Mojo - November 2011

Will Democrats Declare War on Jan Brewer?

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 5:50 PM EDT
Rep. Steve Israel

Earlier this week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared war on the state's Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), a non-partisan entity created in 2000 to remove state lawmakers from the redistricting process. In a special session on Tuesday, Brewer and Republicans in the state Senate forced a vote—which passed, 21-6—to remove the commission's independent chairwoman. 

The IRC's map creates four GOP-friendly districts, two Democrat-friendly ones, and three toss-ups. At first glance, it looks like a pretty good deal for Republicans. Brewer's beef: That the commission drew several voting districts in shapes that "are not geographically compact and contiguous…do not respect communities of interest, and…were not drawn using visible geographic features." Brewer also charges that the IRC's independent chairwoman, Colleen Mathis, violated existing Arizona law by privately negotiating to award a mapping contract to a firm with ties to the Democratic Party.

Those allegations could turn out to be true. But Brewer's decision to nuke the commission before letting legal proceedings take their course suggests that she wants to dismantle it for political—rather than legal—reasons. Brewer is annoyed that the commission's map pits incumbent Republican Congressmen Ben Quayle and David Schwiekert against each other in next year's elections. That's not really a fair complaint: the IRC isn't allowed to use the addresses of incumbents when drawing its maps. 

Democrats, unsurprisingly, see Mathis' removal as a partisan power grab intended to give the GOP the power to make an already Republican-leaning congressional map even redder. On Friday, the Dems sent the strongest signal yet that they're plotting massive retaliation. The Washington Post explains: 

In a briefing with reporters Friday morning, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) responded to the unfolding redistricting war in Arizona by suggesting that residents attempt to impeach Gov. Jan Brewer (R).

"I think Arizonans should consider impeaching Jan Brewer," Israel said today, adding that he knew the situation well because he has family in the state.... "We will push every button, we will use every strategy, we will appeal to any fair court to redress this trampling of a fair and independent process," Israel declared. "Instead of impeaching the highly regarded, truly independent leader of that body, that Republicans and Democrats agreed upon, Gov. Brewer ought to think about impeaching herself."

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Herman Cain: "I'm Going to Be President"

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 4:17 PM EDT
2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain

GOP presidential contender Herman Cain didn't sing, but on Friday he ended his difficult week on a high note when he appeared before an adoring crowd at the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) "Defending the American Dream" summit in Washington, DC. There, he proved that even under a cloud of scandal, rival Mitt Romney can't lay a glove on him when it comes to likability. Cain spoke in the cavernous ballroom of the DC convention center, where he was met with ecstatic cries of support. The first words out of his mouth: "Whose teleprompters are these?" It was a major dig at Romney, who'd spoken a few minutes earlier in a stilted, sober, and tepidly received speech delivered responsibly and carefully from the teleprompters. Cain, unprompted, did an admirable job of making Romney look like something of a nerd, highlighting the real obstacles Romney still has in securing the GOP nomination and ultimately winning the White House.

While Romney delivered canned jokes and policy prescriptions that sounded straight out of Al Gore's playbook circa 1996 ("We've got to combine federal agencies!"), Cain demonstrated that he's never more comfortable than in front of a big crowd. He brushed off the week's brew of scandalous allegations that he may have sexually harassed several women who worked for him at the National Restaurant Association, explaining that such dirt-throwing is to be expected "when you are at the top." The crowd went wild. Cain distinguished himself as a businessman, not a politician, emphasizing his outsider status. "Politicians want to propose…stuff," he said. "I want to get things done!"

Cain also took some jabs at the media—a guaranteed conservative crowd-pleaser. Referring to Thursday's New York Times story suggesting close ties between the Koch brothers (oil company magnates whose money was also behind the AFP summit), Cain looked amused at the notion that somehow his relationship with the Kochs was some sort of state secret. "I'm proud to know the Koch brothers," Cain said. "I am the Koch brothers brother from another mother!"

The performance was a far cry from how Cain spent Monday morning, the day after the sexual harassment allegations broke and he was slated to speak at the American Enterprise Institute about his "9-9-9" tax plan. At AEI, Cain looked beleaguered, and the format didn't work to his motivational-speaking strengths. He was pained to provide specific and detailed answers about his tax proposal, even though he was appearing before a room of serious policy wonks. And he seemed artificially insulated by moderator rules that prevented the reporters in the audience from asking Cain any questions about the scandal, a situation that didn't help bolster his credibility on the issue.

