Mojo - August 2010

Tim Geithner's Economic Recovery Tour

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took to the New York Times editorial page on Tuesday to tell Americans how great the economic recovery is going. On Wednesday afternoon, he's scheduled to speak at the Center for American Progress, where he'll presumably expand on his defense of the administration's management of the economy. If the quality of Geithner's op-ed is any predictor of the quality of Geithner's speech, Wednesday's event is sure to be a must-miss. The title of Geithner's op-ed—and I am not kidding—is the extremely patronizing and almost-impossible-to-parody "Welcome to the Recovery." (Did the Times headline writers come up with that one? That's no excuse.) 

I don't know what Geithner's apparent "economic success" tour (he was on Good Morning America on Tuesday, too) is supposed to accomplish. A Times op-ed is not going to convince Republican pundits to support Obama's economic policies. It isn't winning over their libertarian or liberal colleagues, either. Perhaps the administration hopes that Joe-the-New-York-Times-reader will forward Geithner's op-ed (or the video of his GMA appearance) to his friends and family with a thoughtful message: "I guess things really are improving!" But when more than nine percent of Americans are unemployed (16.5 percent if you're using U-6), it's going to be hard to convince even Joe that things are peachy. "The public is unlikely to be fooled," writes Ryan Avent. As Kevin Drum says, "the economy still sucks." Geithner's vaunted powers of persuasion aren't going to convince people otherwise. The thing that's most likely to persuade people the economic situation is improving is to improve the economic situation.

So given all that, why did Geithner's op-ed even get written? There are a number of possible explanations, and none of them make the administration look particularly good. 

  1. The Obama administration knows that things are worse than Geithner says, but is spinning for political reasons. This would imply that the administration thinks that Americans are easily fooled about the state of the economy. If the administration thinks that, they've got another thing coming. Also, this is a strategy based on dishonesty. That's not unprecedented in politics (far from it), but it's still slimy.
  2. The Obama administration thinks that things are better than they are. This would imply that the administration is stupid, pollyannaish, and insular. Those are bad things—not only on their face but also because they mean the administration won't take the steps necessary to improve the economy.
  3. The Obama administration is hoping the economy is "fixed," but is pretty sure it's not, and they need someone to be the sacrificial lamb to tell voters (falsely) that everything's going to be okay. So they're throwing the already damaged Tim Geithner under the bus. Geithner is making the kind of statements that Republicans will point to in 12 months when unemployment is still over 8 (or 9) percent. If the GOP is running Congress by then (and it probably will be), the administration might feel like it needs to fire someone to appease its critics. (The White House hasn't seemed reluctant to fire people to please the Right so far.) Geithner's head might be the first to roll. All the points from number one apply here, too. This scenario reminds me of the Bush years, when the administration would trot out some hapless, soon-to-be-fired flunky to assure Americans that everything was going just fine in Iraq. 
  4. The administration knows the economy isn't "fixed," and secretly blames the Republicans, but really believes all of its happy talk about bipartisanship and doesn't want to play hardball. This one makes the administration seem dishonest, naive, and weak—the trifecta! Paul Krugman suggests that "one way to play [the bad economy] politically would be to tell the truth [about it being bad], and try to place the onus on Republicans, accusing them of perpetuating high unemployment." I'm skeptical that political rhetoric could change people's opinions about who they trust to manage the economy. Still, if the Obama administration secretly believes that the Republicans are blocking economic recovery measures, it could at least be trying to work around the congressional GOP's obstructionism. It hasn't even done that.
  5. It's just an op-ed, and we shouldn't read too much into it. We can only hope! 

One final thought, from 538's Nate Silver: "One overarching critique of some of the less successful Presidencies of the recent past is that they suffer from a bunker mentality: they were either too stubborn, or too detached from reality, to acknowledge mistakes and correct errant courses of action." The Obama administration still hasn't admitted any error in its response to the economic crisis. But almost everyone agrees that the economy isn't recovering quickly enough to return us to full employment any time soon. Maybe it's time to climb out of the bunker, explain what went wrong, and fix it.

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California Pols Got Free Extreme Cagefighting and Sesame Street Tickets From BP

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

Despite being on the hook for unprecedented cleanup and legal costs in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has spent thousands of dollars in recent months on free concert and sports tickets for California lawmakers. As I reported last month, getting the tickets is as easy as calling the BP ticket request line, an unpublished phone number that appears to exist for the sole purpose of granting freebies to lawmakers, regulators, and their staffs. Since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April, BP has given government officials 32 tickets valued $2500, according to a BP lobbying report filed yesterday. All of the performances took place at Arco Arena, the Sacramento stadium named after BP's West Coast subsidiary.
 
