Mojo - August 2010

The Peril of Running Against Palin's "Mama Grizzlies"

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 2:18 PM EDT

EMILY's List—the Democratic group supporting pro-choice women for office—has launched a new campaign aimed at slamming Sarah Palin and the candidates she's endorsed in this year's elections. The campaign has launched on www.SarahDoesntSpeakForMe.com, which features a video parodying the conservative Republican "Mama Grizzlies" that Palin has trumpeted:

Dressed in bear costumes, the women in the video don't simply mock Palin's "Mama Grizzly" meme; they try to appropriate it as a liberal symbol that will "rear up" to defend reproductive rights and a social safety net. "But believe me, there are plenty of mama grizzlies out there who would disagree with you. So you're right, you don't want to mess with mama grizzlies. Don't mess with us," the women say in the ad.

But it's unclear how much weight an anti-Palin message will have this year. It's a defensive strategy that's an extension of the Democratic Party's larger attempt to make 2010 a replay of the 2008 election by focusing on the issues that mobilized its base at the time. But by fixating on Palin, there's the danger that she and the other loudmouth Republicans will still control the terms of the debate. Though EMILY's List tries to turn the "Mama Grizzly" symbol on its head, the ad ends up sticking with the bear-as-common-woman theme that Palin pioneered—ultimately staying within Palin's own political mythology.

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Turning Westboro Church's Hate Into Charity (VIDEO)

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 1:29 PM EDT

"What would happen if hate came to your town?"

It's a simple question. Four Richmond, Virginia, moms faced it last March, when they learned that Fred Phelps' roadshow of hate—the anti-gay, anti-Jew, anti-America, proto-nihilist Westboro Baptist Church—was headed to their town. The abusive Westies, who are famous for celebrating the funerals of fallen soldiers and intimidating grade schoolers, planned to bring their multi-colored signs and cuss-laden chants to four area sites: the Virginia Holocaust museum, the local Jewish Community Center, a Jewish day camp called the Jerusalem Connection, and the Straight-Gay Student Alliance at Hermitage High School.

How to resist such a movement? Counter-protests? Sure. Just make sure the anger and violence is all on their side, not yours.

Singing? OK, it's worked before.

Blocking their access? Lord, no. The church "elders" are all attorneys, who live to sue and counter-sue everyone who challenges them, citing their First Amendment rights.

Anyway, all of these are ephemeral responses. The Westies come, 11-year-old hate-spewing child in tow, they say their piece, they get TV coverage, then they move on and do it again. A counter-protest is for one day. Westboro's hate goes on forever.

So Sarah Allen-Short, Jessica Lucia, Sara Heifetz, and Patience Salgado decided to do more. They harnessed Richmond residents' anti-Westboro frustrations to solicit donations for the targeted Jewish and LGBT organizations. The deal: Give a dollar for every minute WBC protests.

That was how Pennies in Protest started. They figured they'd get $1,000 or so. But by the time WBC blew out of town, 500 individuals had given more than $14,000. Their Facebook page had 3,000 fans. And people across the country were asking how to do it in their own communities.
 


 

Oh yeah, and WBC got drowned out by counter-protesters at every stop, too. And GayRVA, the local LGBT publication, made the four women their "Out.Spoken" Richmonders of the year.

"We're always trying to do better things in the world and this was just a no-brainer," Allen-Short told GayRVA. "It seemed like the only thing that's not complicated. It's not political, but I think that’s what was cool about it."

Now, these ladies can't drop their lives to follow WBC's hate-speech caravan all over the globe. So they did the next best thing: They started a website, PenniesinProtest.com, that explains their success story and how it can be duplicated by anyone anywhere. Fourteen easy steps show how to start a charity for kindness against hate.

But the best step of all? Step 13. It probably came naturally to group co-founder Salgado, who uses her blog, Kindness Girl, to chronicle "her adventures in what she calls 'Guerrilla Goodness'—from leaving Starbucks cards all over Carytown to writing inspiring messages in sidewalk chalk to students across the city on their first day of school."

Hence, Step 13:

It was important to us to let the Westboro Baptist Church know that the organizations they hate the most benefitted directly from their visit to our city. If they had never come here and chanted their hateful messages, our local community wouldn’t have donated $14,000 to local Jewish and LGBT organizations. They came here to harm our local Jewish and LGBT people, and their visit resulted in love and support.

So we made them a beautiful thank you note, and we mailed it to them.

This morning, Allen-Short sent me a note, too, on Twitter. But it's not really for me, it's for you: "WBC is headed to CA and NE next, so maybe some MoJo readers there will take up the cause. thx!"

