Mojo - December 2010

Sherrod Brown Caves on Tax Deal

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 8:33 AM PST

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—one of the most vocal opponents of Obama's tax deal—has changed his mind and will now support the bill. Brown, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, was one of a small handful of Senators who voted against moving the tax bill forward on Monday. But he's since flipped his position and will support its final passage in a vote scheduled to take place in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon, according to a press statement from his office.

Brown told the Washington Post that "he changed his mind after speaking with his minister and reading letters from constituents who are struggling to find jobs in his hard-hit home state." His office added that Brown had "fought to improve the bill" by filing amendments that would attempt to rein in Chinese currency manipulation, provide clean energy manufacturing tax credits, and extend health care tax credits to the unemployed. It's unclear whether Brown's amendments stand any chance of passage, but the move gives him a means of expressing his desire to reform the legislation in light of his reversal.

On Friday, Brown had even joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his "filibuster" of the legislation, together with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)—who also later decided to support the legislation. He told the Post that he voted against moving the bill forward "to send a message to the House that there are allies here." But Brown's decision to vote for its final passage will undermine the House liberals' already weakening hand. Even so, a handful of defiant House members are still fighting to alter and offer up amendments to major pieces of the legislation, like the estate tax and payroll tax provisions. But, as Brian Beutler reports, there are growing indications that the House Democratic leadership won't be willing to whip up support for those changes at this point.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 15, 2010

Wed Dec. 15, 2010 3:30 AM PST

Capt. Ben Jackman, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, coordinates actions as Iraqi Army mortar crews prepare to conduct a live fire exercise Dec. 6. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Philip Crabtree

Wikileaks and the Definition of Terrorism

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 6:07 PM PST

Here in the United States of Fear, official voices are again rising in a remarkable crescendo of hysteria.

My advice: don't even try getting on the subway car filled with American politicians and their acolytes accusing WikiLeaks and Julian Assange of terrorist activity. It's already standing room only. Among those who have recently spoken out: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell ("I think the man is a high-tech terrorist"); former speaker of the House and possible 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich ("information terrorism… [Assange] should be treated as an enemy combatant"); Republican Congressman Peter King, the next head of the House Homeland Security Committee ("…asked the Obama administration today to 'determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated a foreign terrorist organization'"); former Republican Senator and possible 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum ("We haven't gone after this guy, we haven't tried to prosecute him, we haven't gotten our allies to go out and lock this guy up and bring him up on terrorism charges, because what he's doing is terrorism, in my opinion."); Fox News host, Iran-Contra figure, and bestselling author Oliver North ("This is an act of terrorism. It's information terrorism instead of a bomb going off in Times Square, but it's still terrorism.")

'Parent-Trigger' Organizers in Compton Accused of Intimidation

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 1:05 PM PST

-Kristina Rizga, Mother Jones-Kristina Rizga, Mother Jones[UPDATE: The Calif. Board of Education is asking the state attorney general to examine charges of misconduct, while LA Weekly's staff writer Patrick Range McDonald is highly skeptical of intimidation charges. McDonald shadowed "Parent Trigger" campaign and wrote a cover story about it.]

Last week I blogged about how parents of kids attending LA's public McKinley Elementary School in Compton are trying something new: Shutting down the chronically struggling institution and demanding that it be replaced by a charter school.

This week, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that some parents are withdrawing their signatures, saying that they were intimidated or misled by Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group that organized the petition drive.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"They told me the petition was to beautify the school," said Karla Garcia, whose two children attend McKinley. "They are misinforming the parents, so I revoked my signature."

On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter of the parent-trigger effort, took the other side, condemning alleged "intimidation tactics" by charter opponents at McKinley.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa weighed in with similar views. The mayor was flanked by parents and petition organizers Friday as he visited the home of a Compton petition signer to praise the effort and condemn what he described as harassment by opponents."

Similar "parent-trigger" laws are being considered in other states. Meanwhile, the ability of charters to "solve" the problems of the low-performing public schools remains far from clear. [Read Kevin Drum for a good backgrounder on charter schools.]
 

[h/t to MoJo reader Dora Taylor, who is blogging about this case as well.]
 

 

Video: Jimmy Carter Has an iPad

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 12:20 PM PST

The folks over at Big Think have just posted a recent interview with President Jimmy Carter. (Watch an excerpt below.) They offered MoJo a chance to ask a question of the man from Plains, and we passed the opportunity on to our readers. MoJo Facebook friend Aaron Parr suggested asking Carter about his July 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech, in which he urged Americans to embrace energy conservation and alternative energy sources as a means to kick start the economy and their flagging sense of civic pride. "The solution of our energy crisis," he concluded, "can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country."

