Mojo - June 2011

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 9, 2011

Thu Jun. 9, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Spc. Joshua M. McLay, an infantry squad designated marksman from Cassville, Mo., assigned to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Cacti, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force Bronco, shows Afghan National Army soldiers how to properly sight an M14 rifle during Operation Stone Steps at Nangalam Base in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, May 31. Soldiers trained the ANA on various marksmanship and weapons training throughout the four-day operation. Photo via US Army.

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#PalinEmail: MoJo Goes to Alaska (Video)

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 2:59 AM EDT

Under "fearless" in the dictionary, see Corn, David. Back in September 2008, our DC bureau chief did what came naturally. He asked a question: Could he see then-Gov. Sarah Palin's emails? Spurred by the meteoric rise of this obscure Alaska magistrate-cum-vice presidential candidate, Corn filed a public records request with state officials in Juneau.

Then he waited. And waited. In the meantime, Palin became a cipher for our nation's red-state-blue-state complex (as well as its id-ego kick). News broke that she and her staff had done a lot of state business on personal Yahoo accounts, seemingly beyond the reach of John Q. Public. And even after she abruptly left office, the Alaska government threw up delay after delay on Corn's records request.

Until this Friday, June 10, at 9 a.m. Juneau time. That's when the state will release 24,199 pages of emails from the Palin administration, including some of those Yahoo messages to and from state accounts. Persistence pays off.

For an alternate definition of "fearless", see Bauerlein, Monika, and Jeffery, Clara. With Corn and his band of crackshot DC reporters ensconced in the Beltway this week, Mother Jones needed a way to get those email records across the country as fast as possible. So our hard-charging editors-in-chief asked me if I'd be willing to pack a bag, hop a jet, lug a 275-pound handcart of printed emails to a Juneau law firm, and scan the whole shmeer in (while hopefully reading some of it along the way) by Saturday afternoon.

Under "crazy" in the dictionary, see me.

Officially, the state government says it had to give journalists hard copies of the Palin emails, because it lacked the technology to make necessary redactions in an electronic file. That's plausible. Also plausible is the notion that they didn't want to make it easy on reporters from the lower 48. If, when I take possession of the pages and try to make them into PDFs, they're printed in 7-point Wing Dings font, we'll know which of these accounts was the most plausible.

In the meantime, though, we thought that this Alaska adventure was an awesome way to give readers a window into the investigative process. So even before Corn's reporting team starts zeroing in on the stories told by the emails...and before our web team ingeniously assembles a searchable database for you all to read the emails yourselves...I'll take you along for the ride, from maddeningly tight airline connections to Juneau activist crash pads to the presumable circus campout being planned by a who's who of media at the state Capitol Friday morning. We'll be posting blogs, tweets, photos and videos in real time, starting with the one at the top of this post.

How to keep up with the latest? If you're savvy to the Twitters, keep an eye out for the #PalinEmail hashtag, where our whole crew will be sharing its labors through Friday and the weekend. And if you'd like to ask me questions or see anything in particular covered while I'm in Juneau, give a holler on the email or the Twitter. Hit me up anytime: I'll be pulling an all-nighter Friday, after all. Or, since it's Alaska in June, an all-dayer.

Journalism: It's all about sacrificing the body!

UPDATE: Greetings from Alaska. My latest video:

Meet Obama's Primary Challenger

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Once it became certain that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) wouldn't be challenging President Obama from the left next year, as some liberals had hoped, it seemed like the president could look forward to smooth sailing through an uncontested nomination process. But it looks like the ride won't be without a small bump. Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry has announced his intention to challenge Obama in the Democratic primary, and he's going to start running ads Thursday in Iowa, where he'll be campaigning at a homeschooling convention.

Terry made a name for himself as the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, but even the pro-lifers there found his antics a little extreme (he essentially justified the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller), and they broke with him years ago. Since then, he's been a one-man anti-abortion sideshow, appearing at tea party rallies dressed in chains and a death mask, getting arrested at Obama's speech at Notre Dame in 2009, acting out granny-killing death panel skits to protest health care reform, and generally making a nuisance of himself.

But lest you think that Terry is a single issue presidential candidate, his ads will denounce the president on a host of issues—everything from Obama's position on gays to the Wall Street bailout, and from China to oil drilling in the arctic. Terry claims that he will be expressing what Republican leaders should be saying but are too afraid to. "I am simply saying what John Boehner or Mitt Romney should say daily; apparently they do not posses the courage or clarity of thought," he said in a press release announcing the new ads.

