Mojo - February 2010

What You Need to Know About Obama's Health Care Plan

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:42 PM EST

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday for a televised health care "summit" that has been billed as a last-gasp attempt to cobble together some sort of bipartisan compromise on health care reform. On Monday morning, in advance of that meeting, the White House released a package of suggested tweaks that Democrats hope will "fix" the Senate health care bill so that it can pass the House. This "tweaked" Senate bill will presumably serve as a sort of baseline for Thursday's discussion. You can expect the President to say something like, "Here's our proposal. It contains a lot of your ideas. What's your proposal?"

Republicans have bashed the president for issuing a plan before the televised summit, claiming that the meeting is a "trap." But two weeks ago, Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded that if Obama planned to offer a legislative proposal at the summit, he should post it online 72 hours beforehand. So that's what the White House has done.

You can read the administration's proposal here. Kevin has some of the most important details, and the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has a long-ish summary, but I'm going to focus on the political implications.

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Schwarzenegger Slaps Romney Silly—And What That Means for the Message Wars

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:09 PM EST

Mitt Romney appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and repeated the GOP mantra of the week: no new jobs have been created by President Barack Obama's stimulus legislation. This weekend Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that's a lie, noting that 150,000 jobs have been added to his state's economy due to the stimulus.

Schwarzenegger showed how off-the-rails the Rs have gotten lately. But for some reason the Republicans believe they can get away with—and benefit from—peddling false information. Why is that? My pal Micah Sifry at TechPresident.com asked media critic Jay Rosen and me for our thoughts. We both focused on the mainstream media's reliance on he said/she said reporting that doesn't fully evaluate the content of competing claims. (Rosen also recently explored that notion in a blog post of his own.) But Sifry added another dimension:

The internet is a neutral tool, and yes, it does make it easier to spread messages—true ones as well as false ones. But here's what has changed: in 2008, the Obama campaign had a huge, motivated, networked, self-organizing (to some degree) base that was using the internet every day to fight the information wars. They had an active corps of super-volunteers focused on doing "rapid response" to media bias and falsehoods. And they had a well-constructed web operation centered on a special site called "FighttheSmears.com" that was tuned, via search, to capture the attention of random web-surfers wondering whether Obama was a Muslim, or born in America, and get them credible information....

I hate to sound like a broken record, but given that we live in a networked age where people are bombarded with competing information claims 24-7, the notion that you can just hope people will find the truth on their own isn't enough. You have to organize constantly to defend the truth. And thus [cue broken record], the failure of the Obama campaign to properly plan to keep their 13 million member grassroots movement going full steam surfaces again as a key piece of the "meta-story" of the last year and a half of political struggle. When you have a movement, media narratives shift. (Hello, Tea Party!). Without one, the narratives shift too. The other way.

The White House—or anyone else—cannot count on establishment journalists to get out the complete truth and be effective referees, given these reporters' self-imposed rules. (Ever see a story in a major newspaper that began, "Sen. Whoever lied today, when he claimed..."?) It must exert its own muscle—not just by sending out press releases but by mobilizing millions. Here's the Sifry principle: if you want to counter bad information, you not only need truth on your side but clicks, and people make clicks.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Treasury Secretaries Back Volcker Rule

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 11:23 AM EST

Five former Treasury Secretaries, from Democratic and Republican administrations alike, voiced their support for the "Volcker Rule" on Sunday in a joint letter to the Wall Street Journal. The secretaries—Michael Blumenthal, Paul O'Neill, George Shultz, Nicholas Brady, and John Snow—said the rule, which would separate banks' riskier trading operations like hedge funds from their more staid commercial banking duties—wrote that "Banks benefiting from public support by means of access to the Federal Reserve and FDIC insurance should not engage in essentially speculative activity unrelated to essential bank services."

The former secretaries' support adds momentum behind the proposed regulation, offered by former Federal Reserve chairman and Obama ally Paul Volcker, going into a week when the Senate, led by banking committee chair Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), plans to unveil its version of comprehensive financial reform. (The House's version of financial reform, passed in December, gives the Treasury and the president the power to divest assets from banks if necessary.) Broadly speaking, the Volcker Rule is supported by Congressional Democrats involved in financial reform as well as many finance experts. Despite the massive amounts of speculation that fueled the economic meltdown, large financial institutions generally say they're more than capable of policing their own risky trading operations, and don't see the need to split those hedge funds and private equity funds from their rest of their company. We'll see sometime this week whether Dodd and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Dodd's latest partner in financial-reform talks, decide to include the Volcker Rule in their plans.

