Mojo - May 2011

Donald Trump Plummets in GOP Presidential Poll

| Tue May 10, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

A month ago, Donald Trump led in the polls, his rapid ascent propelling him past established Republicans like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. But as fast as Trump rose in the GOP field, he's plummeted even faster, to the point where it seems his presidential aspirations are barely a footnote.

After leading an April survey of the presidential candidates by Public Policy Polling (PPP), Trump has sunk to the bottom of the field in PPP's latest offering, tied for fifth place with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Out in front are Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, with 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

What explains Trump's precipitous drop? Here's more from PPP:

As Trump got more and more exposure over the last month Republicans didn't just decide they weren't interested in having him as their nominee—they also decided they flat don't like him. Only 34 percent of GOP voters now have a favorable opinion of Trump to 53 percent who view him in a negative light.

Trump really made hay out of the 'birther' issue and as the resonance of that has declined, so has his standing. In February we found that 51% of Republican primary voters thought Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Now with the release of his birth certificate only 34 percent of GOP partisans fall into that camp, and Trump's only in fifth place with that now smaller group of the electorate at 9 percent.

Perhaps the tipping point for Trump was last month's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where Trump was a frequent punchline. It wasn't just the dinner's guest comedian, Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers, who used Trump for comic relief but also President Obama himself, who depicted Trump as a goofy-haired conspiracy theorist. ("No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than 'The Donald.' And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?") Trump's presidential aspirations still have not, and likely will not, recover.

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Health Reform Challenges: Why Judicial Appointments Matter

| Tue May 10, 2011 11:05 AM EDT

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals becomes the first federal appellate court to hear challenges to President Obama's signature health care reform law. The judges assigned to hear the cases were picked at random. Remarkably, the judges hearing the health care arguments Tuesday were all appointed by Democratic presidents—two by Obama himself, and one by Clinton. The makeup of the panel bodes well for the Obama administration, as well as for Neal Katyal, the Indian-American acting Solicitor General who will be defending the health care law in Richmond. But it also illustrates what liberal advocates have been emphasizing to the White House for more than a year: judicial appointments matter.

A few years ago, such a random assignment of democratic appointees would have been unthinkable. For decades, the 4th Circuit has been considered the most conservative in the country. Until very recently, it was dominated by judges nominated by Republican presidents at the urging of uber-conservative senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Though it covers an area with the largest African-American population of any federal circuit, the appellate court didn't even see its first minority judge until 2001. It voted against death-row inmates and sexual harassment and discrimination plaintiffs at a rate higher than any other court in the country, and was famous for attempting to invalidate popular but liberal laws passed by Congress, such as the Violence Against Women Act, which expanded federal prosecution of domestic violence and other crimes against women. The 4th Circuit even made big news a few years back when it ruled that the landmark Supreme Court establishing Miranda rights for criminal suspects was unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court didn't look so fondly on that decision, and it was struck down.)

Four members of the current court were nominated by George W. Bush, one by his father, and there's still one remaining Reagan appointee. The rest are Democrats. But as of 2003, the court was made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, with President Bush poised to appoint several more judges to the court. Now, however, thanks to four Obama nominees, democrats make up nine of 14 judges on the court.

Despite the lucky draw in the 4th Circuit, critics have long contended that Obama has not made judicial appointments a priority, a move that's bound to affect the staying power of his agenda. To be sure, the Senate has obstructed many of Obama's appointments thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's "just say no" strategy. But Obama has also failed to nominate judges to fill nearly half of the 100 vacancies on the federal bench.

Last February, a group of law professors sent a letter to Obama complaining about the slow pace of nominations, noting that by the same point in his first term, President George W. Bush had appointed nearly twice as many judges as Obama had. By the end of his second term, George W. Bush had appointed 40 percent of the judges in the entire federal judiciary.

Purists argue that the outcome of the health care reform challenges should be the same regardless of the political backgrounds of the judges hearing them, and that their determination should be based solely on the Constitution. But that's naive. Just look at the health care cases the 4th Circuit is hearing Tuesday. There have been two lawsuits challenging the law in Virginia, one by the state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and the other by Liberty University, both claiming the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The outcomes in those cases couldn't be more different. One district court judge, Norman Moon, was appointed by Bill Clinton. He found the law constitutional. In the other case, Judge Henry Hudson, found that it wasn't. He was appointed by George W. Bush.