Any takers?

Lewie Ranieri to the Rescue!

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

You may remember him from Michael Lewis' 1980s Wall Street classic, Liar's Poker: Lewie Ranieri, the godfather of the mortgage-backed security, who spent his days raking in billions while chomping cheeseburgers for the once-mighty Solomon Brothers. (I'm sure Ranieri's sick of people recounting his '80s exploits by now.) As the Wall Street Journal reports today, Ranieri has made, in some ways, quite the reversal: He now leads an outfit called Selene Residential Mortgage Opportunity Fund, which buys up mortgage loans at a massive discount and works with the borrower to keep them in their home via lowered interest rates or reduced principal. Ranieri's fund is essentially doing (albeit on a smaller scale) what the Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program was supposed to do: modifying mortgages and stopping foreclosures.

Here's more from the Journal's James Hagerty:

But Mr. Ranieri isn't your typical miracle worker. As a fund manager who was once vice chairman of the bond-trading firm Salomon Brothers, he's a member of the Wall Street crowd that is often pilloried for helping inflate the housing bubble, though he sat out the excesses of recent years. The 1989 book "Liar's Poker" made him famous for billion-dollar trades in mortgage bonds and junk-food "feeding frenzies" with his trading-desk buddies.

As the nation struggles with the worst foreclosure crisis since the 1930s, Mr. Ranieri's investment fund and others like it are emerging as the best hope for the roughly seven million U.S. households behind on their mortgage payments. Nimble, flush and willing to strike deals with borrowers, these funds have an edge over banks and other lenders that can be mired in bureaucracy and hampered by government rules about which loans can be renegotiated and how.

Selene's approach to modifying loans is a lot more sustainable than the administration's. Whereas Obama's HAMP has resulted in little reduction of the principal amount owed—the best way to help struggling homeowners (which the administration well knew)—nearly 90 percent of all Selene modifications involve principal reductions, the Journal found. That means homeowners are far less likely to re-default on their modified mortgage; in HAMP, the re-default rate is anywhere from a staggering 60 percent to 75 percent, according to analysts.

What's more, Lewie Ranieri and his team aren't doing this out of charity, either; they see loan modifications as a profitable venture:

If a delinquent loan can be turned into a "performing" loan, with the borrower making regular payments, the value of that loan rises, and Selene can turn around and either refinance it or sell it at a profit. Mr. Ranieri declines to discuss the fund's performance. But one of the shareholders, the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico, reported that its holdings in the fund had a market value of $19.8 million as of June 30, up from $18 million in late 2008. That excludes distributions of profits to shareholders in the funds.

The only catch with Ranieri's operation is that it's at a far smaller scale than HAMP. The fund told the Journal that it had modified "thousands" of loans so far, a small fraction of the total delinquencies in the US. (According to most recent data, 6.67 percent of all borrowers are 60 or more days behind on their mortgage.)

Still, given the success Ranieri's had so far, I hope the folks over at the Treasury Department, and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are taking notes.

Washington and Wyoming Results, Tricklin' in

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

Out in Washington, the state ran its first "top two," or "jungle," primary, in which all candidates, regardless of party, appeared on the same ballot. The two highest vote-getters then move on to the general election in November. (That means Democrats can vote for Republicans, and vice versa.) Think of it as a pre-election, with the state's top Dems and GOPers getting a preview of how they stack up against one another.

Washington's 8th district met expectations, with Republican Dave Reichert and Democrat Suzan DelBene coming in first and second, respectively. Though Hotline-on-Call says not to read too much into the results:

While Reichert's impressive 48-26 percent performance over DelBene in the primary was certainly impressive, don't read too much into that for the general election. DelBene did not focus heavily on the primary, and instead spent most of the year building up an impressive warchest; She has $900K in the bank compared to Reichert's $1M. The Dem-leaning nature of this CD—and DelBene's strong bank account—means Reichert should be in for another hard-fought contest. Although he certainly has the edge at this point over the unknown DelBene.

Down in the state's 3rd district, in the race to replace retiring Democrat Brian Baird, Republican Jaime Herrera came in second to Democrat Denny Heck, pulling in 27 percent of the vote to Heck's 31 percent. Bolstered by his grassroots base and endorsement from state Attorney General Rob McKenna, ex-Bush aide David Castillo remained hopeful despite a major funding gap with Herrera, one of the National Republican Congressional Committee's Young Guns. In a field cleared of serious Democratic opposition, Heck ran relatively unchallenged and was able to avoid spending lavishly on the primary. Hererra's prize for coming in second, then, is a dance with a with a well-funded opponent this fall.