While BP gave away less than half the tickets it did in the same period before the Gulf disaster, its image problems didn't prevent staffers for some of California's most powerful politicians from partying on its dime. Junay Gardner Logan, chief of staff for state Senator Bob Huff (R-metro LA), the chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, accepted two tickets to see the Eagles' "Long Road to Eden" concert. She declined to comment. And staffers for Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) took in the Eagles and Cirque du Soleil. A spokeswoman for Perez said one of the staffers is no longer with him. "Speaker Perez has not accepted any gifts from BP," she added. "The fact that the Speaker has proposed a new tax on oil companies to close our deficit should underscore the fact that BP's ticket practices have no influence on public policy in the Speaker's office."
 
One recent recipient of a seat in BP's corporate box is helping to draft rules to implement AB 32, California's landmark cap and trade law, which is one of BP's main lobbying interests. In addition to tapping BP to see the Sacramento Kings play at Arco in 2009, Dan Pellissier, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputy cabinet secretary on energy and environmental policy, hit up the oil company for Eagles tickets this April. But this time he reimbursed BP for the cost, according to BP's lobbying report.
 
Shortly after I began reporting on BP's ticket request line, BP disconnected the line's recorded voicemail system. But now the ticket line is up and running again. To request a ticket, call (916) 444-7968. 
 
Below is a complete list of California officials who've accepted free tickets from BP since the spill, along with highlights from the attractions that lured them into the embrace of the world's most hated oil company. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 4, 2010

Wed Aug. 4, 2010 2:59 AM EDT

 

US Soldiers assigned to 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division patrol fields out side of Joint Security Station Basra Operation Center, Iraq, on July 23. Photo via the US Army.

Rove, Palin Pick Dumped in Kansas

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 2:00 AM EDT

[MoJo has more primary coverage: Read Andy Kroll's report on Michigan's gubernational results, and Nick Baumann's take on Missouri's primaries for US House and Senate.]

Kansas Rep. Jerry Moran narrowly beat fellow US congressman Todd Tiahrt to secure Kansas' Republican nomination for Senate following a pricey, vitriolic campaign season in which the congressmen brawled over social conservatism, illegal immigration, and government spending.

Up against an opponent with backing from Kansas' tea partiers, Moran's campaign won the primary by bolstering his conservative record and carefully courting the party's moderate wing. Tiahrt took the opposite approach, and sought out the state's most socially conservative voters. He scored endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Bush administration advisor Karl Rove, Fox News host Sean Hannity, and conservative organizer Phyliss Schlaffly, among others. That list of conservative luminaries, though, couldn't save Tiahrt, who lost the Republican primary Tuesday night by 5 points.

Kansas political consultant Jeff Roe considers Moran "a common-sense, conservative, plain spoken man for western Kansas" and Tiahrt "a touch more idealogue, from Witchita, with an aggressive posture and base." Not that Moran was particularly timid on the campaign trail. In televised debates and on one TV spot, he accused Tiahrt of supporting "amnesty for illegals" based on Tiahrt's co-sponsorship of bills seeking deportation protection and lower college tuition for undocumented immigrant students.

Tiahrt, meanwhile, branded Moran a watered-down moderate. In one well-publicized commercial, a former hostage whom terrorists held captive in the Philippines for more than a year endorses Tiahrt while an off-camera voice suggests Moran supported constitutional rights for terrorists. One of Tiahrt’s most punishing jabs at Moran came in late June from surrogate and supporter Karl Rove, who accused Moran of trying to barter a vote for a 2001 fundraiser. (Moran and his staff emphatically denied the claim.)

The most recent polls showed Moran slightly ahead of Tiahrt entering Tuesday's contest, but this was a lead he held in terms of geography and fundraising from the beginning. Tiahrt's home district in south-central Kansas has about 168,000 registered Republicans, the smallest Republican registration for any House district in Kansas. Moran's sprawling district, which covers parts of western and central Kansas, has more than 203,000 registered GOP faithful. Moran also raised more money than Tiahrt in one of the most expensive races in the state’s history; together, the candidates spent more than $5 million.

This November, Moran will square off against Lisa Johnston in a contest to succeed Sen. Sam Brownback. However, Johnston, the winner of Tuesday's Democratic nomination for Senate and an assistant dean at Baker University, stands little chance against her Republican opponent. Kansas has been electing Republican senators for the nearly 80 years, and Tuesday's win is a near assurance that Moran will continue that GOP streak this fall.

