Political MoJo

The Highwayman: DeFazio to Take on Privatization

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 4:58 PM EST

When I met with Peter DeFazio in his office last summer, the Oregon democrat was, to put it mildly, a bit exercised. Having flown in from Oregon the night before after participating in a charity bike ride, he was going on basically no sleep. And, when I asked him about the nascent trend of leasing the nation's highways to the private sector, he was particularly blunt: "It's a scam, basically," he told me. He was even more candid in his comments about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, the former Bush administration official who pushed to privatize his state's 157-mile toll road, ultimately leasing it for $3.8 billion to a foreign consortium.

Daniels had appeared before the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit that May to talk up so-called public-private partnerships and DeFazio, then the ranking democrat on the committee, questioned him pointedly on the logic of such deals during the hearing. "Are we outsourcing political will to a private entity here?" he asked at one point, referring to the fact that Indiana had chosen to lease its road rather than increase its profitability by raising tolls. When we spoke later that summer, DeFazio, questioning how good these deals are for the public, said Daniels had "just screwed the state of Indiana and the people of the state of Indiana." (By one estimate, the Indiana Toll Road, in state hands, could have earned as much as $11.38 billion over the next 75 years. If so, then Indiana taxpayers will lose out on more than $7 billion in revenue.) "The point is these are very, very tricky things," he said. "You're making a 75 year commitment of vital public infrastructure and you're not getting a very good deal."

As Jim Ridgeway and I report in the current issue of the magazine, there are other problems with these public-private transactions. One of them is the keen interest investment banks, Goldman Sachs in particular, have taken in opening the toll road market to private investment. In doing so, Goldman has played the role of lobbyist, municipal finance advisor, and, controversially, would-be principal investor. In this new market, the potential for conflicts of interest abounds.

Last summer, when I asked DeFazio where he saw this trend going, he said, "if the Republicans retain control of everything, the Bush administration will push this hard I'm sure." But, he added, "this is nowhere near a done deal." At the time, he was particularly concerned by a blue ribbon panel, known as the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which had been tasked, after the passage of the last highway bill in 2005, with the lofty mission of looking at ways to "preserve and enhance the surface transportation system to meet the needs of the United States for the 21st century." "My understanding is it's turning more and more and more toward a sole focus of how to justify the privatization of infrastructure — just like Bush's Social Security commission," DeFazio told me. With several privatization advocates appointed to the committee, including transportation secretary Mary Peters, DeFazio certainly had reason to be concerned. "If we take control, we'll drag those people in here and remind them of their charge," DeFazio said.

Well, the Democrats have retaken control of Congress and DeFazio, who now serves as the chairman of the Highways committee, has kept his pledge. Yesterday, he gaveled to order the committee's first hearing of the new Congress, dubbed the "Surface Transportation System: Challenges of the Future." Among the witnesses, were two members of the transportation policy committee. "You should expect this subcommittee to be very active over the next two years as we conduct oversight on the implementation of the last highway and transit reauthorization, SAFETEA-LU, and prepare to meet the many challenges we will face in crafting the next reauthorization," he said yesterday. Then, he addressed the transportation policy committee directly, perhaps offering a subtle warning. "Congress created the Commission in hopes of getting a thorough and objective analysis of what our surface transportation system needs to become to support our economy in the future, as well as short and long term funding solutions to increase revenue into the Highway Trust Fund." But yesterday's hearing was just the precursor for what's to come. Expect the real fireworks to arrive when the committee holds a hearing specifically on the topic of private-partnerships, which is expected to take place sometime next month.

Even though DeFazio has now ascended to the key post on the Highways committee, it remains to be seen whether or not his efforts will slow the privatization trend, which has the enthusiastic backing of the Bush administration. To this end, the president recently nominated D.J. Gribbin to be general counsel to the Department of Transportation. Who is Gribbin you might wonder? A former general counsel to the Federal Highway Administration, he has most recently been working on behalf of Macquarie Holdings, Inc., a branch of the very same company that has been so avidly buying up the nation's highways.

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Giuliani's Campaign Plan: Now Ready for Your Consumption

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 2:55 PM EST

From new political website/blog circus "The Politico" comes Rudy Giuliani's.... well, Rudy's everything, really. His entire campaign plan, from daily schedule to fundraising targets to staff hires, is now out in the open, thanks to Daily News reporter Ben Smith, who somehow got the 140-page document. Want a peak? Go here.

Romney Donated to Democrats Multiple Times

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 2:45 PM EST

Prominent Republican and likely presidential contender Mitt Romney has more problems on his hands. There's lot of evidence out there that Romney held a lot of very moderate, even liberal, positions in his past -- and that body of evidence just got larger.