 

O'Reilly: Oath Keepers Invite Anarchy

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:05 AM EST

What happens when Tea Party-minded soldiers and police—largely Obama-hating, Communist-fearing, Glenn Beck-listening white men with weapons and combat training—are encouraged to take matters into their own hands?

In our upcoming March/April issue, Justine Sharrock spends quality time with the Oath Keepers, one of the "patriot" movement's fastest-growing promoters of revolutionary angst and conspiratorial rhetoric.

Here's Sharrock's capsule description:

There are scores of patriot groups, but what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution—but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey "unconstitutional" orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.

Last Thursday, following a New York Times story about the increasingly violent atmosphere at Tea Party rallies, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to counter criticism from the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the segment, Rhodes portrays Oath Keepers as little more than a bunch of average Americans trying to hold on to their constitutional rights. But his host isn't buying it. After Rhodes explains his goal of inspiring soldiers and police to disobey unconstitutional orders, O'Reilly responds, "if it's a matter of interpretation, you could have anarchy easily." Watch the clip below:

O'Reilly got this one right. In her profile, Sharrock also hangs out with Lee Pray, an alienated active duty soldier who identifies with the group and takes its fearful rhetoric at face value (like the assertion that our rogue federal government will find some pretext to declare martial law and start rounding up citizens into camps). That guys like Pray are stockpiling weapons in preparation for such an eventuality is proof enough that soldiers shouldn't be drawing their own constitutional lines in the sand. (Unlike Rhodes, his foot soldiers are not constitutional lawyers.)

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 22, 2010

Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:00 AM EST

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Paratroopers with 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist), land on a drop zone near Al Asad Airbase, Iraq, Feb. 12, as part of a training exercise they hope will lead to combined US Iraqi training jumps. Photo via the US Marines.

More On the CPAC Gay-Basher

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 9:18 AM EST

Media Matters has the full video of Ryan Sorba's rant at CPAC Friday night. He's the young man who used his two minutes to address the thousands of people gathered in DC to bash conference organizers for letting a gay conservative group staff a table in the exhibit hall. Turns out this wasn't the first time Sorba has riled up a crowd with his views on gay civil rights. The representative of the California Young Americans for Freedom spends his time going around to college campuses lecturing on the "Born Gay Hoax." Two years ago, his speech at Smith College was shut down by protesters, which explains why he dismissed hecklers at CPAC by saying, "the lesbians at Smith College protest better than you!" Apparently CPAC organizers consider his presence another example of their inclusiveness.

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Obama's New Housing Band-Aid

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Is President Obama's latest foreclosure fix, a $1.5 billion program targeting hard-hit states, another boondoggle in his housing rescue?

Earlier today, Obama announced in Las Vegas the program to tackling the housing crisis in states like Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and a few others by asking state and local Housing Finance Agencies, or HFAs, to create innovative new ways to address mounting foreclosures tailored to their areas. HFAs, in Obama's new plan, will submit program designs to the Treasury Department specifically geared to help homeowners who're unemployed, underwater (they owe more than their home is worth), or grappling with second mortgages on their homes. The $1.5 billion in funding will come from the bailout bill passed in 2008 that set aside $50 billion for housing-related programs, including the Home Affordable Modification Program. "The funding announced today will help target resources to those hardest hit markets, promoting innovation that tailors programs to meet local needs and complementing our national foreclosure relief efforts," said Shaun Donovan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The new program arrives at something of a crossroads for the housing industry. While a report by credit analyst TransUnion earlier this week found that mortgage delinquencies—traditionally a precursor to foreclosures—were at record levels, statistics released today by the Mortgage Bankers Association suggest that, as the organization's chief economist put it, we've reached "the beginning of the end" of the foreclosure crisis. Fewer people, the MBA found, are late on their loan payments, which points to a potential upturn on the horizon. With that in mind, Obama's new program could be a catalyst in that budding recovery.

