Soldiers assigned to Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, brace against flying dirt and debris following the departure of a UH-60 helicopter at the Weesh border crossing point, Afghanistan, June 6, 2011. Photo via US Army.

The GOP's presidential contenders at CNN's June 13, 2011, debate in New Hampshire.

For all the talk of Sharia law and same-sex marriage and Coke-versus-Pepsi, Monday night's Republican presidential debate somehow avoided any serious discussion of the one issue Americans care most about: the economy. As MSNBC's First Read noted, apart from the usual empty rhetoric about tax cuts and deregulation, "not a single GOP presidential candidate offered a convincing plan on how to create jobs."

How can that be? Well, for starters, many of the GOP's contenders have yet to come out with credible, substantive plans to breathe life into the labor market and ramp up economic production in the US. For all their criticism of President Obama's handling of the economy, candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and even frontrunner Mitt Romney have yet to offer serious ideas of their own. With that in mind, it's not surprising the GOPers shied away from tough economic questions at the debate, and instead went on the offensive, saying Obama had "failed the American people both on job creation" (Romney) and that his economic report card "has a big failing grade on it" (Bachmann).

The one GOP contender who has laid out an economic plan is former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. If anything, his agenda has undermined his credibility as a candidate. There's his laughable "Google test," in which he said that if "you can find a good or service on the Internet, then the federal government probably doesn't need to be doing it." Does that mean Pawlenty would outsource national defense, education, prisons, food inspectors, and fire departments?

Even more dubious is Pawlenty's promise to increase annual GDP growth to 5 percent by stripping away regulations, slashing tax rates, and cutting spending. Pawlenty pointed to both the Reagan and Clinton administrations as evidence that 5 percent is a realistic goal. In fact, Reagan and Clinton enjoyed economic growth of 3.5 percent, and in Clinton's case, the economy grew after Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, not cut them.

Exhibit A in how massive tax cuts don't help the economy are the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Slate's Dave Weigel recently asked Pawlenty how he thought tax cuts would boost the US economy, considering how miserable of a failure Bush's buffet of tax cuts were:

WEIGEL: "After the Bush tax cuts we got slightly less revenue, we got a larger debt. You're talking about tax cuts as part of a larger plan that will grow the economy, reduce the deficit over the long term. Why would that work when the Bush tax cuts didn't?"

PAWLENTY: "Keep in mind, our plan does not just cut taxes. It cuts spending. Big time. So as people look back to the historical examples, there's been other chapters where tax cuts have been enacted, and almost always they raise revenues if you just isolate the effect of the tax cuts. But I think they didn't fully serve their intended purposes, because at the same time, past Congresses and administrations also raised spending. That's not what we're proposing. We're not proposing to cut taxes and raise spending. We're proposing to cut taxes and cut spending, and if you do that we're going to grow jobs by shrinking government. We're going to grow the private sector by shrinking government."

With long-winded, vague answers like that, it's no wonder Pawlenty didn't go hog wild on economics in last night's debate. The Bush tax cuts "didn't fully serve their intended purposes"? What does that even mean? If cutting taxes for the rich was intended to shift more wealth to the wealthiest Americans, then by all accounts they did what they were intended to do. Since 2001, the average household income for the top one percent of earners has leaped from $1.1 million to about $1.8 million; for the middle 60 percent of earners it has flatlined. And as my colleague Stephanie Mencimer reported, people making over $3 million a year enjoyed an average tax cut of $520,000 thanks to the Bush tax cuts—more than 450 times the average middle-income family's cut.

Jobs and the economy will surely figure into future presidential debates more than they did last night. They have to. Americans demand it. But will we hear any legitimate plans from the Republican candidates? Don't hold your breath.

