Mojo - May 2009

Obama to Nominate Sonia Sotomayor to Supreme Court

| Tue May 26, 2009 10:04 AM EDT

President Barack Obama will nominate Sonia Sotomayor, a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court, numerous sources are reporting. What you need to know right now:

Judge Sotomayor, 54, who has served for more than a decade on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York City, would become the nation’s 111th justice, replacing David H. Souter, who is retiring after 19 years on the bench. Although Justice Souter was appointed by the first President George Bush, he became a mainstay of the liberal faction on the court and so his replacement by Judge Sotomayor likely would not shift the overall balance of power.

But her appointment would add a second woman to the nine-member court and give Hispanics their first seat.

President Obama is set to announce the nomination in a statement at 10:15 EST. More on this as it develops.

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Palin Takes Principled Stand Against Energy Efficiency

| Fri May 22, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

Sarah Palin stood firm against wasteful government spending today, rejecting $28.6 million dollars in stimulus funds. "Alaskans and our communities have a long history of independence and opposing many mandates from Washington, D.C, " she proclaimed. Well, Alaska has already accepted about $930 million in other stimulus money, so what was the program that Palin found so pernicious?  It turns out that this money would have gone to energy efficiency—weatherizing homes against the bitter cold, that kind of thing.

Alaska, of course, is quite a chilly place, and its inhabitants pay the highest energy costs in the nation. The money will now probably flow to other states instead— Palin was the only governor in the country to reject energy efficiency funds. But as shivering Alaskans worry about their electricity bills this winter, they can at least take comfort in the fact that Palin is keeping her relationship with the GOP base toasty warm.   

Highway Privatization: A Dead End?

| Fri May 22, 2009 10:06 AM EDT

"It was the best deal since Manhattan was sold for beads." That's what Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, told Barron's recently, referring to the privatization of the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road—a deal that netted the state $3.8 billion. Back when Jim Ridgeway and I wrote about this deal, and the larger infrastructure privatization trend that was being pushed along by the Bush administration and Wall Street (Goldman Sachs in particular), there was some question as to whether Hoosiers were getting a good deal. One local economist had estimated that the value of the road, under the terms of the state's 75-year lease agreement with the Spanish construction firm Cintra and Australia-based Macquarie Infrastructure Group, could be as much as $11 billion. Surely he didn't anticiapte a major spike in gas prices and an economic meltdown, factors that took a serious toll on toll revenues.

According to Barron's, which declared the infrastructure privatization boom all but dead, the MIG-Cintra investment is not panning out so well.

Indiana is looking particularly smart because toll-road revenue now seems less dependable than it appeared to be just a few years ago. "Toll-road traffic declines in this recession have been more severe than in any other post-war recession," says Peter Samuel, editor of TollRoadNews, an online transportation Website. He says toll-road traffic is down 6% this year and revenue has been hit by recession-reduced usage by trucks, which often account for 50% or more of tolls.

NYPD: Bombers "Wanted To Commit Jihad." Really?

| Thu May 21, 2009 12:20 PM EDT

The four men arrested in the Bronx Wednesday night "wanted to commit jihad," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters. Certainly that appears to be the case. The unarmed men, taken into custody after a dramatic scene during which police blocked their escape with a 18-wheeler and smashed the windows of their SUV, stand accused of plotting to blow up two religious centers and using stinger missiles to down US military aircraft at an Air National Guard base. The arrests came after the would-be terrorists placed what they believed to be 37 pounds of C4 in the trunk of a car outside Riverdale Temple and planting two other bombs at the Riverdale Jewish Center. But as it turns out, the bombs were fakes, given to the plotters by an FBI informant, as were the stinger missiles they obtained from the same source.

