Mojo - May 2010

Rand Paul Wins in Kentucky; Dems Gloat

| Tue May 18, 2010 7:21 PM EDT

The first news of Mini-Super-Tuesday Election Night was not surprising: Rand Paul—son of libertarian Ron and a Tea Party fave—won the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, whupping Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the candidate handpicked by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Paul's victory will fuel two narratives: voters are really pissed off at establishment politicians and the Tea Partiers can indeed turn their cranky outrage into electoral juice. That second point is true at least in the small pool of Kentucky GOP primary voters. What remains a question is whether TP Fever infects independent voters and can affect general elections.

If so, the Democrats will not be happy. But on Tuesday night, the Ds were gleefully hailing Rand Paul's win as an embarrassing blow to McConnell. Before the results were final, Democratic Party chief Tim Kaine issued a statement:

Today, Kentucky Republicans selected Rand Paul as their Senate nominee, handing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a stunning loss. In a show of weakness for the Minority Leader, and in a race that symbolized the fight over the heart and soul of the Republican Party, Rand Paul overcame McConnell’s handpicked candidate by a large margin. Unfortunately for Republicans, ordinary Americans are unlikely to be receptive to extreme candidates like Rand Paul in the general election this November.

Rand Paul’s positions fail to resonate beyond the far-right Republican segment of the electorate that supported him tonight. Middle-class Kentucky voters want to elect a Senator with clear ideas about how to create jobs and opportunities for Kentucky families. But Rand Paul is more interested in talking about abolishing the Department of Education and disbanding the Federal Reserve than about supporting economic recovery.

As a result, Democrats are now in a better position to win Kentucky’s open Senate seat.

Perhaps. Is Rand Paul merely riding a Tea Party-only wave or one of larger dimension? Kaine—and everyone else—will have to wait until November to find out.

Also happening Tuesday night: Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter goes down to defeat in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Blanche Lincoln is headed to a runoff in Arkansas. That could be good news for tough Wall Street reform.

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Army OKs Hollow-Point Bullets

| Tue May 18, 2010 2:33 PM EDT

Army Times today highlights a quiet but notable decision by the Army's top cop: Civilian and military police on US Army bases are now authorized to load their weapons with "jacketed hollow-point bullets." These rounds—which are available for use by civilians in most US states but banned in international conflicts—feature a small depression cut into the slug's nose, usually filled with notched steel. As Army Times puts it, these modifications enable the rounds to "deform and fragment upon striking a hard-tissue target. Mushrooming into a larger diameter, the rounds create a larger wound cavity."

The reason for this policy shift? According to AT, the Army provost marshal general—Brig. General Colleen McGuire, the first woman to reach that post—issued the decision:

...after a gunman opened fire at the Pentagon in March and a deadly shooting spree at Fort Hood in November, and almost a year to the day after the fatal shootings at Camp Liberty, Iraq...The new policy, issued May 10, asserts installation police "require the tools necessary to secure our posts, camps, and stations from both internal and external active shooter threats."

Hollow-point munitions are already highly favored by civilian law enforcement agencies, such as the New York Police Department, which switched to the ammo in 1998. While the damage these munitions do to their target is devastating, they're also considered to be safer to bystanders, since their kinetic energy is lower, and they tend to lodge in whatever they hit directly, rather than passing through or ricocheting. (However, as Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union asked in '98: What about when an innocent bystander—or another police officer—is what the bullet hits directly?)

The ultimate irony here is that the Army will now arm itself against internal threats with a munition that's illegal to use in war. The Hague Convention of 1899 bans any lawful combatant from using "bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions." That is to say, steel-jacketed hollow-points.

(It's also not obvious to me that hollow-point bullets would have made much difference when Sgt. John Russell killed five soldiers last May on Baghdad's Camp Liberty, a few hundred yards from me. For one thing, he was unloading on occupants of the base's combat stress control center—the one place on the military's sprawling Victory Base Complex where all the soldiers were unarmed. For another, Russell was armed with an M-16, a rifle that fires slugs at higher velocities and effective ranges than any handgun. While it's not impossible, taking down a rifle shooter with a pistol is tough and dangerous.)