Charles Koch's Assault on Academic Freedom

| Tue May 10, 2011 8:57 AM EDT

Billionaire Charles Koch, one half of the hugely influential Koch brothers duo and the CEO of Koch Industries, has splashed tens of millions of dollars to promote his freemarket, libertarian ideology. His charity has funded freemarket think tanks around the country, from the powerful Cato Institute in Washington. DC to state-level outfits pushing privatization and deregulation. Now, Koch is taking heat for a more controversial ploy: leveraging a donation to a major university in order to handpick college professors that agree with his worldview.

Koch's charity, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University to fund new hires in the economics department. But as the St. Petersburg Times reported, this was hardly a no-strings-attached gift. Koch representatives had considerable control over the hiring process:

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty's suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors—one retired, one active—criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.

Rasmussen said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. "I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' he said. "But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it."

Obama and Immigration Reform: Politics or Policy?

| Tue May 10, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Up until now, President Obama's commitment to immigration reform has largely meant one thing: enforcement. Unwilling to spend his limited political capital on a sweeping immigration overhaul when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, Obama focused on ramping up immigration crackdowns, deportations, and border security—all efforts likely to please his moderate and conservative critics. In a speech at the Texas border on Tuesday, the president is expected to laud his administration's achievements in enforcement and border security and pivot to an economic argument for more comprehensive reform. But given that it would be all but impossible to pass such a bill under the current Congress, Obama's GOP critics will be quick to jump on the president's move as purely political—and it’s unclear whether Latino voters will be convinced either. 

In a call with reporters on Monday evening, senior administration officials gave a preview of Obama's new immigration message, focusing first the White House's accomplishments in enforcing existing immigration laws. "Over the past two years, this administration has dedicated more resources to securing the southwest border than ever before," said one official, boasting of the swelling numbers of border patrol agents, the drop in illegal border crossing attempts, and decreased crime in border communities. "This is the most sustained and serious action securing our border ever in our nation’s history."

Obama is expected to use such accomplishments to justify a shift toward a more comprehensive immigration strategy, which his liberal critics have been demanding since the beginning of his administration. "We're not going to solve this problem just with enforcement at the border alone," said another senior administration official, who said that the president would release a detailed blueprint for an immigration overhaul on Tuesday—one likely to include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and fast-tracking legal immigration.

Obama will frame such an overhaul "as part of a strategy to 'Win the Future'" and bolster the economy, said the administration official, portraying immigrants as "major job creators," innovators, and entrepreneurs. As he's done before, Obama is expected to emphasize the accomplishments of skilled immigrants and the high-profile foreign-born and immigrant business leaders in the tech sector.

A renewed emphasis on the economic argument for immigration would be a welcome shift—not just for the White House, but for the broader immigration debate, where heavy enforcement tactics like Arizona's draconian immigration law have taken center stage. Though the Republican Party has moved dramatically to the right on immigration, business leaders like Rupert Murdoch and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have remained committed to a comprehensive overhaul, given the economic benefits of immigration. Even the Wall Street Journal's notoriously conservative op-ed page has played up the importance of America’s young immigrant labor force to the country's future economic prosperity. A focus on the economic benefits of immigration could encourage more moderate, pro-business voices to come forward to press for a comprehensive solution. 

Even so, Obama may have a tough time convincing his own allies that he's seriously committed to a fully revamped immigration system, as the Republican-controlled House essentially rules out any action. Pro-immigration advocates are calling for Obama to slow the administration’s deportation of illegal immigrants and ease up on other enforcement tactics—a move the president’s unlikely to make, given the White House’s pride in its heavy enforcement strategy. 

