Mojo - October 2012

Michael Brown Should Really Just Go Away

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 5:08 PM EDT

Michael Brown, the Bush-era FEMA director who resigned in disgrace after the agency's handling of Hurricane Katrina, has a lot of nerve. "Heckuva Job Brownie" probably should have retreated to the shadows and returned to regulating horse shows. Instead, Brown has made a point of continuing to speak to the press, including going on tour last year to sell his awful book. Now he's back, and he's criticizing the Obama administration for acting too "quickly" in response to Hurricane Sandy.

As ThinkProgress notes, Brown gave an interview to a local Denver paper in which he combined criticism of Obama's response to Sandy with criticism of the president's response to the deaths in Benghazi last month:

"One thing he's gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in...Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?" Brown says. "Why was this so quick?... At some point, somebody's going to ask that question.... This is like the inverse of Benghazi."

It's obviously terrible for Brown, whose failures in Katrina are at least partially responsible for 1,833 deaths and untold human suffering, to accuse the Obama administration of acting too "quickly" in response to a major storm. It's even more embarrassing that he's doing it in the service of hammering home a bogus right-wing talking point about Benghazi. One has to wonder why Brown even bothers. He would be better off if he just stayed quiet and stopped reminding everyone of his past.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama Dares to Say It: Romney Lies

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 12:46 PM EDT

Within the nation's rough-and-tumble political discourse—whether it be on the floor of the House or Senate, on the campaign trail, or in the newsrooms and editorial offices of mainstream media outlets—there is often a disinclination to use a certain word: "lie." It is a serious charge to render, and conventional pols, pundits, reporters, and media bigshots often shy away from it, resorting to other means of discussing a falsehood from an official or candidate. Common cop-outs include: "that's stretching the truth," "those facts are not correct," and "the experts dispute that." As the author of The Lies of George W. Bush, I certainly know that in many quarters calling a politician or officeholder a liar is considered a step too far, given that such an accusation is a judgment of motive and intent and, thus, an assault on character. (Remember the famous line from Seinfeld: "It's not a lie if you believe it.") In recent years, MSM factcheckers have found creative ways to dub a lie a lie. Politifact.com awards a "pants on fire" rating to egregiously false statements; the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler assigns Pinocchios to untrue assertions. Yet deploying the l-word is unusual.

Obama dared to cross that line with a new campaign ad. Entitled "Collapse," the spot targets Mitt Romney's over-the-top and recklessly untrue claim that as a consequence of Obama bailing-out the auto industry, Chrysler is moving Jeep production jobs from the United States to China. Romney, as I've reported, invested heavily in firms that outsourced (or exploited outsourcing) to China when he was leading Bain Capital. (See here and here.) Yet in the closing days of the 2012 campaign, Romney has been trying to turn Obama's strength (he saved Detroit) into a liability by making a phony charge about Jeep jobs. Numerous media accounts have noted that Romney is dead wrong, and Chrysler itself has declared this is a false claim. Romney, as is his practice, has refused to apologize.

So in this ad, the Obama campaign notes, "after Romney’s false claim of Jeep outsourcing to China, Chrysler itself has refuted Romney's lie." It's a bit of a glancing blow. The ad, which also highlights Romney's past opposition to Obama's auto industry rescue, does not use the other l-word: "liar." Yet at the end, it nearly says that: "Mitt Romney: wrong then; dishonest now."

In 1996, when conservative New York Times columnist William Safire called Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar," he sparked a media firestorm. (President Bill Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, said at the time, "the president, if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response to that on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose.") Since then, there have been few high-profile deployments of the l-bomb in Washington circles (except, of course, during the Clinton impeachment). Yet the reluctance to call a lie a lie (or a liar a liar) works to the advantage of politicians who do fib, prevaricate, and out-right lie. It is easier for them to get away with mugging the truth, if others are hesitant to use plain language in response. Obama's lie-charging ad might work because Romney has developed (at least among some voters) a reputation for shiftiness. But if Obama should not triumph next Tuesday, the real question may be whether he waited too long to wage this fundamental attack on his opponent's character.

Romney Super-PAC Blasts Obama With $20 Million in Attack Ads

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 11:05 AM EDT

On Tuesday, the super-PAC devoted to electing Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, unveiled its biggest-ever ad assault on President Obama. The group will spend $20.1 million on anti-Obama ads between Tuesday and Election Day, an amount that is believed to be the largest single-race ad buy by a super-PAC.

