Mojo - September 2010

Is Ted Strickland Recovering?

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 11:36 AM EDT

Four weeks ago, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland looked cooked. The incumbent Dem was trailing his challenger, former GOP congressman (and Lehman Bros. banker) John Kasich, by double digits in some polls. But this week, things suddenly started looking brighter for Strickland. Several polls put him a few points back, within the margin of error, while a partisan Dem poll showed him in the lead. Polling guru Nate Silver upgraded Strickland's chances—but only to 13 percent, up from 8 percent last week. 

What's causing the shift in the polling? It's hard to know for sure, but maybe Strickland's relentless campaign to paint Kasich as a Wall Street banker who is out of touch with Ohioans is finally having an effect. If Strickland starts pulling into the lead in the next round of polls, it could be a great sign for Dems nationwide—and a data point to support the argument that moving left and getting angry could actually help some candidates. Strickland sure is railing away at Kasich, the GOP, and the banks. Here's CNN's Peter Hamby, who's in Ohio covering the campaign:

At a union hall in Cleveland Tuesday, at a student center at the University of Akron and at a rally on the state house steps in Columbus, the usually mild-mannered former minister unleashed a torrent of attacks against his Republican challenger, John Kasich, and the Bush administration, pointedly blaming them for bringing the country to the brink of a great depression.

"I am angry because the Republicans under George Bush brought this economy to the brink of total collapse, and the people who carried out those shenanigans on Wall Street, people like John Kasich absolutely just about caused us to go to the depths of economic destruction," he roared in Cleveland, bringing nearly 200 union members to their feet.

Strickland repeatedly mentioned Kasich's ties to Lehman Brothers - where he worked as a managing director for nine years - at one point making the claim that his opponent will bring "Wall Street thinking and Wall Street behavior" to the governor's office.

"And we're going to say hell no!," Strickland thundered, banging his fist against the podium. "No we're not going bring that into the governor's mansion. Hell no you won't! We're going to fight this guy."

As Hamby notes, while other vulnerable Dems have broken with the White House, Strickland has done little to distance himself from President Obama. Instead, he's attacked the GOP and its ties to the economic collapse. He's also looking past the midterms to a potential Dem resurgence two years hence. "We are coming after you, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty and all of the right-wing extremists," he told an audience in Akron earlier this week. "We are coming after you in 2012, and we will re-elect Barack Obama to be a second-term president of the United States of America." 

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Why the Brown/Whitman Debate (Almost) Doesn't Matter

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 10:00 AM EDT

California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman held their first televised debate yesterday evening. Although it was covered by 130 journalists serving media outlets as far away as Germany and China, it didn't really matter much. Not, at least, in terms of the state's economic meltdown and budget crisis. California's real problems run deeper than either candidate wants to admit.

It's no secret that Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes 30 years ago, has put the state and its leaders in an ever-tightening fiscal straightjacket. This didn't make much difference in the '90s and '00s when the tech and housing booms fueled growth. But now that the party's over, lawmakers have found that their hands are tied. For one thing, polls show that most voters staunchly oppose tax increases. And regardless, state laws that mandate a two-thirds majority to pass both a budget and tax increases make it essentially impossible to raise new revenue.

One response to the predicament would be to cut services, as a set of budget reform initiatives on the ballot in May, 2009, would have done. But they were trounced at the polls. Surveys showed that the same voters who didn't want tax increases also didn't want cuts to parks, education, health care, or just about everything else that the state provides. The problem, as former Republican Finance Director Cliff Allenby put it, is that "Californians want high levels of services for their middle levels of taxes."

So what should Republican Whitman and Democrat Brown do? A start would be to chide voters for their unreasonable expectations. (Of course, I know that's not the best way to win a political campaign). To his credit, Brown, who served as California's governor from 1975 to 1983, at least showed a flash of courage when he refused to tell the debate audience, students at UC Davis, that he would roll back the funding cuts to higher education. "Not my first year, not with a $19 billion deficit," he said. "We have to get real here." (Whitman, a former CEO of eBay, talked up a lame plan to cut $1 billion from welfare and put it in higher ed instead of towards the shortfall).