On the Senate side, it'll be four-term incumbent Democrat Patty Murray taking on two-time gubernatorial loser Dino Rossi in November. Despite regularly polling under 50 percent, four-term Democrat Patty Murray won with relative ease, taking in 46 percent to Rossi's 34 percent of the vote. Rossi faced stiff challenges for the Republican vote from former Washington (DC) Redskins football player Clint Didier and late-to-the-party screw stick inventor Paul Akers. Democratic strategists say Didier and Akers, Tea Party darlings both, forced Rossi to lurch rightward. And because Murray faced no serious competition for Democratic votes, her supporters—because of the new primary rules—were free to try to siphon votes from Rossi by votting for Didier or Akers:

The thinking goes that with Murray a shoe-in to make the general, a portion of her base will either not participate or perhaps vote for one of Rossi’s top GOP competitors. Either way, a vote total below 45 percent could set off some alarms within the party. The last poll in the race, taken in late July by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, found Murray at 47 percent and the three Republicans totaling 47 percent (with Rossi taking 33 percent)

For full results on all the state's races, click here.

And in Wyoming, in the race to replace Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal, the Republican gubernatorial primary saw ex-US Attorney Matt Mead eke out a win over freshly anointed "mama grizzly" Rita Meyer and ex-state Rep. Ron Micheli. Mead took about 29 percent of the vote to Meyer and Micheli's 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively. The race was over when Meyer called to concede to Mead late on Tuesday. Polls at the end of July suggesting that this would be a close race proved prescient. Over on the Dem side, state party chair Leslie Peterson, a late-comer to the race, came out ahead of pilot Pete Gosar. Here are the Wyoming's full results.

Should Fannie and Freddie Be Killed or Kept Alive?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department played host to a who's-who of the housing industry: bank executives, bureaucrats, think tankers, academics, and  investors, who gathered in the ornate Cash Room to offer their two cents on how to fix the broken housing finance system, and in particular, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two housing corporations, which backstop the vast majority of America's mortgages, have had their balance sheets and reputations badly wounded in the past couple of years. Since the federal government essentially nationalized them in September 2008, taxpayers have propped up Fannie and Freddie to the tune of $148 billion. With $5 trillion in debt on their books, and no plan in place for their future, the troubled twins have become a political lightning rod and punching bags for the GOP.

So what do the brightest minds in housing envision see in store for Fannie and Freddie? Depends on who's got the mic. The recommendations offered at yesterday's conference ranged from fully nationalizing housing finance to getting government out of the business of guaranteeing loans. The Obama administration was somewhere in the middle, offering new but vague ideas on tackling its Fannie/Freddie problem.

Memo to Dems: A Miserable November Looms

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 4:55 AM EDT

No one expects the Democrats to do well in November's midterm congressional elections. But the prospect of a crushing defeat at the polls is looking increasingly likely. When should Dems start panicking? How about now? While Robert Gibbs gets in fights with Nancy Pelosi and the "professional left," the administration fires—and re-hires—Shirley Sherrod, and the entire country obsesses over the "Ground Zero mosque" nonsense, time is running out for the Dems to do something—anything!—to keep the coming GOP wave at bay.

President Obama will spend most of this week traveling around the country to raise money for Democratic candidates. It's the best he can do, but it isn't much: Obama's approval ratings are no longer in positive territory, and many Dem candidates aren't sure if they even want to campaign with him. And while a poll last week showed the Republican Party with some of its lowest ratings ever, indicators for the Democrats haven't improved at all.

The reason for all this, of course, is the economy, which is still sputtering. New jobless claims hit their highest mark since February last week, and private-sector hiring, while positive, has not been enough to offset the combination of population growth and public-sector job losses driven by deepening state fiscal crises. Rising energy costs are so far fending off the spectre of deflation, but they aren't really a good sign for consumers (or the Democrats' electoral prospects).

The president's party is putting some hope in the idea that tea party candidates will prove too radical for voters, allowing vulnerable Dems to survive tough challenges. But as Dave Weigel points out, the Democrats nominated several candidates in 2006 that the establishment considered "too liberal" to win. But in a Dem year, they won anyway. If the same pattern holds in reverse, it's likely that tea party candidates won't hurt Republicans nearly as much as Democrats believe they will. 