It's often called the "malaise" speech, though Carter never uttered that word. For better and for worse, Carter's decision to use his bully pulpit to deliver a sober reality check became one of the definining episodes of his single term. Reading the speech today, it's remarkably—and depressingly—relevant. Which prompted Parr to ask the 39th president, "Has America failed to adequately address the problems you laid out in your 1979 'crisis of confidence' speech?"

Watch Carter's full response to Parr's question below the jump. Here's an excerpt, in which he discusses China's ascendency in the alternative energy market and his iPad (!):

We’ve become increasingly addicted to consumption of goods that we don’t produce ourselves, and a lot of the manufacturing has gone overseas…When I was in office, we had the pre-eminent position in the production of alternative sources of energy—windmills, and photovoltaic cells, things of that kind. Now that ascendancy has moved to China. China's the number one producer of new kinds of advanced photovoltaic cells, for instanced. And they are the number one producers of advanced windmills to utilize the power from the sun and directed through the wind. So we’ve lost that edge that we used to have in scientific innovation applications to goods to be sold. In many ways, that is also changing in the electronic field. Almost all of the materials that we use now are of advanced technology, I have an iPad and also an iPod, both of which are made in China. Although we have designed them here with Apple, for instance, they are manufactured overseas.

Foreclosure Investigator Meets With Distressed Homeowners

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 12:19 PM PST

With no end in sight to the massive foreclosure scandal, furious homeowners are taking matters into their own hands.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is heading up the nationwide investigation into the scandal, and is holding his first group meeting with foreclosure victims and community groups from around the country today. The activist groups are demanding that loan modifications and principal write-downs be included as part of any settlement Miller reaches with the loan servicing industry. The meeting is being organized by groups like the Service Employees International Union, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and National People's Action.

Distressed homeowners have been plagued by what's known as the "dual track" problem: the servicing industry's contemptible practice of starting loan modifications while concurrently beginning foreclosure proceedings. The solution, as Mother Jones' Andy Kroll has written, is simple: block foreclosure for homeowners undergoing loan modifications.

"Foreclosures at the scale we are currently experiencing, and unfortunately will continue to experience for some time, are a public policy issue," Miller told the Senate Banking committee last month. "It is well past time to once and for all tackle the issue of foreclosures and loan modifications with the resources and urgency it deserves."

Miller seems to understand what's at stake for homeowners, and how the existing system screws them. So if he's feeling particularly populist, he may just decide to join the protesters after his meeting with them. They'd definitely have something for him to do: Activists plan to picket bank branches in Des Moines over the huge bonus packages top executives are taking as they continue to foreclose on American families. It doesn't have to be this way. According to a new report from the SEIU, restoring equity to underwater homeowners would cost $73 billion per year—approximately one-half this year’s bonus & compensation pool.

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Best Press Release Ever?

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 11:48 AM PST

Last week, Facebook titan/world's youngest billionaire Mark Zuckerberg joined a group of other super-rich individuals (including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) who are promising to give at least half of their money to charity. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most people probably think this was a good and praiseworthy development: the super-rich have benefited enormously from our society, and it's nice of them to give back. But not everyone thinks that way. Take the Ayn Rand Center, which is dedicated to promoting the memory and Objectivist philosophy of the famed novelist. The center's Don Watkins was horrified by Zuckerberg's decision:

WASHINGTON—"You may have heard of the trend of businessmen 'Going Galt' (a reference to Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged"),' writes Don Watkins, an analyst with the Ayn Rand Center, "self-confidently declaring that until the government loosens the burdens of backbreaking taxes and onerous regulations, they will scale back their productive efforts rather than work as virtual serfs. Other businessmen, however, have decided to 'Go Guilt,' i.e., to sign Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's 'Giving Pledge,' vowing to give away most of the wealth they have earned. The recent news that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has signed the Pledge is making headlines.

"To be fair to Zuckerberg, there can be many reasons why he and his fellow 'Givers' have signed the Pledge. But as Yaron Brook and I argued in a recent Forbes.com column, the Pledge's aim is to prey on the (undeserved) guilt many successful businessmen feel.

"It is no accident that the Giving Pledge is not a call for charity but a public pledge to give. As Matthew Bishop and Michael Green observe, 'Richesse oblige is part of American culture. The peer pressure to give is great (for donors large and small) . . . The Giving Pledge has upped that peer pressure . . .' The Pledge treats your wealth, not as a justly earned reward, but as a gift from society—one that came with plenty of strings attached. The message is: Fulfill the obligation that came with your riches, give your wealth away—or hide your face in shame.