Military: No Afghan Embed for Rolling Stone Reporter

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:59 AM EDT

…Aaaaand we have revenge. The military today announced that Mike Hastings, the Rolling Stone freelancer and longtime war reporter who ended Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career by, um, listening to stuff that happened and writing it down, will not be returning to Afghanistan anytime soon. His request for a September frontline embed, which had been previously approved, was suddenly rescinded by the unit’s commander, according to a DOD spokesman, Colonel David Lapan:

"There is no right to embed," Lapan said. "It is a choice made between units and individual reporters, and a key element of an embed is having trust that the individuals are going to abide by the ground rules. So in that instance the command in Afghanistan decided there wasn’t the trust requisite and denied this request."

Now, the military could have maybe welcomed Hastings to show they could let bygones be bygones...as well as to do some pushback against the WikiLeaks crowd by inviting a real, live reporter with a camera and junk out there to cover the "ground truth" by being, you know, on the ground. You'd think Bill Caldwell, the ISAF training commander who once ran the coalition's public affairs machine in Iraq, would know that.

Or not.

Is the military's explanation kosher? Not likely; the reasons why after the jump.

The Missouri Health Care Vote

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:07 AM EDT

[MoJo has more elections coverage: Andy Kroll has a report on the Michigan governor's race and a post-mortem on Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's political career, and I have the details of Missouri's Senate and House primaries.]

Missouri primary voters struck an impotent blow against health care reform on Tuesday, rallying behind Proposition C, a ballot measure that supposedly prohibits the government from requiring that people obtain insurance or punishing them if they don't. (A key provision of the health care reform law, the so-called "individual mandate," requires most people to purchase insurance. Starting in 2014, the law imposes penalties on people who don't buy insurance. Prop C was designed to counteract this part of the reform bill.) Around 70 percent of the voters in the heavily Republican primary electorate supported the measure, which does not actually do what it claims to do. The Associated Press explains [emphasis mine]:

Tuesday's vote was seen as largely symbolic because federal law generally trumps state law. But it was also seen as a sign of growing voter disillusionment with federal policies and a show of strength by conservatives and the tea party movement.

Legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and Virginia have passed similar statutes, and voters in Arizona and Oklahoma will vote on such measures as state constitutional amendments in November. But Missouri was the first state to challenge aspects of the law in a referendum. 

Republicans and red states oppose health care reform, so it's not surprising that they'd like to pass laws invalidating it. Unfortunately for GOPers, the Affordable Care Act is a federal law, and states can't just choose to disobey it—just as states can't pass their own immigration laws without earning a Constitutional challenge from the Justice Department. We're talking basic constitutional principles here. Cable news will probably try to make a big deal out of this ballot measure on Wednesday, but this is really a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Meanwhile, opposition to health care reform is declining. Here in the real world, Missouri's Prop C isn't even going to scratch health care reform, let alone stop it. If the GOP wants to actually do some damage to the Affordable Care Act, they need to win back the House and kill the bill by cutting its funding in the appropriations process.

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The End Of The Kilpatrick Dynasty?

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:45 AM EDT

[MoJo has more primary coverage: Read my report on Michigan's gubernational results, and Nick Baumann's take on Missouri's primaries for US House and Senate.]

"This is the final curtain: the ending of the Kilpatrick dynasty."

So concluded Detroit political consultant Eric Foster in the Detroit Free Press' report on the primary defeat of Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

Cheeks Kilpatrick, a seven-term Democrat, represented Michigan's 13th congressional district, which includes large parts of Detroit. Her defeat is largely attibutable to one of the worst scandals in that city's history. The salacious saga centered on her son, Kwame, Detroit's disgraced former mayor, who had an affair with his chief of staff, lied about it under oath, and spent millions in city funds fighting public disclosure of text messages and secret settlements. The former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cheeks Kilpatrick lost to state Senator Hansen Clarke;  at 11:45 p.m., Clarke had 46 percent of the vote and Cheeks Kilpatrick 40 percent. The Free Press described Hansen's win as a "stunning upset victory."

Here's more from the Freep as the results roll in:

The defeat could spell the end of a 14-year congressional career for Kilpatrick, who has been dogged by the legal problems faced by her son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now serving time for violating probation on state felony charges and awaiting trial on federal charges of tax evasion and mail and wire fraud.

The race has been among the most watched races in the state.

A subdued crowd at Kilpatrick’s election night party in downtown Detroit waited for the final numbers to roll in, hoping that absentee ballots might reverse the trend...

