Political MoJo

Ben Carson's Rap Ad Is Here to Ruin Your Day

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 12:08 PM EST

Ben Carson has made his contribution to the annals of awkward rap ads promoting Republican presidential hopefuls, and it's awful. The GOP front runner's new radio advertisement features some confounding rhymes—"Vote and support Ben Carson. For the next president, he’d be awesome"—to try and add some hip hop credibility to the neurosurgeon's soft-spoken way with words.

While Carson himself isn't doing any of the rapping, he did provide the somber voiceover with such lines as:

"I'm very hopeful I'm not the only one who's willing to pick up the baton of freedom, because freedom is not free and we must fight for it everyday."


Reactions to the song were swift and incredulous:


Carson's campaign wasn't exactly coy about the ad's target audience. Campaign spokesperson Doug Watts told ABC News the campaign believes Carson's bid for the White House will be a sure thing if he secures just 20 percent of the black vote. Judging by the comments above, his rap ad did not move him closer to that goal.

Either way, one thing's for sure: Ben Carson's entrance into the rap game is surely your hate-listen of the day.

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Doctors Without Borders Blasts US for Hospital Airstrike

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 11:33 AM EST
A protest in Brussels calling for an independent investigation into the attack on a Kunduz hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders blasted the US government on Thursday for an airstrike on one of the aid group's hospitals in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last month.

"The chronological review of the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the airstrikes reveal no reason why the hospital should have come under attack," Doctors Without Borders wrote in a statement. "There were no armed combatants or fighting within or from the hospital grounds."

The attack, carried out by a heavily armed AC-130 gunship, lasted for more than an hour and killed at least 30 people. The Pentagon initially claimed the hospital was struck by accident, but later news reports said special operations soldiers called in the strike because they believed the Taliban were using the hospital as a base. The decision to attack the hospital anyway may qualify the strike as a war crime under international law.

In a report released Thursday, Doctors Without Borders acknowledged that the hospital was treating "wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict in Kunduz." But officials from the group, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, said it was not being used for any military purpose. "The MSF trauma center in Kunduz was fully functioning as a hospital with surgeries ongoing at the time of the US airstrikes,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, the group's international president. "MSF’s no-weapons policy was respected and hospital staff were in full control of the facility prior to and at the time of the airstrikes."

The report may partly be an attempt to prod the US government into conducting its own investigation, which the Pentagon said it would deliver within 30 days of the Oct. 3 attack—a deadline that passed this week. The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that Doctor Without Borders believes "the U.S. military has stonewalled attempts for an independent investigation of the incident." The US Army also drove a tank into the destroyed hospital last month, potentially wrecking vital evidence at the site. "Their unannounced and forced entry damaged property, destroyed potential evidence and caused stress and fear," Doctors Without Borders said at the time.


Rubio Will Release Records of GOP Credit Card He Used for Personal Expenses

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 11:19 AM EST

One of the big question marks hanging over Marco Rubio's financial past may soon be answered. On Tuesday, the senator's presidential campaign agreed to release records detailing his use of a Florida Republican Party credit card from his time in the state House.

For years, Rubio's political career has been haunted by his misuse of a credit card issued by the state party—raising question about his finances and his ethics. When he ran for the US Senate in 2010, Florida reporters obtained his credit card records for 2007 and 2008, which showed that Rubio often used the party card to cover personal expenses, from a $7.09 charge at a Chick-fil-A to $10,000 for a family vacation in Georgia. Rubio has repeatedly contended that he paid the party back every month for any personal expenses he put on the party American Express card, but records show Rubio did not make monthly payments, including any repayments during a six-month stretch in 2007.

But two years of records, from 2005 and 2006, have remained secret. As he runs for president, questions about Rubio's credit card use have mounted. “Marco Rubio has a disaster on his finances," rival Donald Trump charged on Tuesday, urging the press to take a closer look at Rubio's credit cards. "He has a disaster on his credit cards."

So after years of hiding his 2005 and 2006 records, Rubio has finally agreed to release them. In response to repeated requests for the records from the Tampa Bay Times, the campaign said this week that it would release the missing records soon—possibly in the coming months.

Candidates often have to weigh whether the information contained in their records is more harmful than the bad publicity that comes from speculation over what they are hiding. (Think Mitt Romney and his tax returns in 2012, or Hillary Clinton and her emails this year.) Rubio has apparently made the calculation that whatever his credit card records contain is less harmful than weathering continued attacks about his secrecy. We'll know soon enough.

George H.W. Bush Tears Into Cheney and Rumsfeld

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 9:52 AM EST

In an upcoming new biography, former president George H.W. Bush is finally revealing what he thinks about his son's former aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. And he's not pulling any punches.