Talking Points Memo reveals that Romney donated a total of $1,500 to three Democrats in 1992 -- the same year Romney voted for Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary.

Of particular concern for Romney is that one of the Democrats is a Mormon -- social conservatives are already concerned that Romney's allegiance to his faith might trump his allegiance to his party. At this point, Romney's "party" may be completely in doubt.

Ayad Allawi Says the Surge is About Iran

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 2:38 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan highlights an interesting interview with Ayad Allawi, Iraq's former Minister of Defense, in which Allawi makes it clear that the surge is more about applying pressure on Iran than about achieving "victory" in Iraq. Check it out.

Dick Cheney vs. Reality

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 2:29 PM EST

By now there is a consensus, among lawmakers, military leaders, and the American public — even among the very same hawks who were beating the drum for this war —that Iraq is a horrible debacle. Of late, even our notoriously stubborn commander-in-chief has tempered his "mission accomplished" rhetoric, allowing, in a recent policy address, that the situation in Iraq is "unacceptable" and that "mistakes have been made."

Apparently Dick Cheney didn't get the memo. He is still telling that same old Iraq fairytale. "Bottom line is that we've had enormous successes and we will continue to have enormous successes," he told Wolf Blitzer in an interview aired by CNN yesterday. Of course, you'll remember that Cheney has been responsible for uttering, with his trademark grimace, the administration's more outlandish claims about Iraq. First, he told us days before invasion that he expected U.S. forces would be "greeted as liberators." Two years later, when it was evident that Iraq was descending into chaos, he suggested that the insurgency was "in the last throes." He insisted a month later that Iraq will be an "enormous success story." While it is the responsibility of our leaders to evoke confidence, the power of positive thinking only goes so far, and there is a point when optimism becomes lunacy. Cheney crossed that line long ago.

But if you were to ask Cheney why his statements about Iraq are so at odds with the bloody reality on the ground, he will tell you, as he has told many incredulous interviewers in the past, that the press is at fault for fostering the notion that Iraq is coming apart at the seams. In his view, we, in the media, have ignored the positives in Iraq — the school openings, the elections, the deep gratitude of the Iraqi people — only showing our readers and viewers the dark side of the conflict. "If the history books were written by people who are so eager to write off this effort or declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago," he told Blitzer yesterday. Over the years, "blame the media" has been the oft-used mantra of the administration. But while most of the members of the president's inner-circle have largely dropped this claim (as it became increasingly absurd in the face of escalating violence in Iraq), Cheney has clung to this delusion.

Ignoring reality has long been the hallmark of an administration that believes it can manufacture its own. As a Bush aide once boasted to Ron Suskind: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

This mentality, I'd argue, is what has kept the administration from revisiting its Iraq strategy for so long. In the interim, the administration and, to an extent the military as well, has simply tried to mask the truth instead of adapting to it.

How did this manifest in Iraq? At one point, with a propaganda campaign aimed both at Iraqi citizens and the American public. In one case, efforts were made to slant military press releases to play down, or altogether omit, the involvement of U.S. troops, making it appear that everything from civil works projects to heroic military victories were the product of Iraqi initiative. This couldn't have been further from the truth. Under heavy political pressure to better communicate successes in the war on terrorism, the military also began to blur the lines between public affairs and information warfare, co-mingling these disparate functions (one deals in truth, the other in "truth-based" messages or outright misinformation) in strategic communications, or stratcom, offices in Baghdad and Kabul. Then, of course, there was the Lincoln Group's half-baked (and military funded) effort to secret propaganda into fledgling Iraqi new outlets — a campaign that backfired, in spectacular fashion, when it was exposed by the press. Of the military's information operations in Iraq, a senior military officer once told me, "Perhaps Iraq is a unique situation, but I think some of our IO efforts may have hurt our overall efforts at supporting an elected government and democratic, free institutions. Saddam fed the people propaganda for decades — should we continue to feed them propaganda and expect them to support us and/or their elected officials?"

Just as propagandizing to the Iraqi people is no way of introducing them to the democratic process, continuing to shade the truth, as Cheney has done repeatedly in his public remarks, is no way for the administration to regain the credibility it's lost with the American people. The president, who for so long has mistaken denial for resolve, finally seems to get this. Not so Cheney.

While some might argue that Cheney is intentionally misleading the public, just as some believe administration officials purposely misstated the facts about Iraq to sell a pre-emptive war to the public, I think there's another, more realistic, possibility: That Cheney has misled himself. And that's just as dangerous.

Ridin' Dirty in Alabama

| Thu Jan. 25, 2007 1:55 PM EST

I'm not really sure whether this is really cool or really, well, dirty. Police in Mobile, Alabama are pulling over suspected drug dealers in their pimped-out rides, and, if they find the trunks loaded with cocaine and C-notes and the like, they seize the drug money and use it to buy the car off the impoundment lot. Officers then take the slab to the hood—scraping tail, flashing rims, thumping Mike Jones, or whatever—as if to say, "This is what happens when you cross the law, suckers!" Their current ride is a canary yellow 2006 Dodge Charger with a 5.7 liter 8-cylinder HEMI. The cops are known as the Ridin' Dirty team, a slangism popularized by the rapper Chamillionaire meaning driving with contraband. Here's the best quote from today's Moblie Press-Register story:

"We wanted to send a message that police have nice things, too," Battiste said, "Sometimes courtesy of the drug dealers."

Fair enough, I guess. But the money they seize is actually the property of taxpayers, so the question is really whether it's worth it to the public to be setting them up to be pimpin'.

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Libby Bombshell: The Tom Cruise Connection

| Wed Jan. 24, 2007 4:17 PM EST

One of the more entertaining revelations to come out in the Scooter Libby trial thus far, drawing a collective guffaw in the press gallery, arrived this afternoon in the testimony of Craig Schmall, Libby's one-time CIA briefer. According to Schmall, during a briefing on June 14, 2003 at Libby's home, the veep's chief of staff brought up a recent meeting he'd had with Tom Cruise and his then-squeeze Penelope Cruz. Schmall, stifling laughter, reported that "Tom Cruise was there to talk" with Libby "about how Germany treats scientologists." You can't make that stuff up.

President Bush: As Usual, Sending the Wrong Message on the Environment

| Wed Jan. 24, 2007 2:50 PM EST

According to most environmentalists, President Bush's message on the environment was weak. While Bush addressed the issue of global warming, the message he gave most clearly to Americans was to stay the course and these pesky ecological issues will go away.

In a statement released yesterday, The Sierra Club said: "Despite the warning from the President's economic advisor that the State of the Union would 'knock your socks off in terms of our commitment to energy independence,' so far we have heard no new evidence that this administration understands what it will really take to break our oil addiction or curb global warming. In fact, the President's proposals are more likely to make the problems worse."

In his plan, President Bush touts ethanol as the major catalyst towards an emissions-reduction solution, but he doesn't mention its possible detrimental effects. The President doesn't see any issue with drilling in Alaska either. And he doesn't seem to be rushed in imposing any sort of harsh standards on the automotive industries. The official White House plan states that the reduction in gasoline will be helped along by an assumed increase of fuel standards for light trucks and passenger cars by a four per cent each year, starting in 2010. Sounds pretty wishy-washy.

This from the Sierra Club: "…[T]he President assumes that fuel economy will increase but fails to order an increase when a 40 mile per gallon standard is the single biggest step we could take to curb global warming and end oil dependence."

Yet, in reporting on the latest automotive models, some media outlets have chosen to call the 2010 fuel-efficiency standards "stringent."

Armed with this what-me-worry message, some Americans (as well as Canadians and Europeans) are just keeping on keeping on. This means driving hummers and other tank-like vehicles to invade the strip malls, taking private jets so to have a place to smoke at 30,000 feet, and buying instantly disposable goods to keep on top of fashion trends.

-- Caroline Dobuzinskis

MotherJones.com Ignores Privacy Laws in a Blatant Attempt to Sell Advertising

| Wed Jan. 24, 2007 12:59 PM EST

In an ironic and diabolic move to generate advertising revenue to support its journalistic mission, MotherJones.com recently launched a series of ads on its site to encourage users to willingly disclose personal information on consumer habits in an online user survey. Even more shocking, these ads tout that users who complete the survey will be entered into a drawing to win some really cool prizes donated by advertising sponsors Aveda and Patagonia.

When questioned about this blatant attempt to learn more about its website visitors, Associate Publisher of Sales & Marketing, Suzanne Saluti was quoted as saying, "We don't intend to release personal, individual user information to anyone. We will merely aggregate the data and share those results with the advertising community in order to generate online ad sales to off-set the costs associated with providing in-depth investigative reporting on the site."

You can view (and participate in, if you dare) the survey here.

MSNBC and Nancy Pelosi's Outfit

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 10:57 PM EST

MSNBC is running (and rerunning and rerunning) a comment on the ticker on the bottom of its screen that says something to the effect of: the working class will be disappointed to learn that Nancy Pelosi's outfit cost more than an average American family's first home.

I'd like to see some proof of that. The comment is attributed to Andrew Noyes writing on Chris Matthew's group blog, Hardblogger. Yet, a search of all the posts on Hardblogger tonight turn up nothing.

Update: Just saw it again. It's probably run a dozen times by now. I'll keep searching. That's (1) a pretty ridiculous thing for MSNBC to be reporting over and over, and (2) badly in need of sourcing.