"But your wealth was not an undeserved gift. Every dollar in your bank account came from some individual who voluntarily gave it to you—who gave it to you in exchange for a product he judged to be more valuable than his dollar. You have no moral obligation to 'give back,' because you didn't take anything in the first place."

In related news, rich people quite literally have trouble understanding other people's emotions.

Eric Cantor's "Read the Bill" Pledge

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 10:55 AM PST

Future House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has pledged to put legislation up on the web three days before members vote on it. Former Mother Jones fellow Michael Beckel (now of OpenSecrets) reports:

"Bills are often quite complex and can be lengthy," [Cantor spokesman Brad] Dayspring told OpenSecrets Blog. "The three-day rule prior to bringing a bill to the floor is already in House Rules. The Democrats, however, waived it time and time again—we will not."

Transparency advocates like the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs OpenSecrets, have long pushed for stronger "read the bill" enforcement. But as I've pointed out before (in a post Beckel kindly links to), simply putting bills online isn't enough:

Better 'read the bill' reform would start, I think, with extending to all of Congress the Senate Finance Committee's tradition of debating and voting on bills written in 'conceptual language'—otherwise known as plain English. If that was the standard for what was being voted on and discussed and posted on the web in advance, ordinary people and members of Congress (and journalists, for that matter) would be much more likely to actually understand what was going on.

When Cantor pushes for that kind of change, I'll give him credit as a true process reformer (right now, there aren't many politicians of either party that deserve the label). But simply promising not to waive the three-day rule is not enough. The vast majority of the bills passed by the House in the 112th Congress will be political statements that have no chance of passing the Democratic Senate or being signed by President Obama. It's easy to give people time to read those sorts of bills (not that reading the legalese does anyone except lawyers much good). After all, there's no rush to pass them only to see them die in the Senate or get vetoed by Obama. But say, in 2012, the GOP takes back the Senate and the White House, and time is suddenly of the essence for Republicans. Will Cantor stick to his pledge when it's no longer an easy promise?

Beckel has more on all this over at OpenSecrets

DC Ticker on ABC News: Sanders, Buy; Steele, Dump

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 9:33 AM PST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

* Sen. Dick Durbin, buy. The No. 2 Democratic in the Senate, a liberal, is the most effective advocate for Obama's tax-cut deal in the Upper Chamber. As the bill passes without too much trouble in the Senate, Obama can thank him.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders, buy. The independent senator from Vermont became a progressive hero when he filibustered the tax cut deal. He's not going to be able to stop it, but he earned himself a Twitter hashtag (#filibernie).

* Sen. John Thune, buy. With grumbling on the right about the current crop of 2012 GOP presidential contenders, Thune offers what many Republicans yearn for: a fresh face. It worked for the Ds in 2008.

* Sen. John Cornyn, buy. He's signed up for another tour leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee. No surprise--he knows that 2012 at this point looks like it's going to be a great year for Republicans in the Senate.

* Michael Steele, dump. After the GOP achieved a historic victory in the midterm elections, almost everyone in the party wanted the chairman gone. Yet he's running for re-election. If he loses, he probably won't get a Fox News show.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

Richard Holbrooke's Unfinished Business

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 8:24 AM PST

When the Obama administration began and Richard Holbrooke was appointed as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, there was cause for some hope. Holbrooke, who died Monday night at the age of 69, was a veteran diplomat who had achieved a forced peace in the Balkans via the Dayton Accords of 1995. He could be imperious and arrogant, but with his clout and foreign policy know-how, he had a chance at pushing the camel through the AfPak needle. On March 27, 2009, the morning after President Barack Obama unveiled his Afghanistan policy, Holbrooke participated in an on-the-record briefing with reporters.

During that session, in response to a question I asked, he candidly acknowledged the problem of corruption in Afghanistan. He came across as quite smart in asserting that one of the most cost-effective steps Washington could take would be to boost the agriculture sector of Afghanistan, which in years past had been a productive and profitable source of exports. Replicate the past success, he said, and Afghans would have money and jobs—and that, in turn, would create stability in the country. He called for "a complete rethink" of the drug problem in Afghanistan, suggesting that draconian eradication programs were bound to fail. The aura of confidence he always exuded appeared to be backed up by knowledge of the region and fresh ideas.

Holbrooke gave the impression that he was both a realistic and creative thinker, someone who would have a shot at finding a path to peace (or less war). And it was entertaining in a way to watch this fellow play his role as a grand statesman. At the time, I wrote:

Holbrooke is a wonderfully engaging character—an old-school power player. He schmoozes reporters, coming across as intelligent, crafty, and concerned. He is a charmer who knows his stuff. He won't no-comment a tough question; he will compliment the reporter on posing an insightful query, show he fully understands the issue at hand (which he does), and then explain he can't answer it—in a manner that can be convincing, not annoying.