Describing Cheney as an "iron-ass" and Rumsfeld as "arrogant," the 91-year-old Bush told his biographer Jon Meacham that he believed his son's presidency was ultimately "hurt" by the two confidantes, both of whom have been viewed as wielding an unprecedented level of authority with then-President George W. Bush.

Although he maintains that Cheney, who also served as the elder Bush's secretary of defense, is a "good man," Bush reveals he was taken aback by the hawkish stance "the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with" adopted following the attacks on September 11.

"The reaction to 9/11, what to do about the Middle East—just iron-ass," he is quoted saying in the new book. "His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East..."

As for Rumsfeld, Bush appeared even more critical.

"I've never been that close to him anyway," he told Meacham. "There's a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He's more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that."

In 2006, Rumsfeld stepped from his post as secretary of defense after a group of retired generals called for his resignation.

This Is How Prosecutors (Still) Keep Black People Off Juries

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) addresses jurors in the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The exclusion of black people from juries is a hot topic this week, as the United States Supreme Court considers the case of Timothy Foster, a black man charged with murdering an elderly white woman in Georgia some three decades ago. In 1987, Foster was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury, after prosecution lawyers used their so-called peremptory strikes to disqualify all the blacks in the jury pool, citing "race-neutral" reasons.

Up until this point in the case, the courts had accepted those alternative rationales. But the prosecutors' notes from jury selection, which were finally revealed thanks to a Public Records Act request, suggest a deliberate exclusion strategy. On the list of prospective jurors, the black names were circled, highlighted in green, and marked with a "B." They were also ranked, as an investigator for the prosecution noted in an affidavit, in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." Ouch. (On Tuesday, Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer tracked down one of those rejected jurors, who recalled the prosecutors treating her "like I was a criminal.")

"Isn't this as clear a Batson violation as this court is likely to see?" asked Justice Elena Kagan.

"We have an arsenal of smoking guns," Foster's lawyer, the famed capital defender Stephen Bright, told the high court during Monday's oral arguments. Several justices seemed to agree. "Isn't this as clear a Batson violation as this court is likely to see?" asked Justice Elena Kagan.

She was referring to the 1986 case of Batson vs. Kentucky, in which the Supreme Court explicitly prohibited the striking of jurors based on ethnicity. But the legal profession has long looked the other way as prosecutors come to court armed with what, in the Foster case, was described as a "laundry list" of alternative explanations for a juror's removal. Things like, "Oh, this juror is about the defendant's age," or "They grew up in the same part of the city."

Among other things, Foster's lead prosecutor noted that several of the prospective black jurors he dismissed hadn't made sufficient eye contact when he questioned them. In any case, it's not hard to invent reasonable-sounding explanations for striking a juror, and therein lies the problem. Only when you run the numbers does the racist intent comes into sharp focus.

"I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that's what that n----- deserved."

For a little context, it's helpful to look at portions of Marc Bookman's recent essay about Kenneth Fults, another Georgia death row inmate. One of the jurors in that case, a white man, later made the following statement under oath: "That nigger got just what should have happened. Once he pled guilty, I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that's what that nigger deserved." The white lawyer assigned to defend Fults also used the N-word with abandon. But none of this was enough to convince skeptical courts to grant Fults a resentencing. In his essay, Bookman explains how the legal system is rigged against black defendants, and why, without an arsenal of smoking guns, arguing racial discrimination is usually a losing game:

Consider one of the most famous examples, the 1987 Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp, in which lawyers for Warren McCleskey, a black man sentenced to death for killing a white police officer, presented statistics from more than 2,000 Georgia murder cases. The data demonstrated a clear bias against black defendants whose victims were white: When both killer and victim were black, only 1 percent of the cases resulted in a death sentence. When the killer was black and the victim white, 22 percent were sentenced to death—more than seven times the rate for when the races were reversed.

Prosecutors sought execution for black defendants in 70 percent of murder cases with a white victim, but only 15 percent with a black victim.

It wasn't just jurors who were biased. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for black defendants in 70 percent of murder cases when the victim was white, but only 15 percent when the victim was black.

The Supreme Court was less than impressed with all of this. Justice Lewis Powell, in a 5-4 majority opinion he would later call his greatest regret on the bench, wrote that McCleskey could not prove that "the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose." In short, evidence of systemic racial bias had no relevance in individual cases…

Georgia executed McCleskey in 1991, but the McCleskey rationale—which the New York Times labeled the "impossible burden" of proving that racial animus motivated any particular prosecutor, judge, or jury—has been used by dozens of courts to reject statistical claims of discrimination in capital cases, even though today's numbers are not much better.