I told you last week about Texas Governor Rick Perry's plan to hold an all day prayer-and-fasting summit (called "The Response") at Houston's Reliant Stadium this August. The purpose of the event, according to Perry's office, is to summon divine assistance to lift the United States out of its doldrums. Apparently the event organizers didn't get the memo. Via Right Wing Watch, the spokesperson for The Response, Eric Bearse, told the American Family Association yesterday that the purpose of the summit is, in part, to convert non-Christians:

A lot of people want to criticize what we're doing, as if we're somehow being exclusive of other faiths. But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that's what we want to convey, that there's acceptance and that there's love and that there's hope if people will seek out the living Christ. And that's the message we want to spread on August 6th.

They're not excluding people of other faiths! Quite the opposite: they're hoping people of other faiths show up and find Christ. There's a big difference, really. Perry has invited the governors of the 49 other states to attend his rally. So far, only one, Kansas' Sam Brownback, has said he'll be there. Given the context—it's being co-hosted by the American Family Association, which is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-gay "hate group"—and the now-stated intent to proselytize, it's not hard to see why mainstream leaders are steering clear.

All the big names were on display last night in CNN's much-anticipated Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire—Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and more. And it was Bachmann who stole the show early on, officially announcing that she'd filed paperwork to run for president and showing off her reinvented, fact-checked persona. Forced to pick a winner in the debate, however, the pundits bestowed the honor upon Romney, the GOP frontrunner.

Nearly 100 political strategists surveyed by National Journal after the debate overwhelmingly picked Romney as the winner. Fifty-one percent of Republican strategists picked Romney, with Bachmann finishing second at 21 percent. On the Democratic side, 35 percent of those surveyed opted for Romney, while 26 percent chose Bachmann.

Here's National Journal's takeaway from the debate:

Republican Insiders thought that Romney was a winner tonight in large part because none of his rivals were able to land any blows that damaged the party’s nominal front-runner. "When you are in the lead every day your opponents don’t knock you back is a good day," said one GOP Insider. "Made no mistakes, seemed comfortable, and confident," said another.

Romney also won points when he was able to deflect criticism that the health care reform plan that he helped enact in Massachusetts inspired the national health care reform passed by President Obama and congressional Democrats. "Handled tough questions effectively, asserted his frontrunner status," said one GOP Insider. "Mitt didn’t take on any water, remains frontrunner," said another.


Democratic Insiders were not as bullish on Romney tonight but they concurred with Republican Insiders that Romney emerged from the debate without any permanent scars. "Romney acted like the front runner and resisted all attempts to knock off message; he's still the one to beat," said one Democratic Insider. “The level of debate was higher than I expected," acknowledged another Democratic Insider. "Romney did not win every question, but he did present himself as the front-runner in the nature of Walter Mondale. Steady and gray. Some may sprint ahead, but slow and steady can win this primary race."

Politico's Roger Simon also named Romney the clear winner in last night's debate:

Nobody laid a glove on him, not even for his flip-flop on abortion. Why not? Because they are a-skeered of him, that’s why not! He might not make them his vice president! Plus, he can buy and sell them. They are but dust beneath his $600 shoes. He could afford to be gracious, saying things like "the ideas Tim [Pawlenty] described are in the right wheelhouse." But nobody stuck one in Mitt’s wheelhouse, not even for chickening out of the Ames Straw Poll.

And they could have rattled him. Romney has a tendency to choke at big moments: His 2008 announcement speech was the worst of his campaign, his speech on religion was second rate and his PowerPoint presentation in May on health care was a joke.

Last night, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow did a segment on Mitt Romney as part of her run-up to the GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire. She gave Mother Jones a big shout-out, referring to a story I posted earlier in the day about allegations that Romney may have committed voter fraud last year when he voted in Massachusetts while claiming to live in his son's basement. News reports and research by another GOP candidate, Fred Karger, suggests that Romney was living in California, or maybe New Hampshire, at the time. Watch the whole clip here:

U.S. Army Spc. Manuel Calderon with 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division provides over-watch security atop a mountain during Operation Gwashta Pass, at Paktika province, Afghanistan, May 25, 2011. The mission provided additional security for a convoy that was traveling in the area. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. George N. Hunt/Released)

Monday's GOP presidential debate in Nashua, New Hampshire was the first to feature all of the major presidential candidates, plus Newt Gingrich, on one stage. The big revelation—well, other than Tim Pawlenty's affinity for Coca Cola—is that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is officially running for president now. Here's the video her campaign just posted online:

That's hardly a revelation, of course—Bachmann already announced plans to begin her campaign in Waterloo, Iowa later this month. What was noteworthy was the way she did it.

