Mojo - March 2011

Obama Adviser Continues to Defend Stance on Libya

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 1:33 PM PDT

On a conference call with reporters this afternoon, President Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes hammered home the White House's rationale for taking action in Libya. Rhodes, who wrote the president's address to the nation on the war in Libya, repeatedly emphasized that the driving motivation behind Operation Odyssey Dawn is protecting civilians. Regime change through military means, he stressed, isn't on the menu. And Rhodes reminded callers that the Obama adminstration isn't viewing Libya in the same light that the Bush administration saw Iraq.

Rhodes made the case that there are vast differences between military action to secure a civilian population versus military action to oust an autocrat. "When you militarily undertake regime change, you have far greater ownership over what comes next," he said. "And therefore you're assuming costs both in terms of achieving regime change, but also in terms of being responsible essentially for replacing the government you've removed." The White House wants to see the end of the Qaddafi regime, but prefers to "apply tools to pressure," like cutting off him his money and further isolating him internationally.

Rhodes adamantly reiterated President Obama's message to Americans that the US isn't looking to commit ground troops to Odyssey Dawn. But what about to post-Dawn peacekeeping? It's "obviously a different mission than the one we're engaged in right now," he said. "But I think it would be premature to hazard any predictions that the US would participate in such a force. It's certainly not something that we're planning against at this point." Rhodes also said that any plans for a post-Qaddafi Libya, if it comes about, have been frustrated by the dictator's stifling of civil institutions. "One of the challenges in Libya is that Qaddafi himself has prevented the emergence of strong institutions and strong civil society, the type of pillars that would support a transition similar to what Egyptian civil society and national institutions have done next door," Rhodes said.

He also updated reporters on this week's London conference, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with leaders of the Libyan opposition and the military coalition. While the goal-of-the-moment is securing the safety of the Libyan people through the military coalition, the conference aims to engage non-NATO Arab countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in a political effort to bring about a government that is more responsive to the Libyan people. It remains unclear, though, who the opposition actually is. Rhodes didn't offer many specifics. But he did say that the political entity the United States is dealing with "has conducted itself responsibly, in terms of statements it's made, [the] vision it's put forward." The White House, he added, will continue to monitor the still-nascent group as it develops.

The Obama adminstration is working hard to persuade Americans that its intentions in Libya are limited in scope and ambition. But some lingering questions remain. As Clinton gets to know the opposition's political leaders, what if she doesn't like what she finds? And, more urgently: how will we know when the dawn has broken, and the military operation has achieved its aims?

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Conservative Crusade to Discredit Labor Experts Spreads to Michigan

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 9:26 AM PDT
Protesters surround Michigan's Capitol building in opposition to Governor Rick Snyder's controversial "emergency financial manager" bill.

On March 24, William Cronon, an acclaimed history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offered a startling revelation on his personal blog: The Wisconsin Republican Party had filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding all emails sent or received via Cronon's UW email account mentioning certain labor unions, labor leaders, the words "recall" and "collective bargaining," and the names of a host of state Republican lawmakers, including Governor Scott Walker. The request was clearly aimed at intimidating and discrediting Cronon, a prominent academic who has criticized Wisconsin Republicans, especially Walker, on his blog and in the pages of the New York Times.

Now, as Talking Points Memo reports, the free-market-loving think tank in Michigan I wrote about last week has joined the witch hunt. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy recently sent records requests to at least three academic departments at Michigan universities that study labor relations asking for all emails that mention Wisconsin's union battle, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and even MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Here's more from TPM's Evan McMorris-Santoro:

According to professors subject to the request, filed under Michigan's version of the Freedom Of Information Act, the request is extremely rare in academic circles. An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they're part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.

One professor subject to the FOIA described it as anti-union advocates "going after folks they don't agree with."

As I reported last week, the Mackinac Center is affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. The Center's funders include one of the Koch brothers; the foundation of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway fortune; and the Prince Foundation, whose vice president is Blackwater founder Erik Prince. It was the Mackinac Center that inspired Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder's "emergency financial manager" bill, which gives unelected managers unilateral power to void union contracts and dissolve local governments in the process of fixing fiscally unstable municipalities and public school districts.

A cause underlying much of the center's work is privatization. Its scholars have called for privatizing Amtrak, prisons, and even the state's flagship university, the University of Michigan. The center publishes the Michigan Privatization Report, and offers how-tos on privatizing school districts and suggests local contractors available for hire to replace existing public services.

