Mojo - December 2010

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 13, 2010

Mon Dec. 13, 2010 5:30 AM EST

As the sun heads toward the horizon, two UH-60 Black Hawks and a CH-47 Chinook prepare to land at Forward Operating Base Connolly to pick up Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates after he visited troops at Forward Operating Base Connolly in eastern Afghanistan Dec. 7. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell, Task Force Bastogne Public Affairs

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Filibernie's Greatest Hits

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 8:37 PM EST

At 10:24 on Friday morning, Senator Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont and self-described socialist, took to the podium in the Senate to denounce the Obama/GOP tax accord. He did not leave for another eight and a half hours. His old-school filibuster, which technically wasn't a filibuster at all, was ignored or downplayed by much of the media. But that didn't stop it from going viral. By early evening, Sanders' name had become the second-most-popular term on Google and tops on Twitter, where untold thousands rallied to his cause under the hash tag #filibernie

An impassioned tirade of the sort that many liberals had once hoped to hear from the president, the speech was even more interesting in chunks larger than 140 characters. In the (likely) event that you didn't have time to listen to the whole thing, here are some of best excerpts:

On why Sanders was launching a "filibuster" of the tax agreement: 

I think everyone knows, the president of the United States, President Obama and the Republican leadership have reached an agreement on a very significant tax bill. In my view, the agreement that they reached is a bad deal for the American people. I think we can do better, and I am here today to take a strong stand against this bill, and I intend to tell my colleagues and the nation exactly why I am in opposition.  
 
You can call what I am doing today whatever you want. You can call it a filibuster. You can call it a very long speech. I’m not here to set any great records to make a spectacle. I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides.
 
This nation has a record-breaking, $13.8 trillion national debt at the same time as the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing. It seems to me to be unconscionable, unconscionable for my conservative friends and for everybody else in this country to be driving up this already too-high national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don’t need it and in some cases, Mr. President, don’t even want it.

On Obama's duty as president:

President Obama has said that he fought as hard as he could against the tax breaks for the wealthy and for the extension of unemployment. Well, maybe, but the reality is that that fight cannot simply be waged inside the Beltway. Our job is to appeal to the vast majority of the American people to stand up and to say, "Wait a minute, I don't want to see our national debt explode. I don't want to see my kids and grandchildren paying higher taxes in order to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires." The vast majority of the American people do not support that agreement in terms of giving tax breaks to the very rich. And our job is to rally those people.

On income inequality:
There is a war going on in this country, and I am not talking about the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country against the working families of the United States. Against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country. The billionaires of America are on the war path. They want more, and more, and more. And that has everything to do with this agreement reached between the Republicans and the president. 
In 2007, The top 1 percent of income earners in the United States made 23 and a half percent of all income. That is more than the bottom 50 percent.... But for the top 1 percent in America, that's apparently not enough. 
 On how badly everyone else is hurting: 
The United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Is this America? The United States today has over 20 percent of its kids living in poverty.... Here's the Netherlands, in second place, looks to me about 7 percent.
 
According to the Washington Post, middle income families made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999. In other words, the American economy has turned into a nightmare for tens of millions of families.... You are seeing the middle class collapsing. And what this agreement says is that we are going to provide huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. That is insane. And only within the Beltway could an agreement like that be negotiated.
 On Wall Street:
Our friends on Wall Street, whose greed and illegal behavior caused this recession, they are now making more money than they ever did after being bailed out by the middle class of this country. During the Bush years, the wealthiest 400 Americans saw their incomes more than double. Do you really think that after seeing a doubling in the Bush years of their incomes that these people are in need of another million-dollar-a-year tax break?
On greed run amok:
How can I get by on one house? I need five houses, ten houses! I need three jet planes to take me all over the world! Sorry, American people. We've got the money, we've got the power, we've got the lobbyists here and on Wall Street. Tough luck. That's the world, get used to it. Rich get richer. Middle-class shrinks...
 
So these crybabies, the multimillionaires and billionaires, these people who are making out like bandits, they are crying and crying and crying, but their effective tax rates for the top 400 income earners in America was cut almost in half from 1992 to 2007. The point that needs to be made is when is enough enough? That really is the essence of what we are talking about. When does greed—and greed is, in my view, it's like a sickness, it's like an addiction. We know people on heroin, they can't stop, they need more and more.
 