As Kevin Drum notes, there was barely a trace of the Michele Bachmann who once called for an investigation into President Obama's anti-American agenda, or suggested that breast cancer would be an opportunity for singer Melissa Etheridge to quit being a lesbian. Sure, Bachmann suggested the Environmental Protection Agency be renamed "the job-killing agency of America," but when you consider her previous suggestion that sustainable development is some sort of socialist plot, that actually seems kind of tame.

Bachmann said she supported the Federal Defense of Marriage Act but wouldn't interfere in state-level same-sex marriage battles as president. She managed to hold off on dropping the kind of incendiary quotes—say, that homosexuality is a direct product of child abuse—that have been a hallmark of her political career. This was, in other words, Michele Bachmann 2.0, a less fire-breathing, more policy-oriented kind of candidate than the congresswoman that hit the tea party circuit last summer.

Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man on January 1, 2009, was released today. Mehserle shot Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. Bystanders videotaped the incident on their cellphones. The video of Mehserle shooting Grant, who was restrained and laying facedown on the BART platform, sparked an outcry that spread far beyond the Bay Area. 

A jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter and he served nearly two years behind bars, spending time in both jail and prison. A family spokesperson said of Mehserle's release, "We knew it was coming one day. But as it approached, there were more sleepless nights."  To many, Mehserle's brief period behind bars solidifies the sense that the criminal justice system will never move beyond its inherent bias.

For perspective, five non-violent offenses that resulted in a similar amount of time behind bars:

While we're on the subject of pizza tycoons, GOP presidential candidate and former Godfather's CEO Herman Cain was asked yesterday how he'd approach his duties as Commander in Chief if elected. Would his lack of experience and professed ignorance of foreign policy issues be a problem? It would not be a problem, Cain says. Per the Daily Caller:

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza running for president, said he's suited to make hard foreign policy decisions because he made tough calls as a businessman.

"When I first became president of Godfather's Pizza, there was a very dangerous part of town in the black community where I wouldn't allow my restaurants to deliver because we had kids beat, robbed," he said in an interview outside a pizza joint here Sunday.

"And I said 'if I won't send my son over there, I'm not going to send someone else's son or daughter over there.' Last week in Omaha, Nebraska, that same neighborhood that I wouldn't deliver in—that they are delivering in now—a Pizza Hut driver was killed."

As it happens, many of the places American troops are deployed are places where American parents wouldn't want their kids to be. That's because the decision to enter a war zone—where the loss of human life is an assumed risk—is a lot different than the decision to deliver pizza to the wrong side of the tracks. There was a time where sending a teenager to Omaha constituted a daring military decision, but those days are thankfully over.

For Cain, meanwhile, foreign policy has quickly and predictably emerged as his most obvious weakness as a candidate. He has demonstrated (and confessed to) a lack of knowledge about the rest of the countries in the world, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody last week that foreign policy is "an area that I have not focused on because when I was doing on my radio show, foreign affairs didn't come up that often in terms of what my listeners wanted." Despite making support for Israel the centerpiece of his campaign, he was not familiar with the concept of Palestinian "right of return"; despite the fact that American forces have been in Afghanistan for more than nine years, he isn't really sure what he thinks about the war there. On China, he is simultaneously blunt and ambiguous: "My China strategy is very simple: outgrow China." On Sunday, Cain alleged that President Obama was raised in Kenya, which suggests that either Cain doesn't know anything about President Obama's upbringing but is talking about it anyway, or that he thinks Hawaii is Kenya.

This wouldn't be such a big deal, except Cain believes that, more than any other living American, he is most qualified to serve as Commander in Chief. That's looking like a tough sell.

