Mojo - August 2009

Need To Read: August 27, 2009

Thu Aug. 27, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Today you're getting one torture-related link and a lot on the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So are my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 27, 2009

Thu Aug. 27, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Senior Airman Brenton Swift watches as Staff Sgt. Michael Hebron monitors the needle insertion site during a platelet donation at the Air Force Theater hospital July 24 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Fifty percent of donations collected are used outside the wire. Airman Swift is a 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft armament systems journeyman, and Sergeant Hebron is a 332nd Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron aphaeresis technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nicole Enos)

Uncloaking the Fed's Bailout

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 7:15 PM EDT

In a major victory for the business press and anyone who longs for more transparency at the Federal Reserve, a federal judge in New York ruled on Tuesday that the Fed must fork over  financial rescue records to two Bloomberg journalists. The reporters, Mark Pittman and Craig Torres, had sued the Fed's board of governors after it refused to hand over bailout-related documents. What's more, the Fed had refused to search for certain information relating to its actions in early 2008—namely, when the Fed's New York branch loaned JPMorgan Chase nearly $13 billion to buy Bear Stearns. (JPMorgan and Bear Stearns ended up paying back the $13 billion loan plus $4 million in interest.)

The Fed's bailout manuevers have come under criticism from members of Congress (especially Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.)) and the media, including our own Nomi Prins. Like when the Fed let Goldman Sachs use investment-bank risk models even after it had converted into a bank holding company in order to qualify for bailout funds, allowing Goldman to make big-time, risky bets with taxpayers' money.

Needless to say, this is an important victory for the press covering the bailout, and for shedding some light on the incredibly opaque actions the Fed has taken to rescue the financial system.  The decision's timing couldn't be better. It comes right after Fed chairman Ben Bernanke was nominated for a second term, so closer scrutiny of his decisions when the economy was near rock-bottom will be in the spotlight. The decision also comes as the Treasury Dept. weighs letting the Fed play a larger role in financial regulation by monitoring those "too big to fail" banks in our system—an idea I and others strongly oppose. I'll be curious to see what those two crusading Bloomberg reporters turn up.

Fiji Water Deemed 'Despicable'

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 6:01 PM EDT

Anna Lenzer's Fiji Water exposé has made quite a splash: It's a top search term on AOL, and has been mentioned on dozens of blogs and media sites, including both NYTimes.com and LATimes.com. Now it's gotten a spot on New York magazine's "approval matrix." Anna's tale of how Fijian police threatened to imprison her while reporting was rated as both "highbrow" and "despicable" by the New York staff. I have to say I agree with them on both counts. But as LeVar Burton used to say, You don't have to take my word for it. You can read Anna's entire story for yourself here.

What the Heck's a Public Option?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 4:35 PM EDT

A recent poll reveals that most Americans don't know what in health care reform's name the public option is—less than 4 in 10 can accurately describe it.

Is this supposed to be surprising?

After all, the health care debate has been dominated much more by town hall hysteria and death panel talk than actual substance. For all the buzz about public option bickering—Pelosi v. McCain v. Obama v. Grassley!–politicians and the media have provided scant information about how exactly it would work or the impact it would have.

The Destroyers to the Rescue?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

On the back of today's Mother Jones investigation into the government's $75 billion, largely taxpayer-funded foreclosure relief program—a program shaping up to be a massive bust yet doling out millions and even billions to some questionable mortgage servicers—the Center for Public Integrity has released its own analysis of the program, the Home Affordable Modification Program. CPI found that of the top 25 HAMP servicers, at least 21 "were heavily involved in the subprime lending industry." Of the tens of billions allocated to HAMP, much "is going directly to the same financial institutions that helped create the subprime mortgage mess in the first place," says CIP executive director Bill Buzenberg. The fox, in other words, is guarding the heavily mortgaged hen house.

By all measurements, HAMP has been a bust. As I write in a story published today on MotherJones.com:

Industry experts are now questioning how many of the program’s estimated 235,000 modifications will actually benefit homeowners in the long term, and say that homeowners clamoring to participate in HAMP have created an industrywide logjam for mortgage servicers, resulting in substantial delays and backed-up customer service support. ...

The Treasury’s first servicer performance report (PDF), covering March to July 2009, found that servicers had offered modifications to just 15 percent of eligible delinquent homeowners, and initiated them for just 9 percent of that group...  Lawmakers in Washington, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful House financial services committee, have begun to voice doubts over whether HAMP servicers are doing enough to help homeowners. Now Frank and Durbin are revisiting the idea of allowing bankruptcy court judges to modify mortgage terms, an option called “cramdown” that the Senate rejected earlier this year.

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Orrin Hatch Sings About Ted Kennedy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:10 PM EDT

Posted without comment:

Kennedy and Health Care, Then and Now

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

One of the great and bitter lessons of Senator Edward M. Kennedy's political career is also the most timely for House Democrats: The need to seize the political moment on health care reform.

Republicans and Democrats have never been as close to fixing health care as they were in 1973, when the Nixon administration was engulfed in the Watergate scandal and eager to change the subject. Knowing that Ted Kennedy would soon introduce a politically potent plan for nationalized health care, Nixon charged Caspar Weinberger, his Health Education and Welfare secretary, with crafting a bill that would "regain the initiative in the health arena." What Weinberger came up with looks positively Marxist compared to the way Republicans are slandering Obamacare: The plan, unveiled in Nixon's State of the Union address, would have required employers to provide health insurance and offered federally-financed coverage to many low-income Americans.