I would hope that for these people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they will look around them and say, "There is something more important in life than the richest people becoming richer when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world." Maybe they will understand that they are Americans, part of a great nation which is in trouble today. Maybe they've got to go back to the Bible or whatever they believe in understanding that there is virtue in sharing, in reaching out, that you can't get it all.
 
How can anybody be proud to say that I am an multimillionaire and I've been getting a huge tax break and one-quarter of the kids in this country is on food stamps? 
On Reaganomics' flop at the box office:
For my friends, my Republican colleagues, to tell me that we need more tax cuts for the very rich, because that's going to create jobs, that's what trickle down economics is all about. What I would say to them is: Ya had your chance! It failed! In case you don't know, losing 600,000 private sector jobs in eight years is not good. That's very, very bad. That's an economic policy that is bad. We don't need to look at that movie again. We saw it. It stunk! It was a very bad movie! 

Anti-Sharia Advocates: We've Not Yet Begun to Fight

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 4:24 PM EST

By now you've probably read about the ongoing legal wrangling over Oklahoma's constitutional amendment to ban Sharia. There are plenty of reasons to pick on Oklahoma, but it turns out the state actually has plenty of allies in the fight against Islamic law. Per USA Today:

Although Oklahoma's law is the first to come under court scrutiny, legislators in at least seven states, including Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, have proposed similar laws, the National Conference of State Legislatures says.

Key quote:

"It's not an issue in Utah," [state rep. Carl Wimmer] says, "but I wanted to make sure it doesn't become an issue in Utah."

Well, that settles it, then.

In an interesting twist, Wimmer (top left) was ultimately forced to withdraw his bill when he discovered that it would have posed significant barriers to Utah companies conducting business overseas. But he's managed to stay busy in the interim,  introducing legislation to nullify the Affordable Care Act, criminalize miscarriages, and make the Browning 1911 Utah's state gun.

WikiLeaks Provokes Dumb USG Response

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 3:39 PM EST

From Steve Aftergood's Secrecy News:

The U.S. Government insists that the classification markings on many of the leaked documents being published by Wikileaks and other organizations are still in force, even though the documents are effectively in the public domain, and it has directed federal employees and contractors not to access or read the records outside of a classified network.

But by strictly adhering to the letter of security policy and elevating security above mission performance, some say the government may be causing additional damage.

"At DHS we are getting regular messages [warning not to access classified records from Wikileaks]," one Department of Homeland Security official told us in an email message. "It has even been suggested that if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified Wikileaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous."

"As someone who has spent many years with the USG dealing with senior officials of foreign governments, it seems to me that the problem faced by CRS researchers (and raised by you) is going to be widespread across our government if we follow this policy."

"Part of making informed judgments about what a foreign government or leader will do or think about something is based on an understanding and analysis of what information has gone into their own deliberative processes. If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don't, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we've been intentionally left out of the information loop. In any such instance, senior staff will be handicapped in their preparation and in their inter-governmental relationships," the DHS official said.

"I think more damage will be done by keeping the federal workforce largely in the dark about what other interested parties worldwide are going to be reading and analyzing. It does not solve the problem to let only a small coterie of analysts review documents that may be deemed relevant to their own particular 'stovepiped' subject area. Good analysis requires finding and putting together all the puzzle pieces."

So far, however, this kind of thinking is not finding a receptive audience in government. There has been no sign of leadership from any Administration official who would stand up and say:  "National security classification is a means, and not an end in itself.  What any reader in the world can discover is no longer a national security secret. We should not pretend otherwise."

Corn on "Parker-Spitzer": Will Obama's Tax Deal Prevent a Double-Dip Recession?

Fri Dec. 10, 2010 3:38 PM EST

David Corn and Reason's Nick Gillespie appeared on CNN's Parker Spitzer where they faced off on the economic and political implications of the Obama-GOP tax cut compromise.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Afghanistan's Ex-Spymaster Rips Karzai's Signature Policy

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 1:06 PM EST

It's no surprise that Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, was jettisoned by Hamid Karzai back in June (or resigned, depending on the telling), ostensibly for failing to thwart a bomb attack. As Saleh made clear during a speech at a Jamestown Foundation conference on Thursday, he believes Karzai's signature strategy for ending the war, reconciliation with the Taliban, will lead to disaster. And he said the Afghan leader's drive to pursue this strategy shows just how detached his administration is from the reality on the ground.