The story has unfolded all week, with more details emerging every day about alleged sexual advances he made toward female ex-employees. But Cain seems to have taken a cue from Bill Clinton and bounced back, at least publicly, and his supporters don't seemed to have wavered as a result, if the crowd at the AFP summit was any indication.

Of course, right-wingers love rallying behind any conservative who they see as under siege by the liberal media. But it was hard not to wonder how Romney was going to compete with Cain. The two are now virtually tied in most polls. Romney may have all the money and ground organization and  lots more political experience, but Cain has the fundamental element that Romney lacks: likability. Cain is truly funny, even if you don't agree with him. And he knows how to rally his troops.

I've seen Romney address similar crowds now a handful of times in the past two years, and he never, ever seems to hit the mark and connect with the people in the audience. I used to think it was because the evangelicals didn't like him. Several of his speeches I've watched have been at the Values Voter summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, so the crowd tends to skew heavily religious. But the audience on Friday was more of a fiscal-conservative crowd. They are the people bused in to tea party rallies and anti-health care reform town halls, who care a lot about shrinking the size of government and not quite as much about social issues like abortion. I thought Romney might strike a chord here, even if it was delivered from a teleprompter. But even the AFP crowd couldn't get excited over Romney's speech, not even when he endorsed one of their favorite policy prescriptions: the balanced-budget amendment.

Herman Cain might not have any policy smarts, he doesn't know squat about foreign policy, and there's that whole alleged sexual harassment thing. But compared to Romney in public, he is positively Reaganesque: an eternal optimist who exudes confidence in his abilities, if not necessarily his command of the details. "I'm going to be president," he declared Friday to a raucous crowd that sounded a lot like they really believed him. 

Sarah Palin Touts Union Cred—Then Stumps for John Kasich's Anti-Union Bill

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 3:25 PM EDT

With defenders of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's anti-union bill trailing in the polls and getting badly outspent by labor-allied groups, they've enlisted the help of one of the biggest names in conservative politics: Sarah Palin.

Palin's voice can be heard on a new robo-call urging Ohioans to vote yes this Tuesday on Issue 2, which would uphold Kasich's anti-union bill, better known as SB 5. Kevin Holtsberry of Columbus, Ohio, tweeted that he'd received a Palin robo-call on Friday afternoon. In the call, Holtsberry told Mother Jones, Palin accused President Obama of bankrupting the country and claiming Issue 2 would control spending in Ohio. Three others tweeted that they'd received robo-calls Friday afternoon featuring Palin.

Palin also stumped for Kasich's bill on her wildly popular Facebook page, which boasts more than 3.5 million fans. Palin burnishes her cred as "a proud former union member and the wife, daughter, and sister of union members," and then tells Ohioans to back Kasich's bill to ban public-worker strikes and curb collective bargaining for 350,000 public workers, among other reforms.

Here's her full statement:

OHIO'S ISSUE 2

As a proud former union member and the wife, daughter, and sister of union members, I’m encouraging you to learn the facts about Issue 2 in Ohio. To the hard working, patriotic, selfless union brothers and sisters in Ohio and throughout our country: I believe that Issue 2 is needed reform. It will help restore fairness to Ohio taxpayers and help balance the budget.

As a former card-carrying IBEW sister married to a proud former Laborers, IBEW, and later USW member, I'm encouraging Ohioans to vote YES on Issue 2. Get the facts at www.BetterOhio.org.

Palin is only the latest celebrity, political or otherwise, to wade into Ohio's union fight. Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have said they're supporting voting yes on Issue 2, and former astronaut and US Sen. John Glenn appears in a recent ad for We Are Ohio, the union-funded group opposing Issue 2, urging Ohioans to vote no and repeal Kasich's bill.

Report: America's Pakistan Problem Is Worse Than You Think

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 2:15 PM EDT
The aftermath of a recent militant attack on a NATO oil tanker.

Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder drop a number of Pakistan-related bombs in a joint Atlantic/National Journal story.

