Kevin Drum - June 2011

Ex-Bachmann Chief of Staff: Michele's Not Cut Out for White House

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

Ron Carey, a former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has a message for the American public: Bachmann is not presidential material.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's Des Moines Register, Carey writes that Bachmann lacks the experience, savvy, and coordination to run the country. When he joined Bachmann's team in 2010, he writes, her congressional office was a disaster, and his tenure working for the Minnesota Republican and tea party darling convinced him that she's nowhere near the type of leader who can run the United States—not like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whom Carey worked with while serving as chair of the Minnesota GOP:

Having seen [Bachmann and Pawlenty] up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not.

The Bachmann campaign and congressional offices I inherited were wildly out of control. Stacks upon stacks of unopened contributions filled the campaign office while thousands of communications from citizens waited for an answer. If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?

Carey concludes his op-ed with this offering:

I know Tim Pawlenty very well. He is a family man filled with faith and conservative convictions proven in action. He will make a great president. I know Michele Bachmann very well. She is a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013.

This isn't the first time Carey has publicly questioned Bachmann's presidential credentials, saying in February that "she's not going to be an electable candidate for us."

That message sounds an awful lot like what long-time GOP campaign guru Ed Rollins was saying earlier this year. As I reported, Rollins said Bachmann wasn't a "serious player" in the national Republican Party and publicly doubted her ability to win the GOP presidential nomination. Rollins has since changed his tune—because the Bachmann campaign hired him.

Kevin is on vacation, so Nick Baumann and I are filling in this week.

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Chart of the Day: The Idiocy of GOP Cut-and-Grow

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 10:57 AM EDT

I keep hammering away at the GOP's preposterous cut-and-grow plan—that the economy will really begin to grow and create jobs only after slashing spending to the bone—but that's because people are still buying what the Republicans are peddling.

The following analysis, however, should once more put to rest any ideas that cut-and-grow is the right course for this country. Using a nifty chart, Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, plots out states that have slashed spending and states that have increased it, and then shows how well their respective economies have fared.

Via Adam Hirsch, Center for American ProgressVia Adam Hersh, Center for American ProgressAs Hersh notes in this accompanying post, states that boosted spending saw decreasing unemployment and increasing economic growth. Those who cut back saw the opposite happen.

It's one thing for governors such as Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich to enact publicly unpopular policies that ultimately help their states. (And boy are they unpopular.) It's quite another to do so when the data shows that you're only shooting yourself in the foot. The question is, when will Republicans in Washington figure this out?

'Wasting Money Making Money': The Fed's $1-Coin Boondoggle

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Picture this: Collecting dust in high-security vaults, unwanted by Congress and the American public, are more than a billion golden coins bearing the likenesses of famous politicians. Current lawmakers won't discuss them. But if revealed to the public, the treasure trove could prove scandalous.

Sound like an airport pulp thriller? Nope—it's just the latest embarrassing boondoggle to surface in Washington, exposed by the sharp folks at NPR.

They report today that more than a billion dollars in $1 coins—you know, those hefty golden coins that were meant to replace the dollar bill—are sitting around in Federal Reserve vaults doing, well, nothing of value. At a cost of $300 million to manufacture, the unused coins are the result of Congress' repeated failures to wean American consumers off of paper dollar bills, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, would benefit the government to the tune of roughly $5.5 billion over three decades.

Vast quantities of these coins are in storage "with no perceivable benefit to the taxpayer," the Fed told Congress in a report last year. Not only are these new coins wasting money, the Fed noted in the same report, but officials "have no reason to expect demand to improve." Turns out we Americans like our crisp dollar bills just fine, thank you very much.

Here's one scene I enjoyed, when NPR reporters visited a Fed vault storing these abandoned coins:

Inside one basementlike Federal Reserve vault in Baltimore, NPR was able to see 45 million $1 coins of various types. The coins were overflow from vaults elsewhere.

And despite a national indifference to the coins, they were heavily guarded.

A group of journalists from NPR passed through a metal detector and special secure doorway before reaching the inner entrance to the vault, a fence gate secured by two common Master padlocks.

[...]

Inside the vault, dollar coins languished in clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs.

You should listen to/read the story yourself. Then file it away in the Department of Destroying Confidence in Our Government.

Breaking: Breathing In Misty, Mushed-Up Pig Brains Is Bad for Your Health

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has outsourced the difficult work of pig slaughtering to Quality Pork Processors (QPP), an affilliated company. Since Hormel likes to use every part of the animal, some of the people at QPP have jobs that revolve around turning pig brains into a pink slurry that somewhat resembles a strawberry milkshake in appearance. (Yum!) From reading Ted Genoways' fascinating, sad story on QPP and Hormel in the latest issue of the magazine, I can tell you the workers do this by inserting a nozzle into the pig skull's brain cavity and firing away with a burst of compressed air. I'll let Genoways take it from here:

The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen...Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more [brain slurry] mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags.