The case calls to mind earlier foiled plots. Remember the Lackawanna Six? The Fort Dix Six? In both instances, as in many others, the men arrested appear to have been lured in by FBI informants feigning outrage at the US foreign policy and offering to obtain weapons for terror attacks on American soil. In all cases, there's little question that those arrested ultimately plotted (however ineffectively) to commit acts of terrorism. But would they have done so without encouragement from FBI informants? In other words, is this an instance of effective policing? Or maybe entrapment by an imaginative, but overzealous FBI? Too little is known about Wednesday's arrests to say one way or the other. But it may be worth your while to read a Eric Urmansky's February 2008 piece in Mother Jones, in which he explores the concept of "material support" for terrorism, and wonders if we are in effect criminalizing thought by leading disaffected young men along a path they might not otherwise have chosen.

Meet the Climate Lobby

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:15 PM EDT

There are now four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress -- an increase of 300 percent in just five years. But who are they working for and what do they want? The Center of Public Integrity has a new report on the climate change lobbying stampede which finds that the fight over energy policy has exploded in complexity. While big polluters still comprise more than half of the groups or companies lobbying on climate legislation, they've been joined by a diverse roster of new interests, all with complicated designs on government reforms. 

In addition to those entities that are simply trying to support or block efforts to cut carbon emissions—positions that now look increasingly retro—many companies and trade groups see climate legislation as inevitable and want to shape the resulting reforms to their own ends. The financial sector, for instance, has 130 lobbyists pushing for a cap and trade system that banks could profit from. There are city and county governments that see an opportunity to snare some federal money. And then there's the renewable energy sector and environmental groups, although they're outnumbered by everyone else by eight to one.

All of this activity has resulted in a bewildering proliferation of proposals on how to regulate pollution or encourage efficiency. Small wonder that the Waxman-Markey bill is now 900 pages long and counting, or that House Dems have hired a speed reader to keep up with GOP amendments. More on all of this to come...

Private Health Insurers Can't Compete With the "Public Option": Medicare

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

In case you had any doubts, here’s the real reason why insurance companies don’t want health care reform to include a so-called public option: These champions of freemarket capitalism know that they simply can’t compete with a government-run plan.

The insurance lobby is already trying to scare people off the idea of a public  option, warning that the government will leave all of us to die slowly and painfully as we try to wade through its bloated bureaucracy. (One example of the industry’s PR efforts appears at the end of this post.) But the truth is that on a level playing field, the government would probably drive private insurers out of business, because it can deliver health care more effectively and efficiently than any profit-driven corporation.

This isn’t something we need to speculate about, since we already have a government-run health plan on which to base comparisons: Medicare. For years, studies have shown a high level of satisfaction among Medicare beneficiaries. Last week, a new study released by the Commonwealth Fund revealed how Medicare measures up against private plans. It was bad news for the insurance industry.

Elderly Medicare beneficiaries are more satisfied with their health care, and experience fewer problems accessing and paying for care, than Americans with employer-sponsored insurance (ESI), according to a study by Commonwealth Fund researchers….The gap between consumers’ ratings of Medicare and ESI has widened since a similar survey in 2001….

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Why Jon Huntsman Juked Left

| Wed May 20, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Zvika Krieger proposes an answer in his profile of the Utah governor, Obama's nominee to be the US ambassador to China:

If Huntsman was planning to run for president, why would he move so brazenly to the left at a time when the GOP seems to be heading rightward? The most obvious reason is that he may actually be a moderate. "I'm not very good at tags," he tells me. "I just try to do my best, and maybe that makes me a pragmatist." He joins a long tradition of moderate Republicans from Utah, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that the state is the reddest in the country, with the GOP holding every statewide office and more than two-thirds of the state legislature. The GOP lock on Utah politics allows the party to welcome a broader swathe of politicians, and breed leaders who are less combative and ideological than their besieged colleagues in more competitive states. And if Huntsman has learned anything from the failed Mitt Romney campaign, it is that the only thing worse for a Republican than not being a conservative is being a phony conservative.

Emphasis mine. If Huntsman does make a run for the presidency, the big question will be whether or not he will resist that GOP pressure to move right.