The ads accuse Obama of having "flatlined" the American economy in his first term in office, and tell voters the president will do the same with a second term. "If you don't jump-start America's economy now, your economy stays dead four more years," the narrator says. "Demand better." (View that ad above.) Restore Our Future's new blitz comes after the super-PAC dropped $17.7 million on ads in the past week, bringing its spending to nearly $40 million in the last two weeks of the presidential race.

Here's the transcript for "Flatline":

If you saw this line in the ER, you'd be panicked.

Well, this flatline is Barack Obama's economy.

23 million looking for full-time work. Middle-class incomes falling. Spending and debt exploding.

And Obama's second term agenda is the same as the first.

If you don't jump-start America's economy now, your economy stays dead four more years.

Demand better.

Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.

Restore Our Future's new ads will run in battleground states (with maybe one exception, Michigan), and nationally. Here's the breakdown: Colorado ($880,000), Iowa ($1.4 million), Maine's 2nd congressional district ($490,000), Michigan ($2.2 million), Nevada ($1.3 million), Ohio ($2.4 million), Pennsylvania ($2.1 million), Virginia ($2.8 million), and Wisconsin ($1.6 million). Five million more in ads will run nationally, the super-PAC says in a press release.

Restore Our Future is the king of super-PACs. The group has raised $132 million for the 2012 elections, more than any other super-PAC; its top donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, Texas energy executive Harold Simmons, and Oxbow Carbon CEO Bill Koch, the brother of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Pennsylvania Officials Accused of Running Misleading Voter ID Ads

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 6:03 AM EDT
Translation: "This election, if you've got it, show it."

Early this month, a federal judge partially overturned Pennsylvania's voter ID law, ruling that the state couldn't require voters to show photo identification at the polls until after the 2012 election. But the ruling has not stopped the state from running ads suggesting otherwise—ads that have disproportionately targeted urban and minority communities that tend to vote for Democrats.

In English, the billboard pictured above reads: "This election, if you've got it, show it." It is one of 58 billboards erected by Pennsylvania's Republican-led Department of State, mostly in Democratic-leaning Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Though Latinos make up only 6 percent of the state's population, about 20 percent of the billboards are in Spanish. Similar Spanish-language ads appear on public buses.

Will Hurricane Sandy Lower Gas Prices by Election Day?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

As Election Day draws near, Mitt Romney continues to hammer President Obama on high gas prices in states like California—never mind how little say presidents actually have in the matter. But according to a recent national survey, prices, while still higher than last year, have been in decline these past two weeks—particularly in battleground states like Ohio and Wisconsin. And although Hurricane Sandy might drive up prices in the short term, experts say the storm could actually drive down gas prices further in the coming weeks.

"In the US, we produce about 8.5 million barrels of crude oil a day. During Sandy, we're likely to see demand reduced by 1-2 million barrels a day, and that final number will be dictated by the magnitude of the storm," says Avery Ash, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs.

Oil refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have scaled back production in anticipation of the storm. But unlike Katrina, Sandy isn't slamming a major refining region. Instead, it's hitting the East Coast, which makes up a large portion of US demand but relies on refineries in the Midwest, or imported gasoline. "So you've got some supply issues, but in the longer term you've got 'demand destruction' bringing prices down. The question is when these two factors will balance out," Ash says. 

If Hurricane Sandy's "demand destruction" effect combines with factors such as lower seasonal demand and a recent drop in crude oil prices, Americans could be looking at cheaper gas by November 6. Whether such a late-breaking shift could help Obama at the polls is anybody's guess. Writes Clifford Kraus of the New York Times:

Most of the states that have the highest gas prices—California, New York, Oregon, and Washington—are Obama strongholds. And most of the states with the cheapest gas prices tend to be Southern and Romney strongholds, like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama…So while gasoline prices make for an easy line of attack in a debate or stump speech, it remains to be seen whether they will influence the election outcome.

Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for US News and World Report, counters that falling gas prices in swing states could ultimately help the president, because they "have an outsized effect on consumer psyches."