But Brown also made it seem like raising new revenue would be almost as simple as forcing the rich pay their fair share. A more progressive income tax would certainly help matters more than Whitman's billions in proposed tax cuts, but even if two-thirds of voters approved it, California would still be a mess. The state's revenue system has already evolved "from one with several legs to utter dependence on personal income taxes, nearly all of which were paid by those in upper income brackets," writes Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters in Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good. This "has left the state vulnerable to even mild economic swings because those high-income taxpayers largely derived their taxable incomes from volatile stocks and other capital markets." Lenny Goldberg, director of the California Tax Reform Association, suggests instead that California reform its commercial property tax code, which favors entrenched interests and stifles innovation.

The best solution to California's woes might be the most drastic: Scrapping the entire state constitution and writing a new one from scratch, as a bipartisan coalition of reformers, Repair California, tried to do earlier this year before the effort fizzled. "Political analysts say the proponents have had a tough time keeping voters focussed on their complicated prescriptions for California's ills," the LA Times explained. Maybe that's where Brown and Whitman should speak up. It would have been nice, at least, to hear them weigh in on Proposition 25, which would eliminate the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. Sure, it's by far California's most boring ballot measure this year. But it's also its most important. And there, also, is the problem. 

Can Women Voters Save the Democrats?

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 6:48 AM EDT

The yawning enthusiasm gap between the Democrats and Republicans this election cycle also reflects a big gender gap, as men have led the conservative surge that's revived the GOP. Though women are still more likely to vote Democratic, they're also more likely to stay home. Ben Smith explains:

Men are not only more loyal to the GOP than two years ago but also more motivated to vote, recent polls suggest. This year’s central issues are ones that politicians traditionally use to appeal to men, especially worries about budget deficits….

A Marist poll this month found 48 percent of Republican men called themselves "very enthusiastic" about voting, the most of any group; just 28 percent of Democratic women said the same, with Republican women and Democratic men falling in the middle.

Big Democratic groups like EMILY's List realize that they'll have trouble holding back the GOP wave if they don't turn out Dem women. But it's late in the game, so the groups are doing triage on Dem incumbents, backing targeted political ads in key Congressional races where Democratic women voters could make a difference. One such contest is in Colorado, where GOPer Cory Cardner is challenging freshman Rep. Betsy Markey. 

Health care is an issue that the Democratic Party has certainly been avoiding this election cycle, and Markey's vote in favor of health care reform is sometimes described as a liability in this Republican-leaning district. But to appeal to Democratic women, EMILY's List has embraced the topic. As Politico's Alex Burns notes, an EMILY's List attack ad that's running against Gardner criticizes the Republican for voting "to allow insurance companies to deny coverage to children with autism." (Sharron Angle was also under fire in Nevada last week for making similar remarks about autism coverage.)

There's a good reason for this. Although the health reform law law has remained unpopular with the public as a whole, it is significantly more popular with the female voters who proved key to Obama's 2008 victory. Though prominent GOP female candidates like Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" may have grabbed the spotlight, their conservative rabble-rousing hasn't convinced female voters to flock to the Republican Party. According to Hart Research Associates, a Democratic firm, 81 percent of Democratic women voters who were newly registered in 2008 said they were "very or fairly concerned that Republicans want to overturn the health care law that provides mammogram coverage and pregnancy care to women."

Democrats decided that it was too risky to run on the party's big legislative accomplishments in light of the conservative, tea party-driven revolt. But in doing so, the party has failed to excite key constituencies—like Democratic women—and failed to convince them that there's enough at stake this year. So while groups like EMILY's List are making last-ditch appeals, it's uncertain whether such efforts will be enough to make a difference outside of a small handful of races.

Secrets of the Census

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 6:19 AM EDT

Right now, the politerati are focused on the House of Representatives. Will the GOP win enough seats (39) to take control and boot Nancy Pelosi from the Speaker's chair, or will they fall short? Here's what you may not know: the results of the November elections can be undermined—or set in stone—by the US Census.

The results of America's nationwide head count determine the number of congressional districts in each state—and, consequently, those states' electoral votes in presidential elections. It's fairly simple: To calculate how many electoral votes a state is worth, simply count the number of congressional districts in the state and add two—one for each senator. House seats and electoral votes are transferred from slow-growing states to faster-growing ones after each census. 