But regardless of the practicalities and legalities, one thing is clear: The military is very concerned, perhaps with good reason, for the safety of its base workers. As they used to say when I was in uniform: Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

1,000 Dead Americans in Afghanistan

| Tue May 18, 2010 1:23 PM EDT

It shouldn't matter. Not at all. But the Afghanistan war hit a milestone on Tuesday: 1,000 dead American soldiers. The $100-billion-per-year war itself—and the daily losses in lives—should be front-and-center in the media most days, but that often is not the case. Consequently, when the number of lives lost reaches an odometer-tripping moment, attention is paid, if only briefly.

Brave New Films, the Robert Greenwald outfit that released the anti-war film Rethink Afghanistan, has put out a video marking the 1,000-lives mark:

 

JPMorgan Breaks Silence on MTR

| Tue May 18, 2010 12:41 PM EDT

For the first time, megabank JPMorgan Chase publicly announced its position on financing companies that engage in mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining, a particularly destructive—to nearby water sources, wildlife, and communities—practice that involves the demolition of mountain summits. As I've previously reported, JPMorgan has financed close to 20 deals worth $8.5 trillion for companies that engage in MTR mining. For that, various environmental groups have blasted the bank for not cutting off financing for these companies, and for refusing to make public its policy on MTR.

When I was reporting my story, JPMorgan declined multiple requests to interview James Fuschetti, managing director of the bank's Office of Environmental Affairs. Then, when the article came out, Fuschetti emailed me to say his office had no record of my requests and that my story "would have substantially benefitted" had I spoken to someone at JPMorgan. When I emailed Fuschetti back to say I'd asked several times (a fact his office did indeed have a record of), I said I'd be happy to speak with someone at the bank and update my story. Again, the request was turned down.

Now, with its 2009 Corporate Responsibility Report (pdf), JPMorgan has finally opened up about its MTR policy. The bank says in November 2008 its environmental affairs office began an "in-depth and comprehensive examination" of MTR and its impact on Appalachia. And starting in early 2009, the report says JPMorgan's environmental and social risk management team has been reviewing all deals involving companies engaged in MTR. As new state and federal regulations on MTR are developed, the bank says it will "continue to follow the actions" of those regulators to stay in line with the latest MTR rules.

Environmental groups praised JPMorgan for its first public MTR disclosure. Rainforest Action Network, which has consistently pressured the bank to completely phase out all MTR-related financing, called the statement "a welcome step forward." RAN tempered that praise, though, by saying JPMorgan needed to get tougher on MTR companies by cutting them off altogether. "If JPMorgan wants to lead instead of follow on environmental responsibility," the group said in a statement, "the way forward is a complete phase-out of mountaintop removal coal financing."

Was Blumenthal Always Doomed?

| Tue May 18, 2010 11:03 AM EDT

The New York Times story revealing Richard Blumenthal's misstatements about military service in Vietnam could deal a fatal blow to the popular attorney general's campaign for Senate in Connecticut. But while few had anticipated a blow-up over this issue, some observers had been predicting for months that Blumenthal's campaign would be derailed by his fumbling on the trail.

The Times catches a 2008 statement by Blumenthal before a group of veterans that he had "served in Vietnam," though he had never done so. But, the Times adds, it wasn't just one error that did Blumenthal in: "[W]hat is striking about Mr. Blumenthal’s record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans’ ceremonies or other patriotic events."

Observers had questioned whether Blumenthal had the savvy to withstand the challenges of a rigorous, modern-day campaign, as he had rarely been tested in the political arena. For 20 years, Blumenthal had been a widely popular attorney general, crusading against pedophiles, used-car dealers, insurers, and other "easily demonized foes," the Times wrote back in April. His popularity gave him a commanding double digit-lead over his Republican challengers, with the latest polls showing him at least 13 points ahead of former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon.