The Mackinac Center is also connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the private organization that allows corporations and lobbyists to craft legislation for use at the state level. For instance, as NPR reported last fall, Arizona's draconian immigration bill was based on a "model bill" written by private industry, including the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's leading private prisons company that operates corrections facilities around the country.

Now, the Mackinac Center joins the effort to discredit those who oppose their anti-union position, even though the think tank wouldn't say what it planned to do with the emails. "I'm not going to release what we're writing about," the managing editor of Mackinac's newsletter told TPM.

Does Rick Scott's Drug-Testing Policy Violate the 4th Amendment?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 8:04 AM PDT

Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed off on an executive order that requires that many state employees and job applicants submit to mandatory drug tests. He's also pushing state legislators to pass a bill that would subject welfare recipients to drug testing as well. But legal experts warn that Scott's heavy-handed measures may be unconstitutional. The Miami Herald reports:

[F]ederal courts generally have ruled that such policies violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, say attorneys and legal scholars.

"You can’t do blanket tests like that. They’re facially unconstitutional," said Ephraim Hess, a Davie attorney who prevailed over the City of Hollywood in April 2000 when U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp ruled that governments cannot require prospective employees to take drug tests unless there is a "special need," such as safety. 

Another federal court supported the ACLU in 2004, ruling that Florida had violated the Fourth Amendment by ordering random drug testing of all the agency's employees. The ACLU now says that it's prepared to represent any state employee who wants to challenge Scott's new policy:

"The state of Florida cannot force people to surrender their constitutional rights in order to work for the state. Absent any evidence of illegal drug use, or assigned a safety-sensitive job, people have a right to be left alone,"" said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. Simon said the ACLU would represent any state employee who would like to challenge the policy.

There's one stakeholder, though, that could benefit from the governor's new drug-testing push. As I reported last week, Scott's own company, Solantic, conducts drug-testing for employers and employees alike and stands to profit from this proposal—among many others.

Prominent Tea Partier: Whites Are Going Extinct

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 7:54 AM PDT

The Tennessee-based conservative group Tea Party Nation is most famous for planning the 2010 Tea Party convention in Nashville, at which Sarah Palin was caught reading off her hand. But since then, the for-profit organization has more or less fallen flat. A second planned convention was cancelled for lack of interest, and its leader, Judson Phillips, has been spurned by his fellow conservative activists. But even as his standing continues to slide, Phillips is ratcheting up his rhetoric. In recent months, for instance, he's called for voting rights to be granted only to people who own property, and stated that he has "a real problem with Islam."

Now, the Phillips group wants to raise awareness about a potentially existential threat to the United States: White people are going extinct. Via Right Wing Watch, here's an email sent out by Tea Party Nation today:

Child bearing has become something distasteful to many women, an unwanted and painful experience to be avoided rather than embraced.

All of these programs, ideals and ideologies are doing one thing and one thing only - reducing America core TFR [total fertility rate] to the point of no return. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) population in America is headed for extinction and with it our economy, well-being and survival as a uniquely America culture.

This county is dying not because it is aging, it is dying because of infertility as public policy.

A year ago, Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams was forced to step down from his position after writing a racist letter to the NAACP, as part of a somewhat misguided attempt to prove he wasn't a racist. Phillips probably won't fire himself, but he's certainly not making his path back to relevance any easier.

The War in Wisconsin=Big $ Cash for Democrats

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 7:32 AM PDT
Flickr/Vince_Lamb

The fight pitting Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker against labor unions and their supporters continues to rumble on, with a state bureau publishing the controversial "budget repair bill" in apparent defiance of a county judge's temporary restraining order against doing so. If you're the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, you want to overturn Walker's bill as soon as possible—but you also want the drawn-out fight surrounding the controversial legislation to stretch as long as possible.

Here's why: The state Democratic Party raised $1.4 million in less than two months, from February 1 through March 21, according to a new fundraising filing. As Milwaukee Public Radio reports, that's $250,000 more than the party raised in all of 2010, a hotly contested election year in which Democrats fought desperately to stem the tide of Republican victories sweeping the country. (They failed, and both legislative chambers as well as the governor's seat flipped from blue to red.)

The Democratic Party has capitalized on every twist and turn in the fight in Madison to hit up their base for cash. After the 14 Democrats in the state Senate fled Wisconsin to block a vote on Walker's bill, the State Senate Democratic Committee used the self-imposed exile of the "Wisconsin 14" to raise $785,000 on the back of the Democrats' departure. Those Democrats returned to Wisconsin on March 12 after Senate Republicans used a constitutional end-run to pass Walker's bill without the Democrats present.