The latest estimates of which states will gain and lose seats (and electoral votes) came out this week. The bottom line is that the results aren't good for Barack Obama and the Democrats. Solid blue states New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey—states that have gone for the Democrat in every presidential election since 1992—are set to lose seven electoral votes. Washington is the only reliably Democratic state that is poised to gain a seat. Meanwhile, solid red states Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah are set to gain a net seven electoral votes. Louisiana, which Bill Clinton won twice but has been a solid red state since Katrina, will lose a seat. There are changes going on in key swing states, too. Arizona and Nevada are both set to gain a seat, and Florida will gain two. Iowa and Missouri, meanwhile, will lose a seat each—and Ohio, long a national bellwether, will lose two. 

Blue states losing six electoral votes and red states gaining six isn't exactly a disaster for Democrats. The big fight, however, will be over congressional redistricting. That process—which will force some incumbents out of their jobs and protect many others—is controlled by the states. Governors play a role, but most of the work is usually done by state legislators. Whichever party controls the legislature generally gets to draw the maps.

To avoid getting totally shafted in the redistricting process, the key is to control at least one of the three main pivot points of redistricting—the governor's office or one of the two legislative chambers. A party with full control of a state's legislative and executive branches will have the ability to run wild with redistricting. Right now, the GOP is threatening to do just that in a number of key midwestern states. 

Republicans have a real shot of controlling the entire redistricting process in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If the GOP can sweep those contests, Republicans can cut the heart out of any potential Democratic House majority going forward. Republicans either hold the governorship or lead in the polls in the gubernatorial races in all five states. And while Democrats hold at least one legislative chamber in each of the five states, the party's hold on these majorities is tenuous.

Insider Dishes on For-Profit Colleges

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

According to a whistleblower inside one of the for-profit college industry's biggest players, a graduate trained to design video games is considered "placed" in a relevant career by working at Toys "R" Us in the video game department earning $8.90 an hour. And a Residential Planning graduate working in a gas station convenience store was deemed to be "using her skills" by arranging the candy bar displays.

These are just a few revelations in a pretty juicy letter, first obtained by Stephen Burd at the New America Foundation's Higher Ed Watch blog, that was written by a career counselor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. The for-profit college is owned by Education Management Corporation, an industry powerhouse that's facing heavy criticism from lawmakers and education reform advocates. (Read my story, "Astroturf U," on EDMC's use of a controversial lobbying outfit to fight new industry regulations.) The counselor, Kathleen Bittel, sent her letter earlier this month to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.), chair of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. On Thursday, the committee is holding another hearing on for-profit colleges titled "The Federal Investment in For-Profit Education: Are Students Succeeding?"

The Art Institute's Bittel is one of six witnesses slated to testify at the hearing. In her letter, she wrote, "I am currently employed by EDMC and it was a tough decision to put my livelihood on the line in this current economic situation. But my conscience will not allow me to remain quiet about what I know." She later added, "What I found in Career Services was even more deceptive than the recruiting practices."

Here are some excerpts, per Higher Ed Watch, from Bittel's letter:

  • "A graduate only needs to be working at their job for it to ‘count’ as an employment in their field."

  • "Early in my tenure with the department, I was instructed on how to manufacture an email from a graduate to say whatever it needed to say, to justify placement."

  • "I was also shown how to eliminate a document received from a graduate stating she was working in her field, but only earning 8K, and to subsequently create a document using Salary.com to validate that an employee in that position would be typically earning 25K, which would meet the salary threshold of $10,500 to ‘justify’ placement in their field."

  • "I was repeatedly pressured to call graduates working in unrelated fields and review the courses they learned and somehow convince them that obscure details of their current jobs were using the ‘skills’ they were taught, and that they were using those skills at least 25 percent of their time there. One needed to convince them to sign a form stating so."

Bittel also went into detail about the Art Institute's practices in dealing with graduates and employment. Her claims are especially relevant as the Obama administration seeks to impose a "gainful employment" rule on for-profit colleges. Such a rule would limit the amount of federal funding these colleges receive—and many rely heavily on these funds—if those colleges weren't placing students in decent-paying jobs related to their degree after graduation. In addition to the Toy R Us and gas station examples, Bittel wrote that Graphic Design students "working in places like Starbucks whom were expected to agree they were using their 'skills learned' within their employment by making signs for daily specials and menus."

