Mojo - March 2010

Shuster Scores the Blakeman-Corn Smackdown

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

Elsewhere on this site, I detail the run-in I had with GOP pundit Brad Blakeman last week. During a joint MSNBC appearance, Blakeman misrepresented why George W. Bush launched the Iraq War, claiming Bush did so because Saddam Hussen had refused to allow weapons inspections. On air, I noted this was completely wrong—UN weapons inspectors were in Iraq before the war—and tried to bet him $1,000 on this point. Two days later, Blakeman used the Fox News website to blast me and MSNBC anchor David Shuster and misrepresented the bet. That is, he was twice ensnared in his own web of false spin. But don't take my word for it. On Friday afternoon, Shuster, who moderated that segment, weighed in and pronounced an unambiguous verdict. Here's his take:

We love vigorous debates and discussions on this program. But facts are important. And so, in my notebook item today, I'd like to settle a dispute over facts that came up earlier this week. Two of my guests, David Corn and Brad Blakeman got into a heated argument over a crucial part of the 2003 run-up to the Iraq war.

Blakeman: President Bush did not bring us into this war because of W-M-D. He brought us into this war.

Corn: What?

Blakeman: Because Saddam Hussein failed to allow inspections of the sites the UN demanded be inspected.

Corn: Brad, you are absolutely wrong. The inspectors were in for months before the war.

Blakeman: Come on David.

Corn: I'll bet you a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars the inspectors were there.

Brad Blakeman did not take him up on the bet. And that was wise because a dozen newspaper accounts from 2003, three colleagues at fact-check organizations, and even my office mate Pat Buchanan agree the facts are indisputable and that David Corn was right. UN inspectors were in Iraq and got unfettered access to whatever site they wanted from November 27,2002, until March 18, 2003.

Here's a photo from a March 2003 inspection of the Al Rashid missile site southeast of Baghdad.

The reason the inspectors left Iraq, as USA Today reported at the time, is because the Bush administration told the UN team on March 17 to pull out "for their own safety." The war started March 20.

It's clear the Bush administration, at the time, thought Saddam Hussein was playing games because the inspectors weren't finding anything. But as we know, that's because there was nothing to find. There were no WMDs in Iraq.

For a guest to claim on our air we went to war because the inspectors weren't allowed to various sites and because the inspectors weren't allowed in Iraq in 2003—that is false.

Let this be a lesson to everyone that comes on this program. Facts matter. The truth matters. And as long as I am your host, I'll do everything possible to give you, the viewer, reporting and debates based on the facts, no matter where it may lead us.

Now can Shuster collect the thousand bucks for me?

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Health Care Reform's Twin?

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

Billy Tauzin | Wikimedia Commons.Billy Tauzin | Wikimedia CommonsJon Walker of FireDogLake thinks the health care bill and Medicare Part D (the Bush administration's 2003 budget-busting prescription drug benefit) "could be twins." He doesn't mean that as a compliment. There are a number of flaws with Walker's comparison, but his focus on pharmaceutical lobbyist/former GOP Rep.* Billy Tauzin's role in writing both bills is especially problematic. It's true that the pharmaceutical lobby was originally in the White House's corner on health care reform. But the lobby has switched sides, and pharmaceutical companies have pushed Tauzin out for negotiating what they now think is a raw deal.

Getting powerful interest groups to give up anything at all is a heavy lift. Part D didn't require any sacrifices at all: it was something (drug coverage for seniors, profits for pharmaceutical companies) for nothing (it wasn't paid for). The pharmaceutical lobby supported Part D in part because it really was the corporate handout that Walker thinks health care reform is. It was an easy call.

Health care reform was tougher. The pharmaceutical companies were apparently willing to support health care reform if it was a sure thing and they could limit their losses. They wanted "a seat at the table." Still, the secret deal Tauzin and the pharmaceutical companies struck with the White House required the industry to give up some $80 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. And limiting losses to $80 billion seemed like a good idea when health care reform seemed like a sure thing.

But as soon as the pharmaceutical companies realized they might be able to avoid any losses at all, they switched sides. Suddenly, supporting something that required the industry to give up eighty billion dollars seemed like a really bad plan. So Tauzin lost his job.

The broader point is that if it passes, health care reform will mandate sacrifices by a lot of groups—insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, people with high-cost health plans, the rich, healthy young people who don't want to buy insurance, and so on. Passing something like that in today's political climate would be a minor miracle.

Walker's comparison is useful in one sense. He's basically right that "the cheapest, most direct way" to provide the prescription drug benefit or cover the uninsured would be for "Medicare just provide these groups with what they need." But that would require massive sacrifices by more, and more powerful, groups than the ones that oppose the current plan. Does anyone think hospitals and doctors would hold their fire if they were faced with the prospect of covering the uninsured at Medicare rates? If passing even this bill is such a heavy lift, imagine what that would take.

UPDATE: Well, I owe Jon an apology.

*Added per comments.