Did Mitt Romney commit voter fraud when he cast a ballot for Scott Brown in last year's special election in Massachusetts? On Monday, one of his lesser known opponents for the GOP presidential nomination, Fred Karger, filed a complaint with Massachusetts state election officials alleging that he voted for Brown, as well as in other Massachusetts elections, when he was not in fact a resident of the Bay State.

In his complaint, Karger lays out a chronology of Romney's real estate moves since his failed presidential bid in 2008. According to Karger's timetable, Romney and his wife, Ann, bought a $12.5 million home in La Jolla, California, in May 2008. ("I wanted to be where I could hear the waves," Romney told the AP of his move to the West Coast.) Thereafter, Romney became a regular at California political events, even campaigning for Meg Whitman during her gubernatorial bid. A year later, in April 2009, the Romneys sold their home in Belmont, Massachusetts, for $3.5 million, and registered to vote from an address in the basement of an 8,000 square-foot Belmont manse owned by their son Tagg. But where the Romneys really lived these past couple of years seems to be a bit of a mystery. While Romney was appearing at so many California political events people were speculating he was going to run for office there, the National Journal reported in May 2009 that the Romneys had made their primary residence a $10 million estate in New Hampshire.

The discrepancies in the news coverage prompted Karger to take a closer look, in part because he found it dubious that a guy worth $500 million would really be living in his son's basement. Investigating this mystery was right up Karger's alley. He spent 30 years working for one of California’s preeminent GOP consulting firms, doing opposition research for candidates, as well as the tobacco industry, so he has plenty of experience digging up dirt on political adversaries.

Fraudulent voter registration in Massachusetts carries a penalty of $10,000 and up to five years in jail. And the law in Massachusetts is pretty clear about the residency requirements needed to vote in the state. The state defines residence as "where a person dwells and which is the center of his domestic, social, and civil life."

Using that definition, Karger spent some time interviewing Belmont residents, including members of the Romneys' local Mormon Temple, where they’d been regulars, and asked people when they’d last seen the the former Massachusetts governor or his wife around town. The local fishmonger told Karger, "They flew the coop. They moved to California. I haven’t seen Mrs. Romney in over two years, and she used to come in here all the time." Likewise, churchgoers used to worshiping with the Romneys told Karger that they also hadn't seen the Romneys in a couple years. Yet the Romneys continued to vote in Massachusetts, including in the January 2010 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Karger says he even received personal confirmation from Ann Romney about the couple's living arrangments. In April, Karger says he ran into her in Las Vegas at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, where Mitt was speaking. According to Karger, Ann told him they are living in California.

In July 2010, the Romneys bought an $895,000 attached townhouse in Belmont, on the grounds of the McLean Mental Hospital, a move that finally gave Mitt a permanent Massachusetts address. Karger has asked the state to open an investigation into the Romneys' residency, as well as into whether they’ve been paying Massachusetts income taxes. The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Residency issues have plagued Mitt Romney in the past. When he campaigned for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he ran into trouble because he had switched his residency to Utah three years earlier when he moved to Park City to take over the struggling Salt Lake Olympic operation. The move technically made him ineligible to run for office in Massachusetts, which requires seven years of continuous state residency before a candidate is eligible to run. After a lot of legal wrangling and paying back taxes, he was finally allowed on the ballot.

Karger, meanwhile, has a history of tormenting Romney. As the first openly gay Republican to seek the party's presidential nomination, Karger has taken aim at his opponents' stand on gay rights from the start. But Romney has also proven a useful stand-in for the Mormon Church, which Karger has never forgiven for funding California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in the state. Karger was instrumental in exposing the church's involvement in getting the initiative on the ballot and ultimately passed.

Last year, during Romney’s book tour, Karger organized protests at tour stops and ran ads calling on Romney to ask the Mormon church to abandon its involvement in the anti-gay marriage fight. On MSNBC in April, Karger declared himself the "anti-Romney candidate," and said he "plans to run a campaign specifically designed to throw a wrench into Romney's run." With Monday's complaint, Karger's certainly living up to his campaign pledge.