The Senate's hearing on for-profit colleges is scheduled for 10 am on Thursday, where lawmakers will hear from Bittel, Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, and several others yet to be named. On Wednesday, the for-profit college industry has planned a major lobbying push on Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers to oppose the Education Department's gainful employment rule. An email obtained by Mother Jones touting the fly-in lobbying event reads, "We need to give our members of Congress the truth and, to do it, we need to hit the ground running. So to borrow a saying from college football, here's the play: mark your calendar and plan to fly in to Washington, DC, on September 28."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 29, 2010

Wed Sep. 29, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Sgt. John Rogers, of the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, shows a fellow Soldier his sector of fire during a presence patrol in the Zabul province of Afghanistan Sept. 18, 2010. DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army.

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GOP Going Soft on Wiretapping Terrorists?

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:48 PM EDT

TestMicah Wright & AntiWarPosters.com.

Are Republicans getting their wires crossed when it comes to tracking the secret communications of suspected terrorists?

On Monday, the New York Times broke a story that lit up the Internets—especially those quarters inhabited by privacy advocates and social media mavens: the Obama administration, noting that criminals and terrorists are increasingly communicating online instead of over the telephone, wants to enact legislation compelling all online communication services to be open to wiretapping. This would mean ensuring that the feds could intercept encrypted or non-encrypted communications sent by BlackBerry and similar devices, through Facebook and other social networking sites, and via Skype. In other words, any Internet communications system or service would have to have a backdoor that could be exploited for government-approved monitoring.

Republican legislators are backing the administration on this. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the armed services and homeland security committees, told Mother Jones, "I'm open-minded about making sure terrorist activities are being followed," and that "if I can help" with this legislation, "I will." Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the armed services and select intelligence committees, said of Obama's plan: "I think he's dead on target...We need to give the intelligence community all the tools they need."

But privacy fans and technophiles have howled. James Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democray and Technology, noted the administration was challenging "the fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," especially its decentralized design. Technology writer Dean Takahashi pointed out, "If companies such as Skype and Facebook were forced to design holes in their networks so that FBI officials could listen into conversations, that would re-centralize the networks, raise costs, and possibly introduce vulnerabilities to the software that could be exploited by hackers." Progressive blogger Marcy Wheeler decried this "power grab." And the Republican National Committee joined the assault.

Wait, the RNC? On Tuesday morning, the GOP HQ zapped out an email blasting Obama: "Quick To Jump On Civil Liberty Concerns In The Past, Obama Administration Now Wants To Read Your Emails And Monitor Facebook." The GOP asserted that Obama had opposed the Bush-Cheney administration's warrantless wiretapping program as "unconstitutional and illegal," but now he "seeks authority to 'wiretap the Internet.'" Citing the Times article, the RNC insisted that implementation of this policy would cause "huge technology and security" headaches and leave holes that could be "exploited by hackers." Despite the fact that top Republican lawmakers are backing Obama's proposal, the press release made it seem like a truly lousy idea. Had Michael Steele and the Gang become passionate civil libertarians opposed to government snooping supposedly designed to protect the United States from terrorists?

Not quite. RNC communications director Doug Heye says the party outfit is not taking a position "one way or the other" on the proposal. He adds: "We're just letting people know what the president is doing. A lot of people who support him are seeing he's not what they thought he was…A lot of people who are supporters of the president are concerned about wiretapping and things like monitoring Facebook, and we want to make sure they have this information." Translated: we're doing what we can to foment disappointment within Obama's base.

The GOP's slam unfairly compared Obama's proposal to the warrantless wiretapping program of the previous administration (which was vociferously defended at the time by Vice President Dick Cheney, who always referred to its official name: the "Terrorist Surveillance Program"). The eavesdropping that the Obama administration is looking to enable would presumably be subject to warrants. So this proposal—good or bad—is not inconsistent with Obama's criticism that President George W. Bush "abused" his authority and "undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders."

When we pressed Heye on whether the Republican Party supports or opposes legislation that would allow federal investigators to intercept the online or BlackBerry-type communications of suspected terrorists, he refused to say: "It's not a question I was expecting today. Our job is not to make policy pronouncements. Our job is to point out where the president has fallen short on his promises. This is one example of this. Obama supporters do not like this."