And though they recognize that gridlock on Capitol Hill precludes a major bill from passing under the current Congress—with even the popular, smaller-scale DREAM Act failing to pass last year—advocates may still be feeling burned from Obama's decision to put immigration reform on the back burner earlier in his administration. Instead, the timing of Obama’s renewed immigration push may give the impression that the move is largely a political ploy to win over Hispanic voters in 2012. Until Obama eases up enforcement and lays out a specific timeline to tackle immigration reform in his second term—with Democratic majorities in both houses to support his plan—he may have a tough time coming across as a credible immigration reform advocate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 10, 2011

Tue May 10, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Afghans of all ages observe U.S. Army Pfc. Loren Gaboni and other soldiers from an International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Police combined joint patrol as they interact with the village leaders. During the patrol, ANP and ISAF troops from the U.S. Army A Battery, 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team visited Baghoulmast village to assess their needs and to offer their assistance and partnership. Photo via US Army.

DCCC Urges Supporters to Protest GOP Town Halls

| Mon May 9, 2011 2:30 PM EDT

In their crusade to hit the GOP on Medicare, the Democratic Party is urging supporters to attend Republican town halls, bring protest signs, and report back to the party about what they see. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a campaign called "Don't End Medicare" that directs supporters to local meet-ups with Republican Congressman, suggesting that they bring signs that read "Vote Republican—End Medicare" and prepare themselves with Democratic talking points about the GOP’s "reckless privatization scheme."

Notably, the DCCC also urges supporters to "bring your camera and report back to us on what you see"—effectively asking them to turn themselves into citizen journalists who can catch potentially inflammatory or otherwise damning remarks by Republicans at their Medicare town halls. 

The DCCC's efforts build on a push by their liberal allies in recent weeks to hit the House GOP for passing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's drastic plan to overhaul Medicare. Republicans, perhaps responding to some of the blowback, have backed away from that proposal, but Democrats are unlikely to let the issue go anytime before the 2012 elections. 

Joining the Democrats are not only traditional party stalwarts like labor unions, but also groups like the AARP which have launched ads that criticize—if obliquely—Washington Republicans for wanting to "make harmful cuts to Medicare" as well as Social Security. But like the labor unions who rallied supporters to attend recent town halls, national Democrats will likely face questions about how much grassroots support their Medicare crusade is really attracting, as the pushback seems to be coming from national groups rather than local organizers.

 

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Navy Will Perform Same-Sex Marriages

| Mon May 9, 2011 2:29 PM EDT

The military establishment, it appears, is willing to drag congressional Republicans kicking and screaming into the post-Don't Ask, Don't Tell era. The US Navy has authorized its chaplains to perform same-sex marriages on military bases in states that legally recognize such unions. That news came in a memo from the service's head chaplain (PDF), dated April 13:

Consistent with the tenets of his or her religious organization, a chaplain may officiate a same-sex, civil marriage: if it is conducted in accordance with a state that permits same-sex marriage or union; and if that chaplain is, according to the applicable state and local laws, otherwise fully certified to officiate that state’s marriages...if the base is located in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, then base facilities may normally be used to celebrate the marriage. This is true for purely religious services (e.g., a chaplain blessing a union) or a traditional wedding (e.g., a chaplain both blessing and conducting the ceremony).

The policy's unlikely to have a significant impact on gay or military communities: There's no naval base, for example, in Iowa, one of five states (along with the District of Columbia) that recognize same-sex marriages. And until the DADT repeal is certified by the Pentagon, no service members are likely to be hitching up at the Washington Navy Yard. Not only that, chaplains who disagree with gay marriage on theological grounds are under no obligation to perform the ceremonies, which shrinks the pool of willing wedding officiators to virtually nil.

Bachmann Knows When to Duck the Tea Party

| Mon May 9, 2011 12:25 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) addresses the crowd during a rally near the U.S. Capitol. The ''Cut Spending Now Revolt'', staged Americans for Prosperity, was held to urge lawmakers to reduce federal spending.