Among them: Pakistani military officials have long feared that Americans have designs on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal—a suspicion exacerbated by the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. So Pakistan's nuclear watchdogs took action, making some strategic tweaks to how it transports its weapons:

[I]nstead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys [Pakistan] prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the "de-mated" component nuclear parts but "mated" nuclear weapons...

Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.

Are the Pakistanis just crazy-ass paranoid? Perhaps not: For years now, as Goldberg and Ambinder report, Delta Force, Seal Team Six, and Joint Special Operations Command operatives have been refining a plan to secure and "render safe" any live nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

As for recent claims by Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the "Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency":

A 2008 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the ISI was providing "intelligence and financial support to insurgent groups—especially the Jalaluddin Haqqani network out of Miram Shah, North Waziristan—to conduct attacks against Afghan government, [International Security Assistance Force], and Indian targets." By late 2006, according to the intelligence historian Matthew Aid…the U.S. had reliable intelligence indicating that Jalaluddin Haqqani and another pro-Taliban Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were being given financial assistance by the ISI (which of course receives substantial financial assistance from the United States).

Goldberg and Ambinder also report that Mullen was particularly aggrieved by reports that the Pakistani government was involved in the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad:

Sources we spoke with say the order was passed directly to General Pasha, the head of the ISI. According to one of the sources, an official with knowledge of the intelligence, Pasha was told to "deal with it" and "take care of the problem." According to this source, Mullen was horrified that his Pakistani interlocutors of many years had been involved in orchestrating the killing of a journalist. "It struck a visceral chord with him,” the source told The Atlantic, recalling that Mullen had slammed his desk and said, "This is old school."

CIA to Be More Careful With Its Deadly Flying Robots

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the CIA is reining in the use of its drone program in Pakistan following objections from other agencies, particularly the State Department. 

Among the changes: The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the US.

Drones are a delicate political issue in Pakistan, where the Pakistani government has long denied (and still denies) that US drone strikes are carried out with its permission. As Marc Ambinder and Jeffrey Goldberg write, US relations with Pakistan have deteriorated even further since the raid on the Pakistani city of Abbotabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed, and Pakistani citizens have grown even angrier about the fact that the US can bomb their country any time it wants. US officials, on the other hand, see the strikes as one of their only options for dealing with militants striking in Afghanistan from across the border, some of whom retain support from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency. 

There are basically two kinds of strikes the CIA carries out—strikes on specific targets and "signature strikes," which target groups of individuals the government suspects are militants. How does it know they're actually militants? It "tracks their movements and activities for hours or days before striking them." Which is to say, the CIA thinks it's getting the right people, but it doesn't always know for sure. And when asked, the government claims that the CIA almost never makes mistakes. White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan said in June that there hadn't been "a single collateral death" from the drone program in almost a year.

Third-party evaluations of the drone program say otherwise. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded in a report released in August that "at least 392 civilians" were among the estimated nearly 2,500 people killed in drone strikes since 2004. Then there's the first-hand experiences of Pakistanis who have lost family members as a result of drone strikes. 

This isn't the first time the State Department has sought to rein in the vastly expanded use of drones against suspected terrorists since Obama took office. In September Charlie Savage reported that State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh was embroiled in a dispute with Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson over the standards for targeted killing in places like Somalia and Yemen, far away from the active zone of military combat in Afghanistan. 

In its dispute with the CIA, though, State seems to have had a key ally in its argument that the drone program was harming the US' ability to convince Pakistan to help the US wind down the war in Afghanistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the new head of the CIA, David Petraeus, "voiced caution against strikes on large groups of fighters."

Vegas Nightclub to Offer Machine Gun Shootin'!

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

Sometimes, an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon is just an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. And sometimes, it's the inspiration for a sexy Las Vegas nightclub. Come December 16, Sin City's strip will get its latest gentlemen's club (website: vegasonfullauto.com), where the "champagne room" is a shooting gallery and the go-go dancers are NRA-trained range safety officers. According to the UK's Daily Mail:

The brainchild of Genghis Cohen, the impresario behind Tabu, an infamous club at the city's MGM Grand Hotel, Machine Guns Vegas is set to open on December 15.

Situated just behind the Mirage Hotel near the city's central Strip, Las Vegas's first "ultra gun lounge" will glamourise the use of firearms.