Still, the RNC's press release highlighted the potential problems with the Obama administration's proposal, making it appear as if the RNC has abandoned Cheney-like vigilance (or excess) when it comes to tracking the bad guys. But perhaps there's a greater mission: to score political points against another enemy—the president of the United States.

Front page image: Flickr/hughelectronic (Creative Commons).

Obama, the Midterms, and Civil Liberties

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

Kevin Drum beats me to the punch and excerpts the key portion of President Obama's long interview in Rolling Stone:

It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we've got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

....If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we'd better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money's coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that's what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place.

If you're serious, now's exactly the time that people have to step up.

Kevin, being the "mushy sellout" he is, agrees with Obama. But he adds a caveat:

If you're, say, Glenn Greenwald, I wouldn't expect you to buy Obama's defense at all. All of us have multiple interests, but if your primary concern is with civil liberties and the national security state, then the problem isn't that Obama hasn't done enough, it's that his policies have been actively damaging. There's just no reason why you should be especially excited about either his administration or the continuation of the Democratic Party in power.

That's all true, but it's not an excuse for people to be complacent. Sure, civil libertarians like Greenwald shouldn't buy Obama's defense of his administration's continued failings on civil liberties. But people still have a responsibility to analyze the candidates in their district and decide which one would be better on the issues that are important to them. Greenwald may not be enthusiastic about Obama, or about most Congressional Democrats. But I strongly suspect that if Greenwald lived in Wisconsin, he'd vote for Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the few true civil libertarians in Congress.

On civil liberties, the difference between Feingold and his challenger is immense. But even a small difference on the issues that are most important to you is probably worth voting on. If two candidates really are exactly equally bad on your issues, not voting or casting a protest vote become reasonable options. But most of the time, a little bit of research can help you determine which candidate would be less-bad on your issues. At the very least, civil libertarians should take a few minutes to investigate the congressional candidates in their district. In other words, you don't have to like Barack Obama or be excited about Democrats to vote for Russ Feingold. 

A High-Minded Debate Over Legalizing Pot

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

At precisely 4:20 PM last Saturday, proponents and foes of legalizing marijuana in California were scheduled to hold a debate at the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo inside the Cow Palace arena just outside San Francisco. Things didn't go as planned. "The whole debate thing was just a disaster," organizer Susan Soares* later told me. For one thing, the debate's starting time posed a logistical problem. While 20 past 4 is stoner culture's designated hour to light up, the debate room was not within the official pot smoking area where anyone with a medical marijuana card—which meant just about everybody in attendance—could freely sample marijuana-infused fruit smoothies, lollipops, and beef jerky, in addition to joints proffered by busty cigarette girls in tight-fitting nurses outfits.

But no matter: While everyone was still partaking, Dennis Peron, a fervent medical marijuana activist who opposes legalization on arcane legal grounds, held the stage hostage for several minutes in an effort to be added to the speakers list. The actual debate didn't start until 4:48, at which point the crowd of red-eyed pot growers, suppliers, and smokers was standing-room only.

Run Silent, Run Cheap

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 6:23 AM EDT

"Most things in here don't react too well to bullets," Sean Connery's crusty Russian sub captain tells Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, moments before the latter stalks off to shoot a spy between dozens of the boat's atomic missiles.

These days, it turns out some things on the Navy's newest nuclear subs don't react well to, um, seawater. Or something. Actually, the service isn't sure what's causing the $2 billion behemoths' protective skin to peel off in the water. But it probably has to do with cost-trimming and corner-cutting by the Navy's two go-to contractors, Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics, who tag-team assembled the Virginia class of attack subs at breakneck speed and (relatively) bottom-dollar rates.

Even though the Cold War is over, the silent service wants to expand its sub fleet, and it's sold Congress on the Virginia program as the cheapest alternative. Yet as subs get delivered from the factory with their special soundproof tiling already falling off in sheets, the program looks anything but inexpensive. "The demand to build this submarine in a fast, cost-effective way led them to skip some steps that should have been in the process," one analyst told me. "They've got this beautiful, fantastic vessel, and they just covered it in a Wal-Mart tarp."

Read my complete story about the Navy's big boondoggle—and its tough time telling the truth—here: "What's Long, Hard, and Wrapped in a Wal-Mart Tarp?"