You gotta give Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) credit: She knows how to work the tea party without getting too close to its fringes. On Monday morning, a group of tea party activists convened at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to "blast" Republican members of Congress over the upcoming debt ceiling vote. The tea partiers feared that House Speaker John Boehner and other GOPers would buckle and agree to raising the debt ceiling. The press release announcing the event suggested that the star attraction would be Bachmann—which raised the dramatic prospect of Bachmann doing battle with Boehner and other GOPers dubbed "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) by the organizers of this event. But when the press conference kicked off, a spokesman for the organizers revealed that Bachmann would not be there in person. Instead, she had sent a statement, which he read to a small group of reporters. Bachmann said:

If I were there I would tell you that I hear you and I agree: it's time to reject the debt ceiling scare tactics and address the truly frightening reality that our debt is at $14 trillion and growing.... Thank you to the Tea Party for not giving up the fight. Your stubborn determination to return our country to its founding principles give me great hope for conservative accomplishments in the current House of Representative and for even greater victories in 2012.

It soon became clear that Bachmann had made the right move by steering clear of potential photo ops with these tea partiers. The event was weird. It was headlined by William Temple, a tricorn-hat-wearing, musket-carrying Revolutionary War reenactor from Georgia. Temple has been featured in at least one documentary on the tea party, and he's a regular presence at tea party rallies in Washington. At this event, he was dressed to the hilt as his character Button Gwinnett, the second person to sign the Declaration of Independence. Temple's tin cup rattled as he walked to the podium. He thundered on endlessly like the Baptist minister he is—when not reenacting the war for independence, he preaches in a church in Georgia—lapsing in and out of a British accent and occasionally referring to his musket, which was leaning against the wall behind him with a flower stuck in the barrel.

While Temple called on Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceilling and ranted against "wimpy house RINOS who refuse to hide President Obama's Mastercard," he managed to truly get worked up over the move to end the ban on gays in the military. Tea party rallies generally have steered away from divisive social issues, but Temple showed no such reticence. "As a combat veteran, I know we don't have time to worry about the guy behind us," he warned. He took a brief detour from his prepared speech to greet James Manship, a tea party activist who regularly dresses up as George Washington. "Welcome, General," he said, tipping his hat. The General tipped his hat back, and Temple resumed his speech, which included a long digression about the evils of "females in forward combat roles."

Until now, Temple has been something of a outlier within the tea party, despite his frequent photo-ops in national media outlets. He's the (same) guy everyone wants to snap pictures of at a tea party rally, leading to the mistaken impression that many tea partiers like to dress up. But Monday's press conference marked his first real appearance as a tea party leader. He managed to corral a surprising number of men in suits for the event—people willing to talk seriously about the national debt in spite of occasional cries of "Amen!" and "Huzzah!" from Temple and Manship.

Another speaker at the event was Joseph Farah, the founder and editor of WorldNet Daily, a website that has been a leading promoter of birtherism (and continutes to push the conspiracy theory, even after President Barack Obama has released his original, long-form birth certificate). Farah was promoting his "No More Red Ink" lobbying effort, which he said would generate millions of letters from the grassroots to Congress urging House Republicans to "freeze the debt limit." Joining him was Brian Wesbury, a former chief economist from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and a CNBC regular. Wesbury argued that that the Fed chairman and Treasury secretary are both wrong to predict that failing to lift the debt ceiling will lead to a default on government debt. (Wesbury also wrote a big story in the Wall Street Journal in January 2008 predicting that the Dow would soon hit 15,000.) Also in the lineup: Daniel Mitchell, a Cato Institute fellow, and Bob Vander Plaats, the tea party candidate for Iowa governor last year and an anti-gay activist who helped lead the campaign to unseat three Iowa state supreme court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage. A South Dakota chiropractor who was supposed to talk about tea party fury over Obamacare was, like Bachmann, a no-show.

C.L. Bryant, a Baptist minister from Louisiana and a staple of tea party rallies (and often the only African-American in the line-up), echoed Temple's concerns about ending Don't Ask/Don't Tell and expressed deep disappointment with Boehner. "We did not give you the gavel on Capitol Hill for you to play nice with liberals," he intoned. The press corps was also treated to a speech from Manship, in his George Washington character, as he quoted from his "farewell address" and letters he had written in 1779 decrying the moral evils of debt.