Romney's Mormon Background May Shape His Anti-FEMA Stance

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 5:39 PM EDT

With Hurricane Sandy tearing up the eastern seaboard, Mitt Romney has been taking some knocks for his suggestion during a GOP primary debate in June 2011 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be shuttered in favor of letting the states and the private sector take responsibility for disaster response. Liberals criticized Romney's comments as just another example of how he and Paul Ryan would tackle the national debt by cutting needed services. But when it comes to dealing with disasters, Romney's view of the government's role may be shaped by something other than Republican orthodoxy—his experience as a sixth-generation Mormon.

In 2007, Romney gave what was then known as his "Mormon speech," in which he aimed to reassure voters that his faith would not prevent him from representing people of all religions. After the speech, I wrote a story lamenting that Romney hadn't spoken more about some of his church's strengths, most notably its ability to respond in a crisis, which in many cases has indeed been superior to efforts launched by the government, including during Hurricane Katrina. From that story:

The church's self-reliance dogma extends beyond the average family basement to the community at large. For instance, it runs Bishop's Storehouse Services, a network of regional warehouses that became well known during the Great Depression. When disaster strikes, church elders spring into action to distribute the goods through a welfare organization whose efficiency has been compared by some writers to the German Wehrmacht.

I grew up in Utah and have seen this phenomenon first hand. In the spring of 1983, after record levels of snow melted in the nearby mountains, City Creek flooded and threatened major parts of Salt Lake City. On a Sunday morning, as the water started to rise, the church quickly mobilized thousands of people to make sandbags to save critical parts of downtown (and, of course, the church infrastructure). We watched with amazement as the volunteers literally diverted the floodwater onto State Street, a major thoroughfare (where people later went fishing). The efforts were so successful that state officials estimated that they prevented 1,400 acres of land from flooding and $140 million in water damage.

More recently, the church went into high gear during Hurricane Katrina in a performance that put the federal government to shame. Before the storm made landfall, the LDS church in New Orleans safely evacuated all but about seven families out of about 2,500 local members, largely because the church had created an automated telephone emergency warning system that alerted all its members, instructing them to get out of town and telling them where to go.

Two days before the storm made landfall, while FEMA was floundering, the church dispatched 10 trucks full of tents, sleeping bags, tarps to cover wrecked roofs, bottled water, and 5-gallon drums of gas from its warehouses to New Orleans and other hard-hit areas. The supplies were distributed in an orderly fashion to people who desperately needed them.

Rather than downplay his religion, Mitt could spotlight the aspects of his church that reflect basic Republican values of self-sufficiency and the primacy of the private sector. After all, if disaster strikes, who will really care whether the Book of Mormon puts the Garden of Eden in Missouri? What matters is that if Romney ends up in the White House, his God will no doubt tell him to dispatch the trucks before the hurricane strikes.

The problem, of course, with Romney's projecting Mormon Church experience onto federal disaster management policy is that the LDS Church is sui generis. Their admirable model for self-reliance and disaster aid works only because the church is a unique, well-oiled, and tightly networked organization with members who will mobilize on command, as they did when Salt Lake flooded in the 1980s. There's no reason to believe, for example, that the state of Louisiana would have handled Hurricane Katrina any better if it had been left to its own devices.

Even in Utah, where Mormons have amply demonstrated their ability to respond to a crisis, the state has recognized that it can't rely solely on volunteer efforts to protect its residents. The current governor, Gary Herbert, a Republican, has requested federal disaster aid for several state crises. Federal funds have helped shore up the state's infrastructure to mitigate flooding, among other things, so there's more between residents and potential flood waters than just the sandbags of the Saints. But whether a President Romney would come around to the view of his supporters in Utah is anyone's guess.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Prisoners to Remain on Rikers Island As Hurricane Sandy Heads for New York

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 1:07 PM EDT

UPDATE, October 30: NYC DOC Deputy Commissioner Matthew Nerzig provided the following statement via email: “No power outages on Rikers last night. No significant flooding or disruption of our operations. The Commissioner [DOC Commissioner Dora Schriro] spent the night there.”

The authors would still appreciate hearing from families whose loved ones (prisoners or staff) weathered the storm on Rikers and can provide accounts of their experiences. Email: solitarywatchnews@gmail.com.