GOP to Meet Dodd "Half Way"

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) may be flying solo today when he releases his own bill to rein in Wall Street, but a top GOP senator says he's willing to meet Dodd "at least half way" on a bipartisan financial reform bill. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the banking committee's ranking member, told CNBC a bipartisan deal could still be brokered between Dodd and Senate Republicans. Shelby, however, has also issued a warning to Dodd, the banking committee's chairman, against rushing the legislation through Congress. In a letter from Senate GOPers sent to Dodd on Friday, Republicans wrote that "proposed timetable will not allow members sufficient time to fully understand the details of [the] legislative proposal." Shelby similarly told CNBC that "we don't believe you can rush [a financial reform bill] through."

Shelby's olive branch marks the latest offer in a months-long power struggle between Dodd and Senate Republicans. Dodd had initially begun his negotiations earlier this year with Shelby as his main partner. Those talks soon hit an "impasse," and Dodd bumped Shelby for Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as his new GOP dance partner. Last week, however, Dodd abruptly abandoned those talks—so near agreement were Dodd and Corker that the Tennessee senator said they were "at the five-yard line"—and announced he would be releasing his own version of financial reform today. Dodd's much-awaited press conference is at 2 pm today, and we'll have all the details of and reactions to Dodd's new bill here.

How Politics Works: The Ensign Edition

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 11:33 AM EDT

Eric Massa (D-Tickleland) is gone from Congress. Yet scandal-struck Republican Sens. John Ensign and David Vitter remain ensconced. Even though the New York Times last week disclosed new information that Ensign might have violated ethics laws by helping Doug Hampton—the husband of Ensign's former lover—land lobbying work and by passing $96,000 to the Hamptons, Ensign is still hanging on to his job. But Politico reports that he is a lonely soul in the Senate:

The Nevada Republican admitted in June that he’d had an affair with an aide. But rather than putting the problem behind him, the admission was just the first in a long series of damaging revelations that have left other senators wary of working too closely with him—a significant problem in a clubby body in which success depends on building relationships with other members.

"Like Vitter, Ensign doesn’t get invited to a lot of press conferences because no one wants their boss in a photo op with them,” said one top GOP aide, referring to Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, who was identified in 2007 as a client of an alleged prostitution ring.

"He’s been so isolated for so long that I almost forget he’s still here," said another senior Senate Republican aide.

That's to be expected. Ensign is damaged goods, and he may just be holding on to the job until 2012, when he's up for reelection. A tainted last hurrah while you're under investigation is better than no hurrah while you're under investigation.

But one curious aspect of the Ensign endgame is what Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Nevadan, is saying about Ensign: nothing.

Ensign has a nonaggression pact with his home-state colleague, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Reid declined to comment when asked about the Republican’s effectiveness amid scandal.

"That is an issue that is now handled by the Ethics Committee and whatever is going on with the Justice Department,” Reid told POLITICO. "It’s something — I need to let them do it, and I don’t need to offer my opinion."

Reid might be abiding an age-old rule of politics: when an opponent is self-immolating, don't get in the way. Or perhaps he is being a gentleman. Reid, though, has plenty of trouble in Nevada, where he faces a tough fight for reelection this year. And maybe he figures it's best not to poke at another under-fire Nevadan while he's trying to save his own job. In any event, it does put the Democrats at a disadvantage. Ensign should be a top target for the Dems. After all, his scandal involves sex, money, and lobbying. (It doesn't get more Washington than that!) This is great ammo for the Ds to use against the Rs. Yet, there hasn't been much of a Democratic offensive. That could be because of the clubbiness of the Senate, where scandal-snared senators are often left to wither on their own, instead of being used as political piñatas. But in this case, Reid and other senators should be a bit less polite—not only to serve political needs, but also to serve the public interest and protect the integrity of the Senate.

Another Reason Health Centers Won't Fund Abortions

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

My story today is about how a silly mistake by Senate Democrats—forgetting to add explicit abortion restrictions to $7 billion in community health center funding in the Senate health care bill—opened them up to claims that the money would fund abortion. (You should read it.)

One of the article's key points is that even though the omission of explicit abortion language made it easier for pro-life groups to criticize the bill, it didn't actually mean the community health center money would go to fund abortions. Community health centers don't provide abortions, they never have, and they don't plan to do so in the future. Moreover, Kathleen Sebelius, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has promised the money won't be used for abortions. And since the money will end up in the same "pot" as other money that is subject to abortion restrictions, it will be treated as if it did have restrictive language attached.

That's all pretty clear-cut. But if those points aren't enough for you, HHS has another one. In a legal memo (PDF) obtained by Mother Jones, HHS lawyers say that "there have existed for over 30 years regulations that prohibit federal funds from being used for abortion services in programs administered by" the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is the agency that will be handling the new community health center funding. Bottom line:

42 C.F.R. § 50.303 unequivocally mandates that "Federal financial participation is not available for the performance of an abortion in programs or projects to which this subpart applies" except under specified circumstances. These specified circumstances are limited to those in which the life of the woman would be endangered, 42 C.F.R. § 50.304, or in cases of rape or incest, 42 C.F.R. § 50.306.