Since the return of the "Wisconsin 14," Deomcrats have fundraised around the recall of the eight Republican state Senators who voted for Walker's bill and who are eligible for recall. (Efforts by Republican activists are also underway to recall eight senate Democrats who opposed Walker's bill.) Democrats hope to have enough signatures to trigger a recall by May.

Governor Cuomo to New York's Poor and Middle Class: Drop Dead

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:15 AM PDT

There is no country in the industrial world with as great an income disparity between the rich and poor as the United States. And within the US, there is no state where the disparity is more pronounced than New York. New York City was the center of the Great Recession, and today unemployment there stands at 9 percent and is not expected to drop any time soon. At the same time, the financial sector that caused it all has recovered nicely, and the executives are pulling down salaries and perks larger than they did before the recession.

In the midst of all this gross inequality, New York’s millionaires are getting a tax break, thanks to the state's new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Son of liberal ex-governor Mario Cuomo, inheritor of some of the enthusiasm that once surrounded Eliot Spitzer’s campaign, and successor to the weak stand-in David Paterson, Cuomo was elected on a wave of optimism. He even ran on the line of the Working Families Party, an increasingly important progressive player in state politics. Yet Andrew Cuomo has turned out to be just another craven neoliberal. In his most meaningful action to date, he has embraced a budget that would make any Bushite salivate.

In a deal this past weekend, the governor and legislative leaders agreed upon a $132.5 million budget that cuts state spending by 2 percent, largely on the backs of the poor and the sick, women, children, the elderly, and other beneficiaries of state services. It offers next to nothing to the struggling middle class. But for the well-heeled denizens of Wall Street and beyond, there's a promised end to the so-called millionaire's tax passed at the height of the recession. This privileged group has already received a massive boost from the federal government in the form of the financial industry bailout, followed by the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Now they'll receive an extra gift from the state.

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Bernie Sanders' Top 10 Tax Avoiders

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 3:30 AM PDT

In a Sunday press release calling on wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their share, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered a list of what he calls "some of the 10 worst corporate income tax avoiders."

Sanders, you'll recall, made headlines for his epic 8.5-hour speech/filibuster this past December, dealing with how Obama's pending tax-cut deal with the GOP would be bad for America. The speech—published this month as a paperback simply titled The Speech—was in vain: Congress passed the deal, extending tax breaks not merely to the poor and middle-class, but to America's richest people.

It also slashed the estate tax from 55 percent to 35 percent and exempted the first $5 million of an estate's value ($10 million for a couple)—up from $1 million pre-Bush. In his speech, Sanders warned against this change, noting, "Let us be very clear: This tax applies only—only—to the top three-tenths of 1 percent of American families; 99.7 percent of American families will not pay one nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich. (Click here for our blockbuster charts showing just how rich the very, very, very rich actually are.)

If the estate tax—which Republicans have cleverly rebranded the "death tax"—were to be eliminated entirely (another GOP goal), Sanders says it would cost US taxpayers $1 trillion over 10 years. "Families such as the Walton family, of Walmart fame, would have received, just this one family, about a $30 billion tax break," he said in the speech.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 29, 2011

Tue Mar. 29, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Young Afghan children of the Nawbot village look at a U.S. Army Soldier as he conducts a routine patrol of their village. Photo via US Army.

The White House on Libya: It's Complicated

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 1:23 PM PDT

In characterizing President Barack Obama's message on Libya hours before his scheduled speech on the matter, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, essentially said this: it's complicated.

During a White House press gaggle—an off-camera briefing—conducted by Carney and deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough on Monday, reporters repeatedly pressed the Obama aides to describe what Obama would say in his speech. Both men demurred, noting they were not there to preview his remarks. It seemed reasonable for White House officials to tell the reporters that the upcoming speech would speak for itself. Still, White House reporters yearned for a hand-out of some sort.

Meanwhile, they also pushed McDonough and Carney to answer the unanswerable—that is, what's the endgame in Libya? That's probably, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, a known unknown, at this point. Obama has agreed to a limited military action, designed and initiated to prevent a result (Muammar Qaddafi making good on his vow to turn Benghazi into a slaughtering field), rather than to produce a specific outcome (say, a Qaddafi-less Libya). And this has yielded a media narrative: the public is confused about the warfare in Libya.

