The big story coming out of Friday's Values Voter Summit—the massive religious-right confab in DC—is the obvious marriage between the burgeoning tea party movement and the old Christian Coalition. The stars of the event were tea party luminaries: Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and of course, newcomer Christine O'Donnell, who just won the Senate GOP primary in Delaware. But lost amid all the tea party fervor was what may be the beginning of the end of the presidential prospects of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Romney was clearly here because he is running for president again. The straw poll at the summit is considered an early bellwether for the GOP primary of 2012. But Romney looked more out of place than ever at the gathering of largely white evangelical voters. Romney has never connected very well with this audience; they aren't crazy about his Mormonism, and even Glenn Beck doesn't seem to have changed that. On Friday, he seemed even more of a fish out of water than he did last year, thanks to the fast-moving tsunami of the tea party movement, which has completely changed the political landscape since his last primary bid. For all his attempts at better jokes, Romney just couldn't get a rise of the crowd. While DeMint earned cries of "DeMint for president!" Romney generated only polite applause. He seemed far more at home at a Rotary Club meeting than among the rowdy Christian footsoldiers.

He tried to find some common ground by telling a story about shopping at Wal-Mart, which fell flat as he digressed into comparisons with Target. His attempts at red meat, which might have seemed edgy two years ago, were too polite for a crowd that just heard Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) make a frontal assault on gays in the military. "We have a president whose idea of a rogue state is Arizona," he riffed, talking about President Obama's foreign policy and attempts at diplomacy with North Korea. In an environment where tea partiers (the majority of attendees, if a show of hands can be believed) are used to hearing speakers call the president a socialist at best, a traitor at worst, Romney's criticism of Obama seemed oh-so-tame.

"I think the country is better off when he's listening to advice from his caddy than his economic advisors," Romey said of Obama.

Previous speakers had generated a slew of loud, standing ovations for calling for repeal of Obama's health care bill, which was fresh in everyone's mind. Romney couldn't touch that one, given that Obama's plan was modeled after his own health care plan in Massachusetts. And in the end, as always with him, Romney's stoic Mormonism hindered his ability to speak in the kind of evangelical Bible code that people like Sarah Palin use so masterfully to whip up similar crowds of voters. The Book of Mormon, not the Bible, is his text, and he's about as likely to quote from that book as he is from the Koran.

It's an interesting phenomenon, because on one level, Romney seems like he should be a direct beneficiary of the rise of Glenn Beck, the reigning king of the tea party/Christian Coalition GOP wing—and a Mormon. Beck's acceptance by evangelical voters as a legitimate political voice should be breaking down prejudices that hindered Romney's prospects in places like Iowa in the past. But Beck is a convert. He has the passion of a born-again and the emotional rawness of a 12-stepper. He weeps in public.

Romney, by contrast, was born and raised a Mormon. He can take his religion for granted. He doesn't weep. In effect, he's nothing like Beck. And at the same time, there's not much else but his Mormonism to distinguish him from the rest of the pack. This year, he is the generic establishment Republican—and right now, that's exactly what conservative voters don't want. Listening to him speak today, it was hard not to think that Romney is a guy who has been cursed by bad timing. His moment has clearly passed.

Freedom Works recently traveled England to teach anti-tax Brits about grassroots activism, fueling speculation America's tea party movement is beginning to spread overseas. Now there are signs that the American anti-government activists are inspiring Australians to pick up their pitchforks as well. The Australian reports:

An anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party has set up shop in Australia, inspired by the US-based movement that has turned the Republican Party upside down.

The Australian T.E.A. Party (an acronym for Taxed Enough Already) will be targeting pre-selections across the country and heavily promotes its links to "our friends" in the United States…[Spokesman David] Goodridge says the Australian party has not received US funding - "that would not be appropriate, they don’t want to interfere" - but it is looking to update and adapt US training videos for its own purposes…

In his first post on the T.E.A. Party’s website, Mr Goodridge argues that between big business and unions there is "a distinction without a difference in that the average Aussie is getting done over it is just a different set or subset of rapists doing the screwing".

The Australian TEA Party, which prominently highlights the recent victories of Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller in the GOP Senate primaries, also claims that the tea party has already become a "Worldwide Movement" that has "over 50 million people" who are "natural" tea party supporters. (The site also offers a cute explainer on the original "Boston Tea Party" and how Americans, too, rebelled against their British colonial overlords.)