Terry is aware he has no hope of defeating Obama. "I'm not delusional," he says, in a video message to tea partiers. (He claims he was a tea partier before the tea party was hip.) Terry explains that beating Obama is not the point. "The point is to beat him up." He plans to publicize his campaign by, among other things, running ads during next year's Superbowl showing photos of dismembered fetuses.

This won't be Terry's first run for office. He's run twice before, once for Congress in upstate New York in 1988 (read a funny story about this race here, written back then by Mother Jones bureau chief David Corn). In 2006, he mounted a primary challenge to a Florida state senator who'd blocked legislation designed to keep Terri Schiavo alive. Both times he ran as a Republican. But apparently, he's still mad that the GOP not only failed to support his campaigns but actively obstructed them, so this time around, he's decided to torment the Democrats. Which is probably a good thing. He will at least give some of those poor reporters covering the Democratic primary something to do for the next year. If nothing else, Terry can be pretty entertaining. Check out Terry's new Iowa ad here:

Fact-Checked: Tim Pawlenty's Economic Plan

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 11:30 AM EDT

On Tuesday, Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty delivered the first major economic speech of his campaign, a plan to slash taxes, create jobs, and rev up America's economic engine. He dubbed it "A Better Deal." Too bad, as the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler points out, Pawlenty's plan had more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese.

In his "Fact Checker" column, Kessler picks apart some of Pawlenty's more sweeping statements. Like this one: "Our health care system, thanks to ObamaCare, is more expensive and less efficient." It doesn't take an expert to know that President Obama's health care reform bill doesn't fully go into effect until 2014, so how can Pawlenty lay the blame on Obama for today's problems? (Answer: He can't, at least not truthfully.) What's more, Pawlenty's own campaign cited a PricewaterhouseCoopers report (PDF) to support this claim. But as Kessler notes, that same PwC report says, "The law will have minimal effect on the cost trend in 2012." In other words, Pawlenty's own evidence directly contradicts his claim.

Then Kessler takes apart this Pawlenty claim:

"Five percent economic growth over 10 years would generate $3.8 trillion in new tax revenues. With that, we would reduce projected deficits by 40 percent. All before we made a single budget cut."

Earlier in the speech, Pawlenty said that Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s enjoyed near-five percent economic growth. So why, Pawlenty's thinking goes, can't he do the same?

Well, as Kessler points out, the average GDP growth enjoyed by both Reagan and Clinton was actually 3.5 percent, a more modest target. What's more, in Clinton's case, the booming '90s came after Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy. Pawlenty advocated the exact opposite in his "Better Deal" plan, calling for massive tax cuts. Kessler writes:

The last president to achieve consistent growth above 5 percent was John F. Kennedy a half-century ago, when the baby-boom generation was on the verge of entering the workforce. Now, that generation is heading into retirement, leaving fewer workers to carry the burden.

Simply on the basis of economics, Dole had what seems like a reasonable objective—and Pawlenty is close to not passing a laugh test, especially if he also proposes to slash the federal budget and taxes.

Another bogus Pawlenty claim: "The fact is federal regulations will cost our economy $1.75 trillion this year alone. It’s a hidden tax on every American consumer." In an earlier column, Kessler gave this statement two "Pinocchios" out of four possible, a disingenuous statement.

In the end, Kessler awarded Pawlenty's speech two Pinocchios, saying the Minnesota governor "pushed the envelope to make eliminating the budget deficit and boosting the economy sound much too easy, while relying on some dubious facts and assertions." That doesn't bode well for a candidate  who's campaigning on the message "A Time for Truth."

Ranger Than Fiction: Palin's Park Visits Draw Criticism

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 9:51 AM EDT

Sarah Palin's bus tour has been the subject of much chatter of the "will-she-or-won't-she" variety. But it's also raised the ire of one congressional Democrat, who yesterday expressed concern that National Park Service resources had been improperly used during her stops at historic sites.

