Mojo - September 2012

Bloggingheads: 47 Percent Edition

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 4:32 PM EDT

In this week's episode of Adamize over at Bloggingheads, the American Spectator's John Tabin and I discuss the content of the video of a private Mitt Romney fundraiser published by Mother Jones, Romney's remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes, his views on the two state solution, and the protests at American embassies all over the Middle East:

One thing I wish I had emphasised more during our discussion about peace between Israelis and Palestinians is that the entire premise of Romney's remarks—that the all Israelis want peace and all the Palestinians don'tis false. After all, the entire Israeli settlement project in the West Bank, abetted by both sides of the Israeli political spectrum over decades, remains a huge obstacle to peace and has undermined efforts to bring the conflict to an end. Romney's remarks assume no responsibility on the part of the Israelis at all for the absence of a resolution.

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The Afghanistan US Troop Surge Is Officially Over

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 4:01 PM EDT

This happened on Friday, to "little fanfare":

The American military says it has completed what it called the "recovery," meaning withdrawal, of the 33,000 surge troops it had sent to Afghanistan two years ago, more than a week ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline President Obama set for them to go home.

Here a few more numbers to keep in mind as we approach the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of US combat forces:

68,000: The number of US troops still stationed in Afghanistan.

117,227: The total number of Department of Defense contractors working in Afghanistan.

34,765: The number of US citizens working as contractors in Afghanistan.

9,355: The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since Obama took office.

18,553: The total number of civilian casualties since the war started.

1491: The number of US troop casualties in Afghanistan since Obama took office.

2121: The total number of US troop casualties since the war started.

$385,600,000,000: The estimated financial cost of the war in Afghanistan to the US taxpayer since Obama took office.

$557,300,000,000: The estimated financial cost of the war in Afghanistan to the US taxpayer since October 7, 2001.

Romney: Taxes on the Wealthy Are So High I Paid Extra

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Mitt Romney says that tax rates are too high—so high that he wants to cut them. So why did he deliberately avoid deducting charitable contributions in his 2011 tax return in order to pay a higher effective tax rate?

The Romney campaign released a letter about the Romneys' 2011 return on Friday, and says it plans to release the full return and a summary of previous years' returns late Friday. The Romneys, who are most likely worth more than $200 million, paid a 14.1 percent effective tax rate in 2011, less than many Americans who aren't nearly that wealthy. But they did so deliberately: The Romneys gave $4.1 million to charity, but only took a deduction of 2.5 million of that in order to make sure their tax rate stayed above 14 percent.

Forget for a second that Romney once said that paying more in taxes than owed would disqualify someone from running for president. The cynical answer here is that Romney deliberately paid more in taxes because he's "running for office for pete's sake." But his doing so undercuts one of his core policy arguments: That tax rates on the wealthy are too high. Not only that, but as revealed in the recording of a private fundraiser published by Mother Jones, Romney believes that those who pay income taxes are financing the laziness of those who don't, even though that's not a realistic description of Americans don't pay income taxes. 

Yet Romney just opted to shovel more cash to those he sees as irresponsible moochers, because paying an even lower tax rate might harm his chances of getting elected. The best part? If he loses, he might be able to file an amended return and claim those deductions anyway.

 

State Department Officially Removing MEK From US Terror List

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 1:31 PM EDT
MEK supporters in front of the US State Department on August 26, 2011.

After a few months of will-they-won't-they tension, the US State Department decided on Friday to officially remove the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, which the Iranian exile group has been on for the past 15 years.

CNN broke the story:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to notify Congress as early as Friday that she intends to take the [MEK]...off a State Department terror list, three senor administration officials told CNN...MEK was placed on the US terrorism list in 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992. However, since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf [in Iraq] "noncombatants" and "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions. The group is in the final stages of moving from a refugee camp in Iraq where they've lived for more than 25 years is nearing completion under the auspices of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.

The Paris-based MEK—which enjoys a solidly low level of popular support among Iranians—is also called the The People's Mujahideen of Iran, and was founded in Tehran in the mid-1960s as a synthesis of Islamic principle, left-wing populism, and violent resistance to the Shah. It has since been blasted by critics as a totalitarian, hero-worshipping cult with a history of engaging in indiscriminate mass murder (a particular sore spot is the allegation that MEK fighters acted as a death squad for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq). Today, the group is reportedly on the frontlines of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and has a long, bipartisan list of powerful friends in the US who pitch the group as the Western-friendly and pluralistic antidote to the Islamic republic.

The bizarro patchwork of high-profile advocates includes John Bolton, Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.), at least two Romney campaign advisor, Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, and ex-FBI director Louis Freeh. Some of these top supporters received subpoenas from the Treasury department last March during an investigation of speaking fees for pro-MEK events—something that could potentially amount to providing material support to a designated terror organization.

As I reported last year, well-funded MEK backers also received a lobbying assist from high-powered international PR firm Brown Lloyd James—a company that has something of a reputation for sanitizing the records of dictators with names like Qaddafi and Assad. (Other clients have included AARP, the state of Qatar, the Washington embassy of Ecuador, Al Jazeera English, Russia Today, Forbes, and the famous composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

Judge on Drone Secrecy: "Emperor Has No Clothes"

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 11:30 AM EDT

The Obama administration has argued that the CIA technically has not acknowledged the existence of its targeted killing program—despite the administration having bragged about it publicly on many occasions. The federal judges hearing oral arguments in an ACLU lawsuit seeking information on the program didn't seem to buy that explanation, according to the Washington Post:

But Judge Merrick Garland cited a speech this year by President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, in which Brennan said the government targets terrorists with drones, and uses the "full range" of the government's intelligence capabilities.

"Isn't that an official acknowledgment that the CIA is involved with the drone program?" asked Garland, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Stuart F. Delery, acting assistant attorney general, said Brennan's statement wasn't sufficient to tie the drone program to the CIA because the intelligence community has 17 agencies.

Garland said that the government was asking the court to say "the emperor has clothes, even when the emperor’s boss" says the emperor doesn’t have clothes.

As we learned with the Affordable Care Act, however, oral arguments aren't always indicative of how judges will rule. But the ACLU, which is seeking information on who can be targeted and when, does have logic on their side: It makes no sense for the administration to seek political credit for the targeted killing program while officially not acknowledging its existence.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 21, 2012

Fri Sep. 21, 2012 11:08 AM EDT

U.S. Army Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25 Infantry Division return from the firing range Sept. 19, 2012, at Pohakuloa Training Area, on Hawaii. Department of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth.

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At First Debate, Scott Brown Gets Nasty

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 9:52 AM EDT

If you hadn't been following the Massachusetts Senate race closely, the attack seemed to come out of nowhere: At Thursday night's Massachusetts Senate debate, Sen. Scott Brown (R) charged that Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren had represented the insurance giant Travelers in a case against asbestos victims. Far from being an advocate for the little guy, Brown argued, Warren was nothing more than a money-hungry corporate lawyer. If Brown's criticism of Warren's Native American ancestry was a not-so-subtle challenge appeal to identity politics, this attack went straight to Warren's political core.

Except Brown is not telling the whole story about Warren and Travelers insurance. The Boston Globe explored the case—one of Warren's only forays into corporate law—in detail in May and found a much more complicated picture. Warren had signed on with Travelers because she feared that a bad outcome could overturn an important part of federal bankruptcy law she'd long advocated for. One group of asbestos victims did oppose Warren and Travelers. But another, much larger group of asbestos victims were on the side of Warren and the insurance company. That's because Warren believed she was securing a $500 million settlement from the insurance company on behalf of the asbestos victims.

That's not how it turned out. After Warren, Travelers, and the largest group of asbestos victims won their Supreme Court case, Travelers reneged on its end of the deal and never paid out the $500 million settlement. Here's how the Globe's Noah Bierman explained it:

Though some asbestos victims still objected to the Travelers settlement, another larger group of victims was on the same side as the insurer - at least during this portion of the case - in seeking to have the settlement upheld.

The Supreme Court decision gave Travelers a victory, validating the legality of the 1986 agreement and the immunity it provided. But it left to the lower courts to decide whether Chubb [another insurance company] had a right to challenge the 2004 settlement.

That triggered another series of legal arguments that ultimately unraveled the $500 million settlement, leaving Travelers with permanent immunity from most asbestos lawsuits without having to pay the victims.

It turned out pretty badly! But it's not clear why that would make Warren a sell-out, as Brown suggests.

