Political MoJo

Presidents and Palm Trees: What to Take on a Desert Island

| Wed May 2, 2007 12:57 PM EDT

The AP recently asked the presidential candidates what item they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The answers, and their subtexts:

Democrats:

- Sen. Joe Biden: "Jill, my wife." ("Someone has to be around to hear me talk.")

- Sen. Hillary Clinton: "A good book." ("I am unwilling to commit to any particular book. I will focus group Crime and Punishment versus Ulysses and get back to you.")

- Sen. Chris Dodd: "Coffee with cream and sugar." ("Why didn't I choose water? Because I really love coffee. And because I am too short-sighted to be president.")

John Edwards: "A book." ("I don't have time for this question.")

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: His wife, Elizabeth. ("Have you seen my wife? You'd take her too.")

Sen. Barack Obama: "Other than my wife and my kids, an inanimate object I would have to have would probably be a good book." ("Please note, Hillary didn't mention her family. I did.")

Gov. Bill Richardson: "Blackberry and a Davidoff cigar." ("I am an old-style political boss. I am the fattest of fat cats.")

Republicans:

Sen. Sam Brownback: "Tarp." ("I would surely be America's most practical president.") Ed. Note: Hahahahahaha. A tarp!

Rudy Giuliani: "Books and music." ("If terrorists attacked my desert island's palm tree, I would stand strong. 9/11. 9/11. 9/11 9/111/1/1/9/1/1//11.")

Mike Huckabee: "Laptop with satellite reception." ("I don't understand the spirit of the question.")

Rep. Duncan Hunter: "Mrs. Hunter." ("I have strong family values, as proven by the fact that I awkwardly refuse to use my wife's first name. I call her Mrs. Hunter at all times. However, in an ironic twist, I have left no one to care for our children.")

Sen. John McCain: "Books." ("I am a flip-flopper. In 2000, I chose sun-screen.")

Mitt Romney: "My wife, Ann." ("I'll need something to eat, after all.")

Rep. Tom Tancredo: "Boat." ("I will be president because all the other candidates will be stuck on that damn island.")

Spotted on Political Wire.

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Road to Ruin?

| Wed May 2, 2007 12:10 PM EDT

In its latest issue, Business Week weighs in with a cover story on the push to privatize the nation's highways, bridges, and airports, among other public infrastructure. This growing trend, which Jim Ridgeway and I explored in MoJo's January/February issue, is now moving along at a feverish clip, propelled by investment banks and foreign companies who see in these low-risk assets the prospect of enormous and steady returns, not to mention, as Business Week puts it, "monopolistic advantages that keep those cash flows as steady as a beating heart." For would-be privateers, it doesn't hurt that this model is enthusiastically backed by the Bush administration and a cadre of ardent free marketeers within the Department of Transportation.

With cash-strapped states struggling as it is, the time is ripe for private firms to offer large upfront payments in exchange for long-term leases on public infrastructure (a foreign consortium, for instance, paid $3.8 billion for a 75-year concession on Indiana's 157-mile toll road last summer). "All told," Business Week reports, "some $100 billion worth of public property could change hands in the next two years, up from less than $7 billion over the past two years; a lease for the Pennsylvania Turnpike could go for more than $30 billion all by itself." As Mark Florian, the COO of Goldman Sachs' North American infrastructure division told the magazine, "There's a lot of value trapped in these assets." You'll often hear privatization proponents like Florian -- who has canvassed the nation pitching this concept to state and local governments -- speak of the value that's locked up in public infrastructure. Left unsaid, however, is that upon being "liberated" the majority of this value will flow directly into the pockets of the investors who are lobbying so aggressively for privatization, not to the taxpayers who technically own these assets and who have funded their construction and operation.

While there is certainly a case to be made for public-private partnerships, as these arrangements are often called, there are numerous public policy questions that have yet to be adequately addressed. One, as Business Week points out, has to do with the "quality of service on deals that can span 100 years."