At Clarke's party at the Centaur Bar in Detroit, the mood was much more upbeat. Cheering erupted as Clarke greeted the crowd.

"What’s missing is a congressman willing to work in the city," said Detroit city councilman Gary Brown. "I hope he can bring the Michigan delegation in Washington together."

Michigan Guv: Big Labor vs. Big Biz

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:33 AM EDT

[More MoJo primary coverage: Nick Baumann reports on the Missouri primaries for US Senate here.]

Big labor, at least in a manufacturing state like Michigan, still wields some major political muscle. That's one takeaway from Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary in Michigan, in which labor's pick, Lansing mayor Virg Bernero, easily defeated state House speaker Andy Dillon. Most media outlets called the race for Bernero early in the evening, and with 50 percent of voting precincts reporting, Bernero led Dillon by more than 40,000 votes.

Bernero, once seen as the underdog candidate, trailed Dillon in the polls for most of his primary campaign. But recently labor groups like the AFL-CIO and AFSCME mobilized their members and ramped up their ground campaign on Bernero's behalf, and as a result, the blunt Lansing mayor surged in the most recent polls. A fiery politician, Bernero is largely seen as a defender of the working class, especially the auto industry, and will garner even more support from Michigan's still-influential unions heading into November.

While Bernero sounds like a classic Michigan Democrat, Rick Snyder, who easily defeated longtime Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Michigan's GOP gubernatorial primary, is hardly your typical Republican. The former CEO of Gateway computers, Snyder trounced his more established Republican opponents, leading Hoekstra by 63,000 votes with 53 percent of precincts reporting. Like Bernero, Snyder got off to a rocky, unassuming start, but quickly gathered momentum as voters latched onto his job-creation message in a state blighted by 13 percent unemployment.

Rep. Roy Blunt Wins GOP Senate Nod in Missouri

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:03 AM EDT

[MoJo has more primary coverage: Andy Kroll has a report on the Michigan governor's race and a post-mortem on Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's political career. I also have the details of Missouri's competitive House primaries below.]

Rep. Roy Blunt, who held several top positions in the leadership of the congressional GOP during the Bush years, won the Missouri Republican nomination for Senate and will face Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in the fall. Blunt was leading tea party-backed State Sen. Chuck Purgason, 72 to 13 percent, when the Associated Press called the race. 

(Meanwhile, "auctioneer and former radio personality" Billy Long looks set to replace Blunt in Congress. He's leading an eight-way GOP primary in Missouri's heavily Republican 7th district, which Blunt represented for seven terms.)

The Carnahan-Blunt race—which pits members of two Missouri political dynasties (Carnahan's dad was governor; Blunt's son served as secretary of state and governor) against each other—is shaping up to be a blockbuster. The winner will replace retiring Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican, in Washington, and Carnahan's high name recognition and strong polling suggest that this is one of the Democrats' few legitimate pickup opportunities among 2010 Senate races. 

Carnahan, unlike some Dem candidates, doesn't seem squeamish about being tied to President Obama, who narrowly lost Missouri in the 2008 presidential contest. She better be committed to that position, because if she changes her mind now, it's going to be really hard to distance herself from the White House—last month, Obama has visited St. Louis and raised $500,000 on her behalf. That's the kind of thing voters remember. Carnahan probably needed the money—as a longtime member of Congress, Blunt can definitely raise a lot of campaign cash. But hanging out with the President could cost her. One poll puts Obama's approval rating in Missouri at 34 percent. That stinks. 

Fortunately for Carnahan, Blunt has liabilities of his own. Obama may be unpopular in Missouri, but so was George W. Bush. Blunt was a key player in implementing Bush's agenda, and he knows his work in Congress is a vulnerability. As Andy Kroll pointed out a few weeks ago, Blunt—like Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who's also running for Senate—couldn't even bring himself to acknowledge his current job in his first campaign ad. If Carnahan can tie Blunt to Bush and Congress and make the case that she's not a "Washington politician," she'll have a shot.

The Bush/congressional GOP attack might not even be Carnahan's most potent ammo. The government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has repeatedly named Blunt one of its "most corrupt" politicians, and last month it put the congressman on its bipartisan list of 11 "crooked candidates." Here are some highlights:

As a member of Congress, Rep. Blunt came under fire for a variety of issues including employing the same corrupt tactics that forced his mentor, former Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, to resign. Rep. Blunt’s ethical issues were documented in CREW’s 2006 report on the most corrupt members of Congress.