In January, I wrote that "the 2010 midterms are looking really bad for Democrats." My analysis at the time suggested that "Democrats could lose six or so Senate seats (and Lieberman might switch) and 20 to 30 in the House." The Dems' outlook seems much worse now than it did in January. Most political observers wouldn't be particularly surprised to see the GOP take the House (they currently hold 178 seats; they need to win 40 more to gain control). In the Senate, the Dems face more competitive races than it appeared the would earlier this year. A few things seem nearly certain right now: GOP Gov. John Hoeven will win in North Dakota and Rep. John Boozman (R) will beat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas. That's two GOP pickups right there. Indiana and Delaware also look nearly clinched for the Republicans. The only Senate Dem whose situation seems to have improved since January is majority leader Harry Reid, though tea partier Sharron Angle could still beat him.

There are plenty of other places where Dems would win in a normal year, but may not pull it out given the tough economy. Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Colorado could easily go Republican. And since January, Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Patty Murray (Wash.), and Russ Feingold (Wisc.) have discovered they are a lot more vulnerable than previously thought. Even Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut could be beatable—a new Rasmussen poll puts him up just seven points on multi-millionaire Republican candidate Linda McMahon. That's twelve senate seats up for grabs right there—and I haven't mentioned the special election in West Virginia, where polling guru Nate Silver gives the GOP a small chance of picking up the late Sen. Robert Byrd's seat. And there's still the (likely, in my mind) possibility that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) may switch to the GOP in order to bolster his 2012 re-election chances. 

Sure, the Dems might pick up some seats. Independent candidate Charlie Crist could win in Florida and caucus with the blue team. The races in Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky are far from over. But the Dems in each of those races are underdogs—and the chances of pickups in North Carolina and New Hampshire look even slimmer, given the polling. In 2006 and 2008, not a single Senate seat switched from Dem to GOP. Barring an October surprise, it's not inconceivable that the GOP could come close to running the table themselves. Are we looking at Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? If so, Obama beware.

If the GOP does win back control of Congress, expect a contentious two years. Everything about the Republicans' conduct since Obama's election (and during the Clinton years) suggests that they will spend most of their time making life hard for him and trying to make sure he loses in 2012.

How do Democrats avoid that fate? It'll be tough: even if they could pass measures to boost the economy (and they can't, because they'd be blocked by a GOP filibuster), the measures probably wouldn't help in time for Election Day. Perhaps their best hope is action by the Federal Reserve. But Obama has failed to get his nominees to the Fed board of governors confirmed, and the board is currently dominated by conservative inflation hawks (and run by Ben Bernanke, a conservative Republican).

As for those liberals who are celebrating the coming Dem apocalypse, hoping that it will get rid of the "difficult" Dems: watch out. Sure, John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) may survive the wave. But what about the Senate? What about Boxer, Murray, and Feingold? Can progressives really afford to lose them? Probably not. But progressives are going to have to start resigning themselves to what seems like the inevitable. November is coming, and it's gonna be miserable. Get ready.

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

Wed Aug. 18, 2010 1:59 AM EDT

 

US Army Pfc. Joshua Murphy, rifleman for Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul and New Brighton, Pa. native, measures a rooftop of a school near Combat Outpost Mizan, Zabul Province, on Aug. 14, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon.

Hot GOP Chicks [Video]

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 7:11 PM EDT

Hey, remember when the Republicans ran a lady for vice president, and complained about the "sexism!" heaped on her by Democratic women? Remember how the GOP claimed to flood the zone with female candidates, purported to be the real feminists defending womankind against horrible liberalism, and decreed 2010 to be the year of the "mama grizzly"?

Their bad! It was all a ploy to score hot chicks, and to leave the dregs for those boner commies on the left. Ha ha, yeah bro! High-five it! Pass me one of them Bud Light Limes!

Yes, it's true: Comes information that the Minnesota state GOP*, which insists that you take Rep. Michele Bachmann and this guy seriously, put its true womanly feelings on YouTube. Shorter version: GOP babes are BABES with Tom Jones' endorsement...and Dem womyn are ugly fat butch dog lesbians, especially when you Photoshop them onto pictures of hairy Arab detainees and other man bodies! Note: That is not me exaggerating with cynical lefty hyperbole. Please, for the love of all that's holy and sacred, watch this video in its entirety:

The Minnesota Independent caught up with the state GOP's site's webmaster, Randy Brown, who not only copped to posting the video, but defended it: "[I]ts only intention was to bring a smile to a few peoples faces, and possibly irritate a few others. Is it fair? Does that matter? It wasn't intended to be fair. It was intended to be funny."

