices will meet later with the Pontiff, but we can only hope that His Excellence might remind the brethren of how little tolerance he has for "cafeteria Catholics." After all, if they're going to let faith guide their decisions, they should at least be consistent about it. The rest of American Catholics seem to be figuring that out. According to the latest polls, nearly half of all American Catholics now oppose the death penalty, up from only 20 percent in 1994. In fact, this year, U.S. bishops used Holy Week to kick off the American bishops' latest campaign to end the death penalty. Perhaps when the justices do see the Pope, it ought to be for confession.