Mojo - February 2009

Obama Sets off GOP Civil War

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:48 AM EST

Here's a real political diss. Speaking to The Washington Times, Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has said he's happy to accept the stimulus funds for his state, had some choice words for his fellow GOPers on Capitol Hill:

The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so "inconsequential" that he doesn't even bother to talk to them.

"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential - completely."

Just a week or so ago, Congressional Republicans were crowing that their lockstep opposition to President Obama's stimulus bill had brought them back from irrelevance and marginalization. Perhaps. But it has also sparked a civil war within the party between practical, give-me-the-money governors (such as Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and ideological conservatives who are talking about eschewing some of the stimulus funds (notably, Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour) and a clash between those pragmatic governors and the GOP's leaders on Capitol Hill. Good work, everyone. Obama's stimulus has become a wedge issue within the Republican Party.

On Monday night, I discussed this on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

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Bush's Last-Minute Gift to Crappy Nursing Homes

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 10:45 AM EST

That Bush-Cheney legacy is going to be a mean one for years. And there's likely to de a drip-drip-drip disclosure of all the damage done. For instance, on Tuesday there was news that the Bush administration screwed nursing homes residents. Bloomberg reports:

The Bush administration shut off a source of information last fall about abuse and neglect in long- term care facilities that people suing nursing homes consider crucial to their cases.

The change that affects the $144 billion nursing-home industry occurred with no public notice or attention, perhaps because of the array of last-minute rules that President George W. Bush’s appointees rushed out before leaving Washington last month.

“This is pretty stunning,” said Mark Kosieradzki, a plaintiff attorney in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Nobody was told. It was just done.”

The rule designates state inspectors and Medicare and Medicaid contractors as federal employees, a group usually shielded from providing evidence for either side in private litigation.

The restrictions affect about 16,000 nursing facilities in the U.S. and 3 million residents. The practical effect is to force litigants to go to greater lengths, including seeking court orders, to get inspection reports or depositions for cases they are pursuing or defending.

Wonder who asked for this rule change? Could it have been...the nursing home industry? This was truly a harsh move, making it harder for abused nursing home residents to gather information on the institutions in which they live. Big hat tip to Bloomberg for a fine piece of investigative reporting that uncovered a telling example of the Bush administration's compassionate conservatism.

Pentagon "Believes" It Has Accounted For "Most" of Its Private Security Contractors

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:12 PM EST
"We believe these numbers include most subcontractors and service contractors hired by prime contractors under DoD contracts," reads the fine print of the latest Pentagon report (.doc) on the number of armed private contractors currently working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Central Command's area of responsibility. This should give us at least some pause about the sort of exact numbers presented in the report.

According to the Pentagon's fuzzy math, as of December 31, 2008, it had 8,701 armed security contractors in Iraq, of which 727 were Americans, 6,909 were Third Country Nationals, and 1,065 were Iraqis. This represented a 12 percent decrease as compared with the same time last year. Afghanistan, on the other hand, saw a 1 percent increase in armed contractors over the same period to... about 3,184. It will be interesting to see how this number skyrockets over the coming year as the Pentagon steps up its presence there.

One thing to note: the numbers reflect only those armed security contractors working on Pentagon contracts. Blackwater's gun-toating coterie is therefore absent from the figures. Very shortly, of course, they'll be absent altogether thanks to the State Department's decision not to renew Blackwater's contract.

The New York Delegation Gets Snarky

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 4:04 PM EST

New York state's two senators want the president to know that they can take a handout graciously, unlike some people. From a press release sent out by their offices:

New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer are asking President Obama to direct unwanted funds from the economic recovery package to New York. A number of Republican Governors have recently stated that they planned to refuse money from the Economic Recovery plan for their state.

"New York receives 78 cents from the federal government for every dollar we send to Washington," wrote the senators [in a letter to the president]. "If other states are willingly refusing federal support in this time of economic crisis, New York should benefit given our 'donor state' status."

Obama Admin. Turns Down Opportunity to Begin Improving Death Penalty

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 3:36 PM EST

Here's Barack Obama in 1999:

"I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. We need to put more resources into the Public Defender's office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you've got the right person before you consider the death penalty."

And here he is in 2004:

"I support capital punishment for heinous crimes. I cannot, however, support the current system which is rife with error and lacks sufficient safeguards against wrongful convictions."

He said similar things in same during the campaign. And yet, when invited by an anti-death penalty group to begin changing the way capital punishment cases are tried in this country, Obama's Justice Department decided instead to fight for the status quo.

The solicitor general's office has turned down a request by the Innocence Project to disavow a Bush Administration stance on prisoners' access to DNA evidence in postconviction proceedings. As a result, on March 2, Neal Katyal will make his debut as deputy solicitor general by arguing before the Supreme Court in support of the state of Alaska's view that prisoners have no constitutional right to obtain DNA evidence that might help them prove their innocence -- even if the prisoners pay for the DNA testing themselves.

I share Brian's disappointment on this. What an inexplicable and confusing shame. (Final note: For an enlightening story on lethal injection's bizarre history, click here.)

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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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.

Where Have All The Conservatives Gone?

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 11:58 PM EST

Where have all the conservatives gone?

Oh, they're out there, trying to taint the Obama stimulus by tagging it as wasteful spending (even while accepting the funds). But as S.E. Cupp, a rightwing author and commentator, reports, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference is notably short on rightwing starpower. She writes:

A number of the party's biggest names, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, aren't on the speakers' list so far, either. And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- the Angelina Jolie of the GOP -- will address the conference only via video.

For those hoping that Sarah Palin will run for president, this may be bad news. In years past, GOP presidential wannabes--even moderates--flocked to CPAC to court (or kowtow to) their party's most ardent grassroots activists. The group usually holds a straw poll, and a good showing--or just a decent appearance before the crowd--could generate presidential buzz for a potential candidate within the politerait and conservative circles. (Is it possible that Palin has decided that the wise thing to do as a 2012 contender is to not attend and avoid placing herself once again in a spotlight that could show her shortcomings?) This year, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence--don't know Mike Pence? he's a leading conservative congressman--will be at CPAC, but Cupp bemoans the absence of bigger box office draws. Does that mean she's disappointed that California Governor Arnold "Give Me that Stimulus Money" Schwarzenegger won't be attending?

Her gripe, it seems, is not really with the line-up. It's with the "feel" of the conference; there's no excitement about conservatives these days, she complains. Well, wake up and smell the economic collapse. If there was ever a cornerstone of conservatism, it was free-market fetishism. And that's a really tough sell nowadays. In noting what to expect at this year's CPAC, she reports:

We just elected Michael Steele the first African American head of the Republican National Committee. CPAC will be his first major public appearance and a chance to show what kind of leader he'll be. Republican lawmakers will weigh in on the stimulus bill, discuss their still-fresh experiences dealing with the Obama administration and tell us what they think we need to do while the Democrats are in power.

Conservative bloggers and activists will lay out the grass-roots efforts we can make to reach new voters, or those who abandoned us last year. Young Republican chapters will reach out to high school and college students and ponder what they might do to get a piece of the youth voter pie.

Wow, grassroots networking. But what's the right going to do about convincing the American public we ought to have less regulation, less government and more free enterprise? Or about reviving the culture wars? She doesn't really address these fundamental matters. Conservatives held power in Congress from 1995 through 2006, and a self-proclaimed conservative was in the White House from 2001 to 2009. They had a damn good chance and blew it big--twice. Will there be a panel discussion on that? More important, can one conference deal with the fact that the basic tenets of conservatism have been rendered irrelevant and inoperative? Probably not. But maybe at least Huckabee will whip out his bass and rock on.