Western officials had long viewed Saleh, an ethnic Tajik, as one of the most intelligent, trustworthy, and effective members of the Karzai government. A veteran of the Northern Alliance, he fought alongside the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud against the Taliban in the 90s, eventually becoming his intelligence chief, a role he reprised in the Karzai government.

In his speech, Saleh keyed in the pitfalls of negotiating with Taliban. "What has blurred the narrative of the war, is the talk of reconciliation," Saleh told the Jamestown audience. "We could [have reconciled] with Al Qaeda and [the] Taliban on September 14, 15, [or] September 20, 2001. What was the need for these billions and billions of dollars to be spent [on the war]? It’s the same enemy."

And in its desperation to achieve a breakthrough in the talks, the Karazi government overreached. That resulted in what Saleh referred to as the humiliating "bogus Mansour" episode, in which a grocer successfully duped government officials into believing that he was, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a high-ranking Taliban leader willing to come to the negotiating table. Saleh says his agency had vetted and rejected the man back in 2008 after he was unable to verify his identity, and that the Karzai government's zeal to reach a historic deal with the Taliban akin to the Good Friday Agreement or Dayton Accords—demonstrates its unrealistic hopes for a breakthrough at this juncture.

Brokering a deal with the Taliban, in his view, serves as an excuse to draw down the United States' troop presence in the country without assessing whether any of the on-the-ground facts have changed. "A deal may bring deceptive stability, but it won't bring a long lasting stability where Afghans or foreigners will have confidence to invest, [to] convert Afghanistan into a viable economy," he said.

He questioned those skeptical of the Taliban's strength. "Will they be able to threaten our key and national interest by possessing AK-47s? Remember, when they helped Al Qaeda do 9/11, they had the same weapons." His solution? "DDR" the Taliban. "Demobilize them, disarm them, take their headquarters out of the Pakistani Intelligence basements... Push the Taliban to play according to the script of democracy—and if they win...allow them a chance to govern." He's confident, though, that "they will die in democracy, they will die in a country where law is ruling, not guns, not IEDs, not the spread of fear and intimidation."

Saleh also has a pretty good idea of where to change the narrative of the war: Pakistan. Since 9/11, he says, Pakistan has provided only "retail" and not "wholesale" cooperation. Time after time, the United States has been duped into trusting the country and its intelligence services. Saleh even claimed that Pakistani officials have privately admitted to him that their country has yet to change its ways despite their frequent promises to do so. "Now the United States believes that by giving more money and resources to Pakistan, you can convert their behavior from bad to good…but it is rewarding bad behavior which [continues] that bad behavior."

Until then, government officials and security forces must be more independent, and demonstrate their accountability to Afghans, Saleh argued. Afghans and their government must be prepared for the day when an exhausted United States and NATO decide to leave their country.

"We hear the speeches of major western politicians saying, 'failure is not an option.' Now it seems as if failure is an option. And my key message, coming to Washington, is this: it is a winnable war. The nature of our enemy has not changed."

He added: "People like me, who see the future of Afghanistan hanging on a cliff, we are preparing for plan B."

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Could Tax Sweeteners Bring Rebel Dems on Board?

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 9:57 AM EST

The Senate released the details of its tax bill on Thursday—legislation that conforms to President Obama's deal to preserve the Bush tax cuts and water down the estate tax, with a hefty (unpaid for) price tag of $858 billion. The bill is now expected to pass the Senate, particularly as it includes an extension of ethanol subsidies that's likely to bring along Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and other farm-state senators previously critical of the deal.

The House Dems haven't let up their fierce protest against the bill, despite the growing consensus from both White House officials and Democratic legislators themselves that they won't be able to stop it. But within the Senate bill itself, there are other sweeteners for Democrats that might help quell the rebellion on the House side. The Wall Street Journal explains: "The package extends a program of cash grants for wind and solar projects, as well as tax credits for energy-efficient appliances, although at reduced, pre-stimulus levels. It includes favorable tax treatment for mass-transit benefits for employees." And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) admitted to Politico that the clean energy sweeteners would be positively received: "That is the most important addition… A lot of our members wanted it. It was excluded from the original bargain. The fact that it was added is a good thing."