Admittedly, the Aussies' tea party site is still a bit rough around the edges, and so far, the main domestic campaign the group highlights is a crusade against local animal-keeping laws. And sure, the claims about a global tea party movement may be a bit overblown. But the groundwork for an anti-government rebellion has already been laid in Australia, at least. Over the summer, conservative elements in the ruling Labor party helped bring Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard to power. Gillard won by running against her predecessor Kevin Rudd's "Big Australia" plan, which supported liberal immigration policies, increased population growth, and a robust federal government. Under Rudd, Australia also witnessed a fierce backlash against immigration and unauthorized immigrants—yet another reactionary uprising that has its American counterpart.

There's little reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday. Experts project a turnout of under five million voters, or about 30% of the registered electorate. Almost all of the 249 incumbents are running for reelection, and most are expected to win. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban have called for a boycott, and thousands of Afghan and US-led NATO troops have been forced to beef up security at polling stations around the country. Afghan authorities have made it easier on the troops—and harder on voters—by closing over 1,000 polling stations, mostly in the south and east of the country. The hope is that fewer polling stations will reduce the odds of fraud in the country's more unstable regions. It may have the opposite effect on 1.5 million Afghans living in these areas:

Residents and candidates in these places, mostly remote villages in dangerous southern and eastern provinces, said they worry that the move will deepen ethnic rivalries by creating electoral imbalances and accelerate a growing disengagement from the Afghan central government that has fed the Taliban's resurgence. 

Disenfranchisement could be a bad thing in the long run. But for now, NATO and UN authorities are doing whatever they think will result in a smoother election. At his monthly briefing, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expects the elections to be "more transparent and more reliable." UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura agreed, saying that they would be "far from" perfect" but "much better than the previous ones."

This all comes just as the UN decided to force a third of its Afghanistan staffers (the "non-essential" ones) to take an early vacation. "It would be naive not to take these precautions as we are a target," said de Mistura. Many staffers, he says, were due for a vacation. Others "were told to take their holidays now." Peeling back just as the situation worsens seems to be a popular trend this election season, as a number of election watchdog groups are opting for "assessments" over full-on "observation" missions:

Nearly all groups are cutting the number of foreign electoral experts and housing those that do come in Kabul or other relatively safe areas of the country.  The International Republican Institute, a US democracy group with a long-term presence in the country, has cut its foreign observers by around half to just five while increasing the number of Afghan observers from 40 to 160. In the last week Singapore-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has already repatriated more than half of its observers because of difficulties finding a security company prepared to provide armed guard to election monitors who need to be able to roam around polling stations.

Even the EU—who sent 120 observors last year—is only sending only seven this time around. So in the face of guaranteed bloodshed and likely fraud, is everyone throwing in the towel?

The words of opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah offer little comfort. A recent Al Jazeera report shows that fraud networks around the country have been circulating fake voter ID cards, with sales agents estimating that they've sold over a million during the past three months. So far, no real effort has been made to identify and destroy fraudulent voter ID cards. Abdullah, who finished second to Karzai in last year's presidential race, says the elections should go forward as planned. "I think at this stage, the only thing that we can do is call on our people to participate in the elections and be observers and monitors [themselves by not buying] fake cards from sources." 

Abdullah's hopes for the electorate's integrity may sound naive. But what else can he possibly hope for? For Afghans holding out the hope for change from the bottom up, there's no viable alternative. The system they've got (with Karzai at the top) is the system they have. The UN and other international organizations' decisions to remove personnel from dangerous areas makes sense. But it also smacks of resignation. After the countless shenanigans of the Karzais, the Salehi arrest-and-not-arrest, and still-unfolding Kabul Bank crisis, merely managing a broken electoral system and praying for a low body count may be the best anyone can hope for.

The Values Voters Summit—the Christian Right's annual Lollapalooza—is this weekend in Washington, DC. Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer is covering the action on Twitter:

The latest report from the Census Bureau, which shows a significant rise in the number of Americans living in poverty in 2009, is making news today. Less widely reported are the figures for those living without health insurance, which indicate that in 2009 there were 50.7 million uninsured or 16.7% of the population, up from 46.3 million and 15.4% in 2008. Kaiser Health News has a roundup of stories on the sharp rise in the uninsured. The details from the Census Bureau report are as follows.