Yeah, ha ha, ha ha! Rawk, bro! Let's go watch some b-ball and shoot pigeons with some brews. Hang on, dudebrah, just lemme get my beer koozie!

[*Note: Minnesota GOP communications director Mark Drake called to clarify that the video was on a district GOP site, not the state GOP's site, and that he'd never heard of the webmaster before. While expressing regret over the video's content, he said the 56th district was one of more than 100 autonomous Republican parties in the state, and his umbrella organization wasn't responsible. He then declined to answer follow-up questions regarding what action, if any, had been taken by the state GOP to make the local group accountable for its actions. Mark, if you're reading this and want to explain what steps the state GOP is taking, give us a call.]

Map: Where You Can—And Can't—Build Your Mosque

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 4:35 PM EDT

As "mosque mania" seizes the nation, what's a peaceful Muslim who wants to set up a house of worship or community center to do? Perhaps this handy map can help prevent any future controversies over where you can publicly assert your Islamic identity. Some restrictions may apply. (Full-size image here.)


CIA Tapes Found Under Desk Feature 9/11 Plotter's Interrogation

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 4:05 PM EDT

The Associated Press reports on the content several Bush-era interrogation tapes the CIA supposedly found under an employee's desk in 2007. According to the AP story, the mysterious tapes depict the questioning of 9/11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh in a prison in Morrocco—but they just happen to be free of any evidence of harsh treatment: 

Discovered in a box under a desk at the CIA, the tapes could reveal how foreign governments aided the United States in holding and interrogating suspects. And they could complicate U.S. efforts to prosecute Binalshibh, who has been described as one of the "key plot facilitators" in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Apparently the tapes do not show harsh treatment—unlike videos the agency destroyed of the questioning of other suspected terrorists.

The two videotapes and one audiotape are believed to be the only existing recordings made within the clandestine prison system and could offer a revealing glimpse into a four-year global odyssey that ranged from Pakistan to Romania to Guantanamo Bay.

The tapes depict Binalshibh's interrogation sessions in 2002 at a Moroccan-run facility the CIA used near Rabat, several current and former U.S. officials told The Associated Press. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the videos remain a closely guarded secret.

In 2005, the CIA destroyed nearly 100 tapes that featured accused Al Qaeda plotters Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri being waterboarded. At that point, "officials believed they had wiped away all of the agency's interrogation footage," the AP says, but that was apparently not the case. In late October 2008, the government told a federal judge it had found what we now know are the Binalshibh tapes. But nothing was known about their contents until Tuesday.

The reported absence of harsh interrogation from the Binalshibh tapes is awfully convenient. Morocco (where Binalshibh's interrogations took place) is the same country where British detainee Binyam Mohamed says an interrogator cut his penis with a scalpel and CIA officials have told reporters that Binalshibh was subjected to "enhanced interrogation," so it stands to reason that any tapes that "do not show harsh treatment" don't constitute a full record of Binalshibh's time abroad. US Attorney John Durham is leading an investigation of the CIA's destruction of the interrogation tapes, and the AP story includes a note that Durham is now investigating the Binalshibh tapes as well. Good.

Over at FDL, Marcy Wheeler offers some "wildarsed speculation" that the Binalshibh tapes have been altered in the same way as those that once depicted the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah (and now show "nothing but snow"). Here's the ACLU's Alex Abdo commenting on the revalations:

Today's report is a stark reminder of how much information the government is still withholding about the Bush administration's interrogation policies. Many records critical to real accountability remain secret, such as transcripts in which prisoners tell of the abuse they suffered in CIA custody and the presidential directive authorizing the CIA to establish secret black sites.

The content of these tapes could provide insight into the U.S.'s troubling collaboration on interrogations with Morocco, a country routinely cited by the State Department for its use of torture. Only with real transparency and accountability for these abuses can the government turn the page on this dark chapter in our history.

The "under-the-desk" tapes aren't the only interrogation records that survive. Audio and video records of Mohammed al Qahtani's interrogation still exist, too. Foreign observers of interrogations may have made their own recordings. Also, there has always been talk of a parallel, digital recording system at some overseas prisons and black sites. And the CIA medical personnel monitoring "enhanced" interrogations must have had some way to review sessions at which they couldn't be present, right? Even if the CIA really did destroy all the visual records of waterboarding, "walling," stress positions, and so on, it would have a lot more trouble getting rid of all the paper records describing the content of the tapes. There's no question that there's enough information out there to paint a pretty detailed picture of the rendition, detention, and interrogation program. America just has to muster up the political will to look for it.