Accordingly, regardless of concerns that the Senate bill might not subject these new funds to the abortion-related restrictions under the Hyde Amendment, these new funds would in fact be subject to such restrictions by virtue of these regulations.

That's another arrow in the quiver for folks who have been arguing that the Senate's big flub won't matter in practice.

Willie Horton Ad Maker Targets Harry Reid

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 10:25 AM EDT

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's reelection prospects haven't been looking so hot lately. Polls show he's trailing all three GOP contenders by at least 40 percent, and that because he is well-known to Nevada voters, there aren't a lot of undecideds out there. As if things couldn't get worse, Reid is about to get hit with a new slew of TV ads created by Floyd Brown, the genius behind the infamous Willie Horton ad that brought down the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis in 1988. A staunch Republican and founder of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, Brown is a longtime practitioner of political "dark arts." He currently heads up the Western Center for Journalism, a conservative news outfit that spent the '90s "investigating" the suicide of Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster.  

The new Reid ads try to link the majority leader to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is the business partner of Mirage hotel CEO James Murren. Murren has been a vocal Reid supporter, in large part because Reid apparently pressured banks to finance a failing $8.5 billion project Murren was building in downtown Las Vegas, a move that Murren has claimed saved 12,000 jobs. Brown's new ad suggests that Al Maktoum has used slave labor to build similar projects in Dubai, and that now "both the slave bosses and the union bosses want Harry Reid reelected. Go figure."

 

The ad is paid for by two political action committees, the Republican Majority Campaign, headed by the radical right-winger and proponent of "birther" conspiracy theories, Gary Kreep, and the Legacy Committee, run by James Lacy, a board member of the American Conservative Union. The PACs have also launched a new anti-Reid website to focus on Reid's ties to the gambling industry and alleged political corruption. Kreep and Brown will appear at a press conference Monday to launch the new TV ads, which are airing independently of any GOP campaigns. Whether Brown will score a direct hit the way he did in 1988 is anybody's guess, but his involvement in the campaign can't be good news for Reid.

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 15, 2010

Mon Mar. 15, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

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A US Army Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division provides security at a construction building in Ebnkathwer, Iraq, on Mar. 3, 2010. DoD photo by Spc. Advin Illa-Medina, US Army.

Texas Bans Hip-Hop. How's That for Enlightenment?

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 5:10 PM EST

Last year, Mother Jones brought you the story of Heribert Illig, the German historian who believes the Dark Ages never actually happened. As far as historical revisionism goes, striking a few hundred years off our calendars is a pretty ambitious goal. But this week, members of the Texas Board of Education did their best to top that by striking hip-hop from state curriculum standards and burying mention of the Enlightenment. Rejecting a World History standard that had been drafted by professional educators, the board's conservatives suggested that, instead of studying "the impact of Enlightenment ideas," from certain authors, students should analyze "the impact of the writings" of those authors—and that one of those authors, Thomas Jefferson, should be replaced by forward-thinking intellectuals such as John Calvin. Because nothing says "enlightened thinking" like 17th century New England Congregrationalists.

Even Texas conservatives are uncomfortable with the board's far-right positions—last week, the same electorate that nominated Rick Perry for governor three times voted out its longtime conservative leader, dentist Don McLeroy. But the electoral shakeup won't take into effect until next year, meaning that this week's overhaul of the social studies curriculum was something of a last hurrahand conservatives took full advantage.

The standards, approved today on a 10-5 vote, brought more than a little bit of controversy. At one point, as the Times notes, the debate got so heated that longtime board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat, stormed out of the meeting, telling reporters "[Conservatives] can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don't exist."

Congress Ruins Obama Girls' Vacation

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 3:37 PM EST

TPM relays the news that President Barack Obama is delaying his trip to Indonesia and Australia because the House may vote on health care reform next weekend:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who for days has insisted the schedule would not change, detailed the news on his Twitter feed this morning. "The President will delay leaving for Indonesia and Australia—will now leave Sunday—the First Lady and the girls will not be on the trip," Gibbs wrote.

According to the AP, "the trip was scheduled to coincide with his daughters' spring vacation from school." Now, thanks to recalcitrant Dems, Sasha and Malia won't get to spend their vacation with their dad. It's clear there are plenty of lawmakers who don't particularly care about making sure all Americans have access to affordable health care. But do they really want to make the Obama girls cry?

Welcome to America, Sucker

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 2:55 PM EST

"I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes, and those hopes never left me," Charles Ponzi once told the New York Times. An Italian, who emigrated to the New World in 1903, his glory, such as it was, involved leaving countless immigrants and other Americans with only $2.50 in their pockets and nothing to hope for.

While he was hardly the first Ponzi schemer, he milked his particular con with particular success and dramatic flare in the 1920s. Ever since, his name has been attached to any scam in which you promise outrageous returns—he offered a 50% return on investment in only 45 days—and pay off old investors with the money eagerly offered by newer ones. The aura of success only brings in more money until, of course, it all goes bust. Ponzi's last recorded words to a reporter caught the financial-showman spirit of his time:  "Even if they never got anything for it," he said of those whose lives he destroyed, "it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over."