Mojo - April 2013

McConnell Asks FBI to Investigate Secret Tape—Then Fundraises Off It

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 1:14 PM EDT

Sen. Mitch McConnell's first response to Mother Jones' report on a closed-door campaign meeting about prospective challenger Ashley Judd: Call the FBI. His second response: Ask for money.

On Tuesday morning, McConnell's campaign twitter account blasted out a link to a new splash page ("teammitch.com/wiretap") asking supporters to "stand with Senator McConnell" by signing up for his mailing list—and donating to his campaign. The campaign specifically charges the "liberal media," which in this case is apparently Mother Jones, with "illegal and underhanded tactics":

As we explained in the piece, Mother Jones was provided a copy of the tape. It was not involved in making the tape.

McConnell's move isn't unusual for a campaign dealing with a news story like this—which may have some benefits for a politician who has worked hard to ingratiate himself with the state's conservative activists. What better way for McConnell to show his mettle than by coming under attack from the left?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Oklahoma One Step Away From Banning Islamic Law (Again)

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 11:56 AM EDT
Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern (R) with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

The Oklahoma legislature moved one step closer to protecting the state from the long hand of Islamic law on Monday, when the state Senate approved on a 40–3 vote a bill prohibiting the use of foreign or religious laws in state courts. If that sounds like something you've heard before, it's because you have—the bill is an attempt by conservative lawmakers to finish what they started in 2010, when voters in the Sooner State approved a constitutional amendment to prohibit Islamic Shariah law from being used in state courts. That amendment, which passed with 70 percent of the vote, was almost immediately blocked by a federal court and promptly ruled unconstitutional because it specifically targeted Islam. Citing a handful of child custody and divorce proceedings, anti-Shariah activists alleged that the American way of life could soon be under threat from radical Islam.

Creating a legislative bulwark against a global caliphate in Oklahoma—where less than 1 percent of the population is Muslim—is a bit like building a seawall in the desert, but one can never be too certain about these things, and so, in March, state Rep. Sally Kern (R) introduced a bill to make things right. HB 1060 differs from the constitutional amendment in that it doesn't single out Islam specifically; instead, it applies a blanket policy to all religious institutions and foreign laws, borrowing from a model that has been introduced in more than two dozen states and passed in six since 2009.

Here's the bill:

 

 

If you think Kern is overreacting, consider that she believes Islam isn't the biggest threat facing the nation—the real problem is homosexuality. "Not everybody's lifestyle is equal, just like not all religions are equal," she said in a 2008 speech. "Gays are an even bigger threat than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat."

CHART: Welfare Benefits Far Smaller Than Scorn Heaped On Them

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 11:25 AM EDT
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

 

Welfare recipients have always been easy targets. President Ronald Reagan reviled them as "welfare queens" who supposedly drove Cadillacs and lived large on the government dole (a story that was entirely apocryphal). Heaping abuse on the recipients of the federal welfare program, since renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), continues to be a popular staple of conservative rhetoric. A Missouri legislator recently introduced legislation, dubbed the "don't get sick" bill, to punish poor families by taking away their TANF benefits if a child misses more than three weeks of school. Last week, a Tennessee legislative committee passed a bill that would slash TANF benefits to families whose children get bad grades. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is still trying to force that state's TANF beneficiaries to undergo drug tests that two federal courts have deemed unconstitutional. Scott isn't alone. To date, 16 states have tried to force TANF recipients to undergo drug testing, despite little evidence of widespread drug abuse among the single moms in the program. 

The focus on TANF recipients is vastly out of proportion with the size of the program, which has been steadily shrinking since it was "reformed" in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and turned over to the states to administer. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the cash benefits doled out under TANF are now so meager that they barely make a dent in the fortunes of the recipients. In Tennessee, where legislators were so eager to use TANF as a "stick" to get poor kids to do well in school, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $185—barely enough to lift a poor family above 10 percent of the federal poverty line. Missouri's benefits clock in at $292 a month, literally the same amount offered in 1996. Thanks to inflation, the real value of those benefits has fallen more than 30 percent, leaving recipients at barely 18 percent of the poverty line. 