But Blumenthal's earlier stumbles created a gnawing concern among some Democrats about his political acumen. He flopped in his first televised debate, rambled in response to routine campaign questions, and relied heavily on "prosecutorial parlance and legal arcana," leading some Democrats to call him "Martha Coakley in pants," writes the Times. According to one veteran state Democratic party leader, "years of one-sided news conferences had left the attorney general unaccustomed to challenge."

Whether or not he deliberately meant to misled the public about his Vietnam service, Blumenthal's statements about his military record are just another sign of his political shortcomings in an environment in which every slip-up and inconsistency is ruthlessly scrutinized. He still has the opportunity, however slim, to recover from the blow, given McMahon's rush to claim credit for the hit and his scheduled press conference today. But doing so will require him to transform into something that he's rarely been before: a modern-day political animal.

Souder: Batting .500 in Hypocrisy

| Tue May 18, 2010 9:48 AM EDT

Credit Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) for not being a total hypocrite.

On Tuesday morning, he announced he is resigning from the House because he had "a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff." He noted that he had "sinned against God, my wife, and my family." Souder has been a fierce opponent of gay marriage. On his website, he notes,

I believe that Congress must fight to uphold the traditional values that undergird the strength of our nation. The family plays a fundamental role in our society. Studies consistently demonstrate that it is best for a child to have a mother and father, and I am committed to preserving traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman.

And he refers to gay marriage as an "assault on American values." Here was a fellow who was committed to preventing gay and lesbian Americans from enjoying the rights and protections of marriage, while he was disregarding his own. Could it be that the gay "assault" on marriage weakened his own marital bonds? Anyone on the right want to argue Souder is a victim?

This is a classic example of GOP hypocrisy: professing love of "traditional" family values, while screwing around. Nothing unusual here, move along—though Souder may deserve extra credit for having taped with his staffer/lover a video praising his advocacy of abstinence education. (In the video, she tells him, "You've been a longtime advocate for abstinence education and in 2006 you had your staff conduct a report entitled 'Abstinence and its Critics' which discredits many claims purveyed by those who oppose abstinence education.")

But there is a slight twist in the Souder tale. As soon as news of his affair broke, some Twitterers were tweeting that Souder must have voted for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But Souder, who was elected to the House in 1994, didn't. In fact, in November 1998, he argued against impeaching Clinton. He said that his fellow House Republicans should not proceed with impeachment unless they could assemble a case involving more than sex-and-perjury allegations. And then Souder stuck to his guns and was one of five House Republicans to vote against the three articles of impeachment, saying that he believed that Clinton had perjured himself during the Monica Lewinsky investigation but that this did not merit impeachment.

So when Souder says in his resignation announcement, "In the poisonous environment of Washington, D.C., any personal failing is seized upon, often twisted, for political gain," he's not being a Johnny-Come-Lately in decrying the politics of petty personal destruction. He was against it during the Clinton days (when a Democratic president was the target), and now he's against it (when he would be the target). 

Souder only scores one out of two on the hypocrisy scale. For a Republican caught in a sex scandal, that's pretty good.

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Brownback's Twisted Auto Logic

| Tue May 18, 2010 9:41 AM EDT

Last week, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) went head to head on financial reform with the biggest US bureaucracy of them all, the US military—and, it turns out, used some dubious facts in doing so. On May 14, Brownback wrote to an undersecretary of defense, Clifford Stanley, with questions about exempting auto dealers from oversight by a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a centerpiece of the financial regulatory reform being debated in Congress. The letter pitted Brownback against one of the biggest opponents of this auto dealer loophole—the US military. As Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has reported, soldiers are frequently targeted by predatory and unscrupulous car salesmen, and are duped into buying overpriced cars on unfair terms. The military wants auto dealers to fall under the bureau's oversight, and has lobbied just as hard to kill a dealer loophole as dealer organizations, such as the National Auto Dealers Association, have lobbied to preserve it.

Here's where it gets messy with Brownback. In his letter to Stanley, Brownback mentioned a recent news article as evidence of why new dealer regulation was a bad idea:

CNN Money on May 13 reported that "Raj Date, executive director of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, agreed that the additional [CFPA] regulation might cause some dealers to stop arranging loans."