Bookman goes on to detail the sordid history of jury stacking:

The phrase "legal lynching" first appeared in the New York Times during the infamous 1931 Scottsboro Boys trials, in which nine black youths were charged with raping two white women in Alabama. Their lack of counsel, coupled with the explicit exclusion of black jurors, led the Supreme Court to intercede twice and reverse convictions.

It's hard to read those opinions today without feeling a sense of horror. Within two weeks of the alleged crime, eight of the nine young men had been sentenced to death in three separate trials by the same jury. Although there was no shortage of black men in Scottsboro County who were legally eligible to serve on juries, there was no record of any of them ever serving on one. Perhaps most remarkably, none of the defendants had a lawyer appointed to represent him until the morning of trial. In 2013, more than 80 years after the arrests, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned the three Scottsboro Boys whose convictions still stood.

"Question them at length," said one Philly prosecutor, referring to people of color. "Mark something down that you can articulate at a later time."

We have not come nearly as far from these outrages as you might think. People of color are still dramatically underrepresented (PDF) on juries and grand juries, even though excluding people based on race is illegal and undermines "public confidence in our system of justice," as the Supreme Court put it in 1986. Prospective black jurors are routinely dismissed at higher rates than whites. The law simply requires some rationale other than skin color.

"Question them at length," a prominent Philadelphia prosecutor suggested to his protégés after the Supreme Court banned race as a reason for striking jurors. "Mark something down that you can articulate at a later time." For instance, a lawyer might say, "Well, the woman had a kid about the same age as the defendant, and I thought she'd be sympathetic to him."

In 2005, a former prosecutor in Texas revealed that her superiors had instructed her that if she wanted to strike a black juror, she should falsely claim she'd seen the person sleeping. This was just a dressed-up version of the Dallas prosecution training manual from 1963, which directed assistant district attorneys to "not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated."

The 1969 edition of the manual, used into the 1980s, promoted a more subtle brand of stereotyping, noting that it was "not advisable to select potential jurors with multiple gold chains around their necks." But it hardly mattered: Overt, covert, or in between—the result was the same.

A North Carolina court found that prosecutors were striking blacks at twice the rate of other jurors. The probability of that being a fluke, experts testified, was less than 1 in 10 trillion.

Virtually every state with a death penalty has dealt with accusations that black jurors have been improperly kept off juries. During the 1992 death penalty trial of a defendant named George Williams, for example, a California prosecutor dismissed the first five black women in the jury box. "Sometimes you get a feel for a person," he explained, "that you just know that they can't impose it based upon the nature of the way that they say something." The judge went even further, noting that "black women are very reluctant to impose the death penalty; they find it very difficult." In 2013, the California Supreme Court ruled that these jury strikes were not race-based, and deemed the judge's statement "isolated." Williams remains on death row.

After North Carolina passed its Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that let inmates challenge death sentences based on racial bias, a state court determined that prosecutors were dismissing black jurors at twice the rate of other jurors. The probability of this being a race-neutral fluke, according to two professors from Michigan State University, was less than 1 in 10 trillion; even the state's expert agreed that the disparity was statistically significant. Based on these numbers, the court vacated the death sentences of three inmates and resentenced each to life without parole. Six months later, the state legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act.

Finally, in an earlier essay on the case of Andre Thomas, a death row inmate with a long and bizarre history of mental illness, Bookman described yet another ploy to keep black people off Texas juries:

It's called the "shuffle." The pool of potential jurors, known as a venire, are seated in a room, and with no information other than what the jurors look like, either side can request that they be shuffled—reseated in a different order.

After the 'shuffle"—which proceeded without any objection by the defense—there were no blacks in the first five rows.

The order of the venire, it turns out, is crucial to the jury's final makeup. That's because each juror is questioned in turn, and if lawyers from either side want to exercise their right to disqualify someone, they have to do it then and there. If it looks like one side is striking a juror based on race—which is not allowed—the other side can mount a challenge. Hence the shuffle: At Andre's trial, there were initially six African Americans seated in the first two rows. After the shuffle—which proceeded without any objection by the defense—there were no blacks in the first five rows. Ultimately, two black jurors were questioned and dismissed. When all was said and done, the entire jury—not to mention the judge and all of the lawyers—was white.

Smoking guns, people. Smoking guns.

With Matt Bevin's Victory, Health Insurance for 400,000 Kentuckians Now At Risk

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 10:08 PM EST

Republican businessman Matt Bevin was elected governor of Kentucky on Tuesday. This is good news if you're Matt Bevin. It's potentially very bad news if you're one of the 521,000 formerly uninsured Kentuckians who have received health insurance through the Affordable Cart Act.

Over the last five years, term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear cut the state's uninsured rate by more than half by accepting federal funding to expand Medicaid, and by setting up a state-run health-insurance exchange called Kynect. Today, approximately 400,000 Kentuckians have received health insurance via Medicaid expansion.