Nationally, the picture is equally grim. In 37 states, according to CBPP, the purchasing power of TANF benefits is now at least 20 percent less than it was in 1996, when welfare reform kicked in. This is a big deal. At one time, welfare benefits at least might cover the rent for a poor family. Now, there's not a single state in the country where monthly TANF benefits for a mom with two kids will cover the fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment. Welfare moms are clearly not living large in the program, despite what state legislators seem to think. If they want their threats to cut TANF benefits over bad grades or missed school days to carry any weight, they're probably going to have to raise benefits first. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 9, 2013

Tue Apr. 9, 2013 10:22 AM EDT

Two crew members keep watch on the rear ramp of a CH-47 Chinook while flying over the mountains in the Khas Uruzgan district of Afghanistan on March 16, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessi Ann McCormick.

 

Corn on Hardball: Obama Needs to Keep Pushing Gun Control

Mon Apr. 8, 2013 8:39 PM EDT

As Republicans in Congress vow to filibuster proposed gun control legislation, President Obama made a moving speech in Newtown where he asked the public to stand up for stricter gun laws. Watch DC bureau chief David Corn discuss how Obama could win this struggle with Congress with The Grio's Joy Reid and host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball.

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

Obama Demands a Vote on Gun Reforms As Republicans Threaten to Filibuster

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 7:14 PM EDT
President Obama speaks out for gun control reforms at the White House in March surrounded by mothers victimized by gun violence.

On Monday evening, four days after Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed some of the nation's toughest gun control measures into law, and on the day that Democrats began debating discussing their gun control reform package on the Senate floor, President Barack Obama gave an impassioned speech at the University of Hartford urging a vote on measures that would expand background checks, renew the assault weapons ban, and ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds. "All of them are common-sense," Obama said. "All of them deserve a vote."

Meanwhile, 11 more Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have threatened to join Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee in a filibuster to "oppose any legislation that would infringe on the American people's constitutional right to bear arms, or their ability to exercise this right without being subjected to government surveillance" (PDF). Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised a vote on the assault-weapon and high-capacity magazine bans, they stand no chance of passage and are off the table entirely in bipartisan compromise talks.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bursting the Thatcher Bubble

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 1:00 PM EDT

The canonization of Margaret Thatcher began with nanoseconds of news reports that the former British prime minister and conservative icon had died at the age of 87. On MSNBC, my pal Chuck Todd remarked, "We lionize her over here." There was insta-commentary about how she saved Britain from economic despair and the rest of the world from the Soviets (with some help from a guy named Ronald Reagan). Excess ruled. Two small examples: Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat running for Congress in South Carolina (and sister of Stephen Colbert) issued this statement: "When I talk to younger women about their careers, I point to Margaret Thatcher as a role model; she's a tough consensus builder who cared about everybody and put her country's fiscal house in order." Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) proclaimed,

Baroness Thatcher's record of creating explosive economic growth and a stronger nation by embracing conservative values makes the utter failure of Obama's stale liberalism starker and more disturbing…She is still hated by leftists who would rather live in equalized misery than allow people to achieve as much as they can work for, leftists who now hold the levers of government in the United States…While many mourn, Baroness Thatcher reminded us "I fight on I fight to win." The best way to honor Baroness Thatcher is to crush liberalism and sweep it into the dustbin of history. What are you doing this morning to defeat liberal politicians?

Obama Administration: Don't Worry, We'll Only Drag Small Asteroids Toward Earth

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 12:54 PM EDT
Official NASA portrait

Last Friday, the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) blasted out a press release noting that President Obama's forthcoming budget plan (to be released on Wednesday) includes a $100 million initiative to abduct an asteroid, tow it toward Earth, place it into our moon's orbit, and claim the space rock for 'Murica. American astronauts would then travel to the asteroid and potentially conduct mining operations and research ways of deflecting future civilization-ending asteroid attacks on Earth.

The Obama administration has confirmed the existence of this section of the president's upcoming budget proposal. An official close to the matter filled me in on some of the details. The source wanted to make two things clear. First, the proposal does not increase NASA's budget—existing efforts and funds would be redirected to the $100 million asteroid-lasso plan. Second, if the audacious-sounding mission goes through, NASA promises only to drag small asteroids toward Earth and into lunar orbit. If something were to go horribly wrong, the relatively small size of the target asteroid would ensure that the rock is harmless to the planet.

In other words, Barack Obama is not risking accidentally throwing a killer asteroid at the world with this plan.

Last year, the president established a goal of landing astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. This new plan could bump up the date to 2021. ("NASA is in the planning stages of an innovative mission to accomplish the President's challenge of sending humans to visit an asteroid by 2025 in a more cost-effective and potentially quicker time frame than under other scenarios," an administration official wrote in an email.)