Lending experts, however, voiced doubts over whether the program will really do all that much. "This latest effort is just a Band-Aid," said Kathleen Day with the Center for Responsible Lending. Day said what's needed is a housing relief program in which loan modifications are mandatory, which isn't the case with the multi-billion dollar Home Affordable Modification Program, Obama's flagship relief program. Running with the medical theme, Day went on to say, "Every additional Band-Aid helps, but we need take a more wholistic view of the patient and need a more fundamental diagnosis and prognosis."

But even this new Band-Aid is no guarantee to stop the bleeding in the housing market. As Herb Allison, the Treasury's TARP czar, told reporters in a conference call today, the new $1.5 billion program was created to "foster innovation" and promote outside-the-box ways for addressing housing problems specific to hard-hit areas but potentially applicable on a national level. Innovation, however, is no easy, quick task, and to think that HFAs will generate novel ideas for stemming foreclosures in a month or two is probably wishful thinking. Allison said rules on the program would be issued in two weeks, and that the application process would begin sometime after that, though he declined to elaborate further. All of which is say, even if Obama's new housing Band-Aid generates smart new ideas for helping homeowners, it won't be happening anytime particularly soon.

Yoo Lawyer: OPR Acting Like "Junior Varsity CIA"

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:55 PM EST

If you want to get a sense of the tone of John Yoo's response to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility report finding he was guilty of "professional misconduct," take a look at this excerpt from his lawyer's letter to the OPR:

[The Office of Legal Counsel]'s job was to give legal advice based on the facts as presented by the Central Intelligence Agency, not to assume the role (as OPR now has) of Junior Varsity CIA. OPR appears to think that the proper role of OLC attorneys was to reweigh the operational facts adduced by the CIA and play roulette with the lives of thousands of Americans.

That's right: any questioning of the CIA's reliance on the 'ticking time bomb' scenario amounts to risking the lives of thousands of Americans. Yoo's lawyer, by the way, is Miguel Estrada. Yes, that one.

OPR: "Not a Routine Investigation"

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:55 PM EST

The Office of Professional Responsibility report on the Bush administration's torture memos—released at long last this evening, completely bollixing this reporter's plans for after work cocktails—is remarkable on a number of levels, not least the duration it took to put together. The report was almost five years in the making. What took so damn long? "This was not a routine investigation," the report notes, going on to detail a laundry list of complications. One was the deletion of the email records of Office of Legal Counsel officials John Yoo and Patrick Philbin. (Sound familiar?)

The report elaborates in a footnote:

OLC initially provided us with a relatively small number of emails, files, and draft documents. After it became apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing, we requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of [REDACTED], Yoo, Philbin, [Assistant Attorney General Jay] Bybee, and [Assistant Attorney General Jack] Goldsmith. However, we were told that most of Yoo's email records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin's email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002—the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo...was created—had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable.

Congress to Hold Hearings on "Torture Memos" Report

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:29 PM EST

On Friday, the DOJ released a June 2009 Office of Professional Responsibility report finding that two Bush lawyers, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, were guilty of "professional misconduct" in their construction of the memos. But the OPR report was accompanied by a 69-page memo, written in January 2010 by a top Justice Department, that negated the report's "misconduct" finding and said Yoo and Bybee were guilty only of "poor judgement."

Both the House and Senate judiciary committees are planning hearings on the Justice Department's review of Bush administration lawyers' involvement in the crafting of the so-called "torture memos." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the House commitee, "intends to hold a hearing on these matters shortly," according to a press release. "Today’s report makes plain that those memos were legally flawed and fundamentally unsound," Conyers said in the release. "Even worse, it reveals that the memos were not the independent product of the Department of Justice, but were shaped by top officials of the Bush White House." The lawyers who wrote the memos "wdishonored their office and the entire Department of Justice," Conyers said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who runs the Senate committee, has already scheduled a hearing for next Friday. In a statement, Leahy accused the Bush lawyers of taking a "premeditated approach in constructing the legal underpinnings of seriously flawed national security policies." Leahy also echoed human rights groups' concerns about Bybee continuing in his current position as a federal appeals court judge. "If the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate, knew of Judge Bybee’s role in creating these policies, he would have never been confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the federal bench," he said. "The right thing to do would be for him to resign from this lifetime appointment."

No witnesses have been announced, but Bybee and Yoo could both conceivably be asked to testify.