 

Weak Steele

| Wed May 20, 2009 10:36 AM EDT

On Tuesday, GOP chairman Michael Steele gave a much-watched speech in which he declared that the Republican Party was undergoing a "renaissance" and that there was no need for his party to apologize any more for its past mistakes. Such statements showed he was in denial. And he also demonstrated his buffoonery by proclaiming, "Change comes in a tea bag!" This was a reference to those over-hyped (by Fox News) anti-Obama protests held on Tax Day by anti-tax conservatives. By the way, Steele's request to speak at one of these so-called tea parties was turned down by its organizers. But Steele's fantasies appeared to have gone over well with his audience. After all, Steele was speaking to a group of GOP state leaders who were considering a resolution calling on the Democratic Party to rename itself the "Democratic Socialist Party."

Steele's speech has been roundly panned by political journalists. Which shows how bad it was. Nothing would be better for political reporters than a good strong fight between Rs and Ds. A good representation of the consensus thumb's down came from MSNBC's "First Thoughts" newsletter, which summed up Steele's big day:

Steele’s Combative Speech: Talk to those close to the RNC chair, and they'll tell you the most important takeaway from his speech to GOP state chairs yesterday was the following: The party plans to more directly confront Obama. As inviting a target as other Democrats may be (see Pelosi), Steele made the case the party won't make progress without starting to inflict political damage on the actual leader of the Democratic -- er, “Democrat-Socialist” -- Party: Barack Obama. “We aren’t going to be silent,” he said. “We are going to speak up, and we are going to show that we have the courage of our convictions.” But for those looking for something substantial, issue-wise, Steele's speech was lacking. It had one too many clichés, and didn't seem to get into exactly what the Republican Party stands for. But remember who Steele’s audience was yesterday: members of the RNC. And the chairman is still trying to win over the trust of these folks. So he needed to throw them some red meat and didn't need to get into the weeds. Steele's goal yesterday was assert himself as leader of the party, and he probably took a step forward with these party insiders. Still, it raises an interesting question for all Republican leaders: Just what does the party stand for? It seemed to be a struggle for Steele yesterday.
Move Along, Folks, Nothing To See Here: Also in his speech yesterday, Steele boldly declared that the Republican Party has turned the corner. “The time for trying to fix or focus on the past has ended…The introspection is now over. The corner has been turned.” But when Steele and other Republicans cite spending and the ways of Washington as the only reasons why they find themselves out of power and at all-time lows in polls, we're not so sure they've learned the lessons from 2006 and 2008 -- which also included Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. attorneys scandal, Harriet Miers, and Terri Schiavo. What do those things have in common? Ideology and favoritism trumped competence and governance; confrontation was more important than compromise. And Republican leaders often stood by and didn’t raise objections. To win elections, you have to win the middle, and right now the middle is breaking Obama’s way, with Arlen Specter joining the Democrats and Jon Huntsman about to work for the administration. One other thing: As Adam Nagourney recently wrote, tone matters in politics. Are RNC members really going to pass a resolution today calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat-Socialist Party”?

The basic GOP problem is that Republican red meat is not in much demand...beyond RNC meetings. Sure, Steele can bolster his tentative standing in the party by going crazy on Obama and the Ds, but until the party is in the hands of savvy political strategists who know how to win elections, the Democrats can worry more about their own actions than those of the opposition.

Corn on "Hardball": Is Hillary Playing Obama?

| Tue May 19, 2009 9:10 PM EDT

Is Hillary Clinton playing Barack Obama? Does she have a secret political plan? Are the Clintons up to anything? We discussed this all on Tuesday night on Hardball:

Clara Jeffery Debates Debra Saunders

| Tue May 19, 2009 5:50 PM EDT

MoJo editor Clara Jeffery and conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders went head to head yesterday on KQED's ForumCould Pelosi have prevented detainee torture? Are small cars safer than big ones? Does the Gallup poll finding that more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice signify a real change?

Listen to these leading journalists do battle over these questions and more, here: