Mojo - February 2012

Newt Gingrich Erases Ronald Reagan

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 9:32 AM EST

In his latest campaign web ad, Newt Gingrich peddles some odd history. The spot—which Gingrich doesn't have the money to air widely—opens with a shot of water and then pans to show the former House speaker staring at the Statue of Liberty. (He's not really a huddled-masses type of guy, though.) And Gingrich narrates: "2012 is the most important election in this country since 1860." The issue at hand, he says, is whether to continue with "bureaucratic socialism" or "whether we will decisively repudiate an 80-year drift to the left: a drift in our news rooms, a drift in our collleges and universities, a drift with our judges, and a drift among elected politicians."

Whoa. So what about Ronald Reagan? Wasn't his election rather important—at least to Gingrich and his conervative comrades? (Didn't Reagan single-handedly end the Cold War?) And how were Reagan's eight years in office a part of that drift to the left? Or, say, the Republican revolution of 1994 led by Gingrich? It's as if Gingrich has airburshed Reagan and himelf from the historical record. And where is that drift to left regarding the Supreme Court? And the rise of Fox News doesn't really fit in with said drift. 

Gingrich likes to point out that he used to be a historian (such as when he was first accused of being a paid influence-peddler for Freddie Mac). But this rendering of faux history is just another demagogic exercise of pandering to the right. Perhaps he can blame his puny campaign bank account on this drift to the left.

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Your Daily Newt: The Case of the "Pouting Sex Kitten"

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 2:05 PM EST
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich holds up a copy of something that's not his 1994 novel, "1945."

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Gingrich's 1994 novel, 1945, presents a provocative alternative history in which Hitler invaded eastern Tennessee at the end of World War II. Most news accounts of the book didn't get that far, though. Instead, they focused on the sex scene in the novel's opening pages. But as Charlie Homans reports, that's really not Newt's fault; blame one of his co-authors, Jim Baen:

Baen's eagerness to secure a large audience for 1945, [Gingrich friend David] Drake believes, was to blame for the Nazi Sex Kitten Incident. Dissatisfied with the first draft that Gingrich’s new co-author, William Forstchen, turned in, Baen began rewriting much of the novel himself—including an opening scene in which a Nazi spy, posing as a Swedish journalist, seduces the American president's chief of staff in an effort to pry loose nuclear secrets. "Suddenly, the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress," he wrote. “She rolled onto him and somehow was sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders. 'Tell me, or I will make you do terrible things.'" Convinced the scene was the book’s strongest selling-point, Baen circulated an excerpt to political reporters and Hollywood producers.

The book, unsurprisingly, was a flop. As Homans notes, "When the speaker appeared at the Chicago Book Fair to promote To Renew America, Baen was reduced to handing out free copies of the novel to anti-Gingrich protesters outside, who tore the books to pieces on television."

Grand George Soros—Fox News Alliance Exposed at CPAC

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 1:06 PM EST

Photo by Tim MurphyPhoto by Tim MurphyShona Darress has it on good information that George Soros, liberal financier, scourge of the right, quarterback of the no-huddle offensive against all that makes America great and holy—the Sultan of Slant, the Maharishi of Misinformation, the Big Bopper of Bias—is secretly controlling the flow of information at Fox News. This might come as a surprise to some of you, given Fox News' fairly unambiguous vendetta against Soros and the progressive causes he helps support. But it is apparently the reality we must deal with, and Darress has the charts to prove it.

When I approach her booth (sponsored by the group "America's Survival") deep in the bowels of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and ask how she possibly came to the conclusion hinted at by her display, she quickly points to a smiling face on a poster a few feet behind her. "This, here: Sally Kohn. She's Soros-funded." Darress points to the next face, right below. "Jehmu Greene. She's Soros-funded." Although Sally Kohn is, according to Darress' literature, "the new face of Fox News," I've never heard of her; Green's role at Fox is as the token liberal on Sean Hannity's nightly program, a position that seems to exist solely to give Hannity and his panelists someone to yell at. "They're publicly owned," she says when I ask how Soros came to control the country's leading outlet for conservative news. "It's not that they went to Fox News and said we want to buy your stock—they just did it." The pamphlet she hands me spells it out more clearly: "Most likely Fox knuckled under to blackmail. Soros went after Murdoch's Empire with the hacking investigation against News of the World using the left-wing Guardian newspaper."

All of which explains why she'a hawking the bumper stickers that drew me in to begin with—red ones with "Bring Back Beck" in big white letters. "Glenn got shoved out because of Soros. He was outing everybody, wasn't he? He wasn't shutting up about George Soros! Soros didn't really like that." As for Beck, "He'll stay undercover a little bit longer. But the news is out."

Spread the word.

Update: Sally Kohn tweets: "I am NOT nor ever have been funded by Soros, despite Right wing assertions to contrary."

Obama Didn't Cave on Birth Control

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 12:56 PM EST
President Barack Obama speaks on his birth control policy Friday afternoon.

So did Barack Obama fold?

On Friday, after taking heavy criticism from Catholic groups and the political right over a regulation that would have required religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities (not churches) to offer their employees health insurance that covers birth control (with no copays), President Barack Obama went on live television to announce a shift. Now, insurance companies will have to offer employees of religious organizations the birth control coverage directly, without charging extra for it. (The details of the new birth control coverage plan are here.)

Some media outlets will no doubt call this a surrender by the president. But it's not. Here's why:

  • Everyone who was going to get birth control coverage before will still have access to it. Employees of Catholic schools and hospitals aren't always Catholic, and most sexually active women who aren't trying to get pregnant use birth control. The new rule will not allow the religious views of the leadership of religiously-affiliated organizations to dictate whether birth control is provided to their employees. The intent of the first version of the rule was to make birth control easier to get. The new rule will achieve that goal. "No woman's health should depend on who she is, where she works, or how much money she makes," Obama said in his statement. This policy ensures that.
  • The coverage will still feature no copayments. The insurance companies that are being required to offer birth control coverage directly to the employees of religious organizations will have to offer it for free. There will be no difference in cost between the plan that covers birth control and the plan that doesn't. The Obama administration justifies this by noting that studies suggest that covering birth control is cost-neutral or even saves money for health insurers because it's cheaper than pregnancy; it spaces out pregnancies, leading to healthier kids, and has other beneficial health effects.
  • The policy change still won't satisfy the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposed the birth control provision from the start. It's not a cave if your opponents aren't getting what they actually want. What the bishops desire is for the entire birth control rule to be repealed. They believe that no employer—religious affiliation or not—should be required to offer birth control coverage. UPDATE, Friday 3:45 EST: The bishops have released a statement on the policy change that says they're "studying" it and it's a "first step in the right direction." It's unclear whether they'll ultimately retreat from their original position or simply say this attempt is a good step but not sufficient. 
  • The most important reproductive rights groups—Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and so on—all support the policy shift. You can bet that these politically savvy groups would be hollering to high heaven if they thought that women had been betrayed.
  • This whole scuffle was an intriguing policy dilemma, pitting women's health advocates versus faith leaders waving the banner of religious freedom. But with this move, Obama has demonstrated that it's possible to sidestep the red-hot politics of the dispute and work out a reasonable policy outcome that's backed by reproductive rights groups and the Catholic Health Association. It's not likely, though, that the social conservatives who have bashed Obama as an implacable foe of religious freedom will give it a rest.

Details of the White House "Accommodation" on Birth Control Rule

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 11:25 AM EST

The White House will change its policy requiring employers to offer health insurance coverage to their employees that covers birth control at no cost. Previously, religiously affiliated employers other than churches—such as Catholic universities and hospitals—would have been required to offer the insurance to their employees. Now, according to senior White House officials, if a religious employer has a religious objection to providing birth control coverage, insurance companies will be required to offer the insurance featuring free birth control directly to the employees.

Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, the two most important reproductive rights organizations in the US, both support the White House's compromise, which ensures that women who work for religious organizations other than churches will have access to birth control without a copay. Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, the main Catholic hospitals group, also supports the deal. Keehan and the CHA were key supporters of Obama's health care reform legislation, which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed as written. 

Obama's plan is unlikely to win the support of the bishops. In September 2010, when the policy was first being developed, the USCCB wrote a letter opposing requiring any employer—not just religious ones—to offer birth control coverage. Anthony Picarello, the USCCB general counsel who signed the letter, told USA Today on Wednesday that the bishops still oppose the entire policy.

Picarello told USA Today the bishops are worried about the problems the law creates for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this," and noted that if he opened a Taco Bell, he'd be forced to offer birth control to his employees. Only something like Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) "Religious Freedom Restoration Act"—which would allow any employer, not just religious ones, to cite a religious objection and thereby avoid covering birth control—is likely to satisfy the bishops on this front.

Here's the full text of the White House's fact sheet on its decision:

White House Seeking "Compromise" On Birth Control

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 9:05 AM EST

The White House is looking to "compromise" on broadening the religious exemption to its mandate that employers must offer insurance plans that include contraception coverage, following a week of harsh criticism from Republicans and religious organizations. 

ABC News' Jake Tapper reports that the White House's compromise could be premised on Hawaii's law, which mandates contraception coverage but contains a mechanism for ensuring that employees are covered while not making religious employers directly pay for that coverage. Here's how it works, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute:

The Hawaii law specifies that when an employer is exempted from the contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds, its employees are entitled to purchase coverage directly from the plan. The cost to the employee must be no more than the price the employee would have paid had the employer not been exempted. The law requires an exempted employer to notify its employees of this option.

Here's the thing: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has already said that this is unacceptable to them, because according to the National Catholic Register, this would still mean that religious employers "must directly send women to drugs and devices that are morally wrong and can do harm to them." (Millions of women use contraception, including the vast, vast majority of Catholic women, many of them for health reasons rather than preventing pregnancy.) It's also not clear the Hawaii plan is workeable at the federal level, as one administration source told CNN that "the federal government cannot compel insurers to provide a side-contraception plan."

The unacknowledged background to this fight is that, as my colleague Nick Baumann reported earlier this week, federal law has required employers to offer health insurance for more than a decade—which is why DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in America, already offers birth control coverage to its employees. Far from being an unprecedented "assault on religious freedom," the narrow religious exception here has ample legal precedent. As Michelle Goldberg has written, contraception mandates are in effect in 28 states in various forms, and the courts have ruled against challenges brought to those state laws. And in a 1990 opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia found that laws "neutral toward religion and generally applicable" don't hamper inviduals' constitutional rights, so the administration seems to be on firm legal ground.

Firm legal ground however, isn't the same as being politically popular, and despite the pre-decision polls showing that mandating contraception coverage would be broadly accepted, there's probably a reason the White House is looking for middle ground now. But that's the same reason that their critics seems unlikely to meet them in the middle on this issue: Republicans think that they have a winning political issue here, too. There's a political angle for the White House here too of course: In offering a compromise, they may not be hoping for reconcilation as much as an opportunity to make their critics look unreasonable. 

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The Best Swag at CPAC

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 6:30 AM EST

Forget everything you've heard about shrinking government, icing the welfare state, and giving poor children the maintenance tools to pull themselves by their bootstraps—at the Conservative Political Action Conference, everyone's just looking for a handout.

That, at least, was my conclusion after talking to the good folks at Procinctu, a firm that "works to arm you with the knowledge and tools necessary to attain self-sustainment, empowerment, and security." That entails a number of things—warning you against the evils of Monsanto, promoting the purchase of gold and silver, encouraging exercise. And purchasing, for $10, this t-shirt:

If that's tough to read, let me spell it out for you: It's a t-shirt celebrating corpse desecration (a response to this). No one's buying, though; mostly people just come by, snap a photo, and keep on walking when they find out it's not free.

Maybe that's because everything else at CPAC is free. Here's a very incomplete sampling:

The plot of this book—free, if you promise to tell three friends about it—is that Einstein was wrong, time-travel is possible, and our 16th president has done exactly that in an attempt to steer America back on course.

Redecorating your office? Looking for something for that special someone this Valentine's day? Enter to win a free portrait of your favorite GOP presidential candidate:

Of course, if you load up on hand-drawn portraits of GOP presidential candidates, you'll probably need a car to help you bring them home with you. And if you're going to have a car, you'll want a bumper sticker to go with it:

And if you're going to get rear-ended by the driver who took your bumper sticker the wrong way, you'll want same sustenance while you recover. Like a cake replicating the board for the "Tea Party board game." Its creator told me it was like a combination of Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. They offered me a slice. I told them I always have someone taste my food first. No one laughed.

In addition to handing out Chuck Norris t-shirts, our friends at birther hub WorldNetDaily are shilling for a presidential candidate of their own. But do they know he was born in the Philippines?

This is....interesting:

Pasha Roberts, the creator of the animated film Silver Circle, explained it to me this way: "Basically the plot of the movie is there is a severe economic collapse in 2018. There's a group of rebels who are fighting the Federal Reserve, and the way they fight is by making alternative currency out silver." Think Children of Men meets the Ron Paul Revolution. When I tell him I work for Mother Jones, he adds one more detail: one of the heroines of the flick is a "pot-smoking lesbian":

This isn't free, but I had to share it anyway. It's just a few feet away from a display of Ron Paul books. As I thumbed through this defense of colonialism, a Mitt Romney supporter next to me picked up a copy of End the Fed and held court with his friends: "This is what his freakish followers read. When they protest Romney events, they have a megaphone and they just read the book. It's disgusting!"

Runaway Slave: Run From Tyranny to Liberty, celebrates the exploits of African-Americans who have...embraced the Republican party. As the tag line puts it, the film "lays bare the truth about blacks and the progressive agenda. Get on board the new underground railroad!"

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 10, 2012

Fri Feb. 10, 2012 5:57 AM EST

Officers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team complete a team obstacle course on February 3, 2012, at Fort Bragg, N.C., during a Prop Blast, a traditional rite-of-passage for officers new to the division. During this phase of the event, teams must move the tire and a simulated casualty down a muddy slope, across a muddy slough, and up the other side. (US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

The $25 Billion Foreclosure Settlement: Breakthrough or Raw Deal?

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 4:06 PM EST

On Thursday, after months of closed-door negotiations, plenty of hand wringing, and too many leaks to the media to count, 49 state attorneys general, the Justice Department, and five mega-banks announced they'd reached a legal settlement over fraud in the mortgage servicing and foreclosure processes.

The settlement is worth an estimated $25 billion, according to the Justice Department. The banks involved—Ally Financial, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase—agreed to reduce principal home loan debt for a million homeowners while paying $2,000 to 750,000 more households that had lost their home to foreclosure. Crucially, the settlement doesn't entirely absolve banks of alleged wrongdoing, leaving the door open for AGs like New York's Eric Schneiderman to proceed with foreclosure fraud lawsuits of their own. Depending on whom you ask, the terms of settlement are a key breakthrough, a first step toward righting the foreclosure abuses of the past decade, or a total sham.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called the deal "an important victory for homeowners and communities devastated by the housing crisis." Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, said in a statement that the deal "will help build a stronger housing market while keeping more people in their homes. But while a significant step toward fixing the foreclosure crisis, this settlement was never intended or able to provide a comprehensive remedy. Much more work is required."

Some experts and observers, however, were plainly dismissive of the deal. Yves Smith, who runs the blog Naked Capitalism, rattled off 12 reasons why "you should hate" the foreclosure settlement, including the deal's overall price tag, the paltry $2,000 payout for homeowners, and her belief that the deal papers over deeper problems with property titles and the foreclosure process itself. "As we've said before," she wrote, "this settlement is yet another raw demonstration of who wields power in America, and it isn't you and me."

Then again, the AGs' foreclosure settlement was never going to fully address the myriad problems with the foreclosure process. Consider MERS, the industry-backed electronic mortgage registry that greased the foreclosure pipeline and enabled many of the dubious practices that led to the housing crisis. MERS has been in use since 1995; it's an entrenched part of the housing market. It will take much more than a nationwide settlement to tackle the many problems MERS has wrought.

There's also the problem of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their role in the foreclosure crisis. As myself and others have reported, the two government housing giants spawned foreclosure mills, the assembly-line-like law firms that skirted the law as they kicked people out of their homes. They also reportedly squashed a plan to write down the debt of homeowners who owed more than their houses were worth. There's no remedying the foreclosure crisis without reforming Fannie and Freddie.

The settlement, in other words, is far from a cure-all. Best-case scenario, consumer advocates say, the deal is just the beginning of a reckoning for the fraud and abuse that ran rampant. "Today’s announcement of the mortgage foreclosure settlement represents a step toward righting the wrongs committed by the banks," said Phil Angelides, the chair of the now-defunct Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, "but there are still miles to go. "

Marines Sport Nazi SS Flag in Afghanistan

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 3:37 PM EST

Marine unit's SS flag in Afghanistan:  Tayler JeromeMarine unit's SS flag in Afghanistan: Tayler Jerome

The Marine Corps' scout snipers in Afghanistan could probably use a safety stand-down. Just weeks after news broke that one elite unit of the forward-deployed Marines urinated on the corpses of dead Afghans, a photo has surfaced of another unit posing proudly beside a flag of the Nazi's killer SS troops. The Marine Corps Times reports:

The stylized "SS" logo appeared in a photograph of the platoon taken in September 2010 in Sangin district, Afghanistan, a hotly contested area in Helmand province. The Marines were with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The I Marine Expeditionary Force inspector general based at Pendleton was made aware of the "SS" flag photo in November of last year, said Capt. Gregory Wolf, a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters. The issue has been addressed with the Marines involved, Wolf said. He did not say what specific action was taken beyond ordering Marines to stop using the logo.

The photo in question is not the only one documenting usage of the logo: A second image (embedded below) shows the SS logo emblazoned on a Marine's rifle. The Marines' story is that the unit used the flag "to identify the Marines as scout snipers, not Nazis." The symbolic appropriation may indeed be unwitting, but witlessness is no more desirable a trait in downrange warriors than malice is.

Why is this making news now? Several Marines who were concerned about the photos contacted Mikey Weinstein (no relation), president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that watchdogs religious intolerance in the armed services. Their behavior, Weinstein told me, "eviscerates good order, morale, and discipline," in addition to angering non-Americans and alienating survivors of the Nazis' atrocities. He published the photos on the foundation's website and sent a letter to Gen. John Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, demanding punishment for the Marines involved. "That flag symbolizes the vile ideology of Hitlerian fascism and sends a menacing signal to religious minorities within the United States armed forces," Weinstein said.

Walter Plywaski, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II who later became a US citizen and Air Force veteran, expressed disgust at the Marines' behavior. "The photographs below roil my intestines and break my heart beyond words to express," he wrote in an email to Weinstein. "I wish I could really believe that these sniper teams innocently combined the view of the United States flag with the central symbol of the murderous SS!"

The Corps says the matter has already been handled internally. "Certainly, the use of the 'SS runes' is not acceptable and Scout Snipers have been addressed concerning this issue," Marine Capt. Brian Block told Politico in a statement today.

But that's not good enough for Weinstein. "We're hearing that they may have moved Marines from one unit to another, they may have reprimanded them, they may have given them nonjudicial punishment," he said, referring to the military's most lenient administrative form of punishment. "That's unacceptable. If this is not a court-martial offense, there are no court-martial offenses."

A Marine sniper's rifle-stock sporting the Nazi SS symbol: Military Religious Freedom FoundationA Marine sniper's rifle-stock sporting the Nazi SS symbol: Military Religious Freedom Foundation