In a letter to Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on Tuesday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) cited "serious concerns about the use of federal resources in conjunction with the 'One Nation' partisan political tour" that Palin recently undertook. "Many of the press accounts of stops included in this tour, which provided personal and political benefits to former Gov. Palin, suggest that National Park Service resources were made available to an extent beyond that which an average American family would receive," wrote Blumenauer. He cites press accounts of a private tour of Mount Vernon and other Park Service properties, a 10-person escort that included park rangers and the NYPD at the Statue of Liberty, and early admission to the National Archives. He asked what, if any, additional personnel were required for these visits, or whether staffers had diverted to accommodate Palin.

He also pointed to a passage in a Washington Post story last week that mentions the burden on the Park Service:

The bus tour has also required some planning and preparation by the historic sites that received her. Left as much in the dark about her itinerary as were the public and the media, officials with the National Park Service began preparing for a possible Palin visit when they began reading news reports about her planned bus tour.

The Park Service responded to the letter, telling Politico that Palin was treated like any other celebrity visitor.

National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said his understanding is that Palin received customary treatment for a visiting celebrity and that the costs of her visits were nominal at best.
"We see celebrities on a regular basis, it’s something that we’re used to," Olson said. "We give them a tour but we also try to not make it a big hoo-ha for all the other visitors. So it’s kind of standard fare if there’s a celebrity or two that show up we do a special program for them."
That usually involves rangers and interpreters that are on the job regardless. "That's why it's not an extra cost for us," Olson said. "We just try to make sure everybody has a good experience at a national park."

Yes, but not every other celebrity is using the nation's historic sites as a backdrop for a not-so-subtle-test-run of a presidential bid. Palin has responded, via Twitter of course, by mocking "Politico’s crack investigative reporting."

Herman Cain: I Will Only Sign "Small" Bills

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 9:14 AM EDT

GOP presidential candidate and pizza baron Herman Cain was in the great Midwest earlier this week to talk to the Iowa Family Leader, a socially conservative organization that's leading the fight in the state against gay marriage. Cain wasn't there to talk about marriage, though; he was there to offer up a bold new plan to rein in the runaway bureaucracy: if elected president, he will only sign bills that are three pages or less. Per Think Progress:

"Don't try to pass a 2,700 page bill—even they didn't read it! You and I didn't have time to read it. We're too busy trying to live—send our kids to school. That's why I am only going to allow small bills—three pages. You'll have time to read that one over the dinner table."

This is a nice little applause line, but it's not going to help change the growing impression that Cain has no idea what he's talking about.

As this nice Eric Cantor photo-op illustrates, many bills passed by Congress are indeed very long. Sometimes, this is because they're very complex pieces of legislation with lots of moving parts that need to be enacted as a package in order to work. Sometimes this is because they're the congressional equivalent of listicles, long appropriations bills that basically just incorporate an endless number of approved projects and programs. (Cain might disagree with that practice, but often those listicles fund things he likes—it's one of the ways we fund the military.)

But in every case, the size of the bill is dramatically inflated by the fact that the Government Printing Office uses a huge font and enormous margins, of the sort that even a writer's bloc-afflicted ninth-grader would consider a bit too overt. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, meanwhile, Rep. Cantor's killer visual was artificially enhanced by the fact that he insisted on printing the bill single-sided. And as Ezra Klein noted last year, the amount of dull but necessary legalese in each bill further stretches the text out by about 500 percent.

Indeed, as Marie Diamond notes, even landmark conservative achievements that Cain undoubtedly supports, like the Bush tax cuts and the USA PATRIOT Act, would have been subjected to a big fat veto from the Godfather under his three-page limit. The same goes for Paul Ryan's budget—or any budget bill, for that matter. Cain is essentially pledging that, if elected president, he will not sign any bills of consequence. Although considering some of his other ideas, that might be the best Americans can hope for.

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Obama's Real Deficit Reduction Problem

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 8:42 AM EDT

Put on the defensive for supporting Paul Ryan's drastic reforms, Republicans have been haranguing Democrats to put out their own plan to save Medicare. Democrats, in fact, do have a plan to rein in Medicare costs and make the program sustainable: it's called the Affordable Care Act. Problem is, the centerpiece of the ACA's strategy for containing ballooning Medicare costs has been under increasing attack—not only from Republicans, but, increasingly, allies who've otherwise been staunch supporters of Democratic health reform.