Though that sounds pretty good in the context of Washington's diminished expectations these days, Kennedy publicly opposed it at the time as a potential windfall for private insurance interests. A few months later, he announced his own plan, a single-payer system that would nonetheless preserve a role for private insurers as fiscal intermediaries and providers of supplementary benefits. Presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, believes Kennedy could have negotiated an historic compromise with Weinberger, but gave in to pressure from the labor unions to wait for a better deal under a new administration. (Kennedy later gained a reputation for pragmatism in negotiating bills like No Child Left Behind). "Kennedy said that was his biggest regret," Felzenberg told me today, "because he had a Republican president willing to dance with him."

The death of that era, embodied by Kennedy's passing today, is truly sobering. Kennedy and his labor allies could hardly be blamed for thinking that the tide of progressivism was still on the rise, or that the potential for honest debate was a given. Who could foresee that the GOP, far from chastened by Watergate, would become ever more beholden to Nixon's polarizing Southern Strategy? Or that American pragmatism would give way to the politics of fear, lies, and ideology that we've seen in the recent town halls?

Ultimately, Obama and progressives in Congress will sign on to some sort of health bill; the stakes are too high for them to take a pass. The question is under what terms they'll be able to shore up the effort in years to come. With the political pendulum on an uncertain arc, what cause now for Kennedy's famous optimism?

Succession Politics and Health Care Reform

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

In Nick's post about Ted Kennedy's torch passing to Obama, he wrote that the late senator's seat would be empty for nearly six months while a special election is organized "unless Massachusetts Dems change the law." Reports out of the state capital suggest that may happen when the Massachusetts legislature returns to session.

Up until 2004, the state did not require special elections to fill mid-term Senate vacancies. John Kerry's campaign for the presidency prompted Massachusetts Democrats, who feared that then-Governor Mitt Romney would appoint a Republican if Sen. Kerry prevailed, to require elections be held no sooner than 145 and no later than 160 days after a Senate seat is vacated. As Nick noted, one missing vote from the reliably Democratic state of Massachusetts could effectively endanger the passage of health care reform in the filibuster-fearing Senate.

On July 2nd, aware of this impediment to his succession at such a critical time, Kennedy wrote Massachusetts state lawmakers asking them to replace him quickly on his death. The New York Times observed that, "Though he did not cite any issues specifically, his note was viewed as an acknowledgment that his absence would leave uncertain… the essence and fate of health care reform, his most cherished legislative goal."

It is increasingly looking like Massachusetts' lawmakers may honor the late senator's dying plea. Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that state Senate President Therese Murray, "who had privately expressed quite vehement opposition" to Kennedy's request, may have changed her mind. Today, Governor Deval Patrick announced his support for Kennedy's plan, citing "the momentous change legislation that is pending in the Congress today."

No one will know for certain how the state legislature will address the succession issue until they return from recess after Labor Day, but this is certainly one ray of light for advocates of health care reform on an otherwise dark day.

Kennedy Funeral: "Wellstone Memorial on Steroids"?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 10:56 AM EDT

There's been a lot of speculation that the death of Teddy Kennedy will somehow make passing health care reform easier by pulling at Republican senators' heartstrings. This is wishful thinking, and it's not going to happen.

The crucial example in this case is the death of progressive giant Paul Wellstone just before the 2002 election. Wellstone's memorial service was a sort of rally, a tribute to the life he led and the causes he so passionately supported. It was liberal and political. It was, presumably, as he would have wanted. But Republicans slammed the memorial, criticizing its "politicization." (One of the speakers who "politicized" the event was Wellstone's son, Mark.)

Conservatives are already starting to warn that Kennedy's funeral will be a "Wellstone memorial on steroids," as Instapundit wrote. Al Franken, who now holds Wellstone's senate seat, wrote a chapter in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them about the memorial. In a piece about similar dynamics surrounding Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006, Franken explained:

The chapter was mainly about how cynically Republicans used the memorial politically as they complained that the Democrats had used it politically. And how the mainstream media, many of whom had neither attended the memorial nor seen it on TV, bought into the Republican spin.

Mainly, there was a lot of lying. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the audience was "planted," when, in fact, Twin Cities' radio and TV had to tell people to stay away because Williams Arena was jammed to capacity three hours before the Memorial was scheduled to begin. Thousands were crowded into an overflow gym to watch on a screen and thousands watched outside on a cold, late October night.

A pained Limbaugh asked his audience the day after the memorial: "Where was the grief? Where were the tears? Where was the memorial service? There wasn't any of this!"

This was a lie. I was there. Along with everyone else, I cried, I laughed, I cheered. It was, to my mind, a beautiful four-hour memorial.

[...]

It was the Republicans that tried to cheapen Paul Wellstone's life by dishonoring his death. It was the right-wing media, not the friends and family who spoke at the memorial or the people who came to it, that seized an opportunity to use a tragedy for political gain.

Now Ted Kennedy isn't even buried and you can see the same narrative reemerging. I wrote below that Kennedy's funeral will be an important moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation. It's true. Democrats, especially the president, are going to face a choice on that day. Will they confine their eulogies and their speeches to talking about Teddy's life? Or will they talk about what Teddy lived for: Democratic politics, liberal policies, and making people's lives better. If it's the latter, they better be ready. Because if President Obama goes out and says the obvious: that the best way to honor Ted Kennedy's life is to complete his quest for health care reform, you'll hear the inevitable holier-than-thou criticism from the right: "How dare you politicize something like this!" 

When it's politically convenient, the Norm Colemans and Rush Limbaughs of the world like to pretend they are the protectors of the legacies of the Ted Kennedys and Paul Wellstones and Coretta Scott Kings of the world. But Norm Coleman was no Paul Wellstone, and the people who will be telling you to "be respectful" and ignore Ted Kennedy's most closely-held beliefs and values are sure as heck no Ted Kennedys. Don't believe it for a minute.