The newly private toll roads are being managed well now, but owners could sell them to other parties that might not operate them as capably in the future. Already, the experience outside of toll roads has been mixed: The Atlanta city water system, for example, was so poorly managed by private owners that the government reclaimed it.

Then there's the issue of pricing, since the companies who have thus far secured leases on U.S. infrastructure, particularly toll roads, have been give wide latitude to hike tolls.

Chicago's Skyway could see car tolls rise from $2 in 2005 to $5 by 2017. For some perspective, if a similar scheme were applied to the Pennsylvania Turnpike during its 67 years of existence, the toll for traveling from the Delaware River to the Ohio border would be as much as $553 now instead of $22.75. Macquarie, which teamed up with Spain's Cintra to purchase the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, underscored the governmental trade-off during a presentation at the recent White House Surface Transportation Legislative Leadership Summit: "More Money or Lower Tolls." In an extreme scenario, governments could begin to sell properties that aren't tolled to private owners who will impose fees.

Of course, tolls won't go to the moon if they result in dramatic reductions in traffic. For example, investment firm NW Financial Group estimates that if the Chicago Skyway pricing scheme were applied to New York's Holland Tunnel over its 80 years, it would cost $185 to travel through it instead of the current $6. "No one will pay that much," says Murray E. Bleach, president of Macquarie Holdings (USA) Inc. "It's just not going to happen."

I agree with Bleach that charging $553 and $185 for passage on a toll road is unrealistic. That said, you can bet that the companies who take over toll roads are going to seriously push the envelope in order to maximize returns to their investors, which is one of the ways that the inherent value of these roads is "unlocked."

In the states where privatization is on the table, including Texas and Pennsylvania, there's strong resistance among citizens as well as public officials. In Texas, as Business Week reports, the state House of Representatives voted in April, by an overwhelming margin, to place a two-year moratorium on privatizing the state's toll road. But it's unlikely that local opposition will fend off the privatizers who have power, money, and influence to spare. For some time now investment banks have been raising multi-billion dollar infrastructure funds in order to take advantage of opportunities in North America. We reported in January that Goldman's fledgling fund had generated such an outpouring of investor interest that it had surpassed its $3 billion target. According to Business Week, Goldman's fund now holds some $6.5 billion. That money won't be sitting idle for long.

While the Business Week piece provides a comprehensive and appropriately skeptical take on the privatization push, it fails to mention a key issue. These deals are rife with the possibility of corruption and cronyism and conflicts of interest. On the latter, Goldman is a prime example. Beyond its persistent lobbying efforts to open U.S. infrastructure to private investment, the firm has acted as an outside financial advisor to states considering public-private partnerships (ostensibly providing disinterested advice to their clients), while simultaneously raising a $6.5 billion fund whose sole purpose is to buy infrastructure on the cheap. Last fall, at a privatization conference in New York, I had the opportunity to ask Goldman's Mark Florian about the firm's various roles in the emerging infrastructure market. When I asked him whether Goldman wants to be an adviser or an investor in the road business, he replied, simply, "both."

Obama's Selective Memory on His Anti-War Stance

| Wed May 2, 2007 10:51 AM EDT

An old friend writes in on Obama:

I arrived home late last night in somewhat of a glum mood thanks to gray skies, constant drizzle and stress from work to find a Barack Obama fundraising letter in my mailbox. (I've given a small donation, so it wasn't a surprise that they had my address and were trying to hit me up for more.)
Included with the plea for continued donations was the text of his October 2002 speech against the war in Iraq. Like many fundraising letters, key portions were highlighted, yet I noticed two occasions of ellipses used in one of the paragraphs about Saddam Hussein. What's Obama trying to hide? I wondered.
Here's the text from the letter:
"Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butcher his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors... and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls into the dustbin of history."
I haven't tracked this to an authentic primary source, but here's what Wikisource says is missing:
The first ellipse: "He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy."
The second: "that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength"
The first omission, particularly, is a bit striking. The thrust of his speech is still on point. His foresight was still an exercise in good judgment. Thankfully, he was not parroting stronger anti-Saddam talking points about WMDs as many Democrats did, but still... why the omission?