The assembled tea party activists used the press conference to publicize yet another convention of activists planned for Kansas City, Kansas, at the end of September, called the Freedom Jamboree & Tea Party National Straw Poll Convention. The gathering is described on its website as "the ultimate grassroots event," akin to a “Tea Party Woodstock but without all the trash, drugs, and hippies." Temple said that the group is inviting all potential presidential candidates to come to the event and address the crowd.

Given that one presidential contender wouldn't even come to the group's press conference, it's hard to imagine that the next event will draw much of a star-studded crowd of GOP 2012 contenders. But who knows? If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be covering a press conference led by grown men dressed as George Washington and Button Gwinnett, and that reporters from news outlets like the Washington Post would be there taking the whole thing seriously, I never would have believed it.

Bachmann may not have wanted to stand in a room with these guys, but she was still concerned enough about their influence to participate by sending a personal statement that boosted the event's newsworthiness. It may be 2011, but men in tricorn hats still command that sort of respect.

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

| Mon May 9, 2011 11:36 AM EDT

Florida's loss is the Northeast's gain today, as the Department of Transportation announced that a major chunk of the high speed rail money that Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) rejected a few months ago will be redirected to the Northeast corridor.

The route, which runs from Boston to Washington, DC, will get another $795 million in high-speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration. This is part of the $2.4 billion that Scott declined back in February at the behest of his tea-party backers.

The line runs right through the Vice President's favorite Amtrak stop, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware. The state's congressional delegation is cheering the news. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and Rep. John Carney (all Democrats) issued a group press release:

When Governor Scott declined to accept his state's share of these federal funds, we said we wanted to make Florida's loss Delaware's gain, and that’s exactly what we did," Senator Coons said. "The Department of Transportation made the right call in allocating the largest share of Florida’s unused high-speed rail funds to the Northeast Corridor.

The funds will be used to make trains speedier, raise performance and increase passenger capacity. Of course, this isn't just about making Amtrak better; it's a decision that also has political implications. While Scott's tea party fans were pleased by the rejection of high speed rail money, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the move and tried (unsuccessfully) to sue to circumvent it.

Now not only does Florida not get the money, but residents will also have to hear from their friends and family up north about how great their train service is.

New Birther Conspiracy: It's a Trap!

| Mon May 9, 2011 10:33 AM EDT
President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate.

Since President Obama released his birth certificate two weeks ago—and perhaps more significantly, since President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden—the ranks of America's birthers have thinned considerably. According to a recent Washington Post poll, just 10 percent of Americans now strongly suspect that the President was not born in the United States; the number of true believers is even smaller.

But 10 percent of the American public nonetheless represents a fairly sizable niche market. So conservative site WorldNetDaily is still dutifully parsing the available evidence—a missing watermark here, a sloppy signature there, broken twigs everywehere—that might cast some doubt on the legitimacy of the birth certificate. Yes, it's promoting the most obvious explanation: the document is fraudulent. Leading the way is Jerome Corsi, a WND senior reporter and author of the new Obama conspiracy tract, Where is the Birth Certificate? (In light of Obama big reveal, Corsi's editor, WND editor Joseph Farrah, called the title "unfortunate.")

Here's the latest from Corsi:

A private investigator claims employees of the state Department of Health forged three Hawaiian birth certificates for Barack Obama to "screw with birthers."

Takeyuki Irei told WND one document placed the birth at Kapiolani hospital, another at Queens Medical Center and a third in Kenya.

The 57-year-old detective, who has been a P.I. since the 1980s, said he was stunned when he discovered that the purported copy of Obama's original birth certificate released by the White House was more or less an exact image of one of the forgeries...

Irei explained the state employee told him the fake records were kept in a vault in Room 303 of the Hawaii Department of Health. The room, next to the director's office, is well known and holds files such as the records of residents of the Kalaupapa leper colony on the island of Molokai.

Wait a minute—is President Obama a leper?

Anyway, it's not really worth sorting through this story, but the main takeaway is that the fake birth certificates originally embraced by birthers were actually planted by the Obama crew to undermine the birthers' investigations—and to set up the context for the release of the real (but still fake) birth certificate put out by the White House late last month. Is your head spinning? Suffice to say, the hard-core birthers aren't going away anytime soon.