As you might imagine, breathing in pig brain slurry mist is probably not great for your health, and some of the workers at the QPP factory developed a mysterious nerve ailment. Most of them, as you can see from this chart, worked near the brain-harvesting operation:

pig brains operation at qpp

Some of the workers who got sick were undocumented immigrants working with fake papers, because, I assume, "manufacturing pig-brain slurry" is one of those "jobs that Americans don't want" you always hear about. I don't want to ruin the ending, but you can probably guess that being an undocumented immigrant is not an advantage when you're trying to get your employer to compensate you for the health problems you developed while working in the brain-harvesting factory.

Genoways has written a great story chock full of really impressive investigative reporting. You should really read the whole piece. You can also support more of this kind of reporting in Mother Jones by sharing Genoways' piece on Facebook and Twitter (free), signing up for our emails (free), subscribing (cheap!), or making a tax-deductible donation. Thanks.

Kevin is on vacation this week. Andy Kroll and I are filling in for him.

Cold Water on Bachmann's Big Weekend

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:03 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has had quite a run lately. She had strong showings at the June 13 CNN debate and the Republican Leadership Conference 10 days ago. Then came this weekend's shocking Des Moines Register poll putting Bachmann in second place with 22 percent, a single percentage point behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

Today a buoyant Bachmann unveiled (again) her presidential campaign, this time in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. But Nate Silver warns against getting too excited amidst all the Michele mania and buzz surrounding her campaign:

Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney—who eventually finished second in Iowa—had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had 4 percent of the vote at this point in time—behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers—and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

Election Day 2012 is 17 months away. The Iowa caucuses are six months out. No poll is all that important right now.

Chevy Volt vs. Zurich

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 12:25 PM EDT

Leading off the New York Times' reimagined "Sunday Review" section (no more Letterman jokes?!) was a 2,380-word, mostly fawning essay by columnist Joe Nocera on the promise of the electric hybrid Chevy Volt, General Motors' great hope for the green car era. Nocera test-drove the car, talked with the sharpest auto analysts and executives, and ultimately declared the car a winner (despite its eye-popping $41,000 price tag).

Nocera contends that the Volt's success is simply a matter of time and getting drivers behind the wheel. (Fewer than 2,500 have been sold so far.) Here he is driving a Volt around Southampton, New York:

Before I knew it, my miles per gallon for that tankful of gas had hit 80. By the next day it had topped 100. I soon found myself obsessed with increasing my miles per gallon—and avoiding having to buy more gas. Whenever I got home from an errand, I would recharge it, even for a few hours, just to grab a few more miles of range. I was actually in control of how much gas I consumed, and it was a powerful feeling. By the time I gave the car back to General Motors, I had driven 300 miles, without using another drop of gas beyond the original two gallons. I’m not what you’d call a Sierra Club kind of guy, but I have to tell you: I was kind of proud of myself.

When I began to describe for [former GM executive Bob] Lutz the psychological effect the Volt had had on me, he chuckled. "Yeah," he said, "it's like playing a video game that is constantly giving you back your score."

Or as Nocera puts it later on, "The psychological grip it held me in, the smugness I felt as I drove past gas stations, the way it implicitly encouraged me to stick with battery power as much as I could—others are going to feel that as well." In other words, it's the "enviro-guilt" (his words) brought on by the Volt that will wean American consumers off of gas-guzzling SUVs and, ideally, off of gasoline-powered cars in general.

I don't buy the video-game/enviro-guilt theory. Neither, it seems, do the Swiss.

Today, the Times' Elizabeth Rosenthal reports on how big European cities aren't just demanding more energy efficient cars, but in fact making driving "expensive and just plain miserable" in cities such as Zurich, Munich, and Copenhagen. Their tactics are many: far less street parking, congestion tolls to simply enter cities, more frequent red lights to frustrate drivers, and even outright banning cars on certain city blocks. Said Zurich's chief traffic planner, "Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers."

I'm sure many readers—save, perhaps, those hippy-loving liberals out in San Francisco—recoiled in disgust from Rosenthal's article. Force us off the road? That's un-American! It's big government socialism!

But after reading Nocera's column and the today's story, I can't help but think it's the Swiss, the Germans, and the Danes who've got it right. They're not waiting for the pangs of enviro-guilt to kick in; they're pushing consumers in the right direction, like it or not.

Of course, if big US cities took a cue from Zurich and began making commuters' lives even more miserable, the growing pains would be huge. Many cities don't have nearly enough buses, subways, light-rails, trams, etc., to handle a massive influx of riders; some big cities' public transit is downright dismal. (Looking at you, Atlanta.) But you know what would spur rapid expansion of public transportation? Thousands of new users pressuring city officials and lawmakers in Washington for better mass transit as if their livelihood depended on it.

Grappling with climate change—and the extreme weather that comes with it—means serious action, and fast. Waiting and hoping for more efficient lithium batteries and cheaper electric cars isn't enough.

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Friday Catblogging - 24 June 2011

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

By the time you see this I should be flying across the country, ready for some R&R in New York City. The cats, of course, are ready for R&R at all times, especially on warm summer days like these. As always, let them be your guide to a successfully stress-free weekend.