But Holbrooke's skill set did not lead to much accomplishment in Afghanistan. He never worked out a productive relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, admittedly, is a difficult target. He butted heads with other administration officials and was dismissed by European colleagues. He brokered no breakthroughs.

Still, Holbrooke's sudden death could have an impact on what happens in Afghanistan. Julian Borger of the Guardian writes.

The special envoy's death removes from the scene a passionate proponent of pursuing a political initiative alongside the military campaign… The Obama administration formally approves of a political discussions with the Taliban, but has not got directly involved itself. Even the CIA does not have a presidential directive empowering it to contact the Taliban directly.

The policy is to support the Afghan government's quiet contacts with the insurgent leadership… Holbrooke almost certainly would not have hung on in his position as Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy without the protection of Hillary Clinton, who he supported throughout the Democratic primary campaign. But Clinton did not share his approach to Afghanistan. She sided with the generals who argued that it was pointless investing political capital and taking the political risks inherent in direct talks with the Taliban until the insurgents had been battered into submission with another year or so of drone attacks and special forces raids.

Borger notes that though Holbrooke favored more diplomacy he helped block an idea promoted by White House aide Douglas Lute to set up a new UN special envoy to pursue peace talks with the Taliban. Holbrooke believed this would undermine the current UN envoy to Kabul. "European diplomats say the idea of a more powerful UN peace envoy could be revived," Borger writes, "now that Holbrooke and Lute are no longer canceling each other out in Washington… Nothing is certain, however, until the new power constellation in Washington falls into place after Holbrooke's departure from the scene."

Holbrooke's death comes at a time when Obama's Afghanistan policy is under review and heading toward a crunch point. The president has vowed to begin a disengagement in July 2011 that will lead to a hand-over of security responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2014. Yet the US military is still pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that could take years to succeed, if at all. Meanwhile, the Afghan government led by Karzai is still inept and corrupt, and popular support for both Kabul and the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is weak. Obama's line is that there has been progress in Afghanistan but challenges remain. It is unclear how he will finish this unfinished business that Holbrooke has left behind.

******

In a column for The Daily Beast, Les Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a stark view of Obama's current position and Holbrooke's death that is worth quoting at length:

Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan was the center  of the terrorist threat. Now, it's one of many homes to terrorists....And the argument that success in Afghanistan is necessary to ward off catastrophe in Pakistan is even more specious. Pakistan will resist or fall to extremists because of what happens in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people, not because of what happens in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan itself is no longer a vital interest of the United States, but continuing the war there tears at our own nation's very vitals. With America drowning under a $1.5 trillion deficit for next year and an almost $15 trillion overall debt, we are verging on banana republic-hood. Most of the $125 billion being spent in and for Afghanistan could better be deducted from those bills. And how on earth can the administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America's physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing? Of course, I feel for the  Afghans; but I feel far, far more for Americans....

So, when Obama steps to some podium Thursday to announce the results of his [latest Afghanistan] policy review, he will reaffirm this transition policy. He will say that U.S. efforts to date are "making progress."...Further, he will announce that he's keeping his previous promise to begin some reduction of U.S. forces by July 2011, but he still won't say how many. He will  go on to talk about general plans for U.S. force reductions over the following  three years but without any timetables. He will acknowledge problems with the government of President Hamid Karzai, its inefficiencies and corruption, but not  suggest in any way that these fundamental flaws in our ally should impair or will determine the rate of U.S. troop withdrawals....

President Obama will not be grim as he renders these policy verdicts. Administration officials say privately that while he has his doubts and worries about what he is doing in Afghanistan, Obama feels he's reached an acceptable balance in policy and a workable political consensus in support of that policy. In many respects, Obama's Afghan policy is much like his recent agreement on taxes with the Republicans. He doesn't really like a lot of the policy compromises he has reached on Afghan policy with Petraeus or on tax policy with the Republicans. But on both counts, he feels safe politically. As things stand, the Republicans won't attack him on tax policy and Petraeus won't flay him on Afghan policy. His own fellow Democrats will scream on both counts, but to the president, they don't seem to matter much on policy or on politics. He obviously reckons that Democratic liberals have nowhere else to turn, and he's probably right. But who knows where the political center of gravity will be in a year and a half with America still in the economic doldrums and with America still at war in Afghanistan? And who knows how the President will be able to navigate through all this without his most gifted foreign policy thinker and doer--Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, my dear and best friend.

There's no telling whether Holbrooke would have helped Obama out of this mess. After all, for all his talents, he was part of the crew that enlarged the war. Before he died, he told his Pakistani surgeon, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." It was a mission he had not been able to accomplish.