Such minor tweaks aren't likely to sway the liberal wing of the House Democrats, most of whom will likely still vote against the bill. But the sweeteners could help bring a few more moderate members aboard and perhaps take a bit of the edge off the resentment that the House Dems have directed toward the White House.

Sympathy for the President?

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 8:25 AM EST

In his PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn notes that while there is much in the tax-cuts "compromise" to denounce, he wonders if Obama, at this point in the game, didn't have much choice, given that, unlike the Republicans, he cares about trying to help mid- and low-income Americans during these tough times. So should we feel Obama's pain? Here's that piece:

It was tough times for progressives before President Obama announced his tax-cut "compromise" with the GOP this week. The Democrats were routed in the midterm elections, tea party zombies were in ascent, and the inspiring change-candidate of 2008 wasn't looking too triumphant. Then came the deal, and many on the left became apoplectic, accusing Obama of caving to the obstructionist Republicans. After all, he had indeed yielded on an article of faith for the left: George W. Bush's tax cut bonuses for the well-to-do had to go. Perhaps even worse, Obama had reached this hard-to-swallow accommodation without forcing the just-say-no GOPers into a showdown. (Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich denounced the deal as an "abomination.") But after talking to several top administration officials, I've become a tad more sympathetic regarding Obama's decision to negotiate this pact.

The agreement is indeed ugly. In exchange for decent policies that can help mid- and low-income Americans -- temporarily extending the Bush era tax cuts for middle and lower brackets, continuing a variety of refundable tax credits, cutting payroll taxes, extending unemployment insurance -- Obama accepted a high price: a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and generous breaks on the estate tax for the well-heeled. Essentially, the swells will benefit much more than hard-pressed commoners.

Here's how it breaks down: Obama's desired provisions will provide about $214 billion in tax cuts and benefits to 156 million people, and the GOP's treats will dole out $133 billion to 4 million. You can do the math without a calculator and see that those poor rich folks will be handed oodles more than the rest. One comparison: On average, people with more than $1 million in income will end up with an extra $140,000. A taxpayer in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range will receive $1,679. You may ask yourself, why do millionaires and billionaires warrant more pocket money, particularly when it's generally accepted that spreading cash among the rich is not effective economic stimulation? The answer: That's what Republicans want. And Obama is right: They held the rest of America hostage -- no cuts and benefits for you, unless there's "relief" for the gazillionaires.

Liberal House Democrats and other progressives are enraged about this -- and rightly so. The House D's on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution that decried the deal; dozens of them have vowed not to accept it unless amended. They want a fight. And they yearn to see Obama be at least as ticked off at GOP obstructionists as he is with his on-the-left critics (whom he testily chastised at a press conference earlier this week).

I'd like that, too. The White House and the Dems should have gone after the Republicans on this months ago -- before the election (even if some D's thought such a brawl would not boost their reelection prospects). Obama has not succeeded in an important mission: depicting the Republicans as extremists who routinely block attempts to revive the economy and who care mostly about easing the tax burdens on millionaires. This accord would have been far more palatable at the end of a fight, rather than as a substitute for confrontation.

But come this point, Obama had to play a lousy hand -- even though it was a hand he had a hand in dealing. And here comes the sympathy.

In meeting after meeting, during which the president and his aides discussed his options, Obama repeatedly asked if anyone could guarantee that were he to put up his dukes, go to the mat, and play chicken with the GOPers, mid- and low-income Americans would end up with the breaks and benefits he believed they need. If he went nose-to-nose, mano-a-mano, and the R's didn't blink, they'd be nothing for nobody -- and the Bush tax cuts would end for the middle class, mean that come Jan. 1, hard-working Americans would see a smaller paycheck. To make matters worse, this might have an anti-stimulative effect on the economy.