Why the omission indeed? I'd bet the first the omission is all about one phrase: "developed chemical and biological weapons." Now, that could be referring to Iraq's production of WMDs in the late 80's and early 90's or the alleged production in recent years that turned out to be false, but either way it looks like Obama bought the administration's line about Iraq possessing WMD but wanted to avoid war anyway. Does America want a leader that is okay with rogue states possessing weapons of mass destruction? Obama obviously thinks it doesn't.

The second omission might just be one of economy; keeping the quote short and all that. Perhaps Obama views it as embarrassing that he said the "Iraqi military [is] a fraction of its former strength" when the insurgency continues to rage, but pretty much every American knows the Iraqi military and the insurgency are different things.

Is Obama still the only major candidate who opposed the war from the beginning? Of course. Is he being a bit of a politician here? Again, of course. I'll forgive him this one. I'd say it's interesting, but not a major sin.

Corrupt Investigative Office Investigating Corrupt Investigator: Is Your Head Spinning?

| Wed May 2, 2007 9:56 AM EDT

We've got a parallel to the situation at the Office of Special Counsel. The OSC, tasked with looking into the claims of federal whistleblowers and investigating violations of the Hatch Act, has been so willfully ineffective and so corrupted by director Scott Bloch that it is now under federal investigation.

(The OSC is currently in the news because it is leading the ongoing and somewhat questionable investigation of Karl Rove.)

The Washington Post reports today that the inspector general of the Department of Commerce, charged with unearthing malfeasance at the department, is the subject of three government investigations. The investigations are looking into things as serious as misuse of budget and retaliation against detractors, and things as silly as cutting a conference short to go gambling in Atlantic City.

Here's where it gets circular. Claims against the Dep't of Commerce IG, whose name is Johnnie Frazier, were made by his staffers, meaning they applied for whistleblower protections with the OSC. The OSC is one of the bodies currently investigating Frazier.

So a corrupted body under investigation for mishandling investigations is investigating a corrupt investigator.

Inspires confidence, no?

Obama Ranks at Head of Dem Field for First Time: Poll

| Tue May 1, 2007 12:16 PM EDT

A poll showing Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton was released yesterday by Rasmussen. I believe it's the first of its kind. The field is Obama with 32% support, Clinton at 30%, and Edwards at 17%. No other candidate tops 3%.

Rasmussen cautions that the 2% difference between Obama and Clinton is not statistically significant. I suppose it would be bigger news if Obama created a statistically significant lead over Clinton. We'll blog again when that happens.

Other results of note:

Obama now leads among voters under 40. Clinton is strongest among those 65 and older. Clinton has a two-point edge among Democrats. Obama has a nineteen-point lead among independents likely to vote in a Democratic primary.

Also a little bizarre -- Edwards does best against Republicans.

Obama and Clinton are the frontrunners, but Edwards does best in general election match-ups. He leads all GOP hopefuls and is the only Democrat to lead the Republican frontrunner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

And just a final note: 52% of Americans oppose the impending veto George W. Bush will stamp on the Dems' war spending bill that sets a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

Terrorism Up Worldwide, Call it the Iraq Effect

| Tue May 1, 2007 11:10 AM EDT

There's a lot of news today about a new study that shows terrorist attacks jumped 28% in 2006, with 40% more victims.

Uh, yeah, we know. In March, Mother Jones published an in-depth study on the Iraq War's impact on the war on terrorism, showing that the Iraq War has increased the number of terrorist attacks both in Iraq and worldwide. It's called the Iraq Effect, and it is massive. Check it out.

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Time's Up on the Surge

| Tue May 1, 2007 9:38 AM EDT

In January, Condi Rice tried to dampen outrage over the surge by acknowledging she had a realistic view of things. If the Maliki government didn't prove itself in 2-3 months, she said, the new military plan isn't going to work.