Meet the 'Christie Democrats'

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

The New Jersey legislature on Thursday joined Wisconsin, Ohio, and a handful of other states by drastically scaling back pension and health-care benefits for government workers and curbing collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. All told, 750,000 public-sector workers will end up forking over thousands of dollars more each year to fund their pension and health-care benefits—in part to plug a $52 billion hole in New Jersey's state pension fund.

But there's a key distinction between New Jersey and the other states that passed similar bills: Democrats control the legislature.

Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly elected Republican majorities in the legislature and new Republican governors rammed through unpopular bills curbing bargaining and benefits, in New Jersey, Democrats gave a Republican governor, Chris Christie, the votes he needed. The state Senate passed the bill 24 to 15, with 8 Democrats bolting from their party to support Christie. In the Assembly, the vote was 46 to 32 in favor of the measure, and 14 Democrats sided with Republicans.

So what happened? After all, this is New Jersey we're talking about, where public-sector unions are traditionally a pillar of support for Dems in fundraising, get-out-the-vote, and at the ballot box. According to the New York Times, Christie was able to cobble together support for his bill, which he called a model for other state legislatures, by taking advantage of the Garden State's old-school, city-centric political system:

In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey’s unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives, and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor’s push to cut benefits and wages.

There's another intriguing narrative here—namely, how the state Democratic Party functions effectively after a handful of its members backed a bill hugely unpopular with the Democratic base. What we'll likely see, per the Newark Star-Ledger, is a growing schism among New Jersey Democrats:

Today's union protest, like other recent demonstrations, did nothing to stop the bill. But it did highlight the growing fissures in the state Democratic Party. While Sweeney and Oliver were pushing the bill, the chairman of the state party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), was rallying protesters with two-dozen other Democrats. "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he said. Bob Master, a leader in the Communications Workers of America, said Democrats should not be "collaborating" with Christie.

Opponents of Christie's bill have a nickname for those Democratic "collaborators": Christie Democrats. That will be a damning label to hang around a Democrat's neck when re-election rolls around.

Bombing the Moon

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 9:40 AM EDT

Following up on my GOP mind games post, Ezra Klein makes a smart observation in this morning's Wonkbook on how the GOP transformed tax increases from an important, necessary option in the deficit debate into something evil and extremist. To prove his point, Ezra uses a clever rhetorical trick: he swaps "bomb the moon" for any mention of taxes in Republican statements made after yesterday's deficit talks drama:

"We've known from the beginning that bombing the moon would be a poison pill to any debt-reduction proposal," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. See? Or: "President Obama needs to decide between his goal of bombing the moon, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit," said McConnell and Sen. Jon Kyl in a joint statement. Or: "First of all, bombing the moon is going to destroy jobs," said Speaker John Boehner. "Second, bombing the moon cannot pass the US House of Representatives—it's not just a bad idea, it doesn’t have the votes and it can’t happen. And third, the American people don’t want us to bomb the moon."

"Bombing the moon" would actually make these statements more accurate. A bipartisan deficit-reduction proposal, almost by definition, includes revenue increases. That, along with the spending cuts, is what makes it bipartisan. And unpopular? Tax increases, particularly if targeted at the wealthy, show themselves again and again to be among the most popular ways to reduce the budget deficit. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Americans though the best way to reduce the deficit was "a combination" of tax hikes and spending cuts, and polls that have tested specific policies have found vastly more support for raising taxes on the rich than for GOP mainstays like cutting Medicare and Social Security and discretionary funding that goes to programs like education.

The quotes Ezra uses come after Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl, the number two GOPers in their respective chambers, bailed on the bipartisan deficit reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor went first, saying he wouldn't continue negotiating if any form of a tax increase was on the table, including cutting $21 billion in subsidies for big oil companies. "Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue," Cantor said in a statement. Kyl followed Cantor out the door soon after.

Apparently, Cantor forgot that the US is not under one-party rule, and that his constituents elected him to do what's expected of all politicians: compromise. The Biden-led deficit negotiations are intentionally bipartisan, and to claim that Democrat-backed tax increases are non-negotiable, as Cantor believes, defies logic. It's not negotiating if one side refuses to give any ground whatsoever. Either Cantor is more intransigent and bound to conservative orthodoxy than we thought, or he's setting up House Speaker John Boehner to be the fall guy who cuts a deal with the Democrats on a short-term deficit reduction plan. Or both.

What's clear is that any deficit reduction plan must include new revenue of some kind. After all, it was partly the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that got us into this mess in the first place. Not filling that $2.6-trillion hole with new revenue would be madness.

The New Civil Liberties Fight

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

During the Bush years, America's chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration hasn't added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it's only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP's position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. "Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists," the headline blared.

Some liberals defend the Obama administration's record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they're right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn't have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it's only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

Why shouldn't we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad "unprivileged belligerents" while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

But forget foreigners—they're screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today's fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they're on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can't go home unless they answer the FBI's questions. Americans with dark skin tones and "suspicious" names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don't expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.