Guests will be taught how to fire weapons by 'stunning gun girls'.

"The world is now ready for a 'Gun Lounge,'" Mr Cohen says. "Stunning 'Gun-Girls' trained in gun-handling [will] look after VIP guests."

Now, in order to comply with a host of laws (yes, they have those in Vegas), Machine Guns Vegas won't serve alcoholic libations. (No word on whether it will turn away already-intoxicated partiers at the front door.) And presumably it's got a Federal Firearms License, a pesky requirement for people who want to possess full-automatic guns and other military-style arms. But, Cohen assures the Mail, "Louis Vuitton and Prada accessories for your guns and ammunition are available for purchase," along with paper shooting targets with likenesses of Osama bin Laden. The phallic firepower will obviously be provided to patrons on a rental basis, but you'll have to bring your own Viagra, gents. Sorry!

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Ohio Anti-Union PAC Gets Boost from Koch-Backed Group

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 10:40 AM EDT

Building a Better Ohio, the political group created to defend GOP Gov. John Kasich's anti-union bill and staffed by at least three Kasich administration staffers, released its donor list to the public on October 27. By law, BBO didn't have to disclose anything about the individuals and companies who pumped $7.6 million into its coffers (it still hasn't said how much each donor contributed), and it made a show out of telling the public who gave it money. But largely overlooked and unmentioned is a slew of contributions to BBO from the Koch-funded, free market advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

AFP, which boasts of having 1.8 million activists in the US and 34 state-level chapters and affiliates, contributed more than $28,000 directly to Building a Better Ohio's political action committee between September 1 and October 19, state campaign finance records show. Those contributions came in the form of in-kind donations that paid for phone banks, radio ads, consulting fees, robo calls, and office space—all key ingredients for getting out the vote and urging Ohioans to vote yes on Issue 2, the November 8 ballot referendum that will decide the fate of Kasich's SB 5 bill that would curb collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers.

AFP's Ohio chapter has also been active in the Issue 2 fight. It has hosted 13 "Taxpayer Town Hall" events to sell Ohioans on the benefits of Kasich's bill, enlisting the head of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy think tank, part of a national network of conservative think tanks, to talk up the benefits of SB 5.

This isn't AFP's first foray into high-stakes politics. The group was a key player growing the tea party movement and fueling the 2010 wave of Republican victories in Congress. It also ran ads in Wisconsin during that state's union fight this winter. David Koch, one-half of the billionaire Koch brothers duo, used a chunk of his fortune to create the group in 2004; his charity has given $1 million to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the group's 501(c)(3) offshoot, according to charitable filings compiled by the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America.

Texas Legislator: "Don't Try to Jew Them Down"

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 10:04 AM EDT
Texas State Rep. Larry Taylor (speaking) and Gov. Rick Perry.

Lest you think that the last lingering prejudices in American politics consist of Democrats trying to demonize black conservatives, Texas State Rep. Larry Taylor (R) offered a pretty compelling counter-point on Thursday. Via Harvey Kronberg:

During a hearing of the Joint Legislative Committee on Windstorm Insurance this afternoon, Chairman Larry Taylor was discussing delivery of quick and fair payments for windstorm victims. Unfortunately, to make his point he said, "Don't nitpick, don't try to Jew them down."

Without pausing he added, "That's probably a bad term" and then resumed his remarks. 

Probably! Texas Republicans, you'll remember, have a bit of a history when it comes to this kind of thing. Last December, conservatives activists, with a few allies in the legislature, attempted to replace Republican Speaker of the House Phil Strauss, who is Jewish, with an Evangelical Christian. As one one such activist told the Texas Observer, "[Jews are] some of my best friends. I'm not bigoted at all; I'm not racist." But—and this is a big hang-up, really—"I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office."

Kasich Allies Spend Big on Last-Ditch Ohio Ad Blitz

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 9:44 AM EDT
Screenshot from a pro-Issue 2 ad by Building a Better Ohio.

If the polls are right, labor unions stand on the brink of arguably their biggest victory of 2011 if they succeed in repealing Ohio Gov. John Kasich's anti-union bill, known as SB 5. The bill would outlaw strikes, make the state's 350,000 public workers pay more for their pensions and health care, and sharply curb collective bargaining rights.