  .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

 At a press conference yesterday afternoon on New York City’s preparations for Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the safety of prisoners on Rikers Island, which lies near the mouth of Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx. Bloomberg appeared annoyed by the question, and responded somewhat opaquely: “Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured.” Apparently unable to fathom that anyone’s main concern would be for the welfare of the more than 12,000 prisoners on Rikers, Bloomberg then reassured listeners: “Don’t worry about anybody getting out.”

Pollster: Undercounted Cellphone Users Hide Obama's Lead

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 1:04 PM EDT

Are Obama voters underrepresented in presidential polls because they use cellphones?

That's the argument put forward by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in a new memo released Monday. Government data shows that an increasing percentage of Americans have ditched their traditional land-line phones and now use only cellphones. A year ago, 32 percent of adults used only a cellphone, according to the Center for Disease Control, which tracks cellphone usage. But more and more Americans are relying solely on their cellphones—Greenberg estimates that that figure is now 37 percent. And government statistics show still larger percentages of hispanics, blacks, and young people—all of whom are more likely to favor Obama, polls show—use cellphones only.

Why does this uptick in cell-only users matter? Because, as Greenberg writes, some polls used to gauge the state of the presidential race don't reach these people—and could therefore be lowballing Obama's standing. (Robocalls are used by many pollsters, but cellphones are blocked from receiving robocalls.) Greenberg went back and analyzed 4,000 of his polling firm's interviews this election season and found that cell-only voters break for Obama in significant numbers. As the following charts show, people who only use a cellphone said they'd vote for Obama by an 11-point margin, and those who mostly use a cell opted for Obama by 9 points. On the other hand, those who said they used a landline and a cellphone backed Romney by 3 points.

Courtesy of Greenberg Quinlan RosnerCourtesy of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner

Cellphone-only respondents, Greenberg says, are "attitudinally and culturally distinct." They're less conservative, but not necessarily libertarian, either, though they praise both the National Rifle Association and same-sex marriage. They're a crucial piece of the electorate not entirely captured by polls used in the presidential race.

Greenberg isn't the first pollster to point out Obama's bump from cellphone users. Back in September, the New York Times' Nate Silver found that Obama fared better in polls that include cellphone users. The right-leaning Rasmussen polling shop—which tends to show Romney faring better than Obama—doesn't include cellphones; neither does the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, which shows Obama doing better in the race. Gallup—which puts Obama ahead among registered voters and Romney in the lead among likely voters—includes cellphones in its sampling.

Greenberg's key takeaway is this: Pollsters aren't capturing what he calls "the new diversity of the American electorate" if they aren't surveying voters who depend on cellphones. If pollsters were doing that, Greenberg suggests, Obama would have a bigger lead over Mitt Romney than he's got right now.

Romney's Charitable Trust—Not Very Charitable

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 1:03 PM EDT

When Mitt Romney has come under fire for employing aggressive tax avoidance strategies that have reduced his federal tax rate to one lower than most middle-class Americans pay, his defenders have often pointed to his generous charitable donations as proof that he has contributed his fair share. The argument has never been especially compelling, given that a lot of his charitable contributions went to his own family foundation, which then gave money to such worthy causes as the Heritage Foundation or the George W. Bush library. But today Bloomberg Bloomberg added a new wrinkle to the story, reporting that Romney has taken advantage of a complicated—and now mostly outlawed—charitable trust to defer and avoid paying capital gains taxes on some of his earnings.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Bloomberg smartly requested the tax returns of a charitable trust set up by Romney in 1996, which have never been publicly released. (The trust is separate from both the Romneys' family trust and foundation.) The documents reportedly show that Romney used a loophole to essentially rent the tax-exempt status of a nonprofit—in this case, that of the Mormon church—to lower his tax rate while not actually giving much money to the charity itself. Bloomberg explains:

When individuals fund a charitable remainder unitrust, or "CRUT," they defer capital gains taxes on any profit from the sale of the assets, and receive a small upfront charitable deduction and a stream of yearly cash payments. Like an individual retirement account, the trust allows money to grow tax deferred, while like an annuity it also pays Romney a steady income. After the funder’s death, the trust’s remaining assets go to a designated charity. 

Congress restricted the loophole just a year after Romney set us his trust to require that at least 10 percent of the trust's initial investment remain for the charity at the end of the trust's life. The Romney trust was projected to leave 8 percent to the nonprofit, which would have made it illegal under the new law, but according to Bloomberg, existing trusts like Romney's were grandfathered into the law.