Well, I wrote yesterday that the Maliki government is purging officers who fight too hard against sectarian violence, and earlier this month polling revealed that the Maliki government is favored by 72 percent of Shi'ites and just eight percent of Sunnis. Moreover, only 18 percent of Iraqis have confidence in American forces and 69 percent of them believe the Americans make the security situation worse. (At this point our presence is Iraq amounts to us telling the Iraqis that we know what is good for their country better than they do.)

And today, news comes out that more American soldiers died in April than in any other month of 2007. Things are getting worse, not better. So Condi was right, if not in a causative way then in a correlative one. The Maliki government has failed, and the surge has led to more violence and death.

How much more time, Condi?

Trial of Commander Charged with "Aiding the Enemy" Begins

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 3:57 PM EDT

The New York Times and Washington Post report today on the hearing held to determine if charges against Lt. Col. William Steele hold water. I wrote last week that the charges sound suspiciously trumped up, and are, in fact, almost identical to those filed against James Yee. They include "aiding the enemy"—for allowing detainees to use an unmonitored cellphone—mishandling classified information and government funds, conduct unbecoming an officer for giving gifts to the daughter of a detainee and being overly friendly with a translator, and possessing pornography.

Most of the hearings were closed to reporters, but the two articles give a hint of what might be going on. The flashiest charge, that of aiding the enemy, was barely discussed (at least publicly). Instead, testimony focused on the contents of Steele's laptop. Let's not forget that possessing pornography is more common than not among the armed forces. Mishandling classified information is also fairly widespread: Rules are incredibly strict, and not all classified information seems to warrant the cloak-and-dagger procedures. Steele had the the text of a classified memo on his laptop and at least one witness saw him download CD-ROMs onto the computer—though no one has indicated that the CDs were classified.

The real meat of the charges against Steele therefore seems to relate to the gifts he gave a detainee's daughter. The young woman's mother and sister were present, so there is no question of sexual misconduct. However, the detainee—who is described as "high value"—complained that Steele was trying to supplant him as a father. So one guess as to why Steele is being slapped with charges that could be made against a huge percentage of the military is that someone wants to butter up the detainee in hopes that he'll talk. Either that or Steele embarrassed the Pentagon in some way during his October 2005 to October 2006 tenure as commander at Camp Cropper.

God Is Not a Specialty in Indiana

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 2:23 PM EDT

In Indiana, you can buy a specialty auto license plate that supports everything from breast cancer research to child abuse prevention to the Indianapolis Colts, but it will cost you an administrative fee of $15, and there is often a donation to the cause included, too. Mark Studler pays $40 a year for his environmental cause plate--$40 goes to the Indiana Heritage Trust, and the state of Indiana gets its $15 administrative fee.

When Studler went to renew his plate recently, however, he noticed that one specialty plate did not have an Indiana administrative fee attached: This plate has a deep blue background, an American flag streteched across the bottom, and the words "In God We Trust." Studler did not think it was fair that people with a religious preference were treated differently from those who chose other specialty plates, and last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and its commissioner.

The state of Indiana's defense will come as no surprise: The "In God We Trust" plate is not a specialty plate, and therefore there is no reason to tack on an extra charge for selling it. The state defines the plate as a second "standard" plate, not subject to additional fees.

540,000 drivers have chosen this "standard" plate. If it had been designated a specialty plate, the state would have made another $8 million.

"It's about making sure that nearly every other plate that carries a message has a cost attached to it, and this does not," said Indiana ACLU legal director. "In a state that's as religious as Indiana, the phrase 'In God We Trust' is not just about supporting the national motto. It's about saying you believe in God."

Fun with Friedman Units

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 1:57 PM EDT

Pundit extraordinaire Tom Friedman has made it his job to make sure Americans don't lose faith in the war. The way he does it? Promising that -- at any given time -- victory is six months away. Check out this graphic for the hilarious proof. (H/T TAPPED)