With that in mind, I asked Carney the following question:

Critics on the left or right and voices in the media have talked about there being some confusion in the public over the President’s aims and the goals and intentions of this mission. Do you believe that from the very start the White House has communicated effectively with the public about what the President is thinking regards to the Libyan action?

Carney, with a straight face, said, "Absolutely, yes." The reporters laughed. He was joking, in a way. He then proceeded toward a more serious reply:.

Seriously, I think—I want to get at this question, because somebody over the weekend on one of these shows suggested that—or claimed outright that the White House had suggested that some of the questions raised by members of Congress were illegitimate. No one in the White House ever said that. I certainly never said that from this podium.

Questions are legitimate. They deserve to be answered. We have endeavored to answer them from the President, to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, Deputy National Security Advisor, and the Press Secretary and others. So they’re all—they are legitimate questions. And it is understandable that there is complexity here that needs to be explained and we have tried to explain, which is that there is the military mission, the goals of which are quite clearly laid out in the resolution authorizing the use of force in all necessary measures.

And then there are the over—and there are the other baskets, the other tools. I think Secretary Gates said it well that we have more than just hammers in our toolbox here, and the things that we are doing unilaterally as the United States, but also in concert with our international allies, to put pressure on Qaddafi and isolate Qaddafi, that is also very much an important aspect of our policy.

And I think that where you see the question of confusion come up is this idea that because we have stated, the President has stated, that we do not believe Qaddafi is a legitimate leader and that he should leave power, and yet we are not authorizing our military—or the U.N. Security Council resolution is not authorized to take out or remove or effect regime change in Libya, that there is somehow confusion in that.

There is a military mission designed to protect civilians, to enforce a no-fly zone. And there is a policy of this administration that we are pursuing through other measures that seeks to isolate and pressure Qaddafi to the point where he leaves power.

In other words, there has been some confusion—due to the complexity of the issue. Carney might have a point. The mission is not a simple one, as in, do everything possible to get Qaddafi. The mission is to do what is possible, in conjunction with NATO allies and a few Arab partners, to block Qaddafi from butchering Libyans opposed to his rule—hoping (or intending) to create a set of circumstances that just might lead to the dictator's downfall. Tripoli or Bust this ain't. This is a military action of nuance.

I followed up Carney's reply:

Mitt Romney has attacked the President for being nuanced... Do you think that having a policy that has these different levels is just hard to explain in a hyper-media environment?

Carney answered, "we’ve tried to explain it and I think—when it’s explained well and clearly, that it is understandable.  And the President has done that on a number of occasions, and again the American people will hear him speak to it tonight."

With critics on the right and left assailing Obama and the media echoing trumped-up accusations of confusion, Obama might need more than a single speech to ensure his policy is understandable throughout the land.

Did the GOP Ever Shift its Focus Away From Social Issues?

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 10:50 AM PDT

The normally excellent Jeff Zeleny takes a close look at the 2012 Iowa caucuses and discovers that conservatives care about social issues:

The ailing economy and the Tea Party's demand for smaller government have dominated Republican politics for two years, but a resurgent social conservative movement is shaping the first stage of the presidential nominating contest...

Has the ailing economy and demand for smaller government really "dominated Republican politics for two years"?

Let's recap: The debate against health-care reform featured not only the false claim that the new law would budget taxpayer funding to pay for abortions—one member of Congress even called another member of Congress a "babykiller" on the House floor—but also the false claim that the new law would target senior citizens and people with disabilities for death. Then, the entire month of August, 2010, was spent debating the small government issue of whether a religious group should build a house of worship in Lower Manhattan.

Glenn Beck's case against Barack Obama—which provided the fuel for FOX's amped-up full-team-coverage of 9/12 and tea party rallies over the last two years—has its foundation in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, rooted in divine principles, and that any effort to alter the Founders' immaculate construction more or less conflicts with the will of God. It's a popular idea, endorsed by grassroots activists and elected officials alike.

Meanwhile, the first order of business for members of the landslide GOP class of 2011 has been to introduce a set of anti-choice legislation at the state and federal level that would redefine rape; defund Planned Parenthood; force women to listen to ultrasounds prior to getting an abortion; omit exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother; and provide funding for organizations that tell women (falsely) that getting an abortion can lead to breast cancer or suicide. You know, small government stuff.

The dominant theme in Republican politics for the last two years hasn't been jobs and small government; it's been opposition to Barack Obama, period. The grassroots conservative critique of the Obama administration stems from a set of social and economic values that are deeply intertwined. The notion that religious conservatives are suddenly resurgent rests on the flawed assumption that they ever really went away.