In 2003, Rep. Blunt divorced his wife of 31 years to marry Philip Morris (now Altria) lobbyist Abigail Perlman. Before it was known publicly that Rep. Blunt and Ms. Perlman were dating – and only hours after Rep. Blunt assumed the role of Majority Whip – he tried to secretly insert a provision into Homeland Security legislation that would have benefitted Philip Morris, at the expense of competitors. Notably, Philip Morris/Altria and its subsidiaries contributed at least $217,000 to campaign committees connected to Rep. Blunt from 1996 to 2006.

Also in 2003, Rep. Blunt helped his son, Andrew Blunt, by inserting a provision into the $79 billion emergency appropriation for the war in Iraq to benefit U.S. shippers like United Parcel Service, Inc. and FedEx Corp. Andrew Blunt lobbied on behalf of UPS in Missouri, and UPS and FedEx contributed at least $58,000 to Rep. Blunt from 2001 to 2006.

Family connections have also helped another of Rep. Blunt’s sons, former Missouri Governor Matt Blunt. Gov. Blunt received campaign contributions from nearly three dozen influential Missouri lobbyists and lawyers when he ran for governor of Missouri in 2004, half of whom had provided financial support to his father. Earlier in 2000, when Matt Blunt was running for Secretary of State, Rep. Blunt was involved in an apparent scheme, along with Rep. DeLay, to funnel money through a local party committee into Matt Blunt’s campaign committee.

Rep. Blunt and his staff had close connections to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In June 2003, Mr. Abramoff persuaded then-Majority Leader DeLay to organize a letter, co-signed by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, then-Whip Blunt, and then-Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, which endorsed a view of gambling law benefitting Mr. Abramoff’s client, the Louisiana Coushatta, by blocking gambling competition by another tribe. Mr. Abramoff had donated $8,500 to Rep. Blunt’s leadership PAC, Rely on Your Beliefs.

In the end, I suspect that Missourians disappointment (fair or unfair) with Democrats' management of the economy will trump any concerns about Rep. Blunt's ethics. Carnahan will find that ethical complaints are complicated and hard to explain. Blunt probably knows that 9.2 percent unemployment doesn't even have to be explained. 

UPDATE, 11:45 p.m. EST: In the state's other competitive primary, it looks like former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler has beaten State Sen. Bill Stouffer for the right to take on 17-term Dem vet Rep. Ike Skelton, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Hartzler is a serious candidate, but if she beats Skelton in November, it's going to be a very bad night for the Dems.

Birthright Citizenship: History Defies GOP Reasoning

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:06 PM EDT

All the talk from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), and even John McCain about changing the 14th Amendment got me thinking about history. Arizona state senator Russell Pearce has said that, "When it was ratified in 1868, the amendment had to do with African-Americans; it had nothing to do with aliens." Sen. Pearce is in need of a history lesson because as Media Matters points out, the writers of the 14th DID think about immigrants, not just former slaves, when they crafted it.

Back in 1868, there wasn't the distinction between legal/illegal that we have now—we pretty much let almost everyone in until the late 1800s—but there was debate about the possible misuse of the law by immigrants. As one Pennsylvania senator at the time said, "[I]s it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race? Are they to be immigrated out of house and home by Chinese?" A California senator countered the gentleman from Pennsylvania with: "We are entirely ready to accept the provision proposed in this [14th] constitutional amendment, that the children born here of Mongolian parents shall be declared by the Constitution of the United States to be entitled to civil rights and to equal protection before the law with with others." 

Replace "Chinese" and "Mongolian" with "Mexican" in those statements and the xenophobia starts to sound familiar. In fact, I turned up this little gem while browsing the history of anti-Irish discrimination. When you substitute the tea party for the Know Nothings, and Mexicans and Latinos for the Irish, and Phoenix for Boston, it still sounds pretty accurate:

The city of Phoenix was an established home of anti-immigrant feelings. This can be largely accredited to the large numbers of Mexican and Latino immigrants that made their home in that city. By 2000, it was estimated that a fifth of Phoenix’s population was foreign-born Latinos... This caused a great deal of fear because people were afraid they would be overrun by immigrants and they allowed political powers to be bred from it. The Tea Party rose to prominence at the zenith of Phoenix’s anti-immigrant feelings in the 2000s and 2010s. The party was opposed to foreign immigration, especially Mexicans, and believed that “Americans must rule America" ...Once in power, the party passed a series of laws aimed specifically at the Latino immigrant population of Arizona... The Tea Party's popularity was lost as easily as it was gained when the party’s candidate was defeated in the presidential election, signaling the end of its four year reign over American politics.