As John Oliver masterfully explained, Bevin has promised to eliminate Kynect—a bright spot at the state level amid the chaotic HealthCare.gov rollout—and he's been cagey about his plans for Medicaid. After campaigning on repealing Obamacare wholsesale during his unsuccessful 2014 Senate primary, he changed tune toward the end of his race this fall, suggesting that he would ask the administration for a waiver to restructure Medicaid but not kick anyone "to the curb."

Up until this point, Kentucky has been one of the most compelling arguments not just for why the law was needed, but also that it can work. Just check out this map, compiled by the lone Democrat in the state's Congressional delegation, Rep. John Yarmuth:


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Hillary Clinton's Newest Ad Zeroes in on Calls for Increased Gun Control

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 5:42 PM EST

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign debuted a new television ad that zeroed in on the need for increased gun control laws—an issue the Democratic front-runner is using to position herself as a markedly different candidate to her rival, Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. The spot is being shown in the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the New York Times, and stands out as novel compared to recent presidential campaigns in which Democrats have mostly been on the defensive about gun control.

"We need to close the loopholes and support universal background checks," Clinton is seen telling a crowd in the clip titled "Together." "How many people have to die before we actually act?"

The ad comes just one day after Clinton held a private meeting with several family members of victims of gun violence, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice:

Shortly after the deadly rampage in Oregon last month, Clinton announced a series of proposals to help combat rising gun violence, including using executive authority to close the so-called "gun show loophole" if she became president.

In recent months, Clinton has accused Sanders of being too lax on gun control, taking swipes at the Vermont senator for supporting a controversial law in 2005 that protected gun manufacturers from being sued by victims of violence.

Her momentum on the issue has been steadily growing, particularly after she charged Sanders with not doing enough to tackle gun violence at the first Democratic debate in October. You can watch that tense exchange below:

Study: White Dudes Rule. Literally.

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 1:13 PM EST

If you turned out to vote in today's off-year general election, the chances are you voted for a bunch of white dudes. Not because you're racist. (Although you probably are.) But because the ballots are overflowing with white dudes.

According to a study released last week by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, white guys make up 31 percent of the population, but they account for 65 percent of the people elected to county, state, or national office in America in 2012 and 2014. And that probably has a lot to do with the fact that 66 percent of the candidates are white guys. "The problem is not that women and people of color candidates aren't winning," said the campaign's director, Brenda Choresi Carter. "The problem is that the demographics of our office holders are set when our ballots are printed."

All told, the study found that 90 percent of candidates are white and 73 percent are men. Republican candidates, not surprisingly, are even more likely to be white and male. Check it out:

Reflective Democracy Campaign

The racial disparities exposed in the study might have been less stark if it had included elections in large cities, which tend to be more racially diverse than rural areas. But that still doesn't explain the wide gender gap.

Carter blames the imbalances on a political system that favors the social and economic elite. Typically, candidates for elected office can afford not to hold full-time jobs, belong to existing political networks, and are not perceived as "risky" by donors, political parties, and other gatekeepers. And they're typically in office already: 53 percent of all elections are uncontested, and 90 percent of those unopposed candidates are white.

Obama Mocks Republican Presidential Candidates' Complaints Over CNBC Debate

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 10:06 AM EST

With Republican candidates still in an uproar over last week's dismal CNBC debate, President Obama on Monday found the perfect opportunity to skewer their ongoing complaints while at the same time challenging the GOP candidates' self-proclaimed strengths concerning their toughness in foreign affairs.

"Every one of these candidates says, 'Obama's weak, Putin's kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he's going to straighten out,'" Obama told a crowd at a Democratic fundraising event in New York. "And then it turns out they can't handle a bunch of CNBC moderators."

"If you can't handle those guys, I don't think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you."

The president's zinger followed a performance of the critically acclaimed musical Hamilton, an Obama favorite, which was the setting for Monday's fundraiser.

As for the latest on where GOP presidential hopefuls stand regarding future debates, Donald Trump's camp announced yesterday he's decided to negotiate with networks directly, distancing himself from the rest of the group and their list of demands.

Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi Politician Who Heavily Influenced the U.S. Decision to Invade Iraq, Dies at 71

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 9:19 AM EST

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who had a significant role in persuading U.S. officials to invade Iraq, died on Tuesday from a heart attack in his home in Baghdad. He was 71.

Both state media and the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Fally, confirmed the news:

Following the attacks on September 11th, Chalabi was seen as strongly influencing President George W. Bush's 2003 decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein by way of faulty intelligence.

For more on Chalabi's influence on the Bush administration and events leading up to the invasion, read our special investigation, "The Lie Factory," here.