The beauty of this charge for Brown, though, is it's an incredibly easy charge to level and a complicated one to explain—which is why you should expect to hear a lot more of it. And true to form, on Friday, in his first remarks following the debate, Brown held a press conference to hammer home the Travelers narrative.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:01 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

the money shot

 

quote of the week

"I mean, if somebody here has a $10 million check—I can't solicit it from you, but feel free to use it wisely."
—Barack Obama, speaking to guests about donating to outside spending groups at a fundraiser hosted by Beyonce and Jay-Z. As the Huffington Post reported, the remark was "seemingly in jest" but also the latest example of how closely campaigns have flirted with the ban on coordinating their activities with outside groups. That rule is hardly ever enforced, though, and as Campaign Legal Center senior counsel Paul S. Ryan told HuffPo, Obama's comment was vague enough to not qualify as a direct request for contributions.

 

attack ad of the week 

This week, Mother Jones made waves with the release of a secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney making a pitch to wealthy donors in May at the Boca Raton home of private equity manager Marc Leder. Pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA Action has already pounced on one of Romney's most controversial statements in the video, in which he dismissed 47 percent of the electorate as entitled, government-dependent "victims" who will vote for Obama no matter what. After showing an image of a wealthy home and Romney's comments, the Priorities ad cuts away to a modest house as a narrator replies, "Behind these doors, middle-class families struggle, and Romney will make things even tougher."

 

stat of the week

More than 70: The number of dark-money 501(c)(4) groups, ostensibly operating as tax-exempt "social welfare" organizations, that the Internal Revenue Service is investigating. The groups can't legally make political activities the majority of what they do, although many make little effort to conceal their political spending, and the IRS has had its eye on groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS for several months now. Even so, the agency hasn't stripped a single group of its 501(c)(4) status in the past six months.

 

chart of the week

The Daily Beast and Center for Responsive Politics dug through tax filings to do their best job to piece together the interconnected world of dark-money 501(c)(4)s. The chart doesn't paint a complete picture, since numbers from the 2012 election won't all be released until at least mid-next year, but it does list known grants made by the groups and to whom they were given. (Obscuring sunlight further, a federal appeals court overturned a lower court's decision, in Van Hollen v. FEC, to require tax-exempt groups to reveal their donors.)

 

more mojo dark-money coverage

Romney Funder's Israeli Newspaper Buries Video Controversy: Sheldon Adelson spends millions on ads for Mitt, but tries to downplay the GOP candidate's gaffes.
Crossroads, US Chamber, and Other Dark Money Groups Notch Big Court Win: A federal appeals court has overturned an earlier ruling demanding that nonprofits unmask their donors for certain ads.
Liberal Super-PAC Targets Koch Brothers With Attack Ads in Wisconsin and Iowa: Patriot Majority takes the fight to the Kochs in the state that, for liberals, made them infamous.
Who Was at Romney's "47 Percent" Fundraiser?: Some possible guests at the $50,000-a-plate Florida event where the candidate cast Obama voters as moochers.
SECRET VIDEO: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters: When he doesn't know a camera's rolling, the GOP candidate shows his disdain for half of America.

 

more must-reads

• Sen. Bryan Dorgan (D-N.D.) joins the campaign finance reform cause. Center for Public Integrity
• Outside spending groups have accounted for close to half of all political ad spending, according to one analysis. MSNBC
More charts from the Daily Beast and Center for Responsive Politics.

Corn on MSNBC: Romney's Kitchen Sink Election

Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:33 PM EDT

With his campaign flailing, Romney throws in the kitchen sink. What is his campaign strategy? Does he have one...or five?  Mother Jones' DC Bureau Chief David Corn discusses Romney's evolution from a moderate Massachusetts governor to a right-pandering presidential candidate on MSNBC's PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

The Colbert Report Takes on Video-Gate Again

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 5:23 PM EDT

On Wednesday, Stephen Colbert took on video-gate again. This time, the satirist focused on the "secret" Obama video that has surfaced in the wake of the Romney fundraiser videos Mother Jones released earlier this week.

Colbert notes that Republicans are jumping the Romney ship left and right, but that "there is a new video that strikes a crushing blow to the Obama campaign—and it is everywhere, from Fox News to Fox Business News."

The video of Obama, which is from 1998, reveals that he favors "redistribution" and thus is... a Democrat. "He dropped the R-bomb! Redistribution! Which is just fancy talk for a black guy is coming for your stuff."