But Kasich's allies are gritting their teeth and fighting like hell in the final days before the November 8 vote. As Greg Sargent reports, pro-SB 5 groups, led by Building a Better Ohio, are readying a multimillion-dollar ad blitz to defend SB 5.

Sargent breaks down the last-ditch TV barrage:

  • Building a Better Ohio—the leading conservative group in the Ohio battle that is partly bankrolled by private sector interests—has booked a total of $1.8 million in Ohio broadcast and cable time from November 2-8.

  • Restoring America—a shadowy group which is reported to have been funded by a single donor during a recent battle in Kentucky—has booked $448,000 in Ohio broadcast and cable time from November 3-8.

  • Citizens United, the well-known conservative group, has booked a total of $101,070 in Ohio broadcast and cable time from November 4-8. (A group spokesman confirmed the figure.)

That's a total of over $2.2 million. Meanwhile, a source close to labor's We Are Ohio says the pro union forces have booked around $1.8 million in air time, which means they may get outspent by at least half a million in the final stretch.

Those figures don't include spending by Mary Cheney's Alliance for America's Future, a shadowy political group based in Virginia that vowed to spend "over seven figures" backing SB 5. Cheney's group has been dumping misleading mailers into Ohio, which I reported on here. Also unmentioned: Make Ohio Great, an outside spending group bankrolled by the Republican Governors Association, and the advocacy groups FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, all of which are pumping money into Ohio to make up for the cash and organizational advantage of We Are Ohio, the labor-backed group trying to repeal Kasich's bill. We Are Ohio has outspent its primary opponent, Building a Better Ohio, by more than a four-to-one margin. BBO's late cash blitz won't really close that spending gap—but it comes at a time when such ads pack the most punch and can reshape opinions before voters head to polls.

Chuck Grassley, Defender of Truth: DOJ Edition

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 9:20 AM EDT
Sen. Charles Grassley, being vicious.

The Department of Justice has withdrawn its support for a rule that would allow it to lie about the existence of certain sensitive national security records. For the most part.

Last week, a coalition of civil liberties groups wrote to the Justice Department, raising concerns over the rule. Its basic parameters allow the agency to pretend that select records don't exist if they are requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was first proposed in 1987 by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese, as a way of helping the Justice Department avoid unintentionally acknowledging any ongoing investigations.

But the Obama administration hoped to codify that regulation into law. In their letter protesting the rule, the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and OpenTheGovernment.org wrote that it would undermine the government's integrity since, well, it makes it okay to lie. The groups weren't even asking for the DOJ to make more records available—only that it not pretend that these records don’t exist.

On Monday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a stern letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing that the rule change would lead to an increase in FOIA-related litigation and seriously undermine the public's trust in the government. Grassley also pointed out that the government can already withhold information by invoking things like the Glomar rule, which allows the government to neither confirm nor deny the existence of the records under request.

Apparently, Grassley, long the scourge of the Justice Department, still has some major pull. In response to his letter, the DOJ asserted—kind of passive aggressively—that it will axe the rule in question:

[T]he Department has taken a number of steps to become more transparent in its handling of records that are, by statute, excluded from the FOIA. Having now received a number of comments on the Department's proposed regulations in this area, the Department is actively considering those comments and is reexamining whether there are other approaches to applying exclusions that protect the vital law enforcement and national security concerns that motivated Congress to exclude certain records from the FOIA and do so in the most transparent manner possible. If the proposed regulations can be improved in these respects, we will work to improve them. We believe that Section 16.6(f)(2) of the proposed regulations falls short by those measures, and we will not include that provision when the Department issues final regulations...

These practices laid out in Attorney General Meese's memo have governed Department practice for more than 20 years.

While the approach has never involved "lying," as some have suggested, the Department believes that past practice could be made more transparent. Accordingly, as part of an effort to update its FOIA regulations and other aspects of its Open Government initiative, the Department took a number of steps designed to bring its handling of exclusions in line with Attorney General Holder's commitment to open government.

The Justice Department also promised to exclude certain documents from FOIA only when "absolutely necessary," to keep track of how often it does so, and, generally, keep the public better informed about these exclusions.