Politico reports that the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a nonprofit that supported federal health reform, is now turning against the new Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which will give a group of independent experts unprecedented power to curb Medicare costs. Politico's Jennifer Haberkorn explains:

For more than a year, the National Committee and other supporters of the reform law who didn’t like the IPAB were willing to put up with it for the greater good of the law. But in recent weeks, that support has waned.

"IPAB turns Medicare into a scapegoat," said Max Richtman, executive vice president and acting CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "Medicare will be forced to make reductions without addressing the rest of the health care costs."

The group also is concerned that it would be hard for Congress to overturn any decisions by the board; it would have to come up with an equal amount of savings to stop the board’s decisions.

Such opposition builds on a small but growing cohort of House Democrats who have turned against IPAB as well, signing onto a GOP bill to repeal the provision. The movement exposes the political vulnerability of a central piece of the Democratic plan for Medicare reform and long-term deficit reduction.

Though they may dismiss the GOP's attacks on IPAB as political grandstanding, Democrats are less likely to write off concerns from groups like the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, whose political action committee donated over $1.5 million to Congressional candidates in the 2010 campaign cycle—98 percent of it to Democrats alone. While rolling back any piece of the ACA will be an uphill battle—as the protracted battle to repeal the ACA's 1099 tax-reporting provision proved—this development should put the White House on guard.

Immigration Courts: Still Backlogged Despite New Judges

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 8:30 AM EDT

One of the many legacies George W. Bush bequeathed to his successor in the White House was an utterly broken system of immigration courts. At the same time the Bush administration was deporting record numbers of immigrants, it was using the nation's immigration courts as a dumping ground for political hacks who weren't qualified to serve on the regular federal bench. Rather than hire candidates based on experience, the Justice Department, under the guidance of former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hired judges based on political loyalties and connections. A crushing caseload combined with the highly politicized environment left the immigration courts suffering from high turnover among judges and a vacancy rate that had reached 1 in 6 judgeships. By the time President Obama took office, the case backlog surpassed 200,000, with asylum-seekers and other petitioners waiting on average more than 400 days for a hearing.

Obama pledged to do something about all of this, even while promising to deport an additional 400,000 people this year. The administration has been hiring judges furiously, adding 44 new immigration judges to the bench over the past year, many of whom were filling slots that had been vacant since 2006. But a new study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) finds that far from solving the problem, those new judges seem to be barely stemming the tide of cases.

TRAC is a nonprofit that compiles data from the federal government and regularly crunches the numbers to see what comes out. They've been tracking immigration cases for a number of years. According to their data, the number of pending immigration cases has reached an all time high of more than 275,000, and wait times are almost twice as long now as they were at the end of 2008. Immigrants looking for legal relief in California have the longest wait times, with an average of 660 days, up from 639 days just a few months ago. And the problem is likely to get worse as the Department of Justice's hiring spree comes to an end.

Juan Osuna, the new director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that the hiring efforts had come to an end thanks to a budget freeze. He estimated that the courts would lose at least 10 judges a year through attrition, and that the judicial crisis would continue. It's an especially bad piece of news for the Armenians in the queue for asylum. TRAC estimates that Armenians have the longest wait time of any nationality in the courts, with the average case sitting around for nearly 900 days. While the Bush administration might be to blame for screwing up the immigration courts in the first place, the current mess will soon be owned entirely by Barack Obama.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 8, 2011

Wed Jun. 8, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Soldiers with 1-14 Cavalry Warhorse, Headquarters Troop march through the morning dusk as part of their 15 mile air assault road march. Photo taken by Staff Sgt. Joshua Brandenburg, 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Public Affairs.

John Edwards Cheat Sheet: What Are the Facts, and Do They Make Him a Criminal?

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

This post first appeared on the ProPublica website.

First, a sex scandal, followed by a messy cover-up and an even messier fessing-up. The sequence has become all but routine in Washington.

But the criminal case against two-time Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is anything but run-of-the-mill. While campaign finance experts may not agree on whether the charges are merited, they seem to uniformly acknowledge that the charges against Edwards are unprecedented. Here's a quick look at why, drawing from the prosecution's indictment, the defense's expert witnesses and what's been reported.

What are the charges against Edwards, exactly? The government lays out its case in a federal grand jury indictment, which you can read in its entirety. Essentially, Edwards is charged with violating campaign-finance law for accepting large sums of money from two wealthy supporters. The money went to concealing Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, from his wife and from the American electorate, the government alleges.