"This is part of what will be a much broader program," Nelson said last week, during a visit in Orlando. "The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars." Nelson was recently on the Senate panel responsible for grilling scientists about the consequences of an asteroid impact. In March, a highly publicized asteroid the size of a city block came sorta, kinda, maybe close to smashing into Earth. In February, a truck-sized meteor exploded over Russia's Ural Mountains, creating a sonic boom, injuring roughly 1,500 people, and damaging many buildings.

On a related note, here's the trailer for Asteroid, a 1997 NBC miniseries about the president of the United States and a FEMA director scrambling to stop asteroids from killing America:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 8, 2013

Mon Apr. 8, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

Spc. Travis Williams, a grenadier with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, looks through the the sights of his M320 grenade launcher March 24, during a training exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C.. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

The Ready for Hillary Super-PAC Is the Real Deal

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 10:24 AM EDT
Hillary Clinton

Ready for Hillary, the fledgling super-PAC committed to nudging Hillary Clinton into the 2016 presidential race and electing her the country's 45th president, was initially met with furrowed brows. A Hillary super-PAC this early? Is this a legit group or a love letter from adoring fans?

Ready for Hillary appears to be the real thing. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Harold Ickes, the longtime aide to Bill and Hillary and Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire, is advising Ready for Hillary. Another Clinton White House alum, James Carville, is also helping the super-PAC.

Enlisting Ickes is a coup for Ready for Hillary, the most high-profile of the three pro-Hillary super-PACs. He's one of the most tireless, tenacious fundraisers in Democratic politics, with thick skin and an even thicker Rolodex. Here's an excerpt from my 2012 profile of Ickes:

In early 2011, Sean Sweeney and Bill Burton, the former Obama White House aides who cofounded Priorities USA Action (a painfully bland name they settled on, as Burton told the New York Times Magazine, because their first 60 choices were already taken), enlisted Ickes to help close that gap. A fiery and highly respected Democratic operative who's worked on more than a dozen presidential campaigns and inside the White House, Ickes is a savvy and dogged fundraiser with a reputation for pulling in big money—the kind of seven- and eight-figure checks needed to compete with Rove's Crossroads groups and Charles and David Koch's extensive donor network. His connections run deep in Washington and in the insular, prickly world of Democratic donors, especially Clinton supporters. Ickes served as deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House and advised Hillary during her Senate and presidential campaigns; indeed, Ickes was tapped to plan her first Senate campaign on the same day in 1998 that the Senate dismissed the articles of impeachment against Bill. Clinton donors trust Ickes with their millions, and those millions are crucial to any outside Democratic effort.

Ickes, who turns 73 in September, works out of a sleek office near Dupont Circle that he and his longtime aide-de-camp, Janice Enright, share with a handful of lobbying and consulting shops. (Ickes and Enright have worked in the same room since their days in the Clinton White House.) His purple hounds-tooth shirt is open to the third button, and he occasionally pulls a comb through his thinning auburn hair. He closes his steel blue eyes when beginning a story, then opens them and stares into yours to make a point. He digresses easily and peppers his sentences with "fuck" and "bullshit."

"He is a brilliant, take-no-prisoners, consummate political operative who has seen everything, done almost everything, and is still standing," says Rob Stein, founder of the Democracy Alliance donor network. "There's nobody like him in the Democratic ranks."

Burton and Sweeney certainly seem to think so, having brought Ickes on to hunt for big donations. It's a tall order, even for an experienced fundraiser. Loyal Democratic donors loathe the Citizens United decision and the Wild West campaign finance landscape it helped usher in, and they recoil from super-PACs. Some feel Obama hasn't courted his donors sufficiently. Others simply aren't yet fired up enough to write checks. Yet without that outside ammunition, Obama and congressional Democrats face the prospect of drowning in a deluge of Republican money. GOP super-PACs and nonprofits could wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats—and they could make the difference between a second Obama term and a Romney presidency.

Of course, Ickes and the Priorities USA team went on to great success in the 2012 campaign. They may not have outraised and outspent the Republicans—Sheldon Adelson made sure of that—but they collected enough money and spent it wisely enough to tarnish Mitt Romney's image and give the Obama campaign vital air cover in Ohio.

Ickes told me recently that Clintonland is abuzz with questions and speculation about Hillary running. Many Democratic donors, he went on, are waiting on the sidelines to see what she does. "A lot of the people I know, a lot of them are Hillary people to begin with, but boy, they're not about to part with a dollar till they see what she's going to do," he said.

If she runs, you can bet that Ready for Hillary will be welcoming all those donors with open arms.