  • The number of people with health insurance decreased from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million in 2009. Since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected, this is the first year that the number of people with health insurance has decreased.
  • Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people covered by private health insurance decreased from 201.0 million to 194.5 million, while the number covered by government health insurance climbed from 87.4 million to 93.2 million. The number covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 176.3 million to 169.7 million. The number with Medicaid coverage increased from 42.6 million to 47.8 million.
  • Comparable health insurance data were first collected in 1987. The percentage of people covered by private insurance (63.9 percent) is the lowest since that year, as is the percentage of people covered by employment-based insurance (55.8 percent). In contrast, the percentage of people covered by government health insurance programs (30.6 percent) is the highest since 1987, as is the percentage covered by Medicaid (15.7 percent).
  • In 2009, 10.0 percent (7.5 million) of children under 18 were without health insurance. Neither estimate is significantly different from the corresponding 2008 estimate.
  • The uninsured rate for children in poverty (15.1 percent) was greater than the rate for all children.
  • In 2009, the uninsured rates decreased as household income increased: from 26.6 percent for those in households with annual incomes less than $25,000 to 9.1 percent in households with incomes of $75,000 or more.

Last week, ProPublica broke the story of how Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security (POHS) used information from a third-party anti-terrorism consulting firm that labeled members of anti-gas and oil drilling groups as "environmental extremists." Documents show that Pennsylvania's Homeland Security department has been monitoring the groups and their meetings, and sending resulting information in weekly bulletins to law enforcement agencies around the state and oil and gas companies. In an intelligence bulletin dated August 30, 2010, POHS mentions "militant environmentalist" group Climate Ground Zero which, the bulletin admitted, held a peaceful protest on August 26. The bulletin concluded that even though environmental activists had only committed "little more than vandalism, trespassing, and threats" so far, it was likely to "transition to more criminal, extremist measures[sic] actions."

The bulletins also included terror risks like Muslims celebrating Ramadan, the Jewish High Holidays, anti-nuclear activists, an anti-fracking meeting, and animal rights activists protesting a rodeo. Know what's almost totally absent from the bulletin? The tea party. You're unlikely to encounter a sign professing a love of guns while celebrating Yom Kippur, but you can certainly see them at tea party rallies. In the 8/30 bulletin, the 9/11 Burn a Koran day is mentioned, but there's nothing about the tea party rally at Beaver, Pennsylvania on 9/12. Or the buses leaving Bethel Park, Butler, Pittsburgh, Franklin, and other cities for the big 9/12 rally in DC. There was a 9/12 tea party event on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg, and a 9/6 event in Chamersburg that drew a crowd of 250, neither of which are mentioned in the bulletin. It's not known if some of the weekly intelligence bulletins called attention to the tea party, but the federal Department of Homeland Security said in a 2009 report (PDF) that rightwing extremism is rising "fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to US power and sovereignty by foreign powers."


Congressional Republicans are constantly claiming, especially in these pre-election days, they are down with hard-working Americans. And maybe they are—but which ones? Average hard-working Americans, or those who've made vast fortunes from all their hard work?

This week's statement from House minority whip Eric Cantor (R-Pa.) clears things up: "Despite the clear efforts by President Obama and Speaker Pelosi to increase taxes on hard-working Americans, there is ample evidence that a bipartisan majority of the House would support a clean bill to ensure that no American faces a tax increase in this difficult economic environment."

He's referring, of course, to the bill the GOP is holding hostage because it extends tax cuts for just 98 percent of working Americans—the ones who make less than a quarter million a year. So there you have it: The Republicans support ALL hard-working Americans!

Elizabeth Warren triumphs. Well, sort of. President Obama has reportedly tapped her to be a special adviser to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for the purposes of setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (She will also be awarded the title of assistant to the president.) This is not the same as nominating her to head the CFPB, which Warren, the Harvard professor who runs the Congressional Oversight Panel that monitors the TARP bailout, first (and presciently) proposed establishing in 2007—before the financial meltdown. But it's close.

While Warren's many fans on the left have been fervently pushing for her to be named the new federal watchdog agency's first chief, there were clear signs that she would be met with resistance on Capitol Hill, with the banking and financial industries and their Republican allies in the Senate looking to prevent the plain-spoken consumer advocate from taking the reins of an outfit that is supposed to take on credit card firms, mortgage lenders, and banks that engage in abusive or deceptive practices. Rather than wage a high-profile fight over Warren—a battle that the White House might have been able to turn to its political advantage in the run-up to the congressional elections—the president has opted to sidestep the normal process and hand Warren a position not subject to Senate confirmation. She won't become head of the new agency, but she will be its official godmother, overseeing its establishment.

For some Warren backers, this might seem a half measure. The progressive FireDogLake site called it "the castration of Elizabeth Warren." But sources close to Warren tell me that is satisfied—even happy—with this appointment. And if she's happy....

Still, it's not a clear-cut victory for progressives, given that the move is open to interpretation. Is this a sign that Obama is yielding to GOP obstructionism? (Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democratic chairman of the banking committee, also seemed cool on appointing Warren to head the agency.) Or is this an indication that Obama can craftily outmaneuver GOP blockaders? Did Obama blink, or did he pull a fast one? Perhaps after Warren serves time as the agency's midwife, she'll be in a better position (politically) to be nominated as its first head. In any event, this decision will place the nation's top consumer financial advocate in the news and in the offices of this new consumer protection agency.

Meanwhile, Warren's COP has released its latest oversight report on the TARP bailout. And its no-nonsense review is decidedly mixed and hardly a ringing endorsement of Geithner's management of the massive bailout program:

Although the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) provided critical support to the financial markets at a time when market confidence was in freefall, the program has been far less effective in meeting its other statutory goals, such as supporting home values, retirement savings, and economic growth….

Although the TARP quelled the financial panic in the fall of 2008, severe economic weaknesses remain even today. Since the TARP was authorized in October of 2008, 7.1 million homeowners have received foreclosure notices. Since their pre-crisis peaks, home values have dropped 28 percent, and stock indices -- which indicate the health of many Americans' most significant investments for college and retirement -- have fallen 30 percent. Given that Treasury was mandated by law to use the TARP to address these measures of the economy, their lingering weakness is cause for concern.

In other words, Treasury did not do its job. It used TARP to save the banks and big financial firms; it was not as assiduous when it came to assisting homeowners, workers, and consumers. Mr. Geithner, please give your new special adviser a warm welcome.

Democratic fundraising appeals have never been especially discriminating, as the Clinton administration clearly demonstrated. So perhaps it's not all that surprising to discover that this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has officially invited "birther queen" Orly Taitz to dine with President Obama.

Taitz, as regular Mother Jones readers will know, has filed numerous lawsuits against Obama challenging his eligibility to serve as president based on the claim that he isn't an American citizen (because she thinks he was born in Kenya). That's not the only reason she seems like an odd choice for the DSCC to invite to a fundraiser. Taitz just lost her bid to become the next California secretary of state in the Republican primary. These things make her a rather unsuitable dining companion for the president. Nonetheless, the DSCC has invited Taitz to join not just Obama but Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a reception and dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on September 22.

Naturally, as soon as she got the invite, Taitz posted it on her website. WorldNetDaily, the source of all birther-related news, republished the invite soon after. Taitz told WND that she welcomed the opportunity to confront Obama on camera about his citizenship. "I have no fear of anything. I will ask him [about eligibility] on camera," Taitz told WND.

Fearless or not, Taitz did have a few reservations about accepting the offer. She was skeptical of some ulterior motive, writing, "Why am I getting this invitation from Harry Reid? Is it a mistake or Harry Reid is trying to push eligibility to the forefront and get rid of Obama in order to save his own skin?" And as much as she'd like to attend the event, Taitz says on her website that she's not likely to go because she can't afford the ticket price, which is $15,200 for the VIP treatment. Her finances have been battered by a $20,000 contempt of court fine issued against her by a judge in one of her eligibility lawsuits. So she is appealing to supporters to help pick up the tab. She writes:

I would've flown to NY to this dinner and I would've asked eligibility question on camera, however it might be costly and after I spent $20,000 on this Judicial extortion to keep me silent, it would be hard for me to spend on this trip and cost of the ticket as well. If there is a donor out there, who can cover the ticket and the trip, I will go and will do maximum I can to get an answer on camera from Obama, from Reid, from Pelosi, from Menendez. I will ask, where is this new era of transparency, that he promised. I will ask ... why isn’t Obama unsealing his long form Birth Certificate and his Social Security application, allegedly filled out in Connecticut, when he lived in HI.

Even if Taitz does manage to come up with the cash before Wednesday, her hopes of confronting the president may still be dashed. That's because, given her history, she's unlikely to clear White House security to get in the door. She has long suspected that the Secret Service has been keeping tabs on her, and unlike Michaele Salahi, Taitz--with her big fake eyelashes and platinum bouf--is hard to miss. Unless the White House is really asleep at the wheel, Taitz will have to continue her fight in the courtroom, not the dining room.

Members of the Iowa National Guard load vehicles during railhead operations at Camp Shelby, Miss. The vehicles are being railed to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where the 2/34th Infantry Division will train this fall. Close to 2,800 soldiers from the Iowa National Guard have been called for deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This is the largest call up of the Iowa National Guard since WWII. Photo via U.S. Army