Today, a presumably pissed-off Date sent a letter to the DOD's Stanley, pointing out that Brownback had seriously twisted his position to fit an existing agenda. Here's how Date's comments appeared in full in the article:

Raj Date, executive director of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, agreed that the additional regulation might cause some dealers to stop arranging loans. "There will be some dealers who say 'If I have to play by an honest set [of] rules, then I can't be in this business anymore,'" Date said. "I'm not going to shed any tears for these dealers."

Date goes on to write in the letter, "It is my strong opinion that only those auto dealers that cannot play by honest rules would exit the business." Which should be the objective of any tough consumer protections, right? If you can't play by the rules, then get out. A request for comment by Mother Jones from Sen. Brownback's office wasn't immediately returned.

Obama Housing Rescue Slowly Dying?

| Tue May 18, 2010 8:54 AM EDT

The Treasury Department released yesterday the latest monthly data for its flagship homeowner relief program—and it's not pretty. So far, in the 14-month-old Home Affordable Modification Program, just under 300,000 homeowners have received permanent modifications to their mortgages—that means lower payments for a three- to five-year period for the homeowner to try to keep them in their home. Those modifications, however, are dwarfed by the pool of delinquent borrowers deemed by Treasury as eligible for HAMP, numbering 1,702,134. (For a bit of context, there were 2.8 million foreclosures in 2009.)

What's more telling is this graph, via Calculated Risk, that shows the pace of new trial modifications—the testing period for homeowners to prove they can stay current on their theoretically lowered payments—is noticeably slowing down. In September 2009, HAMP recorded nearly 135,000 new trial modifications; in April 2010, there were 37,021 modifications. The graph below shows that this decline has been underway since the beginning of 2010.

Bill over at Calculated Risk draws this conclusion about HAMP, a much maligned program whose problems I've been writing about for nearly a year:

If we look at the HAMP program stats (see page 5), the median front end DTI (debt to income) before modification was 44.9% - up slightly from 44.8% last month. And the back end DTI was an astounding 80.2% (up from 77.5% last month).

Think about that for a second: over 80% of the borrowers income went to servicing debt. And it is over 64% after the modification. Do they have a life?

Just imagine the characteristics of the borrowers who can't be converted!

In summary: 1) the program is dying, 2) the borrowers DTI characteristics are poor - and getting worse, and 3) there are a large number of borrowers in modification limbo.

Birther Queen: Obama Persecuting Me with Placenta Painting!

| Tue May 18, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Orly Taitz, the queen bee of the birther movement, sounds distraught. “I’m going through hell,” she says.  The California dentist-lawyer had called to tell me about what she says is a campaign to scare her family so that she’ll abandon her quest to become California’s next Secretary of State. She says she’s endured death threats and an attempt to tamper with her car. But this time, she says, her opponents have gone too far. The final straw?  An elaborate oil painting of a nude Taitz, legs splayed, giving birth to… a pancake.

First, a little back-story. For two years, Taitz has been demanding that California’s secretary of state request more evidence that President Obama is truly an American-born citizen. In March, she got herself on the ballot to run for the job in the Republican primary. But since declaring her candidacy, Taitz says that Obama supporters have been targeting her children—she has two in high school and one in college—via their Facebook pages with disturbing messages and images of their mother.

Exihibit A, says Taitz, is a series of paintings of her by Dan Lacey, the so-called “pancake painter,” who achieved minor celebrity during the 2008 presidential race for his numerous depictions of a naked, muscular Obama perched atop a unicorn. He’s also painted Sarah Palin, John McCain and Mother Theresa, among other famous figures, with a pile of pancakes atop their heads.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 18, 2010

Tue May 18, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

Bravo Company Marines decide how much money they are willing to part with in exchange for various items offered by local villagers here on May 9. In addition to fresh bread and canned beverages, the younger locals also put hand-carved sling shots and hats up for sale to the visiting Marines who were in the area conducting a combat logistics patrol in support of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. Photo via the US Marines.