Setting up the trust, worth between $750,000 and $1.25 million in 2001, enabled Romney to take an upfront deduction for his charitable donation to the trust, while also earning annual payments worth 8 percent of the trust's assets. Unlike much of his own portfolio, Romney's charitable trust investments have been very conservative. (It's now just all cash.) As a result, according to Bloomberg, the trust earned only $48 last year, while paying out nearly $37,000 to the Romneys. Meanwhile, the principal, which goes to the charity upon Romney's death, has been dwindling as a result of those payouts, down to $421,000 in 2011. According to Bloomberg:

The current investing strategy favors the Romneys over the charity because they get a guaranteed payout, said Michael Arlein, a trusts and estates lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

"The Romneys get theirs off the top and the charity gets what's left," he said. "So by definition, if it's not performing as well, the charity gets harmed more."...

If the CRUT maintains the same investing strategy, assets will continue to shrink, said Jerome M. Hesch, a tax and estate planning attorney at the law firm Carlton Fields. The trustee acted prudently in protecting against losses during a stock market decline, he said.

Nevertheless, "what's going to go to charity is probably close to nothing," Hesch said.

The Bloomberg story provides yet another example of Romney relying on every tax avoidance scheme in the book to shield his fortune—and in this case, using his church in the process. He should be glad this scoop is likely to got washed away in the hurricane coverage this week.

Obama Crew: It's About the Math, Not Mittmentum

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 12:31 PM EDT

With the 2012 race Sandy-fied—President Barack Obama has canceled campaign events to tend to concentrate on the hurricane and its aftermath—the Obama campaign's top two strategists, David Axelrod and Jim Messina, held a conference call with reporters Monday morning to  contend there's no such thing as Mittmentum. As could be expected, the pair said the Obama campaign is better positioned in this final week of the campaign. Axe noted that this is not due "to a mystical faith in a wave [of pro-Obama voters] that's going to come." It is attributable, he said, to hard-and-fast data regarding early voting in several states and polls in the swing states.

"You're going to get spun and spun and spun" by the Romney camp, Axelrod told reporters on the call. He urged the journalists to "focus on the data."

Messina pointed to the lead item in Politico's "Playbook" today, which outlined why each campaign believes it is winning. The Romney gang focused on intangibles, including the possibility of lousy jobs numbers being released this Friday: "We're focused, but we're loose, unlike our friends in Chicago." The Obama team was fixated on statistical indicators: "The early vote numbers make clear that the right combination of diversity, female voters and young voters are showing up. In Iowa and Nevada, we're racking up 2-1 margins... We're cutting their absentee margin in Florida, with big registration and early-vote numbers in North Carolina... Now they face a superior organization, which makes all the difference in a close election."

And that's sort of how the call went, with Messina citing metrics and data. "We're leading in every battleground state." he stressed. "We're in the close race we've always prepared for." He cited two recent polls showing Obama with a lead in Virginia. Axelrod noted that the campaign's organizational endeavors have propelled "sporadic voters" to the polls for early voting. This campaign, he said, doesn't concentrate on registered or likely voters; "we pay more attention to actual voters."

The campaign's top duo noted that Obama has led in 14 of the last 16 polls in Ohio (Romney and Obama tied in two) and that early-voting in Florida  has essentially erased the Republican's advantage in mail-in ballots there. Again and again, they contended that Romney is struggling with the electoral map and that his campaign has repeatedly made claims that did not pan out: we're surging in Michigan, Pennsylvania is tightening. Obama still has a double-digit lead among women voters, Axelrod said.

At this point in the campaign, the Obama strategists are sticking with what's always worked for them: the math. During the 2008 primary campaign, they were obsessed with the delegate count and, as Hillary Clinton fought on, insisted continuously that the numbers favored them. They were right. Now, they are asserting once again that the fundamental calculations are on their side—and using the data to counter the Romney campaign's claims of inevitability.

Reality-based spin does have its benefits. But with a hurricane slamming into the east coast and the race still tight (and within the margin of error in many critical states), the math could change by—or on—Election Day. "We like where we are," Axelrod said. Maybe he does, but he also told reporters, "In eight days, we'll know who was bluffing." That was one assertion that could not be denied.

UPDATE: The Obama campaign has put out a memo outlining much of its eight--days-out case. You can read it here.