Then what would happen? He might be able to win the blame-game against the Scrooge-ish Republicans -- which would be a significant victory, especially heading into the next Congress. But there would be no action until next year, and any tax-related bill would have to originate in the Republican-controlled House and pass a Senate with a larger and more tea party-ish GOP caucus. It could take weeks or months to hammer out a package. What were the odds it would contain as much assistance for the non-rich? In the meantime, working-class Americans would be contending with less money. That is, hurting more.

So at this late stage of the game, in the dwindling moments of the 111th Congress, should Obama have been willing to put those Americans on the line in order to do battle with the nefarious Republicans? Had he done so and won (forcing the GOPers to forgo the the tax bennies for the rich and to accept tax cuts and benefits, including unemployment insurance, for others), he would have saved the nation a lot of money and not established some dangerous precedents (such as the more generous exemptions for the estate tax). He would have served several valuable principles: We don't pay off the rich to help struggling Americans; we don't negotiate with hostage-takers. It would have been glorious. But had he failed, he might not have been able subsequently to work out a deal with the benefits of this one. As the nation has learned, the Republicans cannot be shamed into supporting measures that help besieged Americans -- but they can be bought off.

Of course, no one can say how such a titanic clash would have climaxed. But Obama is the lonely-at-the-top fellow who is responsible for the well-being of the citizenry. It's his job description. If you consider this moment from that perspective -- even if he miscalculated his way to this, uh, decision point -- it's a tad bit tougher to pummel him. Sure, this deal is causing havoc, dividing the Democratic Party as well as his base. (As I was tweeting Obama's press conference this week, half of the responses were vituperative denunciations from past Obama supporters now accusing him of selling out; the other half were hurrahs from Obama backers who cheered him as a pragmatic hero doing his best to overcome ungodly GOP intransigence.) Yet once again, Obama appears to have lost the narrative war. The immediate storyline, right or wrong, was that the Republicans rolled the president.

It's not hard to see why the guy who had to make this difficult call opted not to go nuclear. Obama was engaged in asymmetrical warfare, He apparently worried about what would happen to the unemployed and put-upon Americans without a deal. The Republicans didn't. This put Obama at a disadvantage. I don't counsel anyone not to criticize the package (and how Obama steered himself and his party into this corner). But I can almost feel his pain.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

The Bigger Story Behind Anti-Semitism in Texas

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 6:00 AM EST

It's been an inspired couple of months for Texas conservatives. Gov. Rick Perry launched his national book tour by asserting his right to secede from Social Security; a state representative introduced a bill demanding that President Obama release his birth certificate; another state rep squatted in the capitol for two days and two nights to introduce immigration reform. Oh, and this photo happened. And now, after a historic landslide at the polls last month, Republican activists have taken aim at one of their own: House speaker Joe Straus. Straus is a moderate. He's also Jewish. Maybe you can see where this is headed.

Here's what John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, told the Texas Observer:

"I want to make sure that a person I'm supporting is going to have my values. It's not anything about Jews and whether I think their religion is right or Muslims and whether I think their religion is right...I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office. They're the people that do the best jobs over all..."

Cook said his opposition was not about Straus' religion, although he prefers Christian candidates.

"They're some of my best friends," he said of Jews, naming two friends of his. "I'm not bigoted at all; I'm not racist."

Cook's something of a loon, as evidenced by his fantastically oblivious "some of my best friends" defense. But all of the cries of anti-Semitism do sort of seem to be glossing over one very obvious thing: Conservative Christian political activists generally think that being a conservative Christian makes you better qualified to hold public office. That's sort of the point.

To be clear, there's pretty compelling evidence that at least some of Straus' opponents have focused on his Judaism. But if he were a social-justice Catholic, or a moderate main-liner, or a progressive evangelical, he would still face a pretty intense push from conservative activists arguing that he is not a true Christian, or at least not a true conservative Christian. This has been a theme in just about every major contested election for the last few decades, and it's a sentiment that's well entrenched in the conservative movement. That he is literally not a Christian in this case is just a technicality.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 10, 2010

Fri Dec. 10, 2010 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Todd Sackman, a platoon sergeant with the 832nd Engineer Company from Ottumwa, Iowa, shares a laugh with a group of Afghan boys in the town of Bajawri, Dec. 6. The